Fittingly, it was Didier Drogba who confirmed the news that most Chelsea fans had been hoping for. “He’s coming home,” wrote the former Ivory Coast striker at the weekend in a message on social media accompanied by nine blue love hearts.
Almost exactly a decade to the day since a fresh-faced teenager called Romelu Lukaku moved to Stamford Bridge for the first time for an initial £10m, the striker always tipped to follow in the footsteps of his boyhood idol is back in town after completing his transfer from Internazionale for almost 10 times that amount. It seemed inevitable that Lukaku – who has cost a record £289m in cumulative transfer fees – would one day return to the club he has described as “my first love”, despite rejecting the chance under Antonio Conte in 2017, and this time it finally seems to make sense.
For a start, European champions Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel are very different from the team the then 18-year-old officially joined on 18 Augustus 2011 after months of speculation about his future. Ariël Jacobs, who coached Lukaku at Anderlecht, told the Guardian in June that he had warned his protege about the struggles he would face in forcing his way into a star-studded attack under André Villas-Boas that featured Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge. “I understood that he was in love with Chelsea but he also had to face reality,” Jacobs recalled.
Lukaku failed to score in 12 appearances, including only three starts, in his debut season, and watched as the caretaker manager, Roberto Di Matteo, led the club to a first Champions League and won the FA Cup. He admitted he did not feel part of the celebrations.
“I don’t like people talking to me about the Champions League,” hy het gesê in an interview with De Standaard newspaper in Belgium. “It wasn’t me, but my team that won. When [Salomon] Kalou put the [FA] cup on my lap in the bus I asked him to take it away immediately. I didn’t want to touch it because, just as with the Champions League, I had no part in it at all. Chelsea really wanted me … and paid a lot for me but after a while I thought: ‘Are you just throwing money around?''
Lukaku’s determination to play more regularly was instrumental in his loan to West Brom the following season. But after scoring his eighth and ninth Premier League goals of the campaign against Reading in January, he reflected on Chelsea’s signing a week earlier of Demba Ba from Newcastle. It was a move, under the interim manager Rafael Benítez, that hinted there would be no immediate opportunity for Lukaku to prove himself at Stamford Bridge. “I’m just looking at my own and West Brom,” was his assessment. “I don’t really care about what Chelsea are doing at the moment.”
That sense of unrequited love from his parent club deepened when the returning José Mourinho made clear Lukaku was not part of his plans for the next season and allowed him to join Everton on loan. A year later the Portuguese manager was typically dismissive of the player who had just moved permanently to Goodison Park for £31.8m. “He wanted to play for Chelsea but wanted to be the first-choice striker,” Mourinho said. “That’s very difficult to promise.”
The chance to work with Conte at Chelsea in 2017 was another case of what might have been. According to Lukaku’s childhood friend Vinnie Frans, who was in Los Angeles with the striker when he opted to join Mourinho at Old Trafford instead, the decision came down to where he felt wanted.
“Chelsea kept waiting and waiting so he thought: ‘United have come with a good offer, Mourinho has great ideas’ and he was 100% sure Mourinho wanted him,” Frans said. “If he really wanted revenge on Mourinho, he’d go to Chelsea. It’s not only the manager who sends you away, it’s the whole club.”
There was no such debate when Conte, by then at Inter, came calling again in 2019, so desperate was Lukaku for what he called a “fresh start” away from English football. The lure of making his point back in the Premier League – and at Chelsea in particular – has proved irresistible, egter. When Conte announced his surprise departure a few weeks after Inter and Lukaku had ended their respective 11-year waits to win a league title, the process that has led to his return was set in motion.
Perhaps Inter should have seen it coming when Lukaku replied to a cryptic post from Drogba in March with the message “We workin…”, although his desire to experience life under Tuchel will have multiplied since the manager transformed Chelsea into Champions League winners after replacing Frank Lampard at the end of January. In a squad again stacked with world-class attacking talent, this time his arrival appears to be the missing piece of the jigsaw as Tuchel attempts to overhaul a Manchester City side that finished 19 points ahead of them last season.
Lukaku’s hold-up play has improved under Conte but, as he has always acknowledged, he is no Drogba, and it will be intriguing to see how the 28-year-old is utilised.
“It’s nice, I like it a lot,” he said of comparisons to his idol on the day he first signed for Chelsea. “We have similar playing styles, but I am also very fast. I want to learn off him how it is to play here at the Bridge and how to prepare for games. I think if you are clever on and off the pitch you will get accepted and that’s what I want.”