It wasn’t so long ago, was it? It certainly feels like it. Only nine months ago, Romelu Lukaku sat beside Roberto Martinez and announced to the world that he was now an Everton player, and a permanent one. “I don’t have any regrets. I am very happy with the choices I’ve made.” he said, and he was unabashedly candid in his praise for Martinez. “He’s someone who I can develop under as a player, he makes us better as a team, he lets us play good football, and that’s something that I need as a young footballer.” Martinez was equally ecstatic; “We are delighted” he said, blushing. By all accounts, and with that highly promising loan season in the bank, it was a heavenly marriage. There they stood, both beaming, and jointly hoisting the blue shirt for the cameras. Ah, yes, how long ago it feels now.
The dark clouds have rolled in since then and, with Everton languishing in 13th position (a spot to which they jumped up into only recently) the foreboding figure of Mino Raiola has now entered the scene. Player agent for the likes of Mario Balotelli and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (both serial club-jumpers) the Italian-born wheeler-dealer has been enduringly characterised as, to put it politely – as Martinez did a few days ago – a “colourful character”. And, to form, he has wasted no time in stirring the pot or, to put to put it bluntly, sending an almighty welly into the already prone corpse that is Everton’s season.
“If we had met each other earlier, he wouldn’t have played for Everton. Maybe somewhere else, maybe he would still be at Chelsea. I want to be clear: Romelu is a better striker than Diego Costa and could have done the same as the Spaniard did this season. But the Chelsea directors had decided to buy another star than giving confidence to one of their young boys.”
Raiola twisted his steel-cap, withdrew, and punted once more.
“Juventus was interested in him last summer but I want to be clear: I don’t think one of the Italian teams can pay that amount of money for one player. It’s almost impossible. We have never said he would leave at the end of this season. We will see what happens in the summer, but the Everton directors don’t have to think Rom will play there for the rest of his career. Later on, he’ll play for one of world’s best teams: PSG, Manchester City, Manchester United or Bayern Munich. Big names, but nothing is impossible as Rom has great potential.”
The day before, Martinez had been doing his best to becalm the frayed nerves of the scores of panicked Evertonians, but his words came out sounding more hopeful than reassuring.
“Everyone speaks about the colourful character that Mino Raiola is but he has a lot of players who are happy to stay at one club. I dealt with Mino Raiola at Wigan and not many people know that he had Danny de Ridder or Vladimir Weiss, players who have been happy to stay at a club. I don’t think there is anything to read into that.”
Hmmm, yes, Roberto, thank you kindly for that, but I do think it unwise to draw parallels between one of the most promising young strikers in the world, a player for whom more than a handful of uber-clubs would happily find a place in their stables for, and Danny de Ridder. De Ridder currently plays for SC Cambuur, in the Netherlands. Raiola’s new client, your best striker, is making eyes at Juventus.
It’s all incredibly worrying for the Toffees. Perhaps even more so than the wallowing bog that has been their season. This time last year, with 31 matches played, Everton had 60 points and were sitting in fifth place, rosy-cheeked and drunk on life. Right now, with 30 matches completed, they’re eight league places and 26 points worse off. Theirs has been a stunning fall, the largest points swing in the league. Their Champions League tilt, so credible last season, is now a dream so wild, David Attenborough is considering doing his next series on it. Martinez’s reputation has been horribly diminished, and his vibrant attacking philosophy has been crunched into insignificance by his team’s defensive haplessness. The last thing they need is the kick in the teeth that is Lukaku aggravating for a transfer, but it seems that’s exactly what they’re getting. Lukaku spoke directly to his agent (at the time), not to Jose Mourinho, when he wanted to leave Chelsea, so why should his mode of communication be any different here? It isn’t unreasonable to assume that Raiola’s words are Lukaku’s as well.
Drifting back into the infinitely more comforting realm of recollection, the most pleasant memory of Lukaku’s move to Everton was the sense that it had, if only in a small way, righted some sort of imbalance in the world of football. Here was a player, young, strong, ambitious, whose time in the Chelsea loan limbo had only given his career momentum. At West Brom and then Everton, Lukaku had shown everyone (except, apparently, parent club) how talented a player he was, and now he was taking said talents to a club where he felt wanted, where he had made a connection, even if they were a perennial underdog. He might have gone to Juventus at that time, or Atletico Madrid, or somewhere bigger, but he didn’t. He was the player, and his was the transfer, that would yank Everton out of their also-ran existence and into the elite, wasn’t he?
“I want to develop, I want to become one of the best, and he [Martinez] wants to make our team one of the best teams in England” Lukaku said nine months ago. One of the best teams in England Everton are not, and this is likely the sour point for their big Belgian. Martinez, plainly speaking, has not kept Everton at the top table, to the contrary, he has overseen a torrid slide to the bottom. Lukaku feels he’s been sold a lie, and now he wants out. How quickly the batter bitters, it seems. This season was already a bottomless source of chagrin for Everton. And now, as is often the case in England’s north, when it rains, it pours.