Steve Agnew insists that Stewart Downing still has a key role to play in Middlesbrough's top-flight survival bid as he prepares to take the caretaker reins for the first time against Manchester United on Sunday (19 March).

Downing was said to have been involved in a training ground row with former manager Aitor Karanka last week amid frustration at a lack of first-team football and his omission from the matchday squad for a 2-0 defeat at Stoke City on 4 March that saw last season's Championship runners-up slip into the Premier League relegation zone.

The 32-year-old, along with January returnee Patrick Bamford, also played no part in the subsequent FA Cup quarter-final loss to Manchester City as Karanka stated his desire for "18 fighters".

The volatile Spaniard later saw his three-and-a-half year stint at the Riverside Stadium halted after a run of 10 league matches without a win that left low-scoring 'Boro three points adrift of safety with only nine games of the 2016-17 campaign left to play.

Asked how to get the best out of Downing at a pre-Manchester United press conference, Agnew, who believes he is capable of keeping Middlesbrough afloat, told reporters: "Stewart's a Middlesbrough boy. He loves the club, he's born and bred in Middlesbrough. It's his town club and he's a talented footballer. Stewart is somebody I've known a long time, so I know how he works. He's a big part of the rest of the season."

Middlesbrough could be boosted by the return of towering striker Rudy Gestede (hamstring) and Colombian centre-back Bernardo Espinosa (ankle) for the lunchtime visit of Jose Mourinho's weary Europa League quarter-finalists to Teeside, although captain George Friend and defensive colleagues Calum Chambers and Daniel Ayala are expected to remain sidelined.


"Gestede is close and Bernardo trained this morning, so that's a bonus after last Saturday. This weekend, obviously George Friend, Calum Chambers and Daniel Ayala will probably miss [out] again."

Agnew wasted no time in reshaping Middlesbrough's coaching staff in the wake of his temporary promotion, with the hugely experienced Joe Jordan's appointment as assistant head coach confirmed earlier on Friday.

Stewart Downing
Stewart Downing (right) playing against Spurs Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Explaining the rationale behind that choice, he said: "Joe's a great football guy and I've known Joe a long time. I've done coaching courses with him, he brings a wealth of experience in terms of management and coaching. He's worked at the highest level with Harry Redknapp for a long time and I've kept in touch with him simply because, in football, I have conversations with different people and Joe is somebody that I trust. He'll have a big impact with the players."