STEWART DOWNING will come up against Middlesbrough for the first time in his career this afternoon, and former team-mate George Friend believes the former England winger does not get the credit he deserves.

Downing had two spells on Teesside, making over 400 appearances for his hometown club, but he left earlier this summer when Blackburn Rovers offered him the chance to continue his career in the Championship.

Tony Mowbray, the man who brought Friend to Middlesbrough seven years ago, persuaded Downing that Ewood Park should be his next challenge despite interest from Sheffield Wednesday, Rangers, Sunderland and abroad.

The 35-year-old is part of a strong contingent of ex-Boro players at Blackburn, along with Danny Graham, Richie Smallwood, Harry Chapman and Jayson Leutwiler, as well as Mowbray and his No 2 Mark Venus.

Opinion was split over Downing on Teesside at times, and there was often criticism of him from some sections of support – even though he is one of the finest players to have emerged from the club’s youth system having appeared in a World Cup while playing for Middlesbrough.

Friend said: “For me he deserves far more recognition than he was ever given. He is a fantastic player, fantastic servant for the club. He came back and sacrificed more than people will know to come back here. He got us up that year, part of the team to get us up. He is a superb talent.”

Downing left Middlesbrough initially in 2009 for £12m and then returned – after spells with Liverpool and West Ham – six years later when he dropped down from the Premier League in the hope of helping his hometown team back up.

He did that but then had a much-publicised fall-out with Aitor Karanka and he was wrongly accused of getting the manager the sack during that ill-fated top-flight campaign, having fallen out of favour in the latter stages of the promotion year.

Now Downing will be facing Middlesbrough this afternoon in a Blackburn shirt. Friend said: “The first couple of weeks in pre-season I was texting Stewy. I was disappointed he didn’t stay here because he is a friend of mine.

“He has been fantastic for Middlesbrough, to play over 400 games is fantastic. The fact he did that was incredible. I really want to get to 300 myself this season but for him to do that is incredible. The majority of those will have been in the Premier League as well.”

Blackburn have had a stuttering start, having followed up two defeats to Charlton and Fulham with an EFL Cup win over Oldham. Downing started two of those and now he is tasked, along with Middlesbrough’s former manager and captain Mowbray in trying to extend Jonathan Woodgate’s winless start to four matches.

Friend will hope to start against Rovers after returning to the side after a long lay-off in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup defeat to Crewe Alexandra on penalties.

It has been a frustrating period for him, having missed the vast majority of the pre-season, but the Middlesbrough captain is in contention again – and he could be playing through the middle or at left-back.

The 31-year-old said: “It was from the Swansea game last year when I ruptured a couple of tendons in my thigh. I had to be careful with the rehab. It was a long summer. I ruptured them, I couldn’t have surgery.

“It was a bit disjointed in pre-season. I haven’t missed too much of the start of the season. It was a different injury to have, we have a fantastic medical department and an understanding manager who has been through things himself. That was good to have.”