Football Features

What happened next? 15 times a club re-signed their former player

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 11:15, 5 November 2022

Loyalty is a hard thing to come by in modern football.

Transfer rumours and shedloads of money can quite often turn even the most noble of heads away from their roots, in search of greater glory. That’s why we tend to admire the likes of Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher, Paolo Maldini and Matt Le Tissier, who stood by their clubs through thick and thin even when better offers were on the table. Even Lionel Messi had to be pushed out of Barcelona, despite staying loyal through many years of absolute nonsense.

One club men are a rare breed but so are the players who choose to return to clubs, long after leaving. These are often cult stars returning for one last hurrah or former stars who have found it hard going elsewhere and realised that life back home was much easier. Sometimes, however, you get examples like Romelu Lukaku or Paul Pogba where a player moves away, becomes much better and perhaps even wins silverware then “comes home” to help his original club.

We’ve had a look and come up with a list of the best return-style transfers!

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Paul Pogba

Returned to Manchester United and Juventus

Perhaps the most famous return was Paul Pogba to Manchester United aka #Pogback. The Frenchman left as a teenager for Juventus and won four straight titles in Turin before returning to England where he has since been a beacon of inconsistency. He helped fire United to an EFL Cup and Europa League double in 2017 but has since flattered to deceive as often as he’s thrilled the crowds and despite his obvious quality he failed to have one genuinely great all the way through season in red. So in the summer Pogba made his second return, this time going back to Juventus, though he is yet to feature this season due to injury.

Romelu Lukaku

Returned to Chelsea and Inter Milan

Romelu Lukaku has had one hell of sliding doors career. The brilliant Belgian joined Chelsea as a teenager in 2011 and dreamed of being the next Didier Drogba. He never really got much of a chance despite impressing on loan at West Brom, and after a penalty miss in the 2013 UEFA Super Cup, he was loaned out to Everton before joining them permanently the following summer.

Lukaku excelled on Merseyside and the chance to rejoin Chelsea under Antonio Conte emerged in 2016, but instead Lukaku followed Paul Pogba to Old Trafford and two frustrating years followed where, despite his obvious quality, he never really fit in. He got his chance to play for Conte in 2019 and took it, joining Inter where he scored 64 goals in 95 games across two seasons winning one Serie A title.

Inter’s financial issues forced him to leave, and so he took his chance to finally return to Chelsea. His second debut saw him channel his idol Drogba as he bullied, battered and broke Arsenal in a devastating and dynamic win. But that was pretty much where it peaked for Lukaku, though he did score twice to help Chelsea win the Club World Cup. Some controversial interviews and poor form contributed to Lukaku’s return to Inter in the summer, albeit only on loan for now. However, like Pogba injuries have restricted his playing time.

Eric Garcia

Returned to Barcelona

Eric Garcia left Barcelona for Manchester City in 2017 as a teenager, seeing the decline of Barcelona’s sporting project under Josep Bartomeu he jumped on board with Pep Guardiola’s. However, despite his technical, tactical and mental excellence he remains physically slight and thus completely unsuited to the Premier League so decided to force a return to Barcelona, who he joined on a free last summer. It’s been a mixed time at Barcelona so far, with Xavi really trusting the Spaniard but he is yet to win over a selection of fans who want better for their back line.

Gerard Piqué

Returned to Barcelona

Before Eric Garcia, there was Gerard Piqué. A stalwart young centre-back who left Barcelona as a teenager in search of minutes and a chance to advance to the first-team. He joined Manchester United where he effectively served two world-class apprenticeships (the first under Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, and then another one besides Gabi Milito on loan at Real Zaragoza).

Piqué was not a success for United who let him return to Barcelona in 2008. It took the big defender half a season but he soon found himself a key member of Pep Guardiola’s defence and went on to defeat his old club in that season’s Champions League final (making him one of a few players to have won the Champions League back-to-back for different clubs) and developed into a stalwart centre-back for what became the greatest club side of all-time.

It’s now over a decade later and Piqué is about to call time on his career at the Camp Nou and, now the greatest defender in club history, having also won the World Cup and European Championship to establish himself as one of his nation’s best ever players as well. Gerard Piqué is unquestionably the gold standard of these “returning home” transfers. If you can do half as well as he did, you’ve done alright.

“He won everything, with Barcelona and the Spanish national team,” Pep Guardiola said of his retirement.

“The time [to retire] arrives for everyone but his future will be bright because he’s a smart guy. It was an honour for me to be his manager, we spent an incredible four years together.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Returned to Milan

Half-man half-meme half-amazing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic defies description. With the exception of Barcelona he’s been a staggering success everywhere he’s been, and it was off the back of that spell at Barcelona that he first joined AC Milan. There he helped them win Serie A before leaving a year later to join PSG where he made everyone believe that club had a soul.

After that he was all washed up apparently, so he joined Manchester United where he made everyone think Jose Mourinho still had it, scoring a ridiculous 28 goals in 46 games. He would have broken 30 but he instead broke his cruciates in what should have been a career-ending injury at 36. But no, Zlatan is a medical marvel. He was walking again within months, playing within six, and in order to hide his declining levels he went to MLS where he scored a preposterous 53 goals in 58 games.

His two-year sojourn in the USA allowed his ligaments to fully heal and so, at the age of 38 he returned to Europe. He came “home” to Milan, a club in the doldrums. And just like he did in Manchester, Zlatan lifted them out. He scored 11 times in 20 games in his first season and 17 in 27 in his second as Milan came close to winning the title. Ibrahimovic finally got that title with Milan last season though he only started 11 games in Serie A, scoring eight goals. Still at Milan, the now-41-year-old hasn’t played yet this season due to injury.

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Alvaro Morata

Returned to Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and Juventus

Alvaro Morata has had so many returns you need an excel spreadsheet to keep it all straight. Despite playing for Atlético Madrid as a youngster, the striker broke through as a Real Madrid youngster a decade ago but was barely used, so he was sold to Juventus with a buyback clause. He did really well in Turin (he knocked Los Blancos out of the 2015 Champions League and scored in the final too!) so Madrid brought him back to the Bernabeu.

Morata had a good season running with Madrid’s back-ups, scoring 15 times in La Liga, but he was never going to start so instead moved to Chelsea (but not before a move to Man Utd collapsed, evidenced by his hair being dyed red in his early days with Chelsea). Suffice to say he wasn’t very good with Chelsea and so was loaned to Atlético Madrid. A return right back to his roots!

Morata did alright for Atleti, but nothing special, so Chelsea sent him out on another two year loan… back to Juventus! As before, he’s looked most comfortable in Turin where he scored 20 goals in his first season including six goals in the Champions League. And now he’s back at Atleti, though this time it’s just because his loan to Juve was up.

Mats Hummels

Returned to Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund

There’s not many players who can say they’ve spent their entire careers at the two biggest clubs in Germany but Mats Hummels is one of those guys. A Bayern youth product who wasn’t breaking through, he was loaned and then sold to Borussia Dortmund. There Jurgen Klopp turned him into one of the world’s finest centre-backs and Dortmund into one of the best teams as they wrestled the title off Bayern and then did the unthinkable and retained it! Shockingly, Hummels re-joined Bayern in 2016 where he helped them win three straight Bundesliga before rejoining Dortmund in 2019! He’s once again a defensive leader for BVB but has yet to deliver a title, don’t rule him out though!

Nemanja Matic

Returned to Chelsea

Few Chelsea fans would have shed a tear when Nemanja Matic was sold to Benfica in January 2011. After all, the Serbian had only played three games for the Blues at the time and looked set to just another one of the many youngsters that have failed to make their mark at Stamford Bridge. How he proved them wrong.

The defensive midfielder turned into a monstrous player in Portugal and Chelsea snapped him up again just three seasons later where he helped deliver not one but two Premier League titles.

David Luiz

Returned to Chelsea

The reason Matic left Chelsea in January 2011 was because he was included in a deal which saw David Luiz join the Blues from Benfica. In his first spell, Luiz helped Chelsea win the Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League before joining PSG for £50m, a world-record fee for a defender at the time.

The Brazilian spent two years with PSG, picking up a pair of Ligue 1 titles and alongside four domestic cups, as well as a goal against Chelsea to knock the Blues out of the Champions League – celebrating wildly in front of the Shed End at Stamford Bridge. Then, in the summer of 2016, Luiz returned to Chelsea for £34m and formed part of Antonio Conte’s back three in the their Premier League title-winning side. Another FA Cup and Europa League followed in three seasons, with Luiz leaving Chelsea for the second time in 2019/20 to join Arsenal.

Mathieu Flamini

Returned to Arsenal

When Arsenal were in dire need of a defensive midfielder in summer 2013, Arsene Wenger decided to turn towards the reliable head of Mathieu Flamini who had just been released by AC Milan. Of course Flamini joined Milan from Arsenal back in 2008.

The 31-year-old might not have been the player that Gunners fans were crying out for but he fit the bill perfectly, due to his competitive streak and tireless work rate. He helped bridge the gap for the Gunners to bring through Francis Coquelin.

Shinji Kagawa

Returned to Borussia Dortmund

When Manchester United snapped up Shinji Kagawa in June 2012, Borussia Dortmund fans were not too happy. The Japanese playmaker had become a beloved figure at the Westfalenstadion, where he had won two Bundesliga titles and the DFB-Pokal, with Jurgen Klopp’s universally adored team. The switch to England didn’t work out though, especially after Sir Alex Ferguson retired at the end of the 2012/13 season. David Moyes didn’t think much too him and Louis van Gaal shipped him back to Germany after just two years. As you can guess, Dortmund fans were very excited…

Robbie Fowler

Returned to Liverpool

If you earn the nickname ‘God’ you can bet that you’ll always be welcomed back to certain place with open arms. This is exactly what happened to Robbie Fowler in January 2006. The striker had left Anfield in 2002 but returned as a prodigal son by way of Leeds and Man City. In all fairness, he was already over the hill at this point and was a shadow of the player who once shone on Merseyside. 12 goals later he was sold to Cardiff and the fairytale was all over again for Fowler, who called time on his career in 2012.

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Didier Drogba

Returned to Chelsea

Much like Fowler, Drogba was probably too old to be playing for a top Premier League club but Jose Mourinho eyed a potential coup when he brought the Ivorian back to Stamford Bridge last summer on a free transfer. His return to West London might not have been as prolific as his previous run but he did score some vital goals in the league and Europe and of course got to lift a few more titles with the Blues. His team-mates carrying him off the pitch on the final day of the season will be an image which endures for some time. And it wasn’t manufactured at all, like some other farewells.

Robbie Keane

Returned to Spurs

Players rejoining clubs, often occurs after a few years after their original goodbye. Not for Robbie Keane though, who returned to Tottenham just six months after leaving them in the first place. In July 2008, the Irishman signed for Liverpool for £19 million and was the biggest acquisition for the Reds in that transfer window.

Keane failed to hit the ground running at Anfield and scored just seven goals before Spurs brought him back to North London for just £12 million. Cashback! Of course he never again got close to those last two seasons with Spurs again and soon moved to semi-retirement in MLS with LA Galaxy.

Jermain Defoe

Returned to Spurs

Another lad Tottenham decided to give a second chance to was Jermain Defoe, who they had flogged to Portsmouth in January 2008. After just 12 months at Fratton Park, Spurs along with newly recruited manager, Harry Redknapp, decided they had made a mistake and wanted the former England international back. It proved to be a good decision as he scored on his re-debut against Wigan and added 75 more before moving to Toronto last season. Despite scoring 305 times throughout his career, Defoe had to wait until 38 years of age to finally win a major title when he helped Rangers win the Scottish Premiership in 2021.

Juninho Paulista

Returned to Middlesbrough, twice!

Now for perhaps the greatest representation of a player falling in love with a club so much that he just couldn’t bare to be apart from them. Juninho, the diminutive Brazilian, who won so many hearts during his spell at Middlesbrough, rejoined the club on two different occasions after originally leaving them in 1997. It’s hard to determine which of his three runs on Teeside were his best, but his third did produce a League Cup final victory, which he holds as a higher honour that his World Cup win in 2002.

“In 2004 we won the League Cup. I was very happy because it was always my ambition to win a title and I did that with Middlesbrough. I always said this title means a lot to me, especially when you feel a real part of winning the title. In the World Cup I was played in four games then I was out then I played the last few minutes in the final. With the Middlesbrough title I could feel more involved in the games,” he told told Gazzette Live in 2013. God bless you Juninho.