Evertonians waited many, many years for someone like Romelu Lukaku to arrive on the Blue side of Merseyside. For far too long after the departure of Gary Lineker and the twilight of Graeme Sharp’s career, Goodison Park had become something of a striker’s graveyard, a reputation shrunk only briefly by the likes of Kevin Campbell and Ayegbeni Yakubu whose respective contribution of goals was curtailed by age and injury.
Not since Wayne Rooney has a player capable of forging a long career spear-heading the Toffees’ attack graced an Everton side and yet fans of the club have a nagging fear that they could be about to lose their Belgian goalscoring hero as another tilt at the top four peters out into a season of under-achievement in the League.
The eyes of the footballing world have been on Lukaku since he was dubbed the new Drogba amid a torrent of goals for Anderlecht as a teenager, of course. 21 goals, including the mantle of joint-top scorer in the Europa League, for Everton last season represented the latest evidence of a player rapidly reaching full maturity as a forward and, having already surpassed, that tally with at least 11 more games to go and then fired his team to Wembley with a virtuoso striking performance on Saturday, his profile is back in the stratospshere.
You can imagine that Roberto Martinez, given the choice, would have his “precious" hidden away from view Gollum-style for only Evertonians to share but with every goal — 25 and counting already this season — and every world-class, match-winning intervention like that which destroyed Chelsea on Saturday, the Belgian’s profile gets ever bigger. And the sense of fear among Evertonians that we’re soon to lose him grows with it.
Lukaku’s exploits against Chelsea have focused media eyes on Goodison Park and helped to install the Blues as one of the favourites to lift the trophy in May now that Arsenal have been dumped out. That Martinez would be asked about the chances of keeping hold of his prized striking asset was inevitable; even it wasn’t the main thrust of his comments to the press in the wake of the quarter-final victory, media emphasis has centred around speculating about Lukaku’s future regardless.
While supporters will no doubt have been uncomfortable with the Everton manager even entertaining the hypothetical notion of his sale this summer, Martinez's responses were very matter-of-fact and accepting, in his words, of the reality of modern football. You suspect that in using Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Real Madrid as an example rather than that of Gareth Bale, he was implying not that money talks but that the player’s desires may be the deciding factor.
You got the sense that Ronaldo, having achieved and won trophies in the Premier League, was driven by a desire to try and dominate La Liga and was going to leave regardless whereas Tottenham simply couldn’t refuse £85m for Bale. (Not that Bale, himself, wouldn’t have wanted to accept a high-profile move to one of the biggest clubs in the world, of course.)
As the John Stones saga last August proved, Everton no longer have a financial imperative to sell their best players. Each may have their price but it would have to be astronomical for the club to be tempted to cash in. That narrows the number of clubs who could actually afford him considerably; some of them them would be in the Premier League but beyond that there is only a handful of clubs who could really afford him. It’s a pity because if he were to leave Goodison, surely no one of a Blue persuasion would want him play for another team in England.
So, unless a truly ridiculous, too-good-to-turn-down offer came in for him, perhaps the only force that could see Lukaku move on this summer is Lukaku himself. He has made noises in the past about being ready for the Champions League and that he hopes one day to play again for one of the “top clubs” like his former team, Chelsea. If he is desperate enough to play in Europe’s elite competition as early as next season then he could make it very difficult for Everton to deny him.
Again, though, it would come down to budget and which sides are actually going to be in the Champions League next season. The soaring values in the Premier League have gradually been closing the market for its top talent to all but the wealthiest clubs on the Continent. Meanwhile, Chelsea (a more likely destination you would assume given his support of them growing up and, perhaps, a sense of unfinished business at Stamford Bridge) and Manchester United, two of the domestic clubs to whom the media have been trying to sell him recently, are on course to miss out on Uefa’s gravy train this time around.
Would notoriously frugal Arsenal break the bank to finally solve their need for a consistently reliable goalscorer? Perhaps. Would Tottenham have room for him when they have Harry Kane in their side? Unlikely. Abroad there is Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona, but do any of them him need him so badly that they would pay the earth for him? Paris St Germain seem to be the most obvious answer with Zlatan Ibrahomovic looking likely to leave and Edinson Cavani a perennially rumoured target for United. He would certainly score goals there, walk to the League 1 title — where’s the challenge in that?! — and have a decent crack at the Champions League.
Ultimately, though, Lukaku is already playing in the most exciting league in world football for a genuine sleeping giant who could, thanks to the arrival of Farhad Moshiri, be on the brink of a historic awakening. Yes, after last season’s setback, this was supposed to be the season where it call came together for the Blues and they cracked the top four and they’ve again fallen short. And Romelu could just as easily view winning the FA Cup with the Blues this season as leaving Goodison on a high as he could see it as evidence of a club on the rise.
But there is genuine hope now that an expanded budget, some key additions in the summer and a broader, more well-defined vision from the top could finally make that top-four dream and sustained success to follow a reality.
He has big ambitions but he has also has an affinity with Everton that has been cultivated over almost three seasons playing in front of adoring fans. Certainly his rhetoric in recent months hasn’t been suggestive of someone looking to end that relationship any time soon but, by the same token, he can’t be expected to wait around forever while we as a club get it right.
At 22, though, and with three years yet to run on his Everton contract, he still has time very much on his side and one more season at least to see more definitively where this team is going surely wouldn’t do his career any harm. On the contrary, as Michael Ball says in this latest column for the Liverpool Echo, there is every chance Lukaku could become a legend at Everton Football Club and lead it through a return to better days and silverware if he stays. It would, however, surely be our final chance to prove to him that he can achieve those dreams with us.