x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Romelu Lukaku embraces chance to make name for himself in Premier League

After languishing on the fringes at Chelsea, the Belgian forward is finally living up to his reputation on loan at West Bromwich Albion.

West Brom loan striker Romelu Lukaku.
West Brom loan striker Romelu Lukaku.

The officials at the registry of births in Anvers were puzzled. As the proud father carefully wrote out the name of his firstborn son, a registrar in the Belgian town's council building wondered aloud if "Romelu", an unfamiliar name, had been invented as a neat mix of Romulus and Remus (twin brothers from Roman mythology). Or was it something else?

The proud father explained he had come up with Romelu by combining the first syllables of his own names. In the years to come, Roger Menama Lukaku - RO-ME-LU - would quickly appreciate that little Romelu had inherited a good deal more from his father than an unusual appellation.

The teenager currently accumulating Premier League goals with West Bromwich Albion has good footballing genes. Roger Lukaku, now 45, was a talented centre-forward, coming to the peak of his professional career when the first of his three children was born in the Belgium where he played professionally in the top division and would later settle.

Lukaku senior, an international with what was then Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of Congo - had a fearsomely powerful shot, a lively turn of pace and a sharp enough mind to have combined his sporting career with degree studies in economics.

Lukaku junior has been blessed with a similarly wide range of physical attributes, an erudition that surprises many in English football - Romelu speaks a number of languages - and, as he would admit, he has enjoyed more privilege and opportunity than his father did on the way to thriving as a footballer.

Yet, 12 months ago, Romelu Lukaku had reason to nurse some doubts that the great expectations which have been part of his upbringing since before he even entered his teenagers, would be fulfilled at the elite end of the game.

He was six months into a lucrative contract with Chelsea, the club who had paid around €20 million (Dh98m) for him, and he had a mere three substitute league appearances to his name. The "New Didier Drogba", as the then 18 year old had been feted at the time of his transfer from Anderlecht, felt almost a discard.

Lukaku would go on to voice his frustration to Belgian media later in the 2011/12 season, of how he had felt marginalised when Chelsea won the Champions League. By then, the idea of a loan spell, or even a permanent move elsewhere, looked a wise and attractive option.

"He wasn't himself and he needed to play," says one former coach of Lukaku's.

West Brom, under the guidance of a new manager, Steve Clarke, has turned out the springboard Lukaku needed. His seven goals in as many league starts - and several appearances from the bench - have evidently boosted his self-belief. They have also convinced observers of the English game that a potential that had been flagged by respected scouts and agents throughout the player's rapid rise in Belgian football has genuine substance.

Clarke's concern until the transfer window closes at the end of the month is that Chelsea will exercise their contractual right to recall Lukaku during the January transfer window, a clause they requested when they agreed the season-long loan.

The sale of Daniel Sturridge by Chelsea to Liverpool seemed to leave the London club short of backup to Fernando Torres in their roster of forwards, though the recruitment of Newcastle United's Demba Ba as Sturridge's replacement, will ease Clarke's worries a little.

Clarke, a former assistant coach at Chelsea, has known about Lukaku's development, his athletic prowess for many years. Chelsea had been among the first of several wealthy European clubs to monitor the young Lukaku as he racked up eye-catching statistics as a goalscorer in Belgian youth football.

There were his 130 goals in two seasons at Under 13 level with Lierse; joining Anderlecht from there, he continued to tower above his contemporaries. His mother, Adolphine, recalled how other parents would mistake her son for being much older than many of those he shared a pitch with, because of his size and musculature. In fact, he was often playing in teams in which he was the youngest.

He made his top-flight professional debut for Anderlecht 11 days after his 16th birthday. He was still not 17 when he won his first senior cap for the Belgian national team. Though he qualified to represent DR Congo, his parents had always favoured his pursuing an international career with the country of his birth.

Roger Lukaku's experiences with the Zaire national team, he would later relate, had often been taxing because of poor management by the Congolese Federation.

The family's own management of Romelu's career has been careful. His parents insisted he maintained his commitment to school studies even once it became obvious he had a very plausible future in sport. Within Belgium, his articulateness and precocity has helped gain him major sponsorship deals.

And Lukaku may yet become the spearhead of what should be the finest Belgian national team for more than 30 years, one that combines the diverse talents of Manchester City's Vincent Kompany, Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Everton's Marouane Fellaini.

He has not yet mastered the English Premier League as effectively and as regularly as they have, but his stint with West Brom has offered enough evidence that a striker with such abundant assets, and still five months shy of his 20th birthday, has it in him to do so.