Europa League: Last-gasp salvo for Hammers as Downing leaves

 
Ross McLean
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WEST HAM UNITED 1 BIRKIRKARA FC 0

WEST Ham boss Slaven Bilic admitted that he tried to convince midfielder Stewart Downing to remain at the club before sanctioning his return to Middlesbrough in a deal which could net the Hammers £7m.

Bilic was speaking after defender James Tomkins spared his side’s blushes with a last-gasp winner against Maltese minnows Birkirkara in the first leg of their Europa League second qualifying round tie last night.

Downing was a revelation during the previous campaign playing in an unaccustomed role in central midfield, and his performances earned him an England recall for the friendly clash with Scotland in November.

But the 30-year-old has signed a four-year deal with the club at which he began his career, before spells at Aston Villa and Liverpool, for an initial fee of £5.5m, which could rise dependent on Middlesbrough gaining promotion to the Premier League.

“I didn’t want him to go. He is a quality player and I would like to keep as many quality players as possible,” said Bilic.

“For the first half of last season he was brilliant and I was counting on him big time but he came to me and said he wanted to go home. I tried to persuade him to stay with us.

“I was not that happy and maybe I could have stopped him but that’s not exactly what we wanted to do and he wanted to leave.”

Despite dominating possession, a strong West Ham side made heavy weather of dispatching Maltese cup winners Birkirkara until Tomkins chested home Mauro Zarate’s 90th minute corner for his second Europa League goal of the season.

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