Never go back, they say. No-one seems to be telling Joe Cole, who’s poised to re-sign with his boyhood club West Ham. It will be an emotional homecoming, borne out of his personification of everything West Ham fans see about their club: the cradle of football in England, producing high-class players who are only ever fully appreciated in the supportive surroundings of Upton Park.
Unfortunately, romanticism rarely profits in modern football. The number of successful returns by players to their former clubs is, by my reckoning, pretty low. This is hardly surprising given that the normal trajectory of players returning to former clubs follows that it will be from a bigger club where the (aging) player has been discarded after no longer being deemed useful.
Spurs are the experts in this area. Indeed, they independently brought back their famed 1994-95 strike duo Jürgen Klinsmann and Teddy Sheringham. In each case, these players performed well enough in mediocre Spurs sides. Jürgen took turns at Bayern München and Sampdoria before coming back on loan to the Lane in 1997-98, scoring 9 goals in 15 games – including 4 at Wimbledon – which played a crucial part in Tottenham’s Premier League survival. Teddy came back a couple of years after winning the treble at Manchester United and netted 26 times in two seasons.
More recently (and less successfully), Robbie Keane was brought back from an exile in Liverpool, before being released to LA Galaxy. Jermain Defoe, though, returned from Portsmouth and is now firing Spurs to a possible top four finish. It’s less noticed that Peter Crouch also signed from Portsmouth having played for Spurs as a youth player. His sale to QPR for £60,000 in 2000, and the subsequent £10m fee paid to Pompey in 2009, must have made Tottenham Chairman Daniel Levy weep.
South of the river, in Woolwich, Thierry Henry’s return loan spell last season has, I believe, been undervalued by many. If it were not for his injury time winner at Sunderland in February then Arsenal would have finished fourth rather than Spurs, and thus the ignominy of missing out on the Champions League due to Chelsea’s success in the competition.
Probably the greatest return in my memory was by Leslie Mark Hughes. In 1986, Sparky was sold by United to Barcelona for the princely sum of £2m. Success abroad was not forthcoming as he spent some time at loan with Bayern München. His return to United in 1988 though brought immediate personal success as he was voted PFA Player of the Year. In the following seasons he amassed two Premier League title medals, four FA Cups, three League Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup, in the process highlighting another old adage about players returning to haunt their old clubs – scoring twice in the final against Barcelona.