Steve Clarke, who you should remember as Jose Mourinho's assistant while in charge at Chelsea, has found somewhat-surprising success at West Bromwich Albion this term. The Scottish manager has managed not just to sustain the work done under Roy Hodgson, but to improve upon it, helped in no small part by 13-goal Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku. It's no surprise, then, that he's faced numerous questions about the future of the Belgian striker. The latest quotes, reported here in the Birmingham Mail, are interesting not just to Albion supporters, but also to fans of his parent club.
"He is contracted (with Albion) until the end of June, will go back to Chelsea for pre-season and I’m 99 per cent sure he will do pre-season with Chelsea and they will decide whether they want to let him out for another season.
"We have to develop the squad without knowing if he’ll be back. We have to plan for him not returning.
"Nobody knows where he will be next season even though I keep getting asked this.
"Next season the parent club will decide whether to keep him or let him go out on loan.
"All I would say is that if he goes back out on loan I think we’re in a good position to get him again.
"He loves it here, he’s been positive about the club, he’s been nominated for young player of the year, which tells you that he’s had a good season, so I think he will be happy here."
These quotes are pretty encouraging to me, actually, and not only for the prospect of another year of Lukaku at the Hawthorns. It shows that, in the mind of Steve Clarke anyway, that Chelsea have a clear plan for him, and a clear idea of his development. Right now, I'd agree with the notion that Lukaku is on the cusp of the Chelsea first team. Of course, he could certainly do a job right now, but this is where the club's loan strategy is tested to its fullest extent. At the moment, the positives of keeping him at the club or sending him on another loan are about equal to the negatives of the other.
Chelsea must read the situation pretty perfectly, so as not to damage his prospects by pushing him too early, but also not to alienate him by sending him on loan too many times. In this case, I'd hazard to guess that Chelsea will follow past form, which is to be conservative with first-team chances. That is to say that we'll go into pre-season with the expectation of him getting another loan, and needing a stellar showing to get consideration for a full role at Chelsea.
It's great to see that in just one season, Lukaku has gone from a player looking very, very raw to one with a legitimate shot at place in the squad. Even if he doesn't quite show the necessary form during Chelsea's pre-season, there's a good chance he'll be going back to the club which helped achieve that development. This time, however, because West Brom have to plan for life without him, he'll probably be facing an even-bigger challenge. One, perhaps, which would put him over the threshold for a coveted place at his favourite club. Having two great options available to you, and virtually no bad ones, is always a good thing. All in all, it's a good time to be Romelu Lukaku.