Bracing For the Inevitable?

By Lyndon Lloyd 30/03/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]
Jeff Holmes/Getty Images

Another international break, another problematic media interview involving one of Everton's Belgian contingent. Where once Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini before him would set Evertonians on edge with comments to their national media regarding their future, these days it's Romelu Lukaku who is usually front and centre in that regard.

Many supporters are now resigned to the fact that it's part and parcel of the modern game; press relations and media interactions are now embedded in the job description for professional players. That doesn't mean, of course, that they have to answer every question, that they need to respond on every issue, or that they can't be circumspect in what they say.

Lukaku is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful young man who has displayed an impressive maturity through what has already been an eventful career, despite him still being only 22 years of age. His latest words regarding his future, however, do both him and Everton a disservice. His father's public call for him to sign for one of Bayern Munich or Manchester United – by the player's own admission, clearly chosen because of Lukaku Sr's affinity for those two clubs – may have put him in a somewhat awkward position, but in advancing the topic of him leaving Everton beyond the hypothetical to the more-than-possible, he has cast a pall of doubt over the club at a time when all focus should be on preparing for next month's FA Cup semi-final.

When the easiest and most honourable option would have been to simply deflect the question, Lukaku elected to indulge the speculators and set in stone the backdrop to the remainder of Everton's season. Not to be outdone, his agent has also weighed in, saying that his client is "ready to play in the best teams."

It was always going to be there, of course; that huge question mark hanging over the final two months of a campaign which, just like the last one, has gone badly awry on the Premier League front. Everton fans were, no doubt, hoping that we could sweep the Lukaku issue under the carpet for the next few weeks but there is no escaping the fact that it is the team's stark failings in the league over two seasons now that have created the conditions in which the Belgian is considering leaving the club.

That, sadly, is on the man who tempted him to Goodison Park in the first place and whose position in the Goodison Park hot-seat is coming under increasing scrutiny. This was supposed to be the season that the Blues kicked on but while Lukaku has personally delivered, racking up the highest goals tally of his career, Roberto Martinez's team as a whole have lost their way under the Catalan's guidance.

If his current rhetoric suggests that he is ready to take the next step up – with the full knowledge that it would only happen with Everton being richly compensated – can anyone really blame him? The striker has fulfilled his side of the bargain with a goals return worthy of a top-four side and that divergence in fortunes is what could drive the striker away this summer if the right offer comes in. He may yet steer the club to FA Cup glory but you sense it could be more of a parting gift than evidence that Everton are ready to push on, even with the promise of Europa League football next season.

Having added to the foundations laid by David Moyes and assembled, on paper, the best Everton squad in a generation, Martinez is now in grave danger of seeing that team fragment in the face of poor results and a gathering sense that, on the pitch, the Blues are now going backwards.

As things stand, even if Martinez can engineer a top-half finish that marginally improves on last year's 11-the place berth, it can't realistically be viewed as genuine progress; not when the team laid down a marker in 2013-14 by ended the season in fifth. 2014-15 was supposed to be the outlier among a decade's worth of top-10 finishes; it now looks as though the season before, with its record points haul, was the accident. That has become of increasing concern and it's called into question the manager's very survival in his current role, particularly if there is even a glimmer of a choice between a future featuring him on the one hand or Lukaku on the other.

There are those who insist, however, that Lukaku would have left Goodison Park this summer even if the Blues had qualified for the Champions League this season. In actual fact, a top-four finish in Martinez's third season would surely have given the player everything he could have wanted at this stage of his contract with a club for which he clearly holds deep affection and at this relatively early phase of his career.

Ever ambitious, Lukaku has spoken before of wanting to "one day play again for one of the big clubs" and qualification for the Champions League on the heels of the arrival of a new majority shareholder in the form of Farhad Moshiri would have been an unquestionable sign of progress towards Everton reclaiming its long-lost place among the game's top clubs. It will remain a mournful "if" for the time being.

Still, as discouraging as Lukaku's words over the past few days have been, though, and as anxious as his agent, Mino Raiola might be to whisk him off to somewhere like La Liga this summer, his departure is not a given.

He is two years into a five-year contract with no release clause and Everton don't have to sell, even if the player himself wants to leave… although digging our heels in would surely be counter-productive. No matter how professional he has been prior to this week's ill-advised comments, having a disgruntled or unsettled player on the books for an entire season likely won't create the ideal conditions for this team fulfilling the promise it had at the start of this campaign.

Moreover, if his stated aim is to play Champions League starting next season, his choice of destination clubs could be unusually diminished this summer. Few clubs can realistically afford the £50m-plus it would take to prise him away and among those in the Premier League who can, his former club, Chelsea, won't be on the European gravy train come September and Manchester United could miss out as well. Were he to leave for either of those two clubs, it would surely be because they offer a safer bet on finishing in the top four in 2016-17 than do Everton.

In the unlikely event that, as some have posited, it is a question solely of money, Everton will be in the position this summer to vastly improve his compensation, even if it only buys one more season to demonstrate that the club can start moving in the right direction again. Combine that with the acquisition of some top-drawer talent in the summer that illustrates Everton's ambitions under Moshiri and you have a more compelling case for him to stick around.

Would that be enough, though? Ultimately you feel it could be a bolder, more seismic change at the club than just signing high-class players that could prove to be the real symbol of ambition under the new status quo at Goodison, one that might possibly persuade Lukaku that progress can be made by the Blues on a short-term basis.

With or without the Belgian's goals and with or without a second trip to Wembley, the final nine Premier League games of the campaign will go a long way to framing both the opinion of Martinez and the expectation around his role as manager at Everton ahead of an important summer and an even more important 2016-17 season beyond.

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