From Cole to Collins, should players return to their former clubs?

We test the conventional wisdom that returning to old haunts results in disappointment

There is a sizeable contingent among us who have refused to get off the tube at Upton Park or take a stroll down Barking Road since Barratt Homes turned the Boleyn Ground into Upton Gardens. Going back would be too painful. But at least you could ease the pain with a pint at the immaculately refurbished Boleyn Tavern.

And it’s not as if you’d be expected to put on any sort of performance all these years later or be the exact same person that you once were. It’s perhaps easy to see why players are routinely advised against trying to recapture past glories.

The mantra of ‘try, try again’ should not apply to aging bodies and/or bruised egos. Yet it can also be tempting to return ‘home’, to a place where you felt loved or were at your best. However, even Carol Ann Duffy (remember her from GCSE English?) has advised against trying to turn back time.

In a poem that shares a title with this article, she wrote, ‘The smoky mirrors / flatter; your ghost buys a round for the parched, / old faces of the past. Never return / to the space where you left time pining till it died.’ I don’t suppose Frank McAvennie has ever read any Duffy, but perhaps he should have.

Casting my own mind back, with a little help from Google and social media because, like the reflexes of an ageing goalkeeper or the finishing of a geriatric striker, the grey matter’s not as sharp as it once was, I’ve put together a horribly lopsided first XI of players to have pulled on the claret and blue across separate epochs.

Shaka Hislop

His fine early form (Hammer of the Year 1998/99) was rewarded with the high-profile signing of David James, resulting in the relegation of Hislop to the bench and the Hammers to the Championship. Redknapp took him to Portsmouth before Pardew brought him back and rotated him with Roy Carroll.

Sadly, the defining image of his second spell is diving in vain for Steven Gerrard’s Cup Final piledriver although, in fairness, it probably would have taken a pair of goalies to stop that most depressing of great goals.

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George McCartney

The hybrid Beatle always felt like more of a Herman’s Hermit, a reputation for being steady if unspectacular damning him with faint praise, which is perhaps a bit unfair on the 2007/08 Hammer of the Year runner-up (stint one) and 2011/12 Players’ Player of the Year (stint two).

Being traded back and forth between Sunderland and ourselves can’t do much for one’s self-esteem so credit to George for the quiet consistency that makes it difficult to differentiate between his two periods in east London.

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Julian Dicks

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Liverpool but Graeme Souness taking my favourite player away from Upton Park when I was barely out of short trousers is right up there. At least they were good enough to return him quickly, albeit a tad diminished by the enervating experience of a year up north.

The first five years of hard-man heroics for an embattled West Ham would have been enough to secure cult-hero status but five more, including being top scorer in 1995/96, makes him a bona fide legend.

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Joe Cole

He immediately follows Dicks as another personal favourite it hurt to see leave. His performances in the 2002/03 relegation season were a mesmeric blend of skill and tenacity. It’s just a shame nobody else seemed as bothered, the ensuing fire-sale taking him from us before full bloom. There was nostalgia in having him back but the second dance was undoubtedly more sedate.

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James Collins

Initially played second fiddle to Danny Gabbidon. Spell number one ultimately went well enough to earn a move to Villa but if it had ended there he’d be little more than a sidenote in our Premier League history. But 134 further games saw the Ginger Pelé easily surpass the likes of Gabbidon, Upson and Dailly in club folklore.

Lee Bowyer

After an underwhelming cameo in our 2002/03 relegation, Bowyer opined that he had ‘unfinished business’ so came back in 2006 to complete the half-arsed job of representing his boyhood club.

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Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson

A native Mackem equally at home in east London as the North East, Robson was a proto-McCartney in alternating between Sunderland and West Ham, however he did so with a little more gusto.

Some 104 goals split evenly between two three-year spells at the Boleyn is a healthy return and the latter-day Robson caught the eye of a young Tony Cottee, who has enthused about learning tricks of the goalscoring trade (if not hairstyling tips) from the venerable ‘Pop’.

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Syd Puddefoot

None of us is in a position to cast judgement on Puddefoot’s time (1913-1922 and 1932-33) from personal memory. The facts, however, indicate that his first decade with 102 goals in 158 games, culminating in a world-record, crowd-funded £5,000 transfer to Falkirk of all places, was immeasurably better than the twilight year, which saw him score three goals in 22 games and relegation.

But it appears we were doomed to the drop before Puddefoot returned, so he is absolved of blame. And we’re not gonna cast shade on someone who had the nerve to cross the Turkish divide by managing both Fenerbahçe and fierce rivals Galatasaray. Plus, he played cricket for Essex, so clearly an all-round good egg.

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Iain Dowie

Some stars are meant to burn bright for a limited time only. Dowie could never be described as a supernova but when he first joined – to shore up our 1990/91 promotion charge – his four goals in 12 games were enough to light the way back to the elite.

It wasn’t clear he himself belonged there so we packed him off to Southampton for a small profit. And he didn’t exactly set the world alight at Saints or Palace so it was a bit of a mystery why we brought him back a few years later. Always an honest trier, and best of luck to him in his current recovery from a cardiac arrest, it’s regrettable that Stockport were the main beneficiaries of the big man’s second spell.

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Tony Cottee

The 1986 PFA Young Player of the Year was still only 23 and fast approaching 100 club goals when Everton, forlornly trying to recapture their glory years, paid a handsome sum for our crown jewel. Cottee fared better in Liverpool than Dicks after him but he never really belonged there and his homecoming six years later felt a sensible deal for all concerned.

And Cottee was still decent but there was scant hope of he or the team recapturing the zip of ’86, especially partnered with the likes of Marco Boogers and Dani rather than… Frank McAvennie

The warning signs were there from the moment he appeared on Wogan. It is alleged he only returned to London from Celtic to be near his model girlfriend and celebrity lifestyle. Then Chris Kamara snapped his leg and he reportedly discovered cocaine in his downtime. Frankie Mc was scoring in all the wrong places, but his loveable rogue persona means he’s still regarded fondly by the masses despite never coming close to recapturing the earlier magic.

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David Moyes

And what of the manager’s chair? Moyes is the only one to have sat in it twice, although Bonds, Redknapp and Bilić all mortgaged their playing reputations to have a crack at being gaffer. It’s arguably the most exposed and ruinous position to attempt a comeback because there are no teammates to share the flak.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of the boardroom when Moyes was invited back at the bitter end of 2019. He had every right to tell Sullivan where to shove it but truth is his stock was still low as no other club had shown serious interest since his original short-term deal had expired, and the redemption arc was incomplete.

Moyes refutes the ‘never go back’ theory more strongly than any player. And when asked if he could be tempted back if West Ham came calling a third time, he replied, ‘You never say never in this game. I’ve always enjoyed my time here, so who knows?’

My advice for Moyesy? Second time was a charm, much as a few misanthropists attempted to sour it, but evidence suggests this is the exception rather than the rule. Don’t chance the hat-trick because you’re not known as a prolific goal-scorer.

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