Gareth Bale’s fantasy return to Tottenham Hotspur prompts the question, which of the many exports would Chelsea welcome back to its vessel?
Football has increasingly become a voyage of nostalgia. Gareth Bale’s imminent return to Tottenham Hotspur shoots waves of sentiment up the spine. This is not a new sensation in the modern game either: Wayne Rooney to Everton, Thierry Henry to Arsenal, Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer to Manchester United, Robbie Fowler to Liverpool. The Premier League is never shy from rehousing its tenants, and Chelsea is no stranger to the romance of reunification.
Frank Lampard’s legacy as a Blues icon intensified after he took the manager’s hot seat, five years after waving farewell to Stamford Bridge. Didier Drogba re-signed that same year, having only been away for two terms in Turkey. And it was no Drogba day-dream, the Ivorian aiding Jose Mourinho to another league title, his 11th item of silverware as a Blue. Perhaps less infamously was the story of Graeme Le Saux. A product of the youth system, the midfielder departed Chelsea for greener pastures (becoming champions of England with Blackburn Rovers), only to be drawn back in 1997. This marked an era of revolution for the club as Le Seux came back at the beginning of the Blues’ domination of the next several decades.
Chelsea is also familiar with letting personnel go in abundance, but which of their own ex-motley crew could make a positive difference upon a fictional homecoming?
1. Thibaut Courtois (2011-18)
Ironically, Thibaut Courtois has already ventured down this road before. Signed from Genk as a promising young ‘keeper, the Belgian was swiftly shipped out on loan (never heard that before) to Atletico Madrid whilst Petr Cech was still firmly between the Blues’ sticks.
Across his three seasons in Spain, he won La Liga, the Europa League and the Copa del Ray, earning the Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2012/13. Chelsea had seen enough of its own jewels shining so brightly, so the club brought him back to London as a permanent fixture. Two Premier League titles and the Golden Glove later, Courtois was again on the plane to Madrid, Real on this occasion. In the opposite direction came Kepa Arrizbalaga as his direct replacement, an exchange Blues fans must be wishing never materialised.
Both of their fortunes were quickly reversed; whilst Arrizabalaga made a decent impact under Maurizio Sarri, keeping 23 clean sheets in all competitions, Courtois struggled in the Spanish capital with just ten stop-outs. Fast forward 12 months-ish, and it was Arrizabalaga with 10 clean sheets and a wave of worry over his performances.
His counterpart, meanwhile, managed 21 clean sheets, convincing his doubters he is worthy of the infamous Los Blancos jersey. What Chelsea would do for a stable, confident goalkeeper is unthinkable. All 6-foot-5-inches of Courtois would be ushered back in a heartbeat if possible, especially as he enters into the prime of his powers. Instead, the Blues are still in the hunt for Arrizabalaga’s successor.