Whether it’s stunted development, a lack of opportunities or the innumerable obstacles of adolescence, there are a plethora of reasons why youth prospects don’t make the grade.
Some young footballers have all the tools but are feverishly impatient – the carrot of the first team dangling so tantalisingly close that it gets the better of them. Others are just slow bloomers – as yet lacking the physical or mental requirements of an elite footballer. Sometimes – it just doesn’t work out.
Although a rarity, the opportunity for vindication may present itself.
So after Romelu Lukaku sealed a return to Chelsea, we decided to take a look back at five players who returned to their boyhood clubs with a point to prove.
Peter Crouch – Tottenham Hotspur
In 2000, Spurs academy graduate Crouch was unceremoniously told he needed time away from the club to develop. The oddly dexterous 6’7” forward was sold to QPR – where Spurs’ Director of Football David Pleat claimed Crouch, “might get the odd first-team game.”
As it transpired, the gangly striker hit the ground running at Loftus Road, bagging a total of 12 goals for The Hoops in his debut season. Moves to Portsmouth, Villa and Southampton followed, before Crouch clinched a dream move to Anfield – where he is best remembered for scoring that breathtaking overhead kick against Galatasaray.
⚽ That goal
🙌 Those celebrations
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) April 13, 2018
He returned to Portsmouth in 2008, where he reunited with former boss Harry Redknapp and forged a potent partnership with ex-Lilywhite Jermain Defoe. Redknapp – who left the south coast for London – brought Crouch back to White Hart Lane for £9m at the end of the season.
Despite netting just 24 goals over two seasons with Spurs, the towering forward became a cult icon – fondly remembered for his goal against Manchester City in 2010 (which sealed Spurs’ place in the Champions League) and his winner against AC Milan at the San Siro the following season.
Paul Pogba – Manchester United
In 2012, having played just a handful of games for Man United, an exasperated Pogba refused to sign a new contract with The Red Devils. Sir Alex Ferguson seethed at the 18-year-old’s disrespect but blamed his agent Mino Raiola – with whom the Scot had a relationship “like oil and water” – for manipulating the youngster.
Culpability aside, bridges had been burned. Pogba signed for Juventus on a free transfer that summer.
During the Frenchman’s debut season in Turin, it became apparent that Utd’s loss was Juventus’ (and Raiola’s) considerable gain. Under the wings of the vastly experienced Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, Pogba became a cornerstone of an all-conquering Juve side that achieved unprecedented domestic dominance.
— United Zone (@ManUnitedZone_) December 7, 2020
Now considered one of Europe’s premier midfielders The Glazers swallowed their pride and launched an audacious bid to re-sign Pogba. The transfer sent social media into a frenzy and, before long, Utd were parading their new £93.2m signing; a world-record fee at the time.
Together with newly appointed manager José Mourinho, the duo were the crack team tasked with rekindling Utd’s glory days.
It’s safe to say that Pogba – the man Mourinho challenged to be “at the heart of this club for the next decade and beyond” – has failed to live up to Utd’s lofty expectations. During his second spell at the club inconsistent form, injuries and incessant speculation about his future have left much to be desired.
Graeme Le Saux – Chelsea
Having coming through the Chelsea academy, left-back Le Saux established himself in the first team during the 1991/92 season. Despite being lauded over and heralded as a future England international, behind the scenes the youngster cut a tormented figure.
An intellectual type whose broad cultural interests differed from the footballing mainstream, Le Saux struggled to fit in with his teammates. He found himself the victim of “a bullying culture in the dressing room”, with frequent occurrences of homophobic abuse – despite his heterosexuality.
In 1993, after manager Ian Porterfield substituted Le Saux against Southampton, the defender – a ticking time bomb of pent-up frustration – tore off his shirt and threw it at his manager’s feet. He was flogged to Blackburn Rovers for £700,000 soon after.
Pat was the biggest influence on my early professional career both on and off the pitch. He helped give me confidence to know I could be myself and “still” succeed even if I didn’t quite fit in. An accidental mentor, maybe. A great player, an even better person, definitely. https://t.co/h8d3r2vPFF
— Graeme Le Saux (@graemelesaux14) October 20, 2020
Le Saux thrived under Rovers manager Kenny Dalglish, earning a call up to Terry Venables’ England squad in 1994 and excelling as Blackburn were crowned champions of England in 1995.
Two years later Chelsea player-manager Ruud Gullit identified Le Saux as a top target, and the Blues forked out £5m to sign him – the most spent on a defender in England at the time. The Jersey native became a mainstay, appearing 192 times over six seasons and winning the League and Cup Winners’ Cups.
Danny Ings – Southampton
Deemed too slight to make the cut, 10-year-old local lad Ings was released by Southampton in 2003. Five years later, after taking a step back from the sport, the wounded but undeterred striker joined League One Bournemouth.
The plucky forward broke into The Cherries’ first team in 2010, where he was handed his league debut by Eddie Howe – a man he would follow to Burnley in 2011. Ings flourished at Turf Moor, helping The Clarets reach the Premier League and in doing so caught the eye of many a suitor.
Following Burnley’s relegation in 2015, Ings made a sensational switch to Liverpool. Just three days after making his England debut he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury that ruled him out for the remainder of the season. When he returned he was starved of first-team action and rejoined his boyhood club on loan in 2018.
After impressing on loan, The Saints shelled out £20m to make the move permanent. Over the following couple of seasons, Ings proved his ability to score goals, particularly in 2019/20 when he scored 22 in the league – becoming just the third Southampton player to hit 20 goals in a season.
Danny Ings has netted 1️⃣5️⃣ #PL goals this season – only Matt Le Tissier (25 in 93/94 and 19 in 94/95) and James Beattie (23 in 02/03) have scored more for @SouthamptonFC #SOUAVL pic.twitter.com/UsJUhmmVTX
— Premier League (@premierleague) February 22, 2020
Nemanja Matić – Chelsea
Matić had played just three times for Carlo Ancelotti before being shipped out to Blues’ partner club Vitesse Arnhem on loan in 2010. The following season the 23-year-old Serb was deemed surplus to requirements and was used as a makeweight in the £21m deal that took Benfica’s David Luiz in the opposite direction.
Matić excelled in Lisbon, rapidly developing into a fantastic all-round midfielder and helping O Glorioso to the Primeira Liga title in 2014. Under the stewardship of Jorge Jesus, his passing and general playmaking blossomed – adding a new creative dimension to his tireless resolve.
After three outstanding years in Lisbon Matić was coveted by the cream of Europe, including Real Madrid and PSG. Newly reappointed Blues boss José Mourinho – a known admirer – petitioned the Chelsea board to re-sign him.
Happy Birthday, Nemanja Matic! 🎂
Any excuse to watch this again 😍pic.twitter.com/L7wq81T8dB
— Goal (@goal) August 1, 2019
With the big fishes circling Chelsea chiefs decided to bring him back to West London – splashing out to the sum of £21m.
Upon his return, Matić became an essential member of The Blues first-team and a firm fan favourite. He appeared 151 times over the following three and a half seasons, playing a key role in The Pensioners’ title-winning 2014/15 and 2016/17 seasons.