Romelu Lukaku is one of the most promising young strikers in the world. That doesn't mean Everton aren't taking a leap of faith by shelling out a club-record £28 million on his return to Goodison Park.
Toffees supporters must still be pinching themselves just to make sure that this is the real world and not some parallel dimension in which Everton have swapped places with somebody like Manchester City or Chelsea:
Lukaku's fee is nearly twice Everton's previous transfer record—£15 million for Marouane Fellaini in 2008.
David Moyes was lauded for his ability to keep the club competitive on a shoestring budget. Roberto Martinez watched Marouane Fellaini walk out the door last summer, one year after Jack Rodwell did the same. Despite that, he helped the club finish fifth, its highest position since 2008/09.
If Everton are prepared to spend this kind of money more regularly, then we're talking serious top four consideration on a yearly basis at the very least.
Martinez wasn't shy when discussing the possible sea change this transfer represents, per EvertonFC.com's Adam Clark:
The arrival of Rom is more than just a signing, it's the fruition of a lot of hard work to get the player we wanted. This is a big moment for Everton's history and the perfect way of getting the squad ready for the start of the season.
Club legend Graeme Sharp also believes that ownership was laying down a marker with Lukaku's arrival, via EvertonFC.com's Mike Taylor:
It’s a massive amount of money to pay but they’ve backed the manager and they believe in him. Fair play to the Club and Bill Kenwright for making it available because Roberto wanted him, he worked hard and he eventually got his man. They’ve obviously spoken to him and he liked it here. It is fantastic that he’s back because he is only a young boy with a good goalscoring record. It’s definitely a sign of intent from the Club.
Perhaps it's overstating the situation a bit, but this transfer could be a turning point for the club.
You can understand why Everton are banking so heavily on Lukaku. He has previous experience with the club and established himself as one of the most talented under-21 attacking players in the world:
Romelu Lukaku: Has scored at least 13 more goals than any other current U21 player in Europe’s top 5 leagues in the last 2 seasons #CFC— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) July 28, 2014
Lukaku is also wise beyond his years on the pitch. Football writer Daniel Storey compared the Belgian striker's number of appearances with where some of the best players in the world were at the same point in their respective careers:
Lukaku young in age, but not experience. Made 211th appearance before turning 21. Messi - 123 Courtois - 140 Neymar - 176 Rooney - 207— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) July 31, 2014
Of course, there's no guarantee that the 21-year-old becomes the player that everyone expects him to be. He was inconsistent during stretches of last season, and Everton aren't blessed with a glut of goal-scoring options behind him.
Everton made a serious wager on their future success, albeit a necessary bet to make if they truly want to take a step forward in the Premier League.
Financially, the Toffees aren't yet in a position where they can draw in world-class players. Instead, they have to gamble a bit and hope that they can turn very good players into great players. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.
For every Fellaini, Steven Pienaar, Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines, there's a Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Yakubu, Andy Johnson and Nikica Jelavic.
What Everton are doing with Lukaku isn't new, but it's unprecedented in terms of their previous transfer history. They can't afford to have it fail.
Andy Carroll and Robinho were similar statement signings for Liverpool and Manchester City, respectively. Neither worked out, but the former had the built-in revenue streams to recover, while the latter simply went out and bought more players because money grows on trees in Abu Dhabi.
There isn't an unlimited bucket of cash sitting in Bill Kenwright's office, nor is there an abundance of commercial revenue streams for the Toffees to tap in the event that Lukaku fails in part to deliver Champions League football.
Skyrocketing Premier League television revenues could've been a factor in Everton signing Lukaku and could allow the club to remain somewhat competitive financially with the established elite. According to The Telegraph's Jeremy Wilson, they earned a little over £85 million last season. You wonder, though, how much of that money went to the club's operating costs.
Most of what likely facilitated the Lukaku deal was less television revenue and more player sales. According to TransferLeague.co.uk, Fellaini went to Manchester United for £27.5 million, almost exactly what Everton paid for the young forward.
There was also the £15 million from the Jack Rodwell sale, £10 million from Mikel Arteta and maybe even some of the £22 million left over from Joleon Lescott's move to Manchester City.
In order to further this project, the Toffees can't afford to keep selling off their best player(s) every year. Lukaku must be the first of at least a few more big-money signings to arrive at Goodison Park over the next few years.
So if that money isn't coming from player sales, it will have to be made through participation in continental competitions, specifically the Champions League.
Playing in the Europa League won't be good enough to keep Everton spending at a healthy pace. Sevilla earned €14.6 million for winning the entire competition last year, according to UEFA. Compare that to Marseille, who were eliminated from the Champions League after failing to pick up a single point. They earned €32.5 million. Celtic finished last in Group H but still took home nearly €17.6 million.
Everton have been financially prudent in the past, but they could be tempted after a while to spend money they don't have in an effort to crack the top four after continuing to get close but failing.
One only needs to look at Aston Villa and Leeds United to see what happens when a club lives above its financial means in pursuit of European riches. Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff City are slightly lesser examples of what kind of damage overspending can do.
If Everton fail to make a jump into the Champions League in the next few years, they'll very likely end up selling Lukaku. Even if they make a profit from that sale, they will still be caught in the same cycle of offloading their best player and looking to rebuild.