Never go back? Why Lukaku to Chelsea is different

Sarah Winterburn
Romelu Lukaku Chelsea 2012

“Give me a ball and I will be playing here for five hours,” said a baby-faced Romelu Lukaku when Belgian reality TV cameras captured the moment the teenager first stepped onto the turf at Stamford Bridge. In reality, he never reached the five-hour mark for Chelsea at that stadium, though he surpassed it in visits wearing the blue of Everton and the red of Manchester United. Only once did he ever score. Unfinished business does not come close to describing the Chelsea-Lukaku dynamic.

When they say that you should never go back – in relationships and in football – this is not what they mean. You should never try to recreate magic but there is no magic here to recreate. Lukaku was never given the chance to be either Chelsea flop or Chelsea hero; his combination of youth and ambition was simply not a good fit for the club a decade ago. Always in control of his own career, he loved and chose Chelsea but then hopped into bed with West Brom and Everton when it became clear that his love was not yet reciprocated. When he eventually left Chelsea after two successful loans, he still talked about himself as a Chelsea fan. There was no bitterness, just an acknowledgement that their timing sucked.

Lukaku started only one Premier League game for Chelsea in his three years at the club. A glance at the line-up – Turnbull; Hutchinson, Terry, Ivanovic, Bertrand; Essien, Meireles; Sturridge, Ramires, Malouda; Lukaku – illustrates just how much Chelsea have evolved but also emphasises the youth of Lukaku (19 that very day), who had already played too much first-team football at Anderlecht to be happy with scraps. He was excellent in a 2-1 win. A week later he would refuse to hold the Champions League trophy because it was not his victory and that summer he pushed for the first of his two massively successful loans.

His actual appearances for Chelsea were so fleeting and so forgettable to all but the man himself that Chelsea’s new coach Thomas Tuchel may not even realise that – in asking for Lukaku to be added to a sizeable list of summer targets – he is actually asking for Chelsea to re-sign Lukaku. He is now just the title-winning Belgian striker who scored 47 goals in 72 Serie A games and is now more than a little miffed to see Antonio Conte leave the club. There is absolutely no doubt that he will improve this Chelsea side, who won the Champions League despite not having a striker worthy of the billing. With the addition of Lukaku, Chelsea’s 11/2 odds to win next season’s Premier League will be slashed.

“Choices were made by me. By me. Not by them,” insisted Lukaku when asked in 2017 whether he held any enmity towards Chelsea or his new Manchester United (and ex-Chelsea) manager Jose Mourinho. He has always been a man who has made his own choices and there seems little doubt that – if presented with Chelsea as an option again – he will make the choice to return to Stamford Bridge. And this time he will surely play for more than five hours.