The timing of it all is just SO Everton. After a disconcerting mid-season slump, Ronald Koeman’s side are flying now. They’ve won six of their last nine Premier League games, they’ve only been beaten once since Christmas and they have quietly moved into a position where they could, given their fresh legs and their lack of distractions, conceivably threaten Manchester United and Arsenal. And then Romelu Lukaku turns down a new contract and signals the start of a continent-wide scramble for his services. But this is no time for panic. This is a time to accept the realities of life and then take advantage of shifting circumstances. And there are plenty of advantages to be taken from this.
First the realities: Bafflingly, Lukaku may still be considered inconsistent or even lazy in some quarters, but this is palpable nonsense. Yes, he was disappointing in the last days of the Roberto Martinez reign, but who in that team wasn’t? For the most part of his time on Merseyside, he’s been unstoppable; an absolute goal machine. He has nineteen league goals this season, he scored eighteen last season and he rattles them in at a rate of more than one in two in all competitions. Given that he’s done this for an inconsistent team that hasn’t even nearly challenged for the title, as opposed to a Barcelona or a Bayern Munich where goalscoring opportunities develop roughly every three seconds, Lukaku is, by any definition, a first class goal scorer.
Goal scorers are few and far between. They attract the biggest fees and the highest wages, and my gosh, don’t they know it? They and their agents have all the power. Teams like Everton, God love ‘em, are always going to struggle to attract, let alone keep players like that. But Lukaku is coming to the end of his fourth full season at Goodison Park. That’s longer than Liverpool kept Luis Suarez. That’s longer than Atletico Madrid kept Diego Costa. That’s only two seasons fewer than Manchester United kept Cristiano Ronaldo. Everton have done well out of this. They have at least vindicated Martinez’s risky decision to stockpile transfer funds and then blow the lot on one player. With two seasons to run on his contract, Everton will make a big profit on that investment.
With this windfall and the resources of new owner Farhad Moshiri, Koeman and his respected recruitment man Steve Walsh are well positioned to secure his replacement. You would think, you would hope, that they would be smart enough to resist the temptation to blow £250,000 a week on the fading powers of Wayne Rooney just to complete some sort of homecoming narrative. They would be wiser to hunt either the next wave of Lukaku-like players, packed with potential but jammed in the fringes of an elite club (how much does Jose Mourinho really want to keep Marcus Rashford?), or the next wave of Suarez-like players, dominating a lesser league and worth a gamble (could Moussa Dembele follow the Virgil van Dijk/Victor Wanyama path from Celtic to the Premier League.)
All of which sounds easy enough, were it not for the obvious fact that there are about 40 other well-funded European clubs all trying to do the same thing. But Koeman has an edge. A game-changing edge.
You may recall back in November that he told reporters Lukaku would eventually have to leave to fulfil his potential. You will certainly have noticed that Lukaku’s response to this was to score goals so freely that in his twelve appearances since Christmas, he’s only failed to hit the back of the net four times. It’s almost as if Koeman knew exactly how to motivate him. And while Everton will try to tempt Lukaku and his agent back to the negotiating table, and they will throw more money down in an effort to make him stay, it seems inevitable that he will leave. But there are always other players.
So where would you go as a promising goalscorer? To a big club where you could get lost on the bench, struggling to find your groove as you drop in and out of the team for secondary cup competitions? Or to a biggish club where you’ll have first team football, a good wage and a manager who understands where you want to be and who is shrewd enough to know that it’s in his interests to help you get there? Everton will be the destination of choice for any agent smart enough to think beyond the zeroes.
Lukaku’s departure will hurt Everton. It would hurt any club. But this is just the end of a chapter. The next one might be even better.