By Chris Hammond
They say never go back. But this year we’ve already seen two of football’s biggest characters returning to their clubs in a last ditch effort to help keep them on track for 2012. The two we’re referring to are of course Thierry Henry and Paul Scholes.
Henry, at 34 wasn’t expected to be much more than a bit part player for Arsenal, but on his second debut the enigmatic Frenchman saved the London club from embarrassment with a beautifully taken winner against Leeds in the FA Cup. It was a dream return for the player and all the signs are there that despite his loss of pace he’ll not struggle to make a positive impact.
Paul Scholes route back to Manchester United was a bigger surprise than Henry’s, mostly because he’d never left the club – he had though retired in the previous season. His second debut against rivals Man City saw the skilful ginger plodding about the pitch looking both tired and annoyed. His poor passing near the penalty box also resulted in the opposition’s second goal. How the two Premiership titans of old perform as the rest of the season unfolds remains to be seen. Will they prove the old adage wrong or will they soil their previously spotless reputations?
Returning to your old club isn’t an exact science as these Scottish favourites from recent seasons prove.
Eion Jess (Aberdeen)
It’s strange to think of Aberdeen having a forward line up more lethal than any in Scotland, but back in the early 90s that’s exactly what they had. Playing alongside the likes of Dutch international Hans Gilhaus, Charlie Nicholas and Scott Booth a young attacking midfielder Eion Jess began to make a name for himself. Described as the most gifted post-war Scot, Jess was an undeniably talented player and attracted scouts from clubs as big as Liverpool and Juventus.
His form dipped however after a series of bad injuries and the player went to Premiership side Coventry for £2 million. He returned, just a season later with the Dons in deep danger of being relegated. His goals were instrumental in keeping Aberdeen up. He also helped the club reach two cup finals in the same year – though not even he could provide the goals to finish off the Old Firm.
Verdict: A great move for Aberdeen, but maybe not for Jess who moved back to the Premiership a couple of seasons later but was too old to make the impact he wanted to.
Rab Douglas (Dundee)
While Rab Douglas was never the most flash keeper, he was always regarded as a relatively safe bet between the sticks. Putting in some inspired performances against the better Scottish sides, Rab Douglas won a move to Celtic. His spell in Glasgow was a productive one and the keeper racked up three league and three cup winners medals. Despite this success, a few blunders and stiff competition saw the player shifted out to Leicester where he endured an unhappy spell, largely as a substitute.
Despite having a few offers to stay in England he moved back north to Dundee. Here the player returned to the form that marked him out as one of the best in the country. When the club plunged into administration for a second time Douglas was instrumental in rallying the remaining squad and helping them not only fend off relegation but challenge for the league title.
Verdict: Douglas returned a hero and was instrumental in the amazing promotion push Dundee made last season.
Barry Ferguson (Rangers)
From a young age Barry Ferguson was an impressive midfield player. Able to make a pass, score a goal and rally his teammates, he was always Rangers captaincy material. During his first six years at the club he established himself as one of the most highly prized British midfielders and Blackburn manager Graeme Souness wasn’t shy in offering the Scottish side £8 million for the player.
Made captain of Blackburn, Ferguson made a good impression on his arrival providing the team with a focal point for their forward play. A horrific kneecap injury sidelined the player and much of his convalescence was spent pining for a return to Scotland. His wish was granted in 2005 and he returned to Rangers. Despite winning yet more silverware for the club, he ended his spell in disgrace after being stripped of the captaincy following the notorious drinking binge and hand gestures while on international duty under George Burley.
Verdict: Did well enough for Rangers, but the player proved at Birmingham he had much to offer the English Premiership and maybe should have stayed with Blackburn.
Duncan Ferguson (Everton)
Big Dunc didn’t have the most fun in his early footballing years with Dundee Utd and Rangers stirring up a bag of controversy on and off the pitch. A big move to Everton loomed for striker and in typical target man fashion leapt at the chance to try out the Premiership. He battered his way into the league providing Everton with an outlet few clubs could boast: namely a huge, muscular striker with the ability to score with head and feet. Despite injuries and disciplinary problems the battering ram from Stirling became a real fan favourite.
Newcastle were amongst the clubs interested in the Scotsman and bid £8 million for the player in 1998. The move initially turned out to be a productive one and Ferguson scored some crucial goals for Newcastle, including a spectacular volley in a 3-0 thrashing of Manchester Utd. Injury came back to haunt the player though and Everton gambled on a cut price £3.5 million deal for him just two seasons after leaving. Playing a bit part role over the next few years, Ferguson still managed to score a few important goals as his playing time petered out.
Verdict: Ferguson seemed to have found the perfect strike partner in Alan Shearer, but left for his adopted hometown. Retired as an Everton legend despite a relatively meagre goal return.
Neil McCann (Hearts)
Neil McCann was a direct skilful winger who earned a reputation for both being able to score and set up goals. Part of Jim Jeffries hugely successful Hearts side of 1998, he began attracting envious eyes from some of the UK’s bigger teams. Eventually, Rangers won the race for the player and he turned out for the Glasgow side for five years before being shipped out to Southampton in the Premiership. There the player, seen as something of a luxury struggled to make any impact and three seasons later re-joined Hearts. His second spell, while an exciting time for the club wasn’t much fun for McCann.
Jaded and off the pace of the SPL, the player suffered a double leg break in a challenge with Celtic’s Scott Brown. Despite his injury, McCann managed to do well enough for Falkirk on his recovery and even managed to return to yet another of his old sides in the shape of Dundee, scoring for them as an emergency trialist.
Verdict: McCann left Hearts as a popular, goal scoring winger and returned as a tired ineffective shadow of his former self.
Derek Riordan (Hibernian)
The great enigma. Riordan’s first spell at Hibs was a staggering success on the pitch. The impish striker might not have known what the words backtracking or tackle meant, but he knew how to stick a ball in the back of the net. After a glut of goals (some of which were utterly sublime) he went to Celtic in a cut price deal. Mostly a bench warmer at Parkhead, the striker barely featured during his two year spell with Celtic and was often unleashed on the opposition as a left winger and not a striker. All in all Riordan needed to make up for lost time when he returned to his boyhood club of Hibernian in 2008.
Despite a respectable goal haul Hibs struggled for much of his second spell at the club and all hopes of a Scotland recall vanished.
Verdict: Undoubtedly the best finisher Scotland has had in years; he could have used his second spell as springboard to the big time. Instead he ended up in China.