MIDDLESBROUGH expect a fight to retain the services of Stewart Downing this summer, but believe the Riverside Stadium is the ideal place for the flying winger to develop his outstanding talent.

Manchester United have long been mentioned as a possible destination with Sir Alex Ferguson believed to be one of his biggest admirers.

Ryan Giggs turns 32 later this year and Ferguson has begun his search for a long-term replacement, with Boro's left winger a strong option.

Steve McClaren knows he has a young player with incredible potential at his disposal and hopes to keep Downing on Teesside.

"I think it's flattering for Middlesbrough Football Club, our academy and everyone who has developed him and for Stewart. To be playing that well and to be linked is flattering and we're delighted," said the Middlesbrough manager.

"Playing for England is bound to attract the attention of bigger clubs. But Stewart knows he has to play well for Middlesbrough and knows he has a long way to go. The best place to develop him is here and that is where we want him to be."

After a scintillating start to the season, Downing's form has dipped since he was handed his first international cap in the draw with Holland in February.

He was still included in Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad for the two World Cup qualifiers with Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan last month, but was not even named among the substitutes in either match.

Every outfield player starting those two games represented Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Real Madrid - hammering home the point that players stand a better chance of international success if they are playing for one of the world's top clubs.

McClaren, though, has told Downing that he can become a hit for England while at Boro providing he adds long-term consistency to his domestic performances.

"The main thing that will determine how long Stewart stays involved with England is how he does himself as an individual. He needs to maintain his form and his rise," said McClaren.

"At the moment he is in the England squad but not in the England team. There are a lot of players in the England squad not with the big clubs so you could always take that argument around too.

"Being a local club helps. He wants to see Middlesbrough do well and we know we will do well if he stays at the club."

Since being given his starting place against Banik Ostrava on September 30, Downing has become a vital ingredient in Boro's play this season, scoring five goals. But, having played the last 33 games, Downing has suffered a drop in form in recent weeks, and his manager admitted as such.

"I thought he looked tired against Crystal Palace. He wasn't his usual effective self but he was effective from set plays and won us the game," said McClaren.

"He's played 37 games for us this season - he's 20-years-old and he's been thrown into the spotlight. We wanted to rest him but we haven't been able to."

* Joseph Job had an exploratory operation on his knee yesterday, while Bolo Zenden had tests on an ankle injury, and Mark Viduka has had a further scan on the troublesome back/hamstring injury that has blighted his season.

Read more about Middlesbrough here.