The end of a 592-day wait that might force Portsmouth defender to have summer rethink
Five-hundred and ninety-two days.
That's how long Paul Downing had to wait for a League One start after making a surprise appearance at AFC Wimbledon.
And, in truth, it probably felt more like significantly longer for the centre-back amid a prolonged spell on the Pompey periphery.
Since arriving at Fratton Park, Downing's Blues career hasn't gone to plan whatsoever.
Signing on a free transfer from Blackburn in June 2018, he was announced less than an hour after Matt Clarke's departure to Brighton.
But rather than filling the lofty boots the fans’ favourite left behind, Downing’s instead spent the vast majority of his time at PO4 confined to the training ground.
Swathes of Saturdays have consisted of watching games from the directors' box or being left on the south coast while team-mates were on the road.
After starting the opening six league matches of the 2019-20 season, Downing found himself jettisoned by Kenny Jackett following a 2-2 draw with Burton.
Instead, Christian Burgess and Sean Raggett would be the former manager’s preferred centre-back partnership.
And even when they weren’t available, makeshift options in Oli Hawkins, Tom Naylor and James Bolton were selected instead of Downing.
The former West Brom trainee was handed another chance heading into this term, starting the opening day of the season at Stevenage in the Carabao Cup. Yet the chaotic defensive display when conceding three first-half goals at the League Two outfit meant Downing was sacrificed rather than Raggett.
In truth, Downing was swiftly written off by Jackett – despite being handed a three-year deal upon arrival.
However, during his time out of the fray, he remained the consummate professional. There were been no petulant tantrums, no training ground kick-offs because he wasn't involved. His response was to simply get his head down, work hard and wait for the next chance.
What’s more, the former Walsall man never once scoffed at the chance to play in EFL Trophy games or for reserves surrounded by youngsters.
In those games, he was given the captain's armband and barked out instructions to aid the fledgling talents.
Such an admirable attitude was a key reason why Jackett was never desperate to shift Downing out of the exit door.
During the past two January transfer windows, he attracted interest. It's understood Swindon made enquiries when going for the League Two title in 2019-20 while Plymouth and a fourth-tier outfit looked into signing Downing in the window just gone.
Yet Jackett was happy to keep him on the backburner as cover.
Since there’s been a change in manager at Fratton Park, Downing’s been one of the main beneficiaries along with the likes of Ben Close.
When Cowley took over in the hot seat last month, he vowed everyone was on a clean slate.
Downing's spent much of Cowley's reign getting fully fit after recovering from a hamstring problem he sustained in January.
His efforts and training ground performances clearly haven't gone unnoticed, though. Downing was named in the previous three squads before handed a substitute cameo in the dramatic 3-3 draw Accrington last Tuesday.
He duly impressed at the Wham Stadium to then dislodge Rasmus Nicolaisen for the triumph at Plough Lane on Saturday. Following the game, was lauded as man of the match by Cowley, who believes the defender’s been given overcomplicated instructions at Pompey that haven’t suited his qualities.
With Jack Whatmough returning from suspension for the crucial season finale against Accrington on Sunday, Cowley now has to weigh up whether to keep Downing in his team or send him back to his familiar place on the sidelines.
Still, Downing looked almost certain to move on to pastures new this summer. Turning 30 in October, surely he’d wanted to reignite his career and play regularly again.
However, the new lease of life he’s been given by Cowley might just force a rethink.