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May 30, 2014

Comeback Kings

Given talk that Rio Ferdinand could try to revive his career in the Premier League, we take a look at some other players everyone thought were finished but who came back to prove them wrong.

10. John Terry

There was always a sense that John Terry's all-action, put-his-head-where-most-wouldn't-put-their-feet style would come back to bite him in the latter part of his career and the injuries he played through would inevitably take their toll. In 2012-13, it very much looked like that had happened, when assorted knocks and scrapes, combined with Rafa Benitez's caution and love of rotation, limited his appearances severely. However, Terry seemed revived by the return of Jose Mourinho, and not only did he play 34 league games for Chelsea last term, but he also formed the heart of the best defence in the Premier League, with all those injuries seemingly behind him.

9. David Beckham

Most of the players on this list are here because someone else thought they were finished and they came back, but in David Beckham's case, it was he, rather than a manager, who appeared to give up. After Fabio Capello became Real Madrid manager, he largely left Beckham out of his side in the early part of the 2006-07 season, which was part of the reason the midfielder's contract negotiations broke down and he instead signed to join the LA Galaxy. Capello froze Beckham out after that deal, with Real president Ramon Calderon stating Beckham was "going to Hollywood to be half a film star," but after some impressive and professional performances in training, Beckham was welcomed back. In fact, not only was he re-selected, but he also formed a pivotal part of the side that won perhaps the most unlikely of Real's 32 league titles. The Spanish club then went as far as to attempt to prevent Beckham's move to America, but such overtures were swiftly rejected by the MLS, which was already counting the dollars.

8. Gordon Strachan

Although Gordon Strachan's sale by Sir Alex Ferguson was partly influenced by a difficult relationship between the two stemming from their time together at Aberdeen, his departure in 1989 came after some indifferent form that suggested the 32-year-old's time at the top was coming to an end. That seemed to be confirmed when Strachan accepted a move to Leeds, then in the second tier, but he surprised most by guiding his new team first to promotion and then to a remarkable league title in 1992. Strachan would go on to play for five more years, with his revolutionary fitness regime of porridge and bananas defying the advancing years.

7. Luca Toni

Luca Toni was something of a late-bloomer, not winning his first Italy cap until age 27 and making his first "big" move at 30, when he signed for Bayern Munich. However, once he got going, he really got going, scoring 139 goals over five seasons (including 39 in one year) for Palermo, Fiorentina and Bayern. After that he dropped off significantly, having been forced out of the Bayern side by younger players, and spent several seasons trudging around various Italian clubs, seemingly signaling the beginning of his end by moving to Al Nasr in the United Arab Emirates for a year. But this past season saw a remarkable revival after Toni moved to Verona and flourished. He scored 21 goals in 35 games, making him the second-highest scorer in Serie A and leading to serious calls for his inclusion on the Italy World Cup squad. He wasn't selected, but that doesn't diminish an exceptional turnaround.

6. Johan Cruyff

By 1983, then 36-year-old Johan Cruyff's best years seemed behind him, despite his having helped Ajax to a couple league titles in his second spell with the club. The Ajax board apparently didn't think he could cut it anymore (or perhaps he was more trouble than he was worth) and didn't offer him a new contract, something Cruyff didn't take especially well. He signed for archrivals Feyenoord in a fit of pique. Things didn't go brilliantly at first, with Ajax winning the first Klassiker 8-2, but with the help of a young Ruud Gullit, Feyenoord would go on to win the double, and Cruyff could retire a happy man, with revenge well and truly taken.

Raul moved to Qatar in 2012.
Raul moved to Qatar in 2012.

5. Raul

Even though he was an Atletico Madrid fan as a boy and was in their academy until Jesus Gil thought up the terrific wheeze of canning it for financial reasons, it was difficult, if not impossible, to imagine Raul playing in anything but a Real shirt. So when he left Madrid in 2010 looking like a shadow of his former self (he scored just seven goals in his last season), it seemed he would simply wind down his career in Germany. However, two seasons later, he was a hero at a second club, having scored 40 goals for Schalke and helped them to the Champions League semifinal (breaking the competition's scoring record in the process) and the DFB-Pokal cup.

4. Henrik Larsson

Larsson wasn't quite on any sort of scrap heap when he left Celtic in 2004, but at 32, having spent the bulk of his career playing in Scotland, success at a higher level seemed unlikely, to say the least. A few eyebrows were raised when Barcelona signed him, but Larsson proved to be a key member of the Catalan side that won two league titles and the Champions League, despite missing half his first season with a cruciate ligament injury. "Everyone, from the coaching staff to the directors, tried to convince him to stay, but he made the decision to leave, and we have to respect that," Frank Rijkaard said after Larsson left Barca at the end of his contract in 2006, in order to finish his career at Helsingborgs. "He is an exemplary sportsman."

3. Gary McAllister

In the 24 years since Liverpool last won the league, some curious managerial decisions have been made on Merseyside. When Gerard Houllier signed the 35-year-old Gary McAllister after the Scot's contract at Coventry had expired, it seemed like another odd call. "This is fairy tale stuff for someone at my stage of life," McAllister said, and it certainly looked like Houllier was living in a fantasy land if he thought this veteran midfielder could help Liverpool compete with the big beasts of the Premier League. However, though scepticism was initially rife, McAllister turned out to be a key member of the side that won the League Cup, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, and he scored an absurd 45-yard free-kick to win a Merseyside derby for Liverpool. "My most inspirational signing," was Houllier's final verdict of McAllister. It's difficult to argue otherwise.

2. Andrea Pirlo

"Guitar groups are on their way out" was the possibly apocryphal verdict of Dick Rowe, an A&R man at Decca records in the early 1960s, when he was presented with the opportunity to sign The Beatles. "Graceful, deep-lying playmakers who don't run very far but have the vision of a god are on their way out" might have been the sentiment of the AC Milan suit who decided not to renew Andrea Pirlo's contract in 2011. To be fair, that didn't look like a completely ludicrous call at the time. Pirlo had played just 17 games and scored only one goal that season, so with Milan looking to reduce the average age of their squad, releasing the 32-year-old Pirlo didn't look like it would come back to bite them. "Do I hope Milan will regret losing me? Yes," Pirlo said at the time. Two league titles and countless examples of magnificence with Juventus later, we can presume Pirlo's hopes became reality.

1. Paul McGrath

One of the first things Sir Alex Ferguson did after taking over as Manchester United manager was attempt to eradicate the drinking culture he had inherited at Old Trafford. Some players stayed and knuckled down, while others, the ones Ferguson regarded as lost causes, were moved on. One of those was Paul McGrath, whose struggles with alcohol have rather been brutally documented. McGrath was even offered a retirement package that included a testimonial game following a series of knee injuries, but he was eventually sold to Aston Villa. There, despite barely being able to train, he often looked like the genius defender he had been in his prime, and he won the PFA Player of the Year award in 1993, the year Villa were just pipped to the title by United.

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