“Never go back!”, that’s what they say – whether that’s in career, business or in your private life. Yet over the years a number of Sunderland players have had the chance to return to the club after a period away - some have grabbed the chance, others have turned it down and one or two might have returned despite not really wanting to.
The last player to return to the club for a second time was, of course Grant Leadbitter. For much of his second spell he has looked like the footballer who many feared we would be getting – off the pace and past his best. However, this season, he has looked invigorated and determined to overcome the disappointments and difficulties on and off the pitch.
Leadbitter is a fine player and clearly has the respect of the squad and management so let’s hope that this Indian summer continues for a while yet and ends successfully through making his second spell a memorable one.
Grant is certainly not the first former player to return to the club when at the wrong end of his career. Paul Bracewell and Pop Robson both did it – twice in fact and with great success.
Robson’s first spell between 1974-1976 yielded 34 goals in 90 games and ended with a Second Division (the Championship in the modern game) winners medal. He then made a successful return after a two-year break and netted a further 23 in 52 on the way to achieving a second promotion before becoming a key player in the survival of 1980/81.
Robson then signed for a third time in 1983 and contributed to another top flight survival campaign. The “never go back” mantra clearly never applied to Pop, so much so he even returned as a coach and then scout with great success – he was one of the best finishers we have had in the last fifty years as well as being a great coach.
Similarly, Paul Bracewell’s best years were with Everton but his move to Merseyside came as a result of an outstanding first spell at Sunderland during the 1983/84 season. His return in 1989 came after an injury nightmare that meant he didn’t kick a football for around eighteen months, but it was a hugely successful second stint at Sunderland that included a promotion, a heart-breaking relegation and a cup final.
After three years away somewhere else, Brace had a third spell and guess what? Promotion and heart-breaking relegation. What a player Bracewell was though and thank goodness he came back - twice.
Going back hasn’t always worked out for the best. When Roy Keane signed George McCartney for an eye-popping fee that was reported to be around the £8 million mark, it was hoped that he would find the form that we saw during his time under Mick McCarthy and which he had showed at West Ham.
Alas, it was an injury ravaged and hugely frustrating return. George should have never come back and I wish that he didn’t. He did however go back to West Ham for a second spell and did nothing there either.
Michael Bridges is another who came back a shadow of the player he was in his first spell. Who will forget the Bridges of between 1997 and 1999? Who will remember the Bridges of 2004/06? I wish I couldn’t. It was such a shame that at what should have been his peak - injuries had finished him. The first version of Bridges was a wonderful footballer and it was sad to see how he had diminished in such a few short years as a result of those injuries.
In the case of Fabio Borini, the Italian’s two spells on Wearside were symptomatic of a mad time for the club, a time of waste and excess. An expensive signing on huge wages who showed good quality in his first spell on loan, but after signing permanently his heart was still at Liverpool.
We chased Fabio like a love-struck teenager after the prettiest girl in the class, but he clearly didn’t want to sign at the Stadium of Light. Fast forward twelve months, when all other options had expired, and we either paid him well over the odds or someone at Liverpool told him some harsh truths, probably both.
The Borini of the second spell, other than for a dozen games under Allardyce, was a moody shadow of the player we had previously seen in red and white. He should never have come back, and we should have given up asking well before he caved.
Then there are the legends - those who might have returned but for one reason or another didn’t. I am thinking Dave Watson, Dennis Tueart, Colin Todd and Kevin Phillips. Four players who were true stars of their time, England Internationals who were brilliant for Sunderland and the clubs they subsequently went on to play for.
Alan Durban tried to sign Todd, Tueart and Watson at the end of their careers. Would they have been a success? Who knows – they were still very good players but they were certainly well beyond their peak. As so often the case is with Sunderland, it was money which prevented us finding out. It would have undoubtedly added some fun and star quality to Durban’s steady eddies and I for one wish that they had returned.
With Kevin Phillips it was different – he decided not to come. He decided that he didn’t want to come back, and he heeded the message to “never go back”. We would have loved him, but would it have been the same? It could never have been the same, mainly due to his likely partner Daryl Murphy, not being Niall Quinn. But that season we charged to promotion under Roy Keane and it was brilliant – but how much better could it have been if Super Kev had returned to lead the way? I wish that he had.
Let’s hope that Grant Leadbitter in his own quiet and professional way can help take the club one step back up the ladder. Now that would be a great ending to a fantastic career and proof that the message to “never go back” isn’t always true.