STEWART DOWNING has never forgiven Roberto di Matteo. And now, 15 years on, the Liverpool FC winger is ready to wreak his revenge.
Downing was a schoolboy with Middlesbrough when the Teesiders won through to the FA Cup final at the old Wembley in 1997.
But less than a minute had gone when Boro, seeking solace after the double blow of relegation and League Cup final defeat, were behind to a glorious di Matteo opener that sent Chelsea on their way to a comfortable 2-0 win.
The memory still prompts a wince from Downing, who finds the Italian again standing in the way of Cup glory at Wembley tomorrow evening as interim manager of Chelsea.
This time, though, the England international is determined to enjoy a happier ending.
“Boro were massive underdogs and we all remember di Matteo’s goal so early, going in off the bar,” says Downing. “I’ve hated him ever since!
“I was a schoolboy at Boro at the time and we’d got tickets off the club, who took us and our families down on the coach. It was a good day out but with bad memories of the final.
“What did I call him at the time? Nothing I could really repeat. But he was a good player, scored a good goal, and has done well as manager at Chelsea.
“Will I remind him of 1997 if we win? I might do, but there’s a lot of hard work to be done first. It’s going to be a tough test at the weekend, but one I’m looking forward to.”
Wembley has been good to Downing this season. While struggling to impress consistently since his £18.5million move from Aston Villa last summer, the winger has been far more productive when on international duty.
And arguably his finest performance as an Anfield player came in the Carling Cup final win over npower Championship side Cardiff City in February.
“You always take confidence from good performances, and Wembley in a final made it even more special,” says Downing.
“But as a team, winning a trophy for the first time as a new squad, was a big moment for us. If we can get another it will be even better.”
While there has been much debate over Downing’s suitability at Anfield, few players have epitomised Liverpool’s inconsistent campaign as perfectly as the winger; not least his infamous statistic of having yet to either score or provide a direct assist in the Premier League this season.
Matters have been better in cup competitions, with Downing scoring against Oldham Athletic and then netting the winner in the quarter-final triumph over Stoke City.
“It has been a bit up and down for me, some good, some indifferent,” he says. “But it has been for us all.
“You’re expected to come in and set the world alight but sometimes it doesn’t happen. You have seen players at other big clubs take time to settle in but then become big players for them. That’s how it is for us at the minute.
“I took time at Villa in the first year. I came back from injury and took a bit of time, but in the second season it seemed to go for me. That’s how it is. Next time it might come for us
“But there are seven or eight new players in the team, and that’s quite a lot. I think we are going along quite nicely and if we can finish teams off at home, and be more clinical, that would be good.
“It’s just a building process, it takes time, it’s not overnight. To win the Carling Cup in the first season and potentially the FA Cup as well would be a great start.”