They are striking returns, but different types of comebacks. Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to first-team football on Saturday, 212 days after a cruciate ligament injury that he declared was more severe than revealed but after recuperating at remarkable speed because, he claimed, “lions don’t recover like humans.”
To rather less fanfare, Glenn Murray returned to the Premier League this season, 18 months after his last top-flight appearance. That belies the remarkable element of his return. At 34, a seemingly archetypal journeyman is a first-choice forward at elite level, an unglamorous anomaly in a star-studded division. He has never been more important at this level; a lengthy career is reaching a belated peak. Like Rickie Lambert, he is proof a long and winding route to eminence can go via Rochdale.
So they face each other on Saturday when Manchester United host Brighton, potentially with Ibrahimovic a substitute and Murray a starter. They are senior citizens among the division’s striking brigade. Contemporaries offer contrasts: Ibrahimovic is 23 months older, but it has taken Murray far longer to reach a level where they clash.
At 19, Ibrahimovic was lured from his homeland by Ajax. At 22, he joined Juventus. That same year, Murray also played abroad: for North Carolina’s Wilmington Hammerheads in the USL Professional League. When Ibrahimovic was settling in at the Stadio delle Alpi, Murray was moving to Barrow. The Swede is often seen as a club-hopper, but the Englishman played for four clubs in 2004.
The last of them was Carlisle. He won League Two in Cumbria in 2006, just as Ibrahimovic lifted Serie A with Juventus. Carlisle’s success still stands, unlike Juve’s calciopoli-tainted triumph. It was a reason he moved on in 2006, to Internazionale. So did Murray, joining Stockport and Rochdale on loan. By the time Barcelona made Ibrahimovic, at £56 million, the second most expensive footballer ever, Murray was already a £300,000 buy for Brighton. When the older man completed a €24 million transfer to AC Milan, the younger one went on a free transfer to Crystal Palace. His combined transfer fees total under £7 million, Ibrahimovic’s over £134 million.
Murray scored a belated maiden top-Premier League goal for the Eagles, aged 31 and five months; Ibrahimovic had topped 200 top-flight goals by the same stage in his career. He has, in his own mind, 13 league titles, though Juventus’ two were revoked. Murray has also shown an ability to pilot teams towards the summit of tables: he has five promotions.
He won League Two in Cumbria in 2006, just as Ibrahimovic lifted Serie A with Juventus. Carlisle’s success still stands, unlike Juve’s calciopoli-tainted triumph. It was a reason he moved on in 2006, to Internazionale. So did Murray, joining Stockport and Rochdale on loan.
Each is a model of self-improvement, becoming more prolific at a time when others decline and setting personal bests in the 2010s. This decade has brought Murray’s three best goalscoring seasons and Ibrahimovic’s five most productive. Recognition has come in different forms: the Swede became Paris Saint-Germain’s record scorer, the Englishman a member of the Football League team of the decade.
They are proof goalscoring is a transferable skill. They have transferred it between bitter rivals, one for Juventus, Inter and AC Milan, the other for Brighton and Crystal Palace. They have taken it across borders and divisions. Ibrahimovic has found the net regularly in Sweden, Holland, Italy, Spain, France and England. Murray has struck in each of England’s six top tiers. It has permitted a rise that players in other positions may not experience. Murray is a fine finisher, good in the air and has an eye for an opening. He does not exude class, but a premium is rightly placed on scorers.
Only 11 of his first 183 career goals were in the Premier League. Then he scored four in three games, propelling Brighton into the top half of the table. Whereas Ibrahimovic’s entertainingly egotistical boasts mean he is rarely underestimated, perhaps Murray’s rough-and-ready approach and lowly footballing roots mean he can be underrated; maybe even by those who know him best.
From Tammy Abraham to Vincent Janssen, from Raphael Dwamena to Florin Andone, Brighton spent the summer missing out strikers that would have displaced Murray. Now only two players outside last season’s top seven have more Premier League goals; Jamie Vardy, a champion 18 months ago, and Richarlison, a Brazilian prodigy.
Since the start of last season, he has scored 27 goals, Ibrahimovic 28. It would be stretching it to say that they meet as equals but it is impressive that a deserving graduate from some of the game’s smaller clubs and one of the great players of his generation meet at all.