There is a saying in life that is as generally true and apt to the world of football as it is elsewhere. Never go back.
Conventional wisdom has it that once a particular window has closed then no good can come of trying to reopen it or revisit that section or period of life.
After the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, interviewers would often question all four ex-members on the possibility of a reunion. While the other three would invariably try and sidestep such lines of questioning, John Lennon would sometimes simply drawl in that lightened Scouse accent of his, “We’ll get back together when you go back to high school”.
It was sometimes seen as a typical Lennon put down, but on occasion, Lennon would explain what he meant. Getting the band back together would be akin to going back to school now. It wouldn’t be the same, and it would serve only to spoil the memories.
In football, the same holds true. There have been tales of some players and managers going back to previous clubs and replicating their previous successes, but perhaps these are in the minority and the vast majority of returns have either had limited success or none at all.
My side, Liverpool, have had a number of returnees over the years and while none have spectacularly crashed, I think it’s fair to say that none have had quite the same success they enjoyed the first time around.
The most high profile of Liverpool cases has to be that of Ian Rush. Rush signed for Juventus in the summer of 1986 after featuring in five highly successful full seasons in the first team. From 1982 onwards Liverpool won four of the next five league titles to sit alongside three League Cups and a European Cup.
Added into the mix was a League Cup success in 1981 when Rush played in the final replay in one of only nine appearances that season.
Rush stayed one extra season at Liverpool as he was loaned back from Juventus and although no trophies were won in 1986-87, he contributed another 40 goals to leave his total on 207 in 331 matches in all competitions.
After a season in Turin, (“It was like being in a foreign country,” he famously DIDN’T say), Rush returned to Anfield where he would stay another eight seasons before leaving for good in 1996.
Although his return of 139 goals in 329 games in all competitions during his second spell was nothing to be sneezed at, it was a significant drop from the first time around. The disparity in trophies won was much wider, however, with only a solitary league title, two FA Cups and one League Cup to show in the period of 1989 to 1996.
In fact, Rush’s return to Liverpool could be seen as a mistake in more ways than one. In order to facilitate Rush back into the side, manager Kenny Dalglish arguably disturbed the rhythm of one of Liverpool’s greatest ever sides.
The 1987-88 season saw Liverpool sweep all before them with a three-pronged attack consisting of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge but when Rush let it be known that he wished to ‘come home’ adjustments needed to be made. It was then that Dalglish made the decision to jettison Aldridge to accommodate Rush.
The move didn’t totally work and Liverpool played in fits and starts in the first half of the 1988-89 season. It was this inconsistency that was to ultimately cost Liverpool the title that season, and although it was regained the following year, Liverpool were never quite as fluent again. Rush and Beardsley never really clicked in the same way as Aldridge and Beardsley had, or, indeed, Rush and Dalglish had, and by 1990 Beardsley was being left out of the side on a regular basis before being sold a year later.
Another high-profile returnee to the Anfield ranks was Robbie Fowler. Fowler, of course, played alongside Rush at the start of his career and learnt a lot at the feet of his master. Fowler’s career started out in hurricane fashion and for a while, he looked as though he would break all of Rush’s records.
He then suffered the double-whammy of repeated injury problems and the breakthrough of Michael Owen. All of a sudden Fowler’s halo seemed to slip ever so slightly and the appointment of Gerard Houllier brought about further problems for Robbie.
The relationship between the two deteriorated to the point that Fowler was sold to Leeds at the end of 2001. It was a move that broke Fowler’s heart and his time at Elland Road and, subsequently, Manchester City, was far from successful.
It was something of a surprise, then, when Rafa Benitez elected to bring Fowler back to Anfield in the winter transfer window of 2006. Fowler was delighted to return, initially on a short-term contract to the end of the season, but in all honesty, he was pretty much a shadow of the player he had been a decade or so earlier. In a season and a half back at Liverpool he was to net only 12 times in 39 appearances, compared to 171 times in 330 matches the first time around.
Other players who have made returns to Liverpool include Steve Staunton who left Liverpool in 1991 for Aston Villa and then returned seven years later. He too had nothing much to offer Liverpool on his return to the club as he came in as one of the last Roy Evans-inspired signings. When Evans left the club a few months into the 1998-99 season, Staunton found himself frozen out of the first-team reckoning and eventually departed once more for Villa Park
Finally, no list would be complete without mentioning – honourably or otherwise – Craig Bellamy. Signed by Rafa in 2006, Bellamy stayed but a single season at the club as the side battled through to the Champions League Final. In a season most notable for Bellamy’s infamous ‘golf club’ bust-up with John Arne Riise, Bellamy managed to have bestowed upon himself the moniker ‘The Nutter’ by his Liverpool teammates.
Despite this, however, Liverpool fans seemed to take to Bellamy and although there was a degree of inevitability about his departure following the golf club incident, many were sorry to see him go.
In August 2011, Bellamy made a surprising return to Liverpool when his childhood hero, Kenny Dalglish, signed him from Manchester City. Again Bellamy would play just a single season at Liverpool as he scored what proved to be the winning goal in the League Cup semi-final against his old club, City.
Away from Liverpool, there have been, of course, any number of other examples of players returning to their previous clubs.
Down the East Lancs Road, Manchester United have experienced the return of such stalwarts as Mark Hughes and Paul Pogba, thirty-odd years apart.
Hughes was sold, supposedly against his will, to Barcelona in 1986 after barely two years in the United first team. An unhappy spell at the Camp Nou was followed by a more settled loan spell at Bayern Munich before Alex Ferguson swooped to bring him home to Old Trafford.
He was to stay for another seven years and the trophies won during this second spell show that his return can be safely seen as the exception that proves the rule. His popularity at the Theatre of Dreams was as secure on the day he left in 1995 as it was when he made his breakthrough a dozen years or so before under Ron Atkinson.
The case of Paul Pogba, on the other hand, is somewhat different. Signed by (now) Sir Alex in 2009, Pogba made only seven appearances in the United first team before leaving for Juventus on a free transfer in the summer of 2012. At the time he cited the lack of first-team opportunities as his reason for moving.
After four seasons in Italy, and four Serie A league titles, Pogba returned to Old Trafford in an eye-watering record transfer deal said to be worth £89.3 million.
Four seasons of form that has varied in quality from outstanding to apathetic have ensued and at the time of writing, a return once more to Juventus looks on the cards
Going back a few years and it was once almost vogue for players to return to the scene of former triumphs for a short-lived swan song. These were mutually agreed between club and player to be short term deals and served the dual purpose of helping the club out of a temporary hole whilst giving fans one more chance to see their heroes don the club’s colours again.
Arsenal under Arsène Wenger seemed pretty keen on this sort of arrangement at one point, and Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, and Jans Lehmann all returned to the Emirates for short-lived, and fairly harmless, hurrahs.
Glasgow Rangers had a similar spell of recruiting ex-legends for a second go in the dark blue jersey, with Mark Hateley returning to the club in 1997 to add four appearances to the more than 200 he accrued for the club between 1990 and 1995.
Other players who have returned to former clubs over the years include the following; Terry McDermott (Newcastle), Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood (Chelsea), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Julian Dicks, Joe Cole, Tony Cottee, Frank McAvennie (all West Ham).
It’s not only players who have failed to resist the allure of the familiar, of course, and several managers have been tempted to recapture past glories at former clubs. But that’s perhaps an article for another day.