It would seem to require some rather perplexing logic to comprehend exactly how after selling Robbie Keane to Liverpool for £19 million, and subsequently buying him back for £15 million six months later, Tottenham Hotspur got a bad deal. But somehow that's exactly what happened. Keane has made just 39 appearances in two and a half seasons since his return to Tottenham in January 2009, and after sending him out on loan deals to Celtic, and more recently West Ham, Spurs will look to offload him permanently this summer - and will be lucky to recoup even a third of the money which they spent on re-signing him. Interestingly, Keane is by no means an isolated case of a football player returning to a former club only to yield disappointing results, in fact he's the exception which proves the rule: buy-backs (almost) never work.
Recent examples of inglorious homecomings include Lee Bowyer at West Ham, Pascal Chimbonda at Tottenham, and Barry Ferguson at Rangers. Though, perhaps the most high profile case outside of Robbie Keane is that of Shaun Wright-Phillips at Manchester City. After transferring back to Eastlands in 2008, City fans had little doubt that Wright-Phillips, the 'prodigal son', would waste no time in picking up the fine form he had shown in his first spell at the club. Three years on, SWP has had limited playing time at Man City, and can probably expect to be sold this summer on a cut-price deal.
This temptation for clubs to shoot themselves in the foot this way is heightened by the baffling escalation of the 'buy-back clause' - an increasingly frequent addition to the transfer deals of players departed whereby the clubs agree a fee at which said player could, potentially, be re-purchased. The loan system was created with the very intention of allowing clubs to suspend judgment on whether they want to keep a player long term by allowing such players to play first team football for other clubs on short-term deals. So why sell only to re-sign?
Perhaps the best explanation for this lies in the notion of sentimentality. Fans are suckers for the nostalgic promise of a former hero returning to their roots, and in such times it's up to the manager to exercise some rationality. Arsene Wenger has been heavily criticised for his transfer policy at Arsenal, just as Rafael Benitez was for his at Liverpool. But credit is due to both for resisting temptation, and fan pressure, to bring back former club stars. For Wenger this was Patrick Vieira, and for Benitez, Michael Owen. As it transpired, both players (who had left to play abroad) did return to Premier League clubs, and subsequently proved themselves to be nothing like as effective as they had been the first time around.
The argument often put forward by buy-back advocates goes something along the lines of, 'upon re-signing for (insert team), the player's love for the club will invigorate their standards to new levels of excellence'. But this is a flawed line of reasoning. Even if one is to take the breathtakingly naïve plunge of believing that a player's future is decided by more than monetary factors, it doesn't explain the fact that the player's love for his club was truly enduring then they never would have left in the first place.
The truth is that buy-backs are usually unproductive because they are seldom made for footballing reasons. There have been cases in which returning players have had success - David Dunn at Blackburn and Teddy Sheringham at Tottenham spring to mind. But, it's a truism of football that the greater the amount of time which elapses from when player leaves a club, the greater their reputation among fans invariably becomes. We all have selective memories, and the only way to ensure that the reputations of our favourite footballers remain exactly as we remember them is to hope they never get bought, or brought, back to the site of their glory years.