FootballPremier League

Duncan Alexander: “Never Go Back?”

October 1, 2021January 7th, 2022

NEVER go back, they say. The theory is that a footballer returning to his, or her, old club will never be able to recreate the success or the vibes of the initial spell, and will be weighed down trying to outperform the ghosts of their old performances, something that very few can do. And yet this summer has seen two of the biggest names in European football return to their old manor; Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea and Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United. In typical style, both have shown their value already and you wouldn’t be surprised to see the pair challenging Mohamed Salah for the Golden Boot this season.

But generally, how do players do when they go back? For football supporters of a certain generation, superstar re-homing is exemplified by Ian Rush’s rapid return to English football after spending 1987-88 eating baked beans with Juventus. The perfect top-flight finisher in his initial spell, Rush struggled to adapt to a philosophically transformed Liverpool team in his second period at the club. He still scored goals, he still won a league title, two FA Cups and a League Cup, but it was not quite the same.

So who in Premier League terms has done best going back to a club? And who hasn’t? Here’s a choice collection, that mainly ignores players going out on loan and coming back and also generally filters out players who had one brief spell at a club and then a much longer one. Because you have to be able to compare apples with apples, Ian Rushes with Ian Rushes.


The Good

Late era Joe Cole isn’t widely regarded as vintage, but the England midfielders return to West Ham in 2013 was one of those returning hero sessions that actually worked. After scoring 10 goals in 126 games in his first spell as a prodigy, Cole scored five in 31 in his second spell, not exactly ripping up trees but unfurling the sort of farewell tour that must have pleased both him and the Upton Park faithful.

Graeme Le Saux had a problematic time with Robbie Fowler (more of whom below) but he managed to return to his old club much more successfully than the Liverpool striker. His initial spell at Chelsea ended furiously, with Le Saux throwing his shirt at manager Ian Porterfield, but by the time he returned in 1997 he was English football’s most expensive defender, albeit one who often played further up the flank. He produced too, with four goals and 21 assists in 140 Premier League games for the Blues, winning both domestic and European honours.

Normally it would be foolish to judge a big defender by goals and assists but David Unsworth was unusual because he was a superb penalty taker and when deployed on the left of Everton’s defence, remarkably creative too. His first spell at Goodison in the 1990s saw him score 10 goals and assist three more in 114 games before he left to ply his trade in London with West Ham. A transfer to Aston Villa followed but he didn’t play once for them, before family issues with settling in the midlands saw him return to Everton. And what a success it was, with 23 goals and nine assists in 188 further appearances for the Merseysiders. Unsworth was the top scoring defender in Premier League history for some time before being overtaken by John Terry, the latter often hailed as a perfect example of a one-club man, despite playing for three of them, including doing something Unsworth didn’t by featuring for Aston Villa.


The.. Same?

Let’s take a moment to applaud the sheer consistency of Jermain Defoe’s production levels at Tottenham Hotspur. In his first spell at the club in the mid-2000s Defoe played 139 games, scored 43 goals and assisted eight. In his second era, after an admittedly brief time with Portsmouth, Defoe played 137 games, scoring 48 and assisting 11. Had he not scored five goals in that still-strange 9-1 win against Wigan the goal total in each spell would have been identical. Barely a year away from his 40th birthday he is still – just about – playing for Rangers up in Scotland.

Face it, you had forgotten Nolberto Solano’s time at Newcastle was split into two eras, divided by a season at Aston Villa when he ended the campaign as Villan’s top scorer. A year away from St James’ Park hadn’t changed Solano too much. His rate of 0.14 goals per game in spell two was not a world away from 0.17 in his first era in the north east. His assist rate fell a bit, yes, but he sometimes was deployed as a full-back this time round, which blew nobody’s trumpet.


The Bad

Robbie Fowler’s rate of 0.27 goals per game in his second spell with Liverpool is actually decent, but obviously pales compared to his initial spell as the youth prodigy that lit up Anfield, where he scored 120 times at a rate of 0.51 per game.




In contrast, one man who never got to enjoy many Anfield goals was Big Andy Carroll, signed from Newcastle for a cool £35m after scoring 14 goals in 41 Premier League games for them. Just 14, yeah. But when he wound down his top-flight career back at St James’ Park between 2019 and 2021 he managed just one goal in 37 games. He could still create, though.





Carroll’s single Premier League goal in his second spell with Newcastle was one more than Francis Jeffers managed in 18 games back at Everton (18 goals and 12 assists in 49 games first time round was enough to convince Arsene Wenger that Jeffers was his fox in the box), but for the ultimate disappointment we must look to Roque Santa Cruz. Not only did he fail to score in his second spell at Blackburn (this one is a loan, but it bears investigating), it merely highlighted just how outlandish his first era with Rovers had been. 23 goals in 57 games, including 19 in 2007-08, persuaded Mark Hughes to hand over £17.5m to bring Santa Cruz to Manchester City in June 2009. But those 19 goals two seasons earlier would be the only time the Paraguayan reached double figures for league goals in 16 seasons in European football. Examine the numbers, do your research, check the foundations.



The George McCartney

The Dominic Cummings of the Premier League. The prince of the A1: