DESPITE approaching 600 career appearances, having 32 caps for his country, and regularly performing at the highest level, Stewart Downing still felt he still had plenty to prove after his summer move to Rovers.

He turned 35 just weeks after his switch from Middlesbrough and had the sole aim of just enjoying his football once again having been outcast at the Riverside in his final days on Teesside because of a contract dispute.

That opened the door for Rovers to make their move and bring in a player who has proven to be the pick of their summer business.

Downing has featured in 27 of Rovers’ 30 Championship matches, with only three players, Christian Walton, Lewis Travis and Adam Armstrong, having started more.

He’s featured in three different positions, and while his versatility has been key, his knowledge on the ball and experience have been factors that have had a clear influence on a young Rovers team.

But there were still some nerves to overcome after putting pen-to-paper on a one-year deal.

“When you go in to a new club, no matter what age you are, you want to prove to the lads around you that you’re good enough to be in the team,” said Downing, in line for a 600th club career start against Fulham today.

“Everywhere you go, you have to prove yourself, even to the manager.

“He brought me in but it’s his job.

“For me it’s game by game, proving I’m still good enough to be in the team, doing the job he’s asking me to do, and I’ve enjoyed it along the way.

“We’ve been in good form and that helps. I’m just trying to be a good influence around the place, particularly with the young players, doing my job.”

Downing’s future will come in to focus in the coming months but for now he’s focused on continuing to enjoy his football.

Player and manager both hail from Teesside, but had never previously worked together. However, there is a clear admiration on both sides, and that understanding is helping to bring the best out of Downing.

“It’s been great. That was the main thing when I walked through the door and the biggest thing me and the manager talked about was enjoying my football,” he added.

“The last six months at Middlesbrough I didn’t really do that because I was training in the week and not playing at the weekend.

“He talked to me about coming in, working hard, getting in the team. I’m coming up 36 so he said if I can’t enjoy it now then I never will.

“That’s the biggest thing. I’ve tried to keep myself fit and prove to the manager I’m worthy of a place and that’s what I take in to every game.

“Some games he’s taken me out and given me a rest, but if I can keep myself right then I will play the next game. That’s all I need to hear.

“We’ve got a good relationship and that’s why I wanted to come and play for him.”

It was his tag as a flying left winger that saw Downing called up by his country, but as time as gone on, he’s learned to become more versatile.

That was one of the many reasons Mowbray made his move in the summer, with Downing of late having filled the void in central midfield left by the injury to Corry Evans.

He was at left back during Rovers’ excellent end to 2019 as he covered  for the loss of Greg Cunningham, while injuries out wide could see him back on the flanks in the not too distant future.

Mowbray admitted it was a gamble to play Downing at full back, but his ability on the ball shone through, linking up well with Joe Rothwell going forward, and dominating the ball more meant he didn’t have too many defensive duties to attend to.

“Yes I’d played left back a couple of times, but in different teams, and the manager said he thought I’d enjoy it with how he’s looking for his team to play,” he said.

“If a manger gives you that confidence and believe you can play there then I was confident.

“He said that he wouldn’t leave me exposed, but I wasn’t worried about that, with the way we play I was thinking more about getting on the ball and it’d suit the way I play.

“I think I got in to more attacking positions playing as a left back than I probably did as a left winger with the inter-changing with Joe Rothwell.

“I really enjoyed it and it came at a time when we didn’t have too many options.

“It worked well and I’ll happily play anywhere as long as I’m contributing and doing the job he’s asking.”