As Killian Mbappé hit PSG’s second goal to seal victory over Manchester United, flares illuminated 3,500 French fans cavorting in the away section at Old Trafford, many of them topless.
I could contain myself no longer and cheered wildly, which is a major mistake if you are a Frenchman forced to sit in the Stretford End for a big Champions League game.
Several Mancunians looked on sternly, and the guy next to me asked ‘Who do think you are?’ I casually pretended to have had a £50 bet on Mbappé scoring the second.
‘Why am I not with them?’ I thought, gazing at the massed ranks of PSG supporters raucously enjoying one of the best nights of their lives.
After all, I had paid £150 for my seat, so having to keep quiet as my team ran out 2-0 first-leg winners – over Man Utd! Away from home! – was a frustrating experience.
Still, what a night…
Arriving at Old Trafford, smoke bombs and firecrackers were going off everywhere and an enormous cloud of red smoke rose into the air.
Determined to attend the game, I knew my expensive seat wasn’t in with the away fans, but my heart still skipped a beat when I realised it was in the midst of United’s most hardcore followers.
I was a little nervous, but the excitement levels on my first visit to the Theatre of Dreams trumped all else.
‘How you doing?’ asked the guy next to me. I smiled and tried not to sound too French, and although I pretended to be on their side, the fans sitting around me quickly saw through this flimsy deception.
As the players emerged from the tunnel and the Champions League anthem blasted through the stands, I hadshivers up and down my spine.
I opened my eyes and ears wide and tried to record all the images and senses as a souvenir of the occasion.
The fans, their chants and songs, the roars, the cheers and boos — there is no better place to watch a game than Old Trafford.
Over in the away section, the Parisian commitment was huge, and the drumbeats of war could be heard. It was tribal, electrifying, a non-stop assault on the senses.
A few minutes before kick-off, the knot in my stomach served as a reminder of the game’s importance, and I joined in with the Mancunian applause as the announcer hyped up the home crowd.
‘The feeling of remaining discrete, whilst observing your team dominate at Old Trafford, surrounded by thousands of Manchester United fans, was very satisfying’
As the match got underway and both teams dared to play, the United fans never stoppedcheering their team on. Although I was with the ‘enemy’, I could not help being swept away with the camaraderie.
After a well-balanced first half, where both side played really good football, PSG central defender Presnel Kimpembe scored to give the French giants the lead.
It was the first time I had gone to see PSG play and not be able to cheer them freely but, in a strange way, it was unexpectedly enjoyable.
The feeling of remaining discrete, whilst observing your team dominate at Old Trafford, surrounded by thousands of Manchester United fans, was very satisfying.
As the optimism of the home fans – buoyed by their team’s great run under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – began to evaporate, insults greeted every period of PSG possession.
The Stretford End also had an old score to settle with former United player Angel Di Maria, and the PSG midfielder was booed to the rafters as the mood soured.
On the other side of Old Trafford, scarfs were being swung as PSG songs rang around the famous old stadium.
The excitement among the Parisian hordes was palpable, with everybody hugging each other and sweeping away the gloomy atmosphere created by the English fans.
As the final whistle sounded, a huge smile crossed my face. I clenched my fists – discretely, of course – and felt relieved. Whilst every PSG player honoured the support of their fans, I sat down and admired their excitement, feeling left out and envious.
To remedy that feeling, I joined some of my fellow PSG supporters outside Old Trafford. While the youngest yawned and rubbed their eyes, the older Parisians’ enthusiasm and elation resonated through the grey suburbs of Manchester.
A significant number of them returned to the city centre to continue their celebrations, and the remainder of the evening promised to be an exciting one…
In terms of pure spectacle, this had nothing on Manchester United’s trip to the Emirates at the weekend.
Nevertheless, sandwiched between that 3-1 over Arsenal and this Sunday’s Manchester derby, securing United’s qualification to the Champions’ League knockout stages for the first time since 2014 would likely still have been the top priority for Jose Mourinho.
CSKA posed much more of a challenge at Old Trafford than they had at home back in September, when they were hammered 4-1, but United had to come from behind at Old Trafford to ensure they will finish top of Group F.
A two-minute salvo from Romelu Lukaku and the superb Marcus Rashford proved enough to maintain their 100% home record this season, and send the Russian side into the Europa League.
Rashford only spent a minute or two on the pitch against Arsenal on Saturday, and the rest watching on with likely mixed emotions as good mate Jesse Lingard notched a brace to stake his claim for a starting spot at home against City. After this display, it will be a proverbial selection migraine for Mourinho against the Blues.
The 20-year-old striker was at his scintillating best against Moscow, beating the usually robust pairing of Vasili Berezutskiy and Sergey Ignashevich almost at will and acting as the spearhead of United’s attack despite the presence of his £85m partner.
It was Rashford who sparked the game into life in the third minute, racing onto a through ball from Lukaku before striking the foot of the post with Igor Akinfeev in the Moscow goal well beaten.
Ten minutes later, he forced the keeper into a smart save down to his left after being teed up by Juan Mata.
It was then time for another young Englishman to come close to breaking the deadlock.
‘It took United a while to get going again after the restart, but when they finally kicked into gear, they blew CSKA away’
Luke Shaw, something of a forgotten man at Old Trafford after a seemingly never-ending battle with injuries (and at times, his own manager), came close to marking his first start in over 200 days with a sumptuous goal when he met Antonio Valencia’s cross on the volley, only to be denied by an impressive reflex stop from Akinfeev.
The rebound fell at the feet of Lukaku, but it didn’t even seem to surprise the Old Trafford faithful when the Belgian striker could only find Akinfeev’s gloves from a couple of yards out.
As half-time approached, it was time for United to receive a dose of the medicine they had given to Arsenal at the weekend. CSKA had created very little in the first half, but they caught Shaw napping to play Mario Fernandes in down the right side, who picked out Vitinho on the edge of the box with his pull-back.
The Brazilian struck at goal, but despite his best efforts to get out of the way the ball hit Alan Dzagoev, standing in what appeared to be an offside position, before nestling in the corner of the net.
Even the CSKA players took a moment before celebrating, but the decision was indeed the correct one as Daley Blind, who had slid off the pitch in an attempt to block the initial cross, was playing Dzagoev onside.
Like London buses
It took United a while to get going again after the restart, but when they finally kicked into gear, they blew CSKA away.
In truth, Paul Pogba wholly underwhelmed in his final game before beginning a three-match suspension after being sent off at Arsenal.
However, he did offer the fans a glimpse of what they’ll be missing for the 64th minute equaliser, chipping an inch-perfect ball into the path of Lukaku, who easily held off Vasin before poking a volley past the stranded Akinfeev to level the score.
There are some United supporters who are yet to fully warm to the big Belgian, but his decision to immediately grab the ball out of the net and run back to kick-off United’s search for a winner, in lieu of any celebration, goes firmly along with the philosophy of the club and should be noted.
And so it was that just a minute later, there was a reason to celebrate for United.
Moscow, still scrambling after the first goal, failed to clear a hopeful long ball, and Mata showed his flair for the creative by chesting and volleying a perfectly weighted through ball into the path of the rampant Rashford, who buried his left-footed strike into the far corner to complete the comeback.
Most would expect the away support to be disgruntled, watching their side throw away a lead in a little under three minutes, but the Moscow fans instead whipped off their shirts in unison.
Maybe they were making a point about it being positively tropical compared to what they are used to in Moscow. Brave but a bit pointless.
After making six changes to his side for the game, Mourinho declared himself pleased with the performance.
“In the second half, we had that strong reaction, we really didn’t want to lose the match and I think the boys played professionally. I was pleased with the attitude of the players. They had pride to play.”
But despite securing qualification ahead of second-placed FC Basel, Mourinho refused to speculate on the identity of United’s last-16 opponent, instead saying he wanted to “shut up and forget about it”.
“I think it doesn’t matter which team we get in the draw – I don’t think that team will be jumping with happiness to play against us.”
Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.
The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.
To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.
Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.
After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.
But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.
Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.
“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.
“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.
“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”
For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.
Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.
Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.
“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.
“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.
Now 20, andan important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.
Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.
The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.
The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.
“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.
“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.
“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.
“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”
Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.
Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.
“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”
Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.
Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.
Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?
As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.
“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”
“Tottenham at home. We all know what Tottenham is about, they are nice and tidy but we’ll f*cking do them,’’ said Roy Keane, back in the days when he, Scholes, Beckham and Co. would ensure that Spurs wouldn’t even see the ball on their annual Old Trafford trip, let alone have it long enough to do anything with.
This season was different as Spurs saw too much of the ball, if anything, and still didn’t know what do to when they had it.
Tottenham helped themselves to over 60% possession, which may come to a surprise to some but in reality this is a regular thing for Pochettino’s side. The North Londoners have out-possessed all but two of their opponents so far this season but often lack ruthlessness in the final third.
Passing was again the theme and for all the 429 passes they attempted, over double that of United, it was one simple, piercing ball by Ander Herrera that breached the Spurs backline and unleashed Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The way Danny Rose and Kyle Walker maraud forward as wide midfielders is indispensable to the way Spurs build their attacks.
But for all the undoubted positives this entails comes one fatal negative, as Spurs found out when Harry Kane gave the ball away in the middle of the park, leaving Rose helpless halfway up the pitch.
Mkhitaryan was allowed a clear run through on goal and two touches later the ball was in the back of the net. One measured touch to take it into his stride, and another to lash home high into Hugo Lloris’ goal, and a reminder to Spurs that £26m can actually buy you a half-decent winger.
“Christian Eriksen’s bad spells seem to last longer now, whilst Spurs fans have waited three years to see the best of £26m man Erik Lamela, and are still waiting”
Spending wisely has been a problem at White Hart Lane for a number of years now. With the absurd amount of cash floating around in the Premier League, Spurs have used their budget about as sensibly as the Greek government did.
Even with the second best defence in the league and the rare luxury of having a 20-goal-a-year striker in Kane, Tottenham still look short compared to their competitors.
And that is down to the inconsistency, as the attacking midfielders who support Kane blow hot and cold far too often. None more than Heung Min Son, whose overall game was epitomised at Old Trafford.
He had two shots of note, one fierce left-footed drive from 25 yards that was well tipped over by De Gea, and the other cutting in from a promising wide left position, as well as having other options, blazed high and wide into the Stretford end, a stark contrast. He was then hauled off just shy of the hour mark.
If Son was in those box of chocolates Forrest Gump was referring to, he’d be the exclusively wrapped up one, with little to no chance of knowing what your going to get. But to single out the South Korean would be harsh.
Christian Eriksen’s bad spells seem to last longer now, whilst Spurs fans have waited three years to see the best of £26m man Erik Lamela, and are still waiting. Record summer signing Moussa Sissoko has failed to make the matchday squad at times this season, let alone warrant a place in the starting XI.
“The sun set over Manchester and as the light started to fade, so did Spurs’ chances of getting anything out of the game”
Tottenham’s flair players are too timid and patient, so it was no surprise to see them prancing around the edge of the United box, creating the impression that something promising was about to happen. It didn’t.
The one time Dele Alli managed to break through late on, like a man shot of confidence, he cut back, stalled, and the chance was inevitably squandered.
United manager Jose Mourinho was animated and agitated simultaneously, like a harried wedding photographer haplessly ordering for everyone to squeeze in the picture that bit more.
Pochettino appeared calmer on the touchline which could have only been his very best poker face, as he would have been far from impressed at what his team were producing in the final third.
The Argentine spent a lot of time motionless scratching his chin, like we all used to do back in school to gain more time attempting to answer a teacher’s question.
He had the look of a man who knew he had three defenders and Georges-Kevin N’koudou to choose from to somehow change the game around.
“In many ways it was indicative of Spurs season; plenty of huff and puff but not enough to break the door down”
Plus Sissoko, who must have fancied it in training this week, as Pochettino brought him on to run at makeshift left-back Matteo Darmian who looked about as convincing as those Walls of Jericho.
Wladimir Klitschko was present in the crowd and the Italian looked like he’d just gone 12 rounds with him as he was beaten on a number of occasions, but Spurs lacked the conviction to land a knockout blow.
The sun set over Manchester and as the light started to fade, so did Spurs’ chances of getting anything out of the game.
Paul Pogba berated Marcos Rojo like a strict father for going to retrieve the ball for De Gea after winning a free kick deep inside his own half late on. Gone were the days where United would go for the kill but they knew they had done enough to blunt Spurs here.
In only three of their last 13 games have the North London side scored more than a single goal, so limiting them to scraps was not one of the world’s toughest of tasks.
In many ways it was indicative of Spurs season; plenty of huff and puff but not enough to break the door down. Rose claimed afterwards that they are ‘still in third gear compared to last season’.
Spurs have to start delivering over the Christmas period as they are already 10 points off the league leaders Chelsea.
Manchester United’s Sean Goss remains content to bide his time and wait for the opportunity to impress Jose Mourinho.
The central midfielder, 20, has been at United since signing from Exeter City as a 16 year-old and despite being named in previous match day squads for the first team, is still yet to make his competitive debut.
But having recovered from a serious back injury that sidelined him for almost 12 months, Goss is focused first and foremost on regaining his fitness, before pushing for a place in Mourinho’s thinking.
“I’ve only just got back fit, I’ve been out for a year and I’m still on the road to recovery,” Goss told Elephant Sport.
“I had two fractures in my back and I’ve been out since last December. I played my first match [a few weeks ago], so I’m just concentrating on getting a few games under my belt and see where it takes me from there.”
A footballer’s lifestyle might not often be described as ‘back-breaking’, however an accumulation of stresses and strains will soon mount up for a top-level athlete.
As is often the case, the road to recovery can be a long and arduous one.
“Van Gaal really helped my game and pushed me forward”
Describing his frustration at the injury Goss explained: “[The fractures] happened over time.
“I woke up and could hardly move, so I had tests, and then three months where I wasn’t allowed to do anything, I just had to recover. No gym, no swimming, no training or anything, which is hard, as you don’t know what to do with yourself.
“You’re watching games and you just want to be playing, so that was another big test. I had the time off and then when I got back I had to slowly build up with injections and that kind of thing.
“Hopefully now that’s the end of it.”
Prior to his ill-timed injury, the Devon-born youngster had made big strides towards staking a claim for a spot within United’s first team.
Having signed whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was in his final years at the helm, Goss had seen David Moyes come and swiftly leave before Louis Van Gaal arrived.
Fresh from leading the Netherlands to a World Cup semi-final, Van Gaal set about building a competitive, yet youthful Manchester United team.
The Dutchman’s move from orange to red proved fruitful for Goss who feels that the former Barcelona manager helped to raise the levels of his game nearer to that of a Manchester United first team player.
“Obviously I was younger when Sir Alex Ferguson was here. You’d see him around, as you would all the managers.
“But the main one when I started to push on was Van Gaal, he really helped my game and pushed me forward.
“He was always communicating with me in some way, whether I was playing for the under 23’s or if I was in and around the [first team] squad. If I was training with them they were always letting me know how I was getting on, what I could do better.”
“I was just at that age as well where, with the other ones before I was maybe a bit young in my body, but I think that was the time [under Van Gaal] where I was turning into a man.”
In fact, Van Gaal rated Goss so highly that he took the left-footed midfielder on the club’s pre-season tour of the USA in 2015.
Despite drawing comparisons to Michael Carrick in terms of playing style, it might have been easy to presume that Goss was there to make up the numbers; taken along to gain experience.
However there was to be a fairy-tale ending, as Van Gaal introduced Goss as a second-half substitute during the friendly with Paris Saint-Germain, handing him his first team debut.
To add a further poetic element to the moment, it was Carrick who made way for the debutant.
Recalling the mixture of nerves and excitement, Goss explains; “You dream of making your debut but it’s hard to explain how it was.
“You’re there training and you hope you get your chance but when it finally happens you’re just concentrating on the game. It was a big crowd in a big stadium as well so it was a dream come true.
“He [Van Gaal] said I would get my chance. I just remember being sat there on the bench and getting told to warm up.
“It’s almost as if your stomach drops and your heart skips a beat for a second, but it was quality.”
Upon returning from the USA, Goss continued to be involved in Van Gaal’s first team environment, making the match day squad for the trip to Watford in the league and travelling with the squad for the Champions League tie away at Wolfsburg.
“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day’”
United scored in the last minute to defeat the Hornets 2-1 at Vicarage Road and whilst being an unused sub, the experience was of vital importance to Goss.
Sitting alongside him on the bench that day was Marcus Rashford, who would later go on to make his breakthrough for club and country, whilst Jesse Lingard and Paddy McNair made sizeable contributions on the pitch.
All three had been peers of Goss before being given their breaks by Van Gaal and at the time, the left footed Devon man hoped he might follow suit.
Whilst many Utd fans believed the time was right for Van Gaal to leave at the end of last season, for Goss there was a feeling of what might have been.
“I felt like you never know what could happen. There were a few injuries in the squad at the time, but it’s hard to say, as I never got to as I was injured.
“But you saw that other players came through and made appearances, so you’d be hoping that I would have been one of them.
“I was on the bench at Watford and then travelled to Wolfsburg with the squad. Again, when you get told you’re involved it’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s another amazing experience I can look back on and hopefully I can get more of them.”
Goss has been working towards his first team breakthrough ever since making the move from Exeter City in 2012.
A boyhood United fan, he had previously been the mascot for the Grecians’ memorable FA Cup third round draw at Old Trafford, whilst dreaming of stepping out at the ‘theatre of dreams’ as a player.
“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day,’” he said.
“But it’s only when you’re older you look back and realise it’s near enough impossible [to sign for Manchester United]. To get the chance is quality and looking back I never expected it.
“There were tough times… but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard”
“I started at Exeter when I was about seven or eight and played a year up for most of my time, until under 16s. I had a few chances with the youth team and then I was lucky enough to get a trial with United.
“I went up [to Manchester] and played a couple of games. I went to Amsterdam and played against some big teams like Ajax, Barcelona and AC Milan.
“After that I was lucky enough to get signed and joined when I was 16.
“It was tough, the first year especially. You’re only young, 16, moving away from home and it’s not like it’s just around the corner either. There were tough times where I felt a bit homesick but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard.
“The coaches are a big help; you get the welfare officer and coaches. When you’re a first-year scholar you’re not really near the first team, usually just the youth team and reserves, but the coaches were a big help if you ever needed some time off.”
Class of ’92
Amongst the coaches who helped Goss to settle were members of the famed ‘Class of ’92’.
Along with the likes of Warren Joyce, who recently left the club to become manager of Wigan Athletic, and senior members of the first team playing squad, the young players at Carrington could depend on a strong support network.
“They were all really good with us, every single one of them.” Said Goss.
“We had Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes for the Champions League [UEFA Youth League], which was always helpful, especially with the experience they’ve had at the club. I think you always need someone like that who’s had history with the club.
“You can go up and talk to any of them, there’s no big egos. Everyone’s human at the end of the day, if you wanted to chat to anyone they’re more than happy to help you out.”
Mourinho has historically favoured experience over youth throughout his career and not many people would be able to argue against the Portuguese’s policy given his medal haul.
But at a club such as Manchester United, whose homegrown players have been a major part of the club’s sustained success, there is an expectancy amongst the supporters that they see their ‘own’ players on the pitch.
Whether or not Mourinho sticks around long enough to give youth a chance remains to be seen. For players like Goss the key will be hard work and patience.
Many Liverpool fans were hoping against hope that club icon Steven Gerrard might have one last hurrah at Anfield after leaving MLS club LA Galaxy.
Gerrard, 36, opted to end his playing career last week, but may one day return to Liverpool in another role – possibly as a coach and potential manager?
For a footballer, leaving the club where you are seen as a legend is an incredibly hard decision, but the chance to return as a player or manager can be an even bigger one.
Remind everyone why you became a hero in the first place, or ruin your reputation; which way will it fall?
Here are five of those who did it best:
5 – Graeme Le Saux – Chelsea
Graeme Le Saux’s first spell at Chelsea ended in anger but the second was glorious.
Le Saux was the most expensive defender in England at the time at £5m – a far cry from the £30m Chelsea recently paid for David Luiz to return to the club after a £50million move to PSG two years earlier – when he returned after a controversial first spell in west London.
In 1993 Le Saux was a regular starter at Stamford Bridge, but rarely lasted the whole match, and when he was taken off at Southampton, it proved too much for him to take and he ripped off his shirt in disgust, throwing it on the feet of manager Ian Portfield.
The defender was soon on his way to Blackburn Rovers, where in his first full season, he helped them win the Premier League title and became an England regular.
In 1997 he returned to Chelsea, making him English football’s most expensive defender and in the next three years, they won the FA Cup, League Cup, Cup winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup.
Leaving Chelsea as the “villain” for showing disrespect to the manager was tough enough, but returning to the club that sold you after your misdemeanours is a risk Le Saux took and evidently it paid off.
4 – Thierry Henry – Arsenal
When Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry left for Barcelona in 2007, after eight years, 245 appearances and 174 goals, a huge part of his heart remained in north London.
So in some ways it was no surprise when five years later he returned to train with the team, and, inevitably, play for them again.
By then Henry was playing for MLS side New York Red Bulls, and during their 2012 off-season, he trained with the Gunners to keep in shape.
But when they suffered an injury crisis, manager Arsene Wenger looked to his former talisman and he signed a two-month loan deal. ‘King’ Henry was back.
He made four appearances and scored twice; the first came in his debut when he scored the winner goal in an FA Cup tie against Leeds.
His last ever Gunners goal came in his final match under Wenger – again, the winner, in injury time for a 2-1 triumph at Sunderland. No wonder there is a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium.
Henry is now Belgium’s assistant manager and a pundit on Sky Sports. Many Arsenal fans would love to see him succeed Wenger as manager one day. Is another hero’s return too much to ask for?
3 – Ian Rush – Liverpool
Ian Rush’s 346 goals in two spells at Liverpool make him the club’s all-time record goalscorer. At his peak in the 1980s, there was no-one to rival him in English football.
Having won four league titles and two European Cups in six years with the Reds, in 1987 Rush left to join Serie A giants Juventus. It did not go well, with just seven goals in 29 appearances for the Italians.
Loaned back to Liverpool for the second year of his Juventus contract, Rush’s Midas touch returned, as he scored 30 goals in 42 matches.
A permanent return home was just a matter of time, and the Welsh striker spent another eight seasons at Anfield, making 245 more appearances and adding a further 90 goals. During this time he also won another league title, two FA Cups and became their record goalscorer.
A legend? Unquestionably.
2 – Didier Drogba – Chelsea
Didier Drogba was not just a legend as a player; over two spells at Chelsea, he helped change the history of his club.
His first spell, after joining from Marseille in 2004, saw Chelsea win their first league title in 50 years, in his debut season.
Another Premier League title followed the next year, setting up a glorious era in which he became the first ever player to score in four different FA Cup finals, as well as the first African player to score 100 Premier League goals. But nothing compared to how he signed off his first stint at the club.
His 88th minute equaliser in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in Munich, took the game to extra time and then penalties. And who scored the winner? Drogba, of course.
When he left that summer to join Chinese league side Shanghai Shenhua, after eight years, 226 appearances, 100 goals and eight trophies, a fan poll by Chelsea’s official club magazine saw the Ivorian named as the club’s best-ever player.
Supporters probably thought they would never see his like again. They were wrong.
Drogba’s stint in China was short-lived, and soon he was playing for Galatasaray in Turkey, where he added the 2013 Turkish Super Cup to his medal collection.
The following year, he was back at the Bridge, signing a one-year contract for manager Jose Mourinho – like Drogba, enjoying his second spell at Chelsea.
Drogba managed four more goal in 28 appearances, before announcing that the final game of the season against Sunderland would be his last for the club.
After half an hour, he had to come off injured, but rather than limping off, he was chaired off the field by his team-mates. Now that’s a stylish exit.
The success Drogba enjoyed in his first spell at Chelsea meant that coming back for a second time he had to be as good, if not better than he was previously. Undoubtedly, he was a good playing an integral part in saving Chelsea’s season and thats why he is second.
1 – Paul Scholes – Manchester United
An increasingly rare one-club man, Paul Scholes’ 466 appearances for Manchester United over 17 years make him one of the modern greats.
In his testimonial match in August 2011, the midfielder signed off with a 25-yard finish, showing that even though he was retiring, he had still not lost his touch and he could have played on for a while yet. But no-one expected that he would actually do so.
Five months later, with United going through an uncharacteristic rough patch, he was back, making his ‘second debut’ by coming on to score in the Manchester derby, and also finding the net in his first start second time around.
He was persuaded to sign another one year contract extension, keeping him at United until the end of the following season, and retired for good at the end of the 2012-13 season – fittingly, picking up a yellow card in his farewell match. Well, he never was much of a tackler…
His total of 25 major trophies makes him the most decorated English footballer of all time, and he is now co-owner of Salford City FC, a coach at United and a pundit on BT Sport.
The fact that Scholes completely retired from football before returning to top level football looking fitter than ever, makes his comeback the greatest of all.
Marcus Rashford’s flying start to his Manchester United career has made headlines but also prompted words of caution from many football fans.
The 18-year-old attacking midfielder, a product of United’s famed academy, hit two goals on his surprise debut in the Europa League tie against Danish side Mydjaelland and followed up with another brace as United beat title hopefuls Arsenal 3-2 just three days later.
The media are already hyping him as one of Europe’s brightest young talents alongside the likes of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Mahmoud Dahoud, Alessio Romagnoli, Daniel Rugani, Paul Pogba and Harry Kane.
But Rashford, and those advising him, would do well to remember the story of another Old Trafford prospect.
In April 2009, a little-known Italian named Federico Macheda made his debut for United against Aston Villa, coming on for Nani after 60 minutes.
‘The new Ronaldo’
The 17-year-old had his shooting boots on that day, and his curling effort in the dying seconds of the match secured all three points for the hosts. The goal itself was poetry in motion.
“Macheda is simply no longer on the radar of most football fans”
A new star had seemingly been born, with many Red Devils fans proclaiming they had the new Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks.
Fast forward six years, and Macheda is now at Cardiff City, who signed him on a free transfer after his release by United in 2014.
He never lived up to the early promise of that dazzling Old Trafford debut and was loaned out to various clubs including QPR, Doncaster Rovers and Birmingham City.
An unused substitute in the Bluebirds’ recent win over Preston North End, Macheda is simply no longer on the radar of most football fans.
So where did it go wrong for the player known as ‘Kiko’?
He certainly had the talent, and then was given his chance to shine alongside team-mates such as Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Ryan Giggs, Edwin van der Sar and Patrice Evra.
And, of course, the man who trusted in him to make the most of that opportunity was legendary former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
In footballing terms, Macheda was blessed with electric pace, outstanding shooting ability and trickery on the ball, all capped off with the smart presence of Ronaldo who, six years his senior, he looked up to on and off the pitch.
But he didn’t seize his chance, nor realise the luck that was surrounding him at the time.
From Ronaldo he only seemed to be willing to copy the looks, the cars and the success with women – not the hard graft, dedication, self-belief and ambition of the Portuguese.
Macheda appeared to start believing the hype surrounding him after his burst onto the scene and did not keep working hard enough.
“For ‘Kiko’ Macheda, meanwhile, there will always be an acute sense of what might have been”
And while Ronaldo soon left for Real Madrid and the Bernabéu, his protege eventually ended up at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium.
He also had loan spells at more prestigious clubs including Sampdoria and VfB Stuttgart, but never did enough to impress, always heading back to Manchester where his future looked increasingly less bright.
Perhaps you’d expect Macheda to at least make the difference in Wales? Well don’t because his appearances in manager Russell Slade’s Cardiff starting XI are sporadic.
How would his career have turned out if he hadn’t he beaten Brad Friedel with that strike in April 2009? Would he have been given the time to mature? Would he have fared better away from the spotlight?
“If he starts thinking ‘job done’, he will go down the same road as Macheda and be languishing at a lesser club before long”
Nobody will ever know. Perhaps when you grace your debut with a stunning winner and are embraced by Cristiano Ronaldo in front of 60,000 adoring fans, it’s hard not to believe you’ve already made it.
Time will tell whether Manchester-born Rashford has the strength of character to go with his talent, and if he can avoid the many pitfalls that lay in wait for talented young footballers.
His manager Louis van Gaal said: “Youngsters often play well in the first match. The second is different. Marcus played well in both, so he is a special talent.”
For ‘Kiko’ Macheda, meanwhile, there will always be an acute sense of what might have been.
He will turn 25 in August, and at this point a reversal of fortunes in his career seems unlikely. Seven years marked by backward steps have gone by since that never-to-be forgotten debut.
With the thrills sometimes come the spills, and Macheda’s rapid rise and fall should serve as a warning to Rashford.
Is his a Wayne Rooney-like career in the making or a Macheda-like one? It can go either way for Rashford. He is the GPS of his own destiny.
If he starts thinking ‘job done’, he will go down the same road as Macheda and be languishing at a lesser club before long.
What another waste of talent that would be. United fans will know better than to get ahead of themselves this time.
Image courtesy of Apasciuto courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons