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  • 5 counts down ten unexpected comebacks in the wake of Robert Pires' Aston Villa deal

Aston Villa raised a few eyebrows last week when they announced the signing of French midfielder Robert Pires, four years after his departure from Arsenal and several months after he had been released by Villarreal.

Perhaps more significantly, Pires is now 37, an age when most outfield players have long since retired and moved on to another career, either in management, the media or even a world outside of football.

Pires made his debut off the substitutes' bench in Sunday's defeat to Blackburn and could face former club Arsenal this weekend, live on Sky Sports HD2 and 2.

But Pires' return to the Premier League is not the first time a player has made an unexpected comeback. Here, counts down ten of the most memorable.

Robert Pires

We start with the man of the moment and veteran playmaker Pires, whose days as a top-flight professional seemed to be over in May when Spanish club Villarreal opted not to renew his contract. Pires had not featured regularly during his last season at El Madrigal but decided he still had plenty to offer and was given the chance to train with Arsenal, where he had enjoyed huge success between 2000 and 2006. News that he was looking for an English club and working hard to regain fitness attracted the attention of, erm, Crawley Town, but Pires kept his options open for a little while longer and was rewarded when Aston Villa came calling, with new manager Gerard Houllier integrating some experience into a largely youthful squad.

Sol Campbell

Another former Arsenal man who was given the opportunity to train with the Gunners, Campbell succeeded in actually earning a short-term contract at Emirates Stadium in January of this year. The defender, who recently turned 36, had already developed a habit for making surprise transfers after joining Arsenal the first time from bitter rivals Tottenham and then later moving to League Two outfit Notts County. His Meadow Lane adventure lasted just a single game before he walked out and Arsene Wenger took the decision to snap him up as a free agent, which turned out to be a great bit of business. With first-choice centre-backs Thomas Vermaelen and William Gallas suffering injuries, Campbell often found himself starting and was an assured figure in the heart of the defence until leaving for Newcastle over the summer.

Patrick Vieira

The third former Arsenal player in our list, Vieira followed Campbell in making a surprise Premier League comeback last winter by joining Manchester City from Inter Milan. The powerful midfielder became a household name in England with a series of all-action displays during almost a decade with the Gunners, but supporters probably never expected to see him at such close quarters again after jetting off for Italy. He helped Juventus to the Serie A title in 2006 but then faced the prospect of second division football after the club were relegated for their involvement in the match-fixing scandal. Three-and-a-half years followed with Inter before Vieira fell out of favour with Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini swooped to bring him to Eastlands, where he has found it hard to command a regular spot in a squad of such depth, particularly in central midfield.

Robbie Fowler

Fowler sealed a remarkable return to Liverpool in January 2006, much to the delight of supporters who had waved farewell to the Kop favourite almost five years earlier. A striker with predatory instincts, Fowler accomplished great things during his first stint at the club with his sharp movement and precise finishing marking him out as one of the best in the business. But after falling down the pecking order he left for Leeds in 2001 and then linked up with Manchester City two years later. A return to Anfield appeared unthinkable but in January 2006 Rafa Benitez pulled off one of his most popular pieces of business to bring Fowler back on a free transfer. Now the wrong side of 30, he never quite hit the heights of his previous spell at Liverpool but still connected with the fans.


The diminutive Brazilian made not one but two Premier League comebacks as he found the temptation to return to The Riverside just too strong to resist. Juninho's arrival at Middlesbrough in 1995 marked the start of an exciting new era for the club and he produced a series of sparkling performances during an initial two-year stay. Alas, his fine form was not enough to keep Boro afloat and he left following their relegation to the second tier. Juninho came back for a season on loan in 1999 and then joined permanently again in 2002, each time showing that he had lost none of his flamboyance.

Robbie Keane

Harry Redknapp re-signed a number of former Tottenham players after taking charge at White Hart Lane, including Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Pascal Chimbonda. But perhaps the most surprising move was Keane's switch back from Liverpool, just six months after he had been sold for a considerably higher fee. The Irishman may have felt that he was going on to bigger and better things with the Reds but he was rarely given the opportunity to impress by Benitez and had far more joy on his return to Spurs, even if he now finds himself out of favour again.

Bolo Zenden

Another 'golden oldie' who came back to the Premier League at a late stage of his career, Zenden sets the sort of example that Pires will look to follow, even if the Dutchman is three years his junior at 34. Zenden plied his trade with Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Liverpool before being snapped up by Marseille in 2007. He was released by the French club but revealed that he still wanted to play, preferably in England, and was signed by Sunderland manager Steve Bruce after proving his fitness. Zenden remains a key component of the Black Cats squad in his second season at the club and will be confident that his stay at the Stadium of Light will provide a fitting swansong.

Ian Rush

The Welsh legend had already carved his name into Liverpool folklore by the time he decided to embark on a new challenge with Juventus. It was a bold move from Rush considering he had been so prolific for one of the greatest clubs in the world, scoring 139 goals in 224 appearances. Surely things could not get any better in Italy, and so it proved, as he struggled to adjust to his new surroundings and reportedly once said 'it's like living in a foreign country'. Just a year later Rush made his comeback to Anfield and it was as if he had never been away as he continued to find the net with ruthless efficiency for a further eight years.

Jurgen Klinsmann

Klinsmann returned to Tottenham for a second spell in 1997 at the age of 33. The German striker had initially spent just one season with Spurs before going back home to Bayern Munich, but he achieved so much in that year that he became a cult hero among the White Hart Lane faithful. Scoring 21 goals in 41 appearances, Klinsmann took to English football like a duck to water and even endeared himself to neutrals with his trademark goal celebration, a dive across the pitch in response to accusations that he had gone to ground too easily earlier in his career. Klinsmann rejoined on loan from Sampdoria three years later and helped the club avoid relegation with some more crucial goals.

David Beckham

While the other players on our list have involved comebacks to either a specific club or the Premier League, Beckham makes the cut for his dramatic return to European football with AC Milan in the winter of 2008/9. The midfielder's switch from Real Madrid to Los Angeles Galaxy two years earlier had been regarded almost as the final stage in his transition from humble footballer to Hollywood-style celebrity, but instead he arrived at the San Siro on loan to show that he could still compete with the world's elite. Beckham hoped that such a move would extend his international career and it worked for a while until injury struck the following year to dash his dreams of playing at a fourth World Cup.

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