EPL TALK: Lukaku's failed Blues stint shows why stars shouldn't return to their old clubs

·6 min read
Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku after missing a chance against Leicester City.
Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku after missing a chance against Leicester City. (PHOTO: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Romelu Lukaku never listened to Chelsea supporters. They had chanted a warning from the terraces for years. There’s only one Didier Drogba.

But Lukaku and the Blues naively assumed that there might be another, a new hope, as if they were making another inferior Star Wars sequel instead of signing a striker worthy of a title challenge.

Drogba was unique, a freakish hybrid of toned muscle and unerring accuracy. He didn’t miss, so Chelsea couldn’t miss. But only for a season, second time around.

Even the greatest forward in Chelsea’s history bucked the trend for just a single season. He went back and delivered, but only for a year. His second spell, from 2014 to 2015, ended with another Premier League title and a League Cup, which encourages the idealistic theory of the homecoming hero.

So Lukaku was going to do a Drogba. A striker of a similar stature and style, to a degree, Lukaku was younger, quick and arguably at the peak of his powers. He returned to Stamford Bridge when he was 28, whereas Drogba had been 34.

Lukaku had scored 64 goals in 95 games for Inter Milan across two seasons, the second of which ended in the club’s first Serie A title in 11 seasons. The Belgian was a confident, lethal finisher, terrorising Italian defences and displaying a bulldozing swagger that had eluded him in his previous stint at Manchester United.

What could possibly go wrong? If an old Drogba had been good, a younger Lukaku was almost certainly going to be better, as misty-eyed sentiment clouded rational judgement.

Legends should not go back, let alone the mercurial Lukaku, who toiled during a first spell at Chelsea, managing 10 appearances and no goals across three seasons. He never settled at Manchester United either.

Legends should not go back, let alone the mercurial Lukaku, who toiled during a first spell at Chelsea, managing 10 appearances and no goals across three seasons.

For all his apparent shortcomings, former United coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew a striker when he saw one and Lukaku was always slightly off with the Red Devils. His weight, movement, touch and all-round game generally were grasping for something that remained elusive.

Lukaku too often looked like he was auditioning to play Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men. Large, lumbering and surprisingly fragile, the proverbial "confidence player" fumbled to find any break that might relieve the pressure.

He found one in Serie A, thriving away from the EPL spotlight and benefitting from Inter’s more direct approach, which made his return to Stamford Bridge more mystifying.

Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea are not Drogba’s Chelsea. The German coach treated Lukaku in the way an eye-rolling PE teacher might begrudgingly pick the clumsy kid for the school team.

The striker scored just 15 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions last season – only eight came in the EPL – as it became apparent that his aggressive qualities rarely fitted in Chelsea’s swifter approach.

He was essentially bypassed by his own team-mates, the nadir coming with those infamous statistics against Crystal Palace. Lukaku touched the ball seven times. Tuchel didn’t start him again in the Premier League for another two months.

And yet, the myth persisted when he re-joined the club, the Second Coming of Drogba’s Second Coming, the return of an old boy to take his teammates to the next level, to provide the final piece for the future or to make amends for an underwhelming past. Either way, the Blues spent £97.5million on an experiment that has usually failed historically.

The closest example in terms of age and athletic peak might be Paul Pogba’s return to United, a disaster that didn’t require Nostradamus’ soothsaying services, just a reading of any of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Pogba-related quotes around 2012.

According to Ferguson, Pogba lacked respect and his late agent was insufferable. It was a mismatch between brands with competing values. And yet, four years later, the prodigal son returned, with a new haircut for a new day. But little had changed.

Why would it? Pogba’s potential had been realised at Juventus, but he came with the same insouciant personality and child-like characteristics that just didn’t play at Old Trafford.

But nostalgia insisted otherwise. It’s a trick of the mind, convincing us of a different outcome. In Greek, nostalgia derives from the words nostos (return) and algos (pain), or homesick, a desire to go back to something better, when things were familiar and comforting. If such simplistic thinking made Donald Trump’s election and Brexit possible, it can certainly convince us of the successful returns of Pogba and Lukaku.

Indeed homecoming heroes often play into the Trumpian narrative. Whether it’s Gareth Bale at Tottenham (2007-2013 and then 2020-2021) or Wayne Rooney at Everton (2002-04 and 2017-18) or Joe Cole at West Ham (1998-2003 and 2013-2014) or even Thierry Henry at Arsenal (1999-2007 and 2012 loan), their returns inspired hopes of making their clubs great again.

But Bale struggled with injuries at Spurs. Rooney was a slower, heavier footballer at Everton and treated the opportunity like a long kiss goodbye. By the time Cole went back to West Ham, one of the most promising talents in world football had given way to a crocked nomad, drifting from club to club.

Gareth Bale's second spell with Tottenham was unsuccessful as he was injury-prone.
Gareth Bale's second spell with Tottenham was unsuccessful as he was injury-prone. (PHOTO: Reuters//Matt Dunham)

Even Henry wasn’t quite the triumphant return to the Gunners that is now fondly remembered. While his winner against Leeds in the FA Cup in his first game back raised the roof, his brief spell was really a chance for younger supporters to see the legend in action, like Liam Gallagher performing at Knebworth for those too young to watch Oasis. The greatest hits are always welcome, even if the moves are slower.

And, yes, Robbie Fowler retains a god-like presence around Anfield, but his second spell at Liverpool registered 12 goals in all competitions in two years.

But Fowler offered the Reds an opportunity to reminisce, to enjoy nostalgia in real time, via the pitch rather than YouTube, to briefly remember how good it was the first time round.

Lukaku didn’t even manage that. His second spell was almost as forgettable as his first, with the obvious difference being he cost £97.5million second time round. And now, he’s about to do it all over again.

He’s returning to Inter, where the ultras have already told him to expect a lukewarm welcome after his “betrayal” of leaving the club.

They expect “humility” and “sweat” from Lukaku, informing him of the “need to earn everything”. He will not be wrapped in the security blanket of past achievements.

Like many before him, Lukaku will again discover that nostalgia is no match for the grim reality of Prozone stats.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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