There was a point after the departure of Maurizio Sarri in June of 2019 that it felt like a burden had been lifted from Stamford Bridge. To outsiders, Sarri was mostly viewed as a success, getting Chelsea back into the Champions League, finishing third and winning the Europa League.
Though for those ensconced in the Chelsea bubble, his short tenure led to a pretty toxic divide between supporters that grew on social media, even spilling out into the stadium at points.
Sarri was a culture clash with Chelsea and for the sanity of everyone, the split was the most logical resolution. Although Romelu Lukaku might have a more unified consensus amongst fans over his future, his potential exit has also reached a toxic point of no return.
Sitting in my East Stand seat during the Sarri year, the temperature had increasingly become confrontational and unenjoyable, with even players like Jorginho being collateral damage due to the ire aimed at the man in the dugout. This past April, I felt that temperature again but this time to Lukaku.
It was the night of arguably Chelsea’s most dispiriting result of the season, losing 4-2 at home to London rivals Arsenal and in the second half, Lukaku was replaced with Kai Havertz. As the Belgian sprinted off, audible sections booed before awaiting the arrival of Havertz who then got an ironically loud cheer.
Once a player is booed by their own fans, it does feel like a line has been crossed, one that was going to be very hard to reverse.
Since Lukaku’s ill-judged interview with Sky Italia in December that simultaneously questioned the tactics of Thomas Tuchel and heaped praise on the club he just left, the mood around the striker soured and it has felt like Lukaku has been an antagonist for some of the more offended supporters.
It is naive to solely gauge the temperature on social media and extrapolate greater meaning, but once that anger spilt into the seats of the Matthew Harding Lower, the most vocal stand inside the Bridge, you could no longer ignore it.
Enough has and will continue to be said about the ill-fated return of Lukaku, who is mostly to blame? Could it have gone in a different direction? And then gauging what happens next.
But for as much as the idea of persisting with Lukaku might have looked a realistic possibility after he scored three goals in two games against Wolves and Leeds in May, it has become clear the player no longer wants to remain and in all honesty, I doubt many Chelsea fans wanted him to either.
As Sarri opted to leave on his own terms, Lukaku also desires a swift return to Italy of a different kind, one that signals an early piece of swift decision-making from Todd Boehly. It is refreshing to see Chelsea’s new hierarchy aiming to resolve an increasingly awkward situation in an effective manner.
This situation cannot drag into next season with regular briefing indicating a firm backing of Tuchel, a bold rebuild and a positive start to a new era. Although Tuchel did agree to the Lukaku transfer, the lack of connection between Lukaku, Tuchel and Chelsea means that there is only one option left.
Unlike Sarri, one suspects Lukaku’s return won’t quite rival the lasting scars of the online divide but it will be defined by the negativity it sparked. An unfortunate story that should have heralded something greater, likely concluding with little positivity.