London – They were nine games into the Eredivisie season when Valencia came calling for Ronald Koeman in October 2007. PSV Eindhoven, the team he had led to the Dutch title, had won seven and drawn two and were enjoying the view from the top of the table. Yet Koeman had always wanted to manage in Spain and the relevant people at PSV were candid enough to realize Valencia was an upgrade. Jan Reker, PSV’s general director, would later say: “Our question to Valencia was: ‘Can’t this wait until next year?’”
The answer was a polite no. Valencia’s information was that Koeman wanted to go. He signed a three-year contract at the Mestalla and there was no attempt from PSV to block the move. Koeman wanted to advance his career and he went with their best wishes. “Ronald has always said he dreamed of coaching a top club in Spain,” Reker explained. “We respect that. This is a dream club for him and they didn’t want to wait. It’s a pity for PSV but the ultimate challenge for Ronald. I was a coach myself and when you have a dream, you must take it when it comes.”
All of which sounds particularly magnanimous, bearing in mind the stress and disruption that can happen when a manager and his staff leave that suddenly. PSV promptly lost their next two games, including one against Fenerbahce that stopped them qualifying from the Champions League group phase, and not every club would have been so grown up about a leading employee deciding he would be better elsewhere.
Koeman, like so many of the people at the higher end of his profession, has been doing it all his career and, if the figures are to be believed, he doubled his salary to £7m a year when he defected to Everton last summer, having previously promised there was no way he would leave Southampton in the lurch. “No, because I am the manager of Southampton, and I have the contract for two years more,” he said in April 2015. “I have to respect my contract, I like to respect my contract and I am very happy.”
Everton finished five places lower than Southampton last season but are historically the bigger club, they were willing to pay him more and had a new owner, Farhad Moshiri, with the financial power, in theory, to take them closer to the elite. Koeman duly decided his contract at Southampton did not matter so much after all, in the same way we can probably guess what would happen if Barcelona tried to prise him away from Goodison this summer. Just a hunch, but it is difficult to imagine him favoring Everton ahead of those sweet-scented nights at the Camp Nou.
Plainly, though, a different set of rules exists when it is one of Koeman’s own players, in this case Romelu Lukaku, who wants to explore his possibilities at a higher level. Lukaku has informed Everton he does not want to sign a new contract and, though that must be galling for the club’s manager, Koeman’s reaction is a reminder about the double standards that exist in football. Lukaku, he says, needs to remember he has a contract until the summer of 2019. “Everyone knows what can happen in football but you need to respect your contract.”
These stand-offs are never easy and Koeman, to give him his due, is undoubtedly in a difficult position. In football, it is always seen as an affront when the star player wants to leave and the reputational damage for Everton, a proud, emotive old club, would be considerable because of what it says about their current status. Lukaku is precisely the kind of player Everton want to shape their team around and it must be jarring for the club’s supporters that their best striker feels he has outgrown the club.
All the same, it is a bit rich for Koeman to lecture Lukaku unless he is willing to apply the same rules to his own life and it is not the first time recently that it has been possible to detect this form of hypocrisy.
Slaven Bilic is another one if you remember how he could hardly disguise his disdain for Dimitri Payet in January, drawing a lot of public sympathy in the process, while conveniently forgetting that in his own playing days he also took on West Ham to engineer a way out, barely a year after becoming their record transfer.
True, Bilic did not go to the same lengths as the striking Payet but the interviews from the time are revealing, nonetheless. “He’s on a fantastic contract, the highest paid player in the club’s history,” Harry Redknapp, West Ham’s manager, describing himself as “bitter and angry”, said in one. “He signed it – now he wants a move and feels Everton are a big club, so there’s nothing we can do. West Ham are a big club in our eyes, but he feels otherwise.”
Bilic’s transfer was confirmed in March 1997, though in fairness he did agree to stay at West Ham until the end of the season. “I had to do this,” he explained on his first day at Goodison. “We are professionals – all players know, if anyone gets the chance of a big club, he must take it.”
Unfortunately for Everton, the same applies to them as long as they are on the rung below the top clubs. Lukaku is the first Everton player to score 20 times or more in three successive seasons since the Gwladys Street end used to sing about Bob Latchford walking on water. Lukaku also managed 17 on loan from Chelsea in the 2013‑14 season and is the leading scorer in the top division after Saturday’s late double against Hull. And yet the Belgian’s three years as a fully-fledged Everton player have comprised two 11th-place finishes and this season a long period of drift in the no man’s land between the top six and the bottom 13.
Everton moved into seventh position on Boxing Day and stayed there until Saturday’s 4-0 win against Hull City moved them up a place. Everton rose to sixth place in the League, but they dropped to seventh after Manchester United defeated Middlesbrough 3-1 on Sunday. Everton has however played two more games that Jose José Mourinho’s team. Everton, in all likelihood, will finish seventh and on that basis it is hard to build a case that Lukaku is being unreasonable . Of course he is restless. Of course he is looking round Goodison, a beautiful yet tired ground, and wondering whether he can wait for Moshiri’s plans to come together.
The matter has not been helped by his agent Mino Raiola stating recently that a new contract was “99.9 percent done” and, in hindsight, Lukaku could possibly have operated with a little more tact in the interview that has clearly got under Koeman’s skin over the last few days.
At the same time, it is difficult to think of it as treachery when Everton had actually invited journalists to speak to the player and, rereading the striker’s comments, it isn’t easy to understand why Koeman has alluded to possible disciplinary action.
Lukaku’s observation that the club need to create new history, rather than risking allegations of “living in the past”, is precisely what can be heard in any of the pubs around Goodison on match day. Perhaps he was getting a little too full of himself with his comments about the club’s transfer activity – “There were some players we could have got, that I knew the club could have got and they didn’t” – but it was hardly a diatribe. He just sounds like an ambitious, driven professional who cannot help but feel dissatisfied with seventh place and two third‑round exits in the cup competitions.
More than anything, he sounds impatient and Koeman’s response is hardly going to alleviate those feelings. “Everybody knows you can’t do this in one year,” Everton’s manager said. “It takes time. How long did it take for Tottenham to be where they are now? Three or four years. You can’t do it in one year.” But that is precisely the point. Top players want to be part of a finished project – or at least one that is nearer to completion than three or four years. Lukaku can hardly be blamed for thinking there are greater adventures elsewhere and Koeman should know from experience how it feels.