Since the Premier League first started 30 years ago there have been many famous comebacks over the various seasons. Perhaps the greatest have come from individual players whose careers looked over due to a variety of factors – only for them to bounce back and thrive in the world’s most competitive leagues.
elow are five who have set the standard on that front.
1. Christian Eriksen, Manchester United, August 2022
For many Manchester United fans, when a player with a big name, a great reputation, but a birth cert with a troubling date lands at Old Trafford, it’s worrying news. What are they getting: a great player or a has-been? It was asked when people like Henrik Larsson, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Alexis Sanchez arrived, with mixed results.
The signing this summer of Christian Eriksen and his return to the big stage of the Premier League – with all due respect to Brentford and his spell there last season – is a case where even the most sceptical of United fans are willing to give the Dane the benefit of the doubt. They will give him time and space to find his feet, while everyone else will look on at what could be one of the talking points of the coming season.
A year ago it was not Eriksen’s career that was in danger but his life, with that dramatic collapse and cardiac arrest at Euro 2020.
His Denmark teammates standing around as a guard of honour to shield their stricken comrade from the glare of the public and the cameras, while medical staff tried to save his life, was one of the images of the year.
At the time, asking if he would play again, or see out his contract with Inter Milan, seemed like a ridiculous question. It was more pressing to wonder if his kids would lose their dad.
United, and Eriksen, are keen to play down the drama attached to his move. After he signed, United’s website posted a lengthy interview with the player from their in-house media, almost 2,000 words with barely a mention of his heart attack last year and what it means to him to not just be at United but to have a career, to be alive.
All he said was: “From my career path before the incident in the Euros, the planning wasn’t to go back to the UK at all.”
He’s grateful to Brentford for that staging post in his recovery but a spell at United, given how grim the picture was for him a year ago, is an astonishing comeback, and the challenge of making United great again only adds to the drama.
2. Eric Cantona, Manchester United, October 1995
When Eric Cantona (inset) launched himself into the crowd at Selhurst Park and aimed a kung fu kick at Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, having been sent off moments earlier, it was hard to see the Frenchman ever playing for the club, or any club, again. Keeping him out of jail was the priority for those around Cantona.
What Simmons said to Cantona to provoke that reaction was disputed: Simmons claimed in court that he’d simply said “Off! Off! Off! It’s an early bath for you, Mr Cantona!” – the “Mister” part of that almost laughable.
Cantona claimed to have heard “F*** off back to France, you French b****rd”.
United’s initial reaction was to sack him, but they backed off, instead imposing a four-month suspension as they awaited what the football authorities and the courts had to say.
The FA made it into an eight-month ban, while at Croydon Crown Court, a sentence of two weeks’ imprisonment was reduced on appeal to 150 hours of community service.
United missed Cantona as they lost out on the league title, while Alex Ferguson worked behind the scenes to prevent the Frenchman from walking away. The player was on the verge of quitting when he was blocked from playing in a behind-closed-doors game and it took an emergency trip by Ferguson to Paris to meet Cantona to keep him on board.
Once his FA ban had been served, he was free to play again and in October 1995 he was back in the side, claiming an assist and scoring a penalty in a 2-2 draw at home to Liverpool.
“The season eventually shaped itself into an incredible triumph for United fans and the form Eric reached in his comeback may have represented his greatest feat,” Ferguson would say. Just 30 years old, Cantona retired at the end of the 1996/97 season.
3. Tony Adams, Arsenal, February 1991
Tony Adams was an England international and captain of Arsenal when he was jailed in December 1990, sentenced to four months for a drink-driving offence when he crashed his car while four times over the legal limit.
He would serve two months and while jail was a scary experience, he and his club were determined that his career could be rescued. They wasted no time in bringing Adams back into the fold.
The attendance is disputed, with figures between 7,000 and 12,000, but either way there was a massive Arsenal support in Highbury to see Adams on his return, in a reserve game against Coventry City on a February Saturday afternoon. Once that was done, he was back into George Graham’s first team.
“We couldn’t understand what the big crowd was for. Then we found out it was Tony’s first game back in football, it certainly added a bit of spice to it. There was a great atmosphere,” Coventry player Trevor Senior told londonfootball.com of that comeback game.
Adams would go on to win three more league titles and played for the Gunners for another 10 years, but it took him a long time to face his demons.
“For 12 years I was drinking, and for 11-and-a-half I didn’t want to stop,” Adams once said. “The denial was really strong, and the consequences too, but even a spell in Chelmsford prison down the road didn’t stop me drinking. I came out of prison and drunk and drove again. The denial was still in me and I wasn’t ready.”
Now I know that being fit and strong doesn’t make your heart 100 per cent
4. Nwankwo Kanu, Inter Milan, September 1997
The Nigeria forward would go on to have a fine career but it almost ended before it had truly began. He had just joined Inter Milan from Ajax, with a gold medal from the summer Olympics in his back pocket, when a medical screening at Inter before his debut spotted a serious heart defect in the summer of 1996.
“I knew nothing about it. In all these years, nobody had said anything about it. What can I do now?” he said at the time. A war of words broke out between Inter and Ajax, the Italian club blaming Ajax for not diagnosing the condition.
Inter’s team doctor Piero Volpi was downbeat about his potential to play again: “The only consolation I have as a doctor is to have discovered the illness”.
Told it was not safe to play again, he underwent surgery in November 1996 and returned to Inter in April 1997, made his belated debut for them in September 1997 and after one goal in 12 Serie A games, moved to London and Arsenal in 1998.
He would play Premier League football for Arsenal, West Brom and Portsmouth, ending his career in 2012 after two Championship seasons with Pompey. Post-surgery he won two Premier League titles and two FA Cups with the Gunners and another FA Cup medal with Pompey.
He turns 46 just today, but he needed a second bout of surgery on his heart in 2017 when another issue arose. “Now I know that being fit and strong doesn’t make your heart 100 per cent,” he said.
5 Jan Molby, Liverpool, January 1989
As clubs discovered when they tried to sign players newly released from prison, modern life and the power of social media can turn pros who are ex-cons into pariahs.
Liverpool took the ‘arm-around-the- shoulder’ approach when it happened to one of their key players.
Molby had already won the league and FA Cup with Liverpool and been to the finals of the Euros and the World Cup with Denmark when he was arrested and charged with reckless driving in October 1988, serving three months. At the time Molby was out with injury and blamed that absence for his decision to drink and drive.
“I was acting as a chauffeur for some friends and we’d gone to a nightclub in the centre of Liverpool. I’d only had a couple of pints because I was driving,” he said.
Molby had sped away to avoid a police checkpoint but he was easily traced the next day, as he was driving a car with Danish licence plates.
Released after serving time in Kirkham and Preston prisons, he returned to the club, certain he would be sacked.
The club seemed unsure how to deal with Molby after his release but the midfielder later said he appreciated the support of manager Kenny Dalglish, who accompanied Molby to a key meeting with the Liverpool chairman.
“He had a go at me by asking what I was going to do about my drink problem. Kenny stepped in to correct the chairman. ‘Jan doesn’t have a drink problem,’ he explained. ‘If he did, he wouldn’t have been at this club as a player.’”
Dalglish helped Molby work on his fitness, which had clearly suffered from him being locked up for 23 hours a day, and he came back to the team on New Year’s Day in 1989, in a game against Manchester United.
Molby would stay on at Anfield until 1995, surviving the transition into the Premier League era, winning another league and FA Cup medal.