PERHAPS it should have been expected that Liverpool FC winger Stewart Downing should depart Wembley on Sunday clutching a winner’s medal and the Alan Hardaker Trophy as man of the match.
After all, until recently the winger’s best performances this season had been limited to the national stadium and the England team.
Since his much-vaunted £20million switch from Aston Villa in the summer, Downing has been in danger of becoming something of a reverse John Barnes: good for his country, not so great for his club.
That, though, may be changing.
The penny seems to have finally dropped with Downing during recent weeks. With his place in the Carling Cup final under threat, the winger responded with an impressive display in the FA Cup romp over Brighton and Hove Albion.
It ensured a Wembley berth, where Downing finally lived up to his reputation as one of the country’s leading flanksmen by tormenting Cardiff City full-back Kevin McNaughton and later holding his nerve in the penalty shoot-out.
And asked if the day represented the finest moment of his career, Downing says: “Yes, I think so. I went to Liverpool to win trophies and to get one within six or seven months was absolutely brilliant.
“It was a long afternoon, up and down and it could have either way, credit to Cardiff they pushed us all the way even in penalties.
“Afterwards in the dressing room it was brilliant, as you can imagine. For a lot of the lads it was their first trophy in English football, some of them had been at Liverpool for five or six years.
“Liverpool not having won something wasn’t mentioned to me when I signed, it was just a chance for me to play for a big club. It was a chance for me to progress and I wanted to be part of that.
“The pressure at Liverpool is obviously higher. Liverpool are expected to get into finals and win trophies because of the tradition of the club.
“They have not done that the last couple of years so that was a weight off the club’s shoulders getting a trophy out of the way.”
Downing will hope his last two displays will have taken a significant weight off his own shoulders.
Critics will no doubt contend both were against npower Championship opposition. But, with a resurgent Arsenal due at Anfield this weekend, the 27-year-old believes both himself and the team now have the self-belief to ensure their remaining targets – FA Cup glory and Champions League qualification – can be met.