It’s too tempting to resist sometimes, the chance to return to a former club where you know how everything works, where familiar faces remain and where, if you’re really lucky, the fans already love you unconditionally. But it doesn’t always work out for the best…
Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
A beautiful return in many ways, because rarely has a transfer more ruthlessly exposed the dangers of a personality cult (not a typo) over the benefits of the team.
When Ronaldo was performing as an individual in his first season back at Old Trafford – only Golden Boot sharers Salah and Son scored more Premier League goals – the team was, to use a technical term, absolute sh*t. This season, with Ronaldo sidelined and wanting out and nobody within the squad much caring either way, Erik ten Hag’s side are improving fast and certainly set to progress markedly from the Ronaldo-centric shambleteam of last season.
Ronaldo’s pathetic departure from Old Trafford after refusing to accept a demeaning bit-part role in a superb win over Tottenham is the ending he deserved and a triumph for the collective. The Athletic report that claimed Ronaldo’s departure not just from the subs’ bench but from the ground altogether went largely unnoticed by a squad celebrating its best night in ages must have been brutal for the game’s biggest ego. Hated, adored, and now sometimes ignored. Oof.
Didier Drogba (Chelsea)
It’s not so much that Drogba’s return to Chelsea via a two-year hiatus in China and Istanbul was bad – it did bring another Premier League winner’s medal after all – it’s just that it very slightly spoiled one of the great farewells. When your last action for a club before you leave is being almost single-handedly responsible for dragging them through a Champions League final against Bayern Munich on their own turf to win a first European title then that is an unimprovable ending.
He did also score only four Premier League goals in his 28 games in his return season, although Big-Game Drogba being Big-Game Drogba he did score two of those four goals against Manchester United and Tottenham.
Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
He was often perfectly good in his second six-year spell at Old Trafford but it was also just permanently exhausting. He certainly wasn’t as consistently excellent as you’d want a £90m player to be – especially one who did seem to produce said consistent excellence for the national side – but the bigger problem of his spell at United during a time when they were very often shite was the way he became a focus for all that was wrong with the club.
And what was wrong with the club went far beyond Pogba, or his hair, or his latest vaguely underwhelming midfield performance in a crucial game. He seemed to play his last game for the club at least three or four times a season every season and yet was still there right to the end of his contract before rejoining Juventus to create one of the funnier transfer histories, twice joining Juventus from Manchester United for free and going the other way for a world-record fee in between.
United do seem to be improving without him, as they are without the sidelined and huffing Ronaldo, but that is largely due to other factors. Pogba was never the major problem, but he was certainly a distraction and – crucially – he was never the solution.
Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
Struggled to break through during his first spell at Chelsea, but his quality was never really in doubt. Chelsea just had a lot of footballers, as is their wont. Proved his Premier League chops with 17 goals on loan at West Brom in 2012/13 and confirmed his elite status after joining Everton. With 18 goals in 2015/16 and 25 the following year, Lukaku set himself up for his big move to Manchester United which, in hindsight, was not the failure it was perceived to be at the time.
He scored 16 and 12 league goals in his two league seasons at Old Trafford which wasn’t great, but was better than the eight he managed upon returning to Stamford Bridge after two seasons spent banging them in for Inter in Serie A.
Now back at Inter on loan while Chelsea work out how to try to recoup a bit more of their £100m outlay.
Joe Cole (West Ham)
It was just a bid sad, really. The absurdly exciting teenager inevitably saddled with the Next Gazza dubbing who emerged at West Ham in the late ’90s returned to the Boleyn after a decade full of success at Chelsea, a spell at Liverpool and a year in France playing alongside Dimitri Payet and Eden Hazard for Lille. But by the time he was back at West Ham he was a shadow of the player who had left; serious injuries – especially to his knee – had dulled his game and taken the spark from his play.
It would just have been better for all concerned if West Ham’s memories of Cole could have been of the bright-eyed and brilliant youngster who burst on to the scene almost 15 year earlier.
Gareth Bale (Tottenham)
Left Spurs as the best player in the Premier League following a couple of absurd seasons where he scored at least one absolute banger every single game (subs please check), either by thriking the ball in from 30 yards or simply running past and through the entire opposition and then calmly beating the keeper. Very often in the last minute as well (subs check again cheers).
Went off and did much the same for Real Madrid but with two key differences: one, at Real Madrid doing this led to vast numbers of trophies being won but also two, the fans hated him because reasons. Yes, he’s fond of g*lf, but nobody’s perfect.
Anyway, forced out of Madrid with a year left on his massive contract nobody else would match (this was another factor in point two above), he turned up back at Tottenham for a year, with the enticing prospect of now having Harry Kane and Son Heung-min to work with instead of having to do it all by himself.
Unfortunately, he also had a team managed by Jose Mourinho at his most stubborn and miserable. Mourinho didn’t sign Bale, Daniel Levy did. So Mourinho didn’t pick him, apparently on a point of principle. That principle being that none of us deserved enjoyment in our lives.
When Mourinho was finally sacked, interim boss Ryan Mason made the bold decision of picking one of the best attacking footballers in the world to play alongside two of the other best attacking footballers in the world and despite the coach being a novice and the rest of the team being not that great, there followed a wonderful couple of months that sadly arrived too late to rescue Spurs’ season and really only served to increase the sense of frustration at what might have been.
Bale ended the season with 11 Premier League goals from 20 often brief appearances that season. He scored a goal every 84 minutes. It must rank among Mourinho’s greater atrocities.
Pretty much all the Tottenham strikers actually (Tottenham)
Not all of these flopped, but Spurs’ fondness for bringing strikers back to the club doesn’t seem particularly healthy or normal and is worthy of investigation. It looks like a cry for help. Teddy Sheringham, Jurgen Klinsmann, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane all join Bale in having multiple spells at Spurs. We’re still holding out for Vincent Janssen’s return. Harry Kane is also just starting to run out of time to complete what seemed his obvious career path of having a few years winning trophies somewhere sensible before returning to Spurs for one vaguely unsuccessful 12-goals-in-31-games season ahead of his obvious final destination in MLS.
Thierry Henry (Arsenal)
Arsenal fans will disagree with this and fair enough, because for them the feels of his goalscoring return against Leeds in the FA Cup were enough to override the fact that he was just no longer quite the same player who had left them five years earlier. That Thierry Henry was and still is the best striker the Premier League has ever seen. The one who came back on a short-term loan made four brief substitute appearances in the Premier League and managed just a single goal against Sunderland before sauntering back to MLS pre-retirement. It just wasn’t the same.
Robbie Fowler (Liverpool)
Again, the fans who worshipped him will disagree because they were just happy to see the return of the man they called God. Again, that’s absolutely fine because being a football supporter isn’t supposed to be a rational exercise. It’s supposed to be emotional. You’re supposed to take your joy wherever you can find it. They were happy. He was happy. That’s all marvellous. But he also scored 120 Premier League goals in 236 games during his first brilliant spell at Anfield and eight goals in 30 games during his second. These are facts.
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