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Didier Drogba could help Roberto Firmino get his’dream transfer’after Liverpool exit



Didier Drogba could help Roberto Firmino get his’dream transfer’after Liverpool exit

‘Never go back’. There is sense to the old adage, though it is one that isn’t always heeded in the footballing world.

Normally when a player or manager returns to former pastures, there is always the fear that a second stint won’t live up to the success of the first. After all, that sentimentality is partly what fuels the desire to return and relive the glory days of yesteryear.

Admittedly, some laugh in the face of such a warning. Liverpool were on the receiving end themselves only 12 months ago when Carlo Ancelotti capped his first season back at Real Madrid by beating them in the Champions League final.

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But playing-wise at least, the initial exit tends to come when a player’s best years are still ahead of them. Departing to take that next step up, they return only if it hasn’t worked out or once they have started to decline.

Due the limited lifespan of a professional footballer at the elite level, it’s understandably rather rare for a player to enjoy his peak years at a club, move on and take a step down, then still have time to return for an Indian summer. Think of any famous returnee, and the aforementioned mitigating circumstances around their return and nearly always likely to apply.

The Reds have a number of examples that fit such a narrative. Ian Rush was 25 when he made his Juventus debut in 1987, following six prolific years at Anfield. He’d return to Liverpool a year later, having failed to settle in Turin, and while he’d still score goals aplenty, he’d win only one league title, two FA Cups, and a League Cup during his eight-year second stint.

Robbie Fowler was 26 when he was forced out to Leeds United, having never wanted to leave the Reds in the first place. Initially joining financially-stricken Leeds United, he was on the move again to Manchester City little over a year later. But now troubled by injuries, he wasn’t the same prolific forward he had been at his peak.

Surprisingly re-signed by Rafa Benitez as a 30-year-old in January 2006, he proved to be a valued squad member for 18 months. But was ultimately nothing more as he navigated veteran status.

Steve Staunton was only 22 when he was sold to Aston Villa in August 1991, having won the league and FA Cup with the Reds. In truth, he was only moved on because he was classed as a foreign player at the time and there was a limit on how many such players a club could field at one time (four). He would return to Anfield on a free transfer in July 1998 at 29 years old, but was back at Villa Park again 18 months later with his second Reds stint nothing to write home about.

Craig Bellamy is perhaps an exception, only in as far as his second stint was more successful than his first, having spent two mixed one-year stints with Liverpool. Aged 27 when first joining his boyhood club, he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Benitez and was moved on after an underwhelming campaign, which saw him turned to less and less as the 2006/07 season wore on, as the Reds made room for Fernando Torres.

Re-signed on a free transfer from Man City in August 2011 by Kenny Dalglish at the age of 32, the Welshman impressed under the Scot, helping Liverpool win the League Cup, before leaving on a free transfer for hometown club Cardiff City.

Meanwhile, while Michael Owen never re-joined the Reds after leaving for Real Madrid in the summer of 2004, despite countless attempts, you only need to look at how the rest of his career transpired to see that he too would have been very much on the decline.

So lesson learnt. As much as it’s sentimental and nostalgic, and might make you feel warm inside, never go back.

Which is perhaps why eyebrows were raised when Roberto Firmino, now 31, suggested that he could actually return to Liverpool one day, as a player no less. The Brazilian marked his final Anfield appearance with a last-minute equaliser against Aston Villa on Saturday, ahead of leaving at the end of his contract this summer.

And speaking to journalists ahead of a final home outing for the Reds, he would tease a potential return.

“It is time, unfortunately,” he said when asked about his decision to leave, having fallen down the pecking order at Anfield. “The cycle here is ended and I understand it is time to go.

“Maybe one day I could come back, I don’t know, but it’s time to go. Come back as a coach? Maybe! You never say never. I don’t know what is going to happen with my future. It might be to play, you never know.”

It remains to be seen where Firmino ends up next, having been linked with clubs in Spain, Italy, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Either way, having scored 110 goals in eight seasons at Anfield, winning every major honour on offer to him, wherever the Brazilian goes next, it will be a step down.

Jurgen Klopp admitted back in March that, having wanted the forward to sign a new contract, he had been caught off-guard when the 31-year-old told him he would be moving on. Yet, having fallen behind Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo in the pecking order, no-one will begrudge Firmino the opportunity to play more regularly elsewhere.

After all, as James Milner said of his own imminent Liverpool exit, having discussed a possible coaching role at Anfield: “It would be a shame to stop when you’ve still got a bit of life in you.” With regards to Firmino, it seems it would be a shame to give up on starting regularly when you’ve still got a bit of life in you.

But perhaps this is what makes his suggestion of a Reds return not as ridiculous as you might first think. Aged 31, Liverpool have certainly enjoyed the Brazilian’s best years, but he is still young enough to be first-choice elsewhere. But maybe in a few years’ time, when at that next stage of his career and ‘ready’ to accept a back-up role, a second Reds stint could suit both parties.

It worked for Didier Drogba at Chelsea, after all. The Ivorian was 34 when he left Stamford Bridge the first time, joining Shanghai Shenhua on a free transfer in May 2012, before enjoying 18 months with Galatasaray.

First-choice for both, he would return to Chelsea as a 36-year-old on a free transfer in July 2014, enjoying a respectable enough campaign as a squad option. Registering seven goals and two assists from 40 appearances, he would start 14 times as the Londoners won the Premier League and League Cup.

Gianluigi Buffon is also a famous veteran returnee, having enjoyed two stints with Juventus. Having enjoyed a hugely-successful 17-year stint in Turin, he moved to Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 40 in July 2018. Yet he was back with the Old Lady 12 months later, going on to enjoy two seasons as the most experienced of understudies to Wojciech Szczesny. Winning Serie A and the Coppa Italia, he would depart again in June 2021.

Of course, Firmino’s hints and teases are spoken now at the most emotional of times as he gets ready to move on after eight years on Merseyside. It’s a raw feeling, filled with sentiment and nostalgia, and an exit no-one is ready for. It’s always hard to say goodbye, but once that step out the exit door is taken, perhaps things will be seen differently.

“Nothing is forever, that’s how it is,” Klopp would remind reporters when discussing Firmino’s exit last week. But nothing is impossible either.

The current role Liverpool have for the Brazilian might not suit the 31-year-old, but who’s to say it won’t in the future? Yes, he would be older and past his best, with regular starts still not on offer, but both player and club would be on the same page at such a hypothetical junction.

If an Anfield return makes sense for both parties, Firmino might still get his dream transfer yet. Never mind, ‘never go back’. After the forward’s little hint of a return, let’s stick with ‘never say never’ instead.


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