Stars should never return to old clubs


Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku after missing a chance against Leicester City. (PHOTO: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Romelu Lukaku never listened to Chelsea fans. They had been chanting a warning from the terraces for years. There is only one Didier Drogba.

But Lukaku and the Blues naively assumed there might be another, new hope, as if they were making another inferior Star Wars sequel instead of signing a striker worthy of a title challenge.

Drogba was unique, a bizarre hybrid of toned muscles and unerring precision. He didn’t miss, so Chelsea couldn’t miss. But only for one season, the second time.

Even the greatest striker in Chelsea history bucked the trend for just one season. He returned and delivered, but only for a year. His second stint, from 2014 to 2015, ended with another Premier League title and a League Cup, encouraging the idealistic hero comeback theory.

So Lukaku was going to do a Drogba. A striker of similar stature and style, to some degree, Lukaku was younger, quicker, and arguably at the peak of his powers. He returned to Stamford Bridge aged 28, when Drogba was 34.

Lukaku had scored 64 goals in 95 games for Inter Milan over two seasons, the second of which resulted in the club’s first Serie A title in 11 seasons. The Belgian was a confident and deadly finisher, terrorizing Italian defenses and displaying a bulldozing swagger that eluded him during his previous spell at Manchester United.

What could go wrong? If an old Drogba had been good, a young Lukaku was definitely going to be better, as foggy feeling clouded rational judgment.

Legends shouldn’t look back, let alone the mercurial Lukaku, who struggled during a first spell at Chelsea, managing 10 appearances and zero goals in three seasons. He never settled at Manchester United either.

Legends shouldn’t look back, let alone the mercurial Lukaku, who struggled during a first spell at Chelsea, managing 10 appearances and zero goals in three seasons.

For all his apparent shortcomings, former United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew a striker when he saw one and Lukaku was always slightly off with the Red Devils. His weight, movement, touch, and full game were generally looking for something that remained elusive.

Lukaku too often looked like he was auditioning to play Lennie Small in Of mice and Men. Tall, heavy and surprisingly fragile, the proverbial “confidence player” groped around to find any break that could relieve the pressure.

He found one in Serie A, stepping away from the EPL spotlight and benefiting from Inter’s more direct approach, which made his return to Stamford Bridge more mysterious.

Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea is not Drogba’s Chelsea. The German coach treated Lukaku the way a rolling-eyed PE teacher might reluctantly pick the clumsy kid for the school team.

The striker scored just 15 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions last season – just eight in the EPL – as it became clear his aggressive qualities rarely matched Chelsea’s quicker approach.

He was essentially bypassed by his own teammates, with the nadir coming with those infamous stats against Crystal Palace. Lukaku touched the ball seven times. Tuchel didn’t start it again in the Premier League for two months.

And yet the myth persisted when he joined the club, the second coming of Drogba’s second coming, the return of an old boy to take his teammates to the next level, provide the final piece for the future or make amends for a heartbreaking past. Either way, the Blues have spent £97.5million on an experiment that has generally failed historically.

The closest example in terms of age and sporting peak might be Paul Pogba’s return to United, a disaster that didn’t require the services of Nostradamus as a diviner, just a reading of one of the related quotes to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Pogba around 2012.

According to Ferguson, Pogba was disrespectful and his late agent was insufferable. It was a gap between brands with competing values. And yet, four years later, the prodigal son returns, with a new haircut for a new day. But little had changed.

Why would it be? Pogba’s potential had been realized at Juventus, but he came with the same carefree personality and boyish characteristics that simply didn’t play at Old Trafford.

But nostalgia insisted otherwise. It is a trick of the mind, convincing us of a different outcome. In Greek, nostalgia derives from the words nostos (return) and algos (pain), or homesickness, a desire to return to something better, when things were familiar and comforting. If such simplistic thinking made Donald Trump’s election and Brexit possible, it can certainly convince us of the successful returns of Pogba and Lukaku.

Indeed, homecoming heroes often play into the Trumpian narrative. Whether it’s Gareth Bale at Tottenham (2007-2013 then 2020-2021) or Wayne Rooney at Everton (2002-04 and 2017-18) or Joe Cole at West Ham (1998-2003 and 2013-2014) or even Thierry Henry at Arsenal (loan 1999-2007 and 2012), their returns have given rise to hopes of restoring some brilliance to their clubs.

But Bale has struggled with injuries at Spurs. Rooney was a slower, heavier footballer at Everton and treated the opportunity like a long goodbye kiss. By the time Cole returned to West Ham, one of world football’s most promising talents had given way to a crocked nomad, drifting from club to club.

Gareth Bale's second stint with Tottenham fell through as he was injury-prone.

Gareth Bale’s second stint with Tottenham fell through as he was injury-prone. (PHOTO: Reuters//Matt Dunham)

Even Henry wasn’t quite the triumphant Gunners comeback that is now fondly remembered. While his winner against Leeds in the FA Cup in his first match raised the roof, his brief stint was truly a chance for young fans to see the legend in action, like Liam Gallagher performing at Knebworth for those who are too young people to watch Oasis. The greatest hits are always welcome, even if the moves are slower.

And, yes, Robbie Fowler retains a divine presence around Anfield, but his second stint at Liverpool saw 12 goals in all competitions in two years.

But Fowler offered the Reds the opportunity to reminisce, to enjoy the nostalgia in real time, via the pitch rather than YouTube, to briefly recall how good it was the first time.

Lukaku didn’t even make it. His second spell was almost as forgettable as the first, with the obvious difference being that it cost £97.5million the second time around. And now he’s about to start all over again.

He returns to Inter, where ultras have already told him to expect a mixed reception after his “betrayal” to leave the club.

They expect “humility” and “sweat” from Lukaku, informing him of the “need to win everything”. He will not be wrapped in the comforter of past achievements.

Like many before him, Lukaku will again find the nostalgia no match for the grim reality of Prozone’s stats.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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