So, Romelu Lukaku won’t in fact be signing any new contract at Everton… not yet, at least.
We’ve been here before, of course, wringing our collective hands over his future, convinced he’ll be off, only to see him sign permanently, as was the case in 2014, or commit to another season despite significant interest from elsewhere.
This time will probably be different. After all, he has stuck to his end of the bargain he made last year following talks with Ronald Koeman and there are only so many times Lukaku can say he will stick around for just one more year. And, as another 12 months gets lopped off the remainder of his contract, the imperative is greater for Everton to sell and get the best possible price for him rather than risk him running his contract down.
There is scope to weigh the potential value of the player’s goals next season against his diminishing value as he gets deeper into the final two years of his existing deal. Ultimately, though, can Everton afford not to take £60m-plus for him in the next transfer window and risk having a potentially unhappy player on the books if they do dig their heels in?
As disappointing as this latest news is — and it is, massively — it shouldn’t come as a shock. Coming from an agent of Mino Raiola’s repute, the 0.0001% of uncertainty in his recent claims that his client would sign a new five-year deal with Everton may as well have been 50%. You could have driven a 747 through that little sliver of supposed doubt because while it existed, no-one could really be confident the striker would stay.
And it’s not like Lukaku hasn’t been utterly consistent about what he wants — Champions League football — and with him having now racked up his best tally of Premier League goals to date, he clearly feels more than ready. He has already given Everton four years of a career spurred on by ambition but the Toffees have been unable to provide him with the ultimate club football stage that he so vocally craves.
With Ronald Koeman having got the team playing more to his strengths than at any time since Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge, it’s frustrating that he finally looks the part, too. What’s more, it’s ironic that, with Koeman at the helm and Farhad Moshiri backing significant player acquisitions, the team is now back on track towards the common goal of cracking the top four, possibly as early as next season.
And yet, he might not be in place to fire the club into that promised land. With no international tournament this summer to sow doubt into potential suitors’ minds — Lukaku was wholly unconvincing with Belgium at the 2014 World Cup and only marginally better at Euro2016 — this could be the summer where we Blues finally lose the best striker the club has seen in three decades.
Most Evertonians will be gutted to see Lukaku go for that reason alone. Some scorn was poured on the attention given to the fact that he surpassed Duncan Ferguson as Everton’s top goalscorer of the Premier League era; push-back against the Sky Sports-driven focus on the primacy of modern football over what existed prior to 1992.
As a stretch of 25 years, however, the Premier League’s existence comprises a significant period of history and Lukaku’s record simultaneously underlines the dearth of striking talent that Everton have been able to attract in that time and illustrates just how prolific the Belgian has been. In amassing 62 goals, Lukaku has scored at a phenomenal rate, one that eclipses Ferguson’s and has been much more consistent than the likes of Tony Cottee, Kevin Campbell and Yakubu.
What’s worse is that, after receiving plenty of criticism for his work rate, touch and hold-up play, in 2017 he has been better than ever; a player reaching his full potential at a time when an Everton side capable of cracking the hegemony of the established “big six” was re-emerging. All that was missing was a consistent return against the biggest teams in the division. Strikers as deadly and as reliable are like gold dust in the modern game; it’s why his transfer value has mushroomed from the £28m the Blues paid for him three years ago and why he will be so sought-after if he is for sale this summer.
In that sense, Lukaku could be virtually irreplaceable for Everton regardless of how much they get for him. The money would be reinvested in top class players who could potentially share the load in scoring goals but there is a reason why the club reportedly wanted a £90m buyout clause inserted into his contract and were prepared to give him £140,000 a week for five years to keep him. Having scored 40% of the team’s league goals this season and been involved in 54% of them over all, he is vital and worth that much to the Blues.
Of course, if, as has been reported, the buyout clause is the last remaining sticking point, this latest chapter in the Lukaku saga could just be another bargaining tactic by Raiola. Secure a loyalty clause for the player, ensure his own commission, get the trigger price down to a level where the likes of Chelsea, Paris St Germain and, perhaps, Juventus or Borussia Dortmund could entertain a bid, and he has options for his client this summer. Everton would hold plenty of the cards going into the next window but their hand will be weaker if it gets into next season and he still hasn’t either signed new terms or moved on.
There may be an air of inevitability about this latest twist in the Lukaku saga but the timing is perhaps the most frustrating part. Most Evertonians have long since reconciled themselves with the fact that the player hasn’t ever expressed a love for Everton Football Club. As a means first of escaping Chelsea and then as a stepping stone to the Champions League — with the Blues or without — his time at Goodison has always been mostly business, largely devoid of true passion for the club.
That would explain what is an apparent acquiescence to Raiola’s hardball tactics over the buyout clause and a seeming lack of concern that the situation is escalating at an important part of the season when there is still plenty to play for. That aloofness likely won’t compromise his motivation to go out and score as many as he can against Hull this weekend — everything is done in the name of getting closer to realising his ambitions — but it will certainly affect the mood of supporters over the final 10 games of the campaign.
Ultimately, the matter will get sorted out and Everton will move on regardless of the outcome, safer in the knowledge that broader progress is being made on and off the pitch. It’s hard to escape the feeling, though, that we as a club are on the cusp of something here and that, by staying just one more season, Lukaku could help us achieve it.
With the benefit of a full season behind him and an all-important summer transfer window for him and Steve Walsh, Koeman will feel confident that with Romelu spearheading his attack, he could lead a very real charge on the top four next season. Long-term injuries notwithstanding, Lukaku is young and has plenty of time on his side to play at the highest level with one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
To leave Goodison now would feel so much like “unfinished business” on both sides but in the end, que sera, sera — Everton just need to get the best deal either way and push ahead. No player is bigger than the club but few have been as important.
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