As a Chelsea-supporting teenager desperate to make it in the Premier League, life in England came at Romelu Lukaku fast following his arrival from Anderlecht in the summer of 2011.
He did not start in the Premier League until the final day of that debut campaign and played just 140 league minutes in total for the Blues that term, more often than not reduced to the role of onlooker as the Blues struggled in the league but ultimately claimed glory in both the FA Cup and Champions League under Roberto Di Matteo. The season had begun with Andre Villas-Boas in charge.
That summer, he departed on loan to West Brom, still only a teenager and with Premier League experience his most pressing need. Yet in his 12 months ensconced at Cobham with the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech, Ashley Cole and his idol Didier Drogba, Lukaku had already learned a lot.
The lack of game time was difficult but, as he looks back at that period now with hindsight and the wisdom of over a decade in the senior game, it proved significant in shaping the professional he is now.
‘It was painful and helpful, but I would say more helpful because it gave me the mentality and the mindset that I needed to become the player I am today,’ says our number nine.
‘The team was very good but nobody saw the extra work they did after the training sessions. As an 18-year-old, I saw first-hand every day how much the players worked on their craft.
‘That’s when I knew that was what you had to do to become this type of player. I told myself “when I’m not playing, this is what I’m going to do” and it basically just became a lifestyle.’
'It happened because now is the right time, the right age, the team is doing well and everything is there for it to be successful.’
— Romelu Lukaku
Lukaku’s career took his lifestyle from the Midlands up to Merseyside, eventually on a permanent basis, before later moves to Manchester and Milan. Yet while leading for Man United and Inter, the Belgian’s passion as a Chelsea supporter never wavered and he maintained that desire and belief to return to SW6 before long.
‘I knew I would improve as a player so it was just about timing,’ he explains about returning to Stamford Bridge. ‘I had two opportunities to come back, in 2016 and 2017, but it didn’t happen for various reasons.
‘In the end, it happened because now is the right time, the right age, the team is doing well and everything is there for it to be successful.’
The centre-forward certainly looks at home in south-west London and at the apex of Thomas Tuchel’s side. If goals remain his sustenance, a tally of eight in 12 games for club and country so far in 2021/22 has whet his appetite.
However, Lukaku 2.0 is also more content and at ease in his own skin. He still has plenty he wants to achieve, particularly winning trophies in royal blue, but he isn’t burdened by a desperation to prove people wrong and that has taken a weight from his shoulders
‘I’m much more calm,’ he adds. ‘I’ve matured with fatherhood and I’m more laidback. After winning in Italy and knowing what it takes to get there, that really helped me. In the last three years, I’ve been able to build something that I can take on for the rest of my career.
‘It can be complicated but when you really set your mind to do something and you really dedicate everything that you have to that goal, you can achieve it. I recognised my little qualities and talent but I also knew what I was not good at and I really spent a lot of time working on those attributes to be the complete package.
‘Now, it feels good. I’m very happy with the opportunity and we’ve started really well as a team. My team-mates have made life very easy for me and the coach is doing a great job. Our performances have been good but we’re always looking for the next challenge.’
Once club football returns at the weekend, that next assignment will be away at Brentford for Lukaku and the Blues, with the test being to keep ahead at the top of the early Premier League standings.