Popeye and snakeskin cowboy boots: Inter-bound Romelu Lukaku was never meant for Chelsea
The Chelsea striker is on the brink of a sensational return to Inter Milan.
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Have you ever bought a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots on the promise of a vow made to yourself that this is the year you stop caring about what other people think and finally live your rootin’-tootin’ truth, only to wear them once on a night out to a reception of unanimous ridicule before deciding that you do, in fact, look like an absolute idiot, leading to their subsequent, slightly shameful donation to the local British Heart Foundation charity shop?
No? Yeah, me neither. Honest. But Chelsea have.
Romelu Lukaku, as it transpires, is the Blues’ very own pair of snakeskin cowboy boots.
You see, things were meant to be oh so different this time around.
The Belgian forward, cast aside like a complimentary salad on a takeaway doner kebab, was never truly given a chance during his first stint at Stamford Bridge. Limited to just 10 senior appearances, his was a tale of simmering potential and electrifying loan deals.
But since then, there’s no denying that Lukaku has paid his dues.
Whether it be his burgeoning ascension at Everton, his doomed purgatorial limbo at Manchester United, or his omnipotent demolition job at Inter Milan, the striker eventually proved himself to be that most fabled of mythical footballers - a big man with an abundance of quality to match his inside leg measurement.
Theoretically, then, a return to Chelsea last summer should have been the perfect reunion - a chance for the player to exhibit all he had learned on his continental odyssey in a team who, in many respects, were crying out for a focal point of his ilk.
Instead, Lukaku now stands on the cusp of a season-long loan back to Inter, just 12 months after leaving the San Siro.
The prodigal son came home, set fire to the garden shed, and now he’s off again.
Except, things aren’t actually that simplistic, nor was Lukaku’s botched homecoming entirely a fiasco of his own design.
Granted, the 29-year-old was less ‘thoroughbred stallion’, more ‘Blackpool donkey’ last term, and his anticipated renaissance became something of rehashed nuisance, eerily echoing the inexplicable striking curse that many of his big money predecessors have also fallen victim to in West London.
Eight goals in 26 Premier League appearances does not a successful club record signing make. But there are, arguably, other factors at play here too.
Certainly, nobody but Chelsea themselves can shoulder the blame for the £97.5 million they coughed up to secure his signature in the first instance.
Even in a market of astronomically inflated price tags, that figure felt like a sizeable gamble - especially considering the fact that Lukaku’s last stint in England, with United, ended in such ignominious circumstances.
Equally, the Blues’ decision to hold out for no more than £10.3 million in loan fees is a responsibility that the player himself cannot be expected to bear. Of course, as far as temporary agreements go, this is still a costly one, but the optics of a £87 million disparity just a year detached from his arrival at Stamford Bridge, no matter the type of deal, are poor.
And then there are the reasons as to why he flopped so badly.
Even when Lukaku was scoring freely towards the start of the campaign, running amok like Popeye in a spinach-canning factory, it was hard to shake the feeling that he might be thriving in spite of Thomas Tuchel’s tactics, not because of them. When the honeymoon was over and the novelty had worn off, so it proved.
Onlookers will, justifiably, argue that the striker himself has to accept at least some of the accountability for his incongruence, that he should have showed a greater willingness to adapt his game when the manager adapted his approach, perhaps.
But when a player of the Belgian’s obvious pedigree is being limited to just SEVEN touches over the course of 90 minutes against a side like Crystal Palace (no disrespect to Paddy and the boys), you can’t help but wonder if the issues are as systemic as they are individualistic. Ultimately, this was less ‘square peg, round hole’, more ‘Boeing 747, keyhole’.
By the time Lukaku’s frustrations boiled over and he stated in a startlingly candid interview that he wanted to return to Italy in the “near future” back in December, it didn’t take Miss Marple to see that the writing was on the wall.
Whether it was tactical incompatibility, a breakdown in personal relationships, or even something else entirely, only Lukaku - and perhaps Tuchel - will know why things haven’t worked out for the striker quite as they were expected to.
Now, aged 29, and with two consecutive Premier League missteps blotting his copybook, it’s hard to envisage a situation in which the forward ever returns to England.
The good news for him is that in Milan, fashion capital of the world, snakeskin cowboy boots might be just about acceptable.