Beyond the match-winning saves, screamers from distance and endless work rate on the pitch, football loves a good romance angle.
And there’s no better romance angle in football than when a player decides to pack their bags and return to a former home, often where they once enjoyed some of their best years. Some see it as a step back and there is always risk of tarnishing a legacy, but when it comes off, it’s the stuff of dreams.
Here are the best 30 instances of when a player has headed back to a former club.
The local lad who had it all, Cole was adored by the Hammers as soon as he broke through in 1998.
His talent was always going to lead him away from the club, but despite a fine career, injuries would always hamper him. He made an emphatic return to the club in January 2013 and scored a handful of goals for fans to enjoy, but left some 18 months later.
It took just two years in Germany for a young Kagawa to get poached by Manchester United in 2012, having been instrumental as they won the 2011/12 Bundesliga.
Beyond a hat-trick against Norwich, Kagawa never really found a groove at United and wasn’t ever fancied by David Moyes in 2013/14, so returned to Dortmund after two seasons away. He played a quiet yet key role up until his 2019 departure.
Having played for Parma in their best years when every Serie A club was endlessly cool and Parma were one of Italy’s biggest teams, Buffon made a big money move to Juventus in 2001.
A world class keeper with loyalty as he stayed with Juve despite relegations, Buffon once again dropped down to Serie B for the 2021/22 season in order to play for his first ever club. One for the hipsters, this.
The local kid with a talent that could take him anywhere in the world, Everton did well to get two years of first team football out of a teenage Rooney.
His move to Manchester United was necessary and inevitable. But when his time in Manchester was seemingly up in 2017, the Toffees brought him home for a second spell. His second stint saw him impress fleetingly, but he departed for the States after just a year back in Merseyside.
The Rossoneri’s Brazilian wonderkid was the apple of Milan’s eye. Having balled out as Milan dominated in Italy and Europe, Real Madrid made him a Galactico in 2009.
Kaka never quite captured hearts in Madrid and made a romantic return to a romantic club in 2013, penning a two-year deal to help a struggling Milan. He couldn’t do the business, though, and left for the MLS after a season. A short but sweet full circle.
Similarly to Kaka, Bale’s unrelenting form and cult hero status at Tottenham earned him Galactico status in 2013.
And despite being pivotal to Real Madrid’s dominance in Europe, he never truly settled and returned to Spurs on loan for 2020/21. Bale eventually found form and rolled back the years, but his clear intentions of not making his return permanent dampened the mood somewhat.
Impressing as a tricky midfielder in a fine La Liga side, Rakitic earned himself a move to footballing royalty in 2014, and thrived.
Rakitic was a key cog in Barcelona‘s midfield as they enjoyed fine success, but was also part of the mass exodus as the club hit the reset button following their 2020 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich. Back to Sevilla it was for the Croatian.
Walcott was only 16 when he signed for Arsenal in 2006, which speaks volumes about the impact he made at Southampton as an actual child.
Perhaps the move so soon is what has dampened his career somewhat. He re-signed for the Saints on loan in 2020 and has since made the deal permanent, keeping fit and enjoying regular football once again.
Swapping Tottenham for Arsenal in 2001 paid dividends for Campbell, despite the upset it caused among Spurs fans. How unfortunate.
After leaving Notts County, Campbell trained with the Gunners in 2009 to maintain fitness, but ended up signing a deal in January 2010 and becoming a key player in the second half of the season amid a few injury issues. Ideal.
Three spells with Atletico Madrid. Credit to the club for putting up with Costa’s shenanigans on three separate occasions.
Costa was at his electric best in his second spell which earned him a move to Chelsea. After a falling out with Antonio Conte, he returned to Atleti. While it started well, things tailed off and he agreed to leave prematurely in 2020.
French midfielder Flamini quickly rose into one of Arsenal’s first names on the team sheet for his tenacity from box to box, and earned a move to Milan in 2008.
Flamini did a Sol Campbell and returned to train with Arsenal in 2013 to maintain fitness. That stint turned into a second spell, where he again became a key cog in the machine over a three year period for Arsene Wenger.
Sir Alex Ferguson making Zaha his final ever signing was a statement of intent. The Crystal Palace star should’ve shone at Manchester United.
Instead, David Moyes never put trust in him and he returned to Crystal Palace on loan for 2014/15 and made the deal permanent a season later. He’s since shown that talent, but can’t seem to find an avenue back to the top once again.
El Nino had already become a cult hero at Atletico before his feet even touched the ground in Liverpool.
After years of success at the top of the game – and some darker hours after leaving the Reds – Torres returned to Madrid in 2015. A three year stint saw him score a number of big goals and left fans ecstatic that their hero came home once more.
Fowler burst onto the scene for Liverpool in the early 90s as the kid with unrelenting amounts of potential. The Reds pulled the trigger and blooded him in from an early age in a declining era.
Injuries ravaged Fowler – likely from playing too much too soon – but his scoring knack was never in question. His 2006 return was the stuff of dreams for himself and the fans, and resulted in one more season of pure joy.
Hummels has spent his entire career switching allegiances between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
Started at Bayern, loaned to Dortmund and developed into one of Europe’s best defenders with Der BVB, before inevitably returning to Bayern in 2016 and then returning to Dortmund three years later. And while he won more Bundesliga titles with Die Roten, his better performances have come away from Bavaria. Make your mind up, please.
There is no doubting Rush’s ability and the legacy he left behind on the game. One of football’s greatest ever forwards.
However, his stay in Turin with Juventus was rather short-lived and was more of a holiday than a move and return to Liverpool, which is what prevents him from being any higher. Didn’t even leave long enough to build up any suspense.
Kuyt actually didn’t spend all that long with Feyenoord, nor did he start his career with the Dutch side. But his impact while with the club was massive, in both spells.
His first spell saw him blossom into the Eredivisie’s biggest gunman, scoring goals for fun, and subsequently earned him his move to Liverpool. Upon his 2015 return, Kuyt was again a key player and finished up his stay in 2017 with a hat-trick that won them the league title. Efficient.
Three years at crosstown rivals Inter didn’t stop Zlatan Ibrahimovic from becoming an icon with the Rossoneri during his first two year stint.
After an eight year trophy collecting tour of Europe and the MLS, Ibrahimovic returned to Milan in 2020 and has continued to score for fun, serving as an integral member of the starting XI in a resurgent squad.
The boyhood hero who won it all, Van Persie ending his career where it started was fairytale stuff for fans across the world, not least Feyenoord’s faithful.
It wasn’t quite the prolific fantasy everyone wanted, but Van Persie’s goals were key as he helped them win the KNVB Cup and he surpassed the 300 career goals mark with them. A fitting end to a glittering career.
Similarly to Rush, Hughes’ excursion away from English football was little more than a holiday.
After signing for Barcelona and being loaned to Bayern Munich, he was back in Manchester two years later and stuck around with the Red Devils until 1995. Never mind the Premier League dominance, he just missed the Arndale.
Milito’s career arc isn’t appreciated enough.
Started with Racing Club, made the big move to Europe and became the best striker in the world with Inter in 2010, before returning home to his people in 2014 and using his veteran status to fire Racing Club to another league title.
Shevchenko wasn’t shy of returning to former clubs. Despite a loan return to Milan not going so well, it didn’t deter him from ending his career where it all came up for him.
The boy that bagged a hat-trick at Camp Nou in 1999 returned in 2009 and enjoyed three more rather prolific years at his club, before entering a short-lived politics career.
Matic joined Chelsea as a rabbit in the headlights in 2009 and was gone two years later as one of the many young talents that get lost in the shuffle.
A move to Benfica and a change into a more defensive role was the rebirth of the Serbian, however, who was re-signed by the Blues in 2014. Matic was then a mainstay in the XI and won two Premier Leagues before moving to Manchester United.
Technically, this one is cheating a bit as United poached Gerard Pique from Barcelona’s La Masia without him being a first team player.
Still, though, he was fondly thought of at La Blaugrana and his success since returning in 2008 remains immeasurable. Pique would be higher on the list if it weren’t for the uncertainty, but don’t let that distract from a pretty good romance angle of a return to his boyhood club.
Ironically, Matic’s sale to Benfica in 2011 was involved in Chelsea’s purchase of Luiz. The Brazilian defender was a hit at Stamford Bridge for his relentless tackling, ability on the ball and endless sh*thousery.
He left for Paris Saint-Germain as a Champions League winner and the world’s most expensive defender in 2014, but returned on a discount in 2016 and added the Premier League to his trophy cabinet. Excellent business.
Who would’ve predicted the love story between a flashy Brazilian footballer and a town in the North East of England? Certainly not Juninho himself.
Signing for Boro in 1995, he left for the big city of Atletico Madrid two years later. He returned on loan in 1999 as they returned to the Premier League in a bid to get over injuries, before coming back permanently in 2002 and helping them win the 2004 League Cup. Brazilian by name, Boro by heart.
There is no greater mercenary in football than Tevez, and not even his love for Boca Juniors can stop that. You’ve just got to respect it.
Starting out with his boyhood side, Tevez left in 2004 but would return after his career at the top was seemingly over in 2015. No retirement plans, though, Tevez moved to China a year later for one final – and rather massive – paycheque, before returning to Boca a third time in 2018. A tainted love, but one you can’t knock for its lack of intrigue.
Free to sign for Juventus for nothing in 2012, United paid the price for their mistake regarding Pogba in 2016; a world record transfer fee.
The jury remains out on whether or not Pogba is justifying that fee and, truthfully, it always will be when you’re as polarising yet talented as the Frenchman. He still has plenty of time to dominate with the Red Devils.
After almost a decade of world class service including league titles, cups and a shed load of goals and highlight reel moments, the inevitable happened when Henry left Arsenal for Barcelona in 2007.
Never did they think they’d get to see their charismatic Frenchman bless the Emirates again, until 2012. Henry made a mid-season loan return for one last hurrah, scoring on his second debut in front of a rampant Emirates. Full circle. The story was complete and Arsenal fans could die happy.
After blossoming into one of Chelsea’s finest ever and bullying the Premier League with goals throughout the late 2000s, Drogba moved to China having become a European champion in 2012.
That move would’ve been the fairytale ending for him at the top, but he wasn’t done. Jose Mourinho re-signed Drogba and got the band back together in 2014/15, with the striker balling out one last time and firing Chelsea to the Premier League title. Didn’t overstay his welcome, either. The stuff of dreams.