Romelu Lukaku has a point to prove following his sensational return to Chelsea, 10 years after he first signed for the Premier League giants.
The 28-year-old Belgian never established himself as a young player at Stamford Bridge and the club were happy to let him leave for Everton back in 2017. Now he returns ready to show the club and its fans exactly what they missed the first time round, and why he’s now a £98million world-class striker.
But there’s another old – and rather odd – obstacle to overcome too. Having worn the No 18 during his first spell, Lukaku is now set to take the No 9 shirt at Chelsea once Tammy Abraham’s move to Roma is finalised – the young England forward touched down on Italian soil on Sunday morning to complete his £34m transfer and join Jose Mourinho’s revolution.
But, as Abraham found out, that fabled striker’s squad number seems to have something of a hex on it. So many revered centre forwards have flopped while wearing Chelsea’s No 9 in recent years that some fans have even called it ‘cursed’.
At most clubs, being given the No 9 is a source of great pride and responsibility… but at Chelsea, who have kicked off their season with a Super Cup victory over Villarreal and a Premier League win against Crystal Palace, it just seems to be a bit of a burden.
Having scored 42 goals in 74 Serie A appearances for Inter Milan after arriving from Manchester United in 2019, Lukaku will have no doubt he can complete his unfinished business at Chelsea, and banish any talk of a jinxed shirt.
There have been 15 different occupants of the ‘cursed’ No 9 since the start of the Premier League era, from the prolific Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to the far less so Steve Sidwell. Here, Sportsmail takes a look back at every one…
Tony Cascarino (1992-1994)
Signed in January 1992, Cascarino occupied the No 9 shirt for the first Premier League season… but he less than impressed the Stamford Bridge faithful. He only played nine games all season, scoring twice (against Tottenham and Coventry).
He kept the shirt for the following season, and played far more games, but still only managed four goals. Chelsea finished 11th, Cascarino was shipped off to Marseille and never played again for an English club!
Mark Stein (1994-1996)
Taking the reins the following season was Mark Stein, who signed for £1.5m from Celtic, despite interest from Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City. Understandably, there were high expectations and he certainly fulfilled them.
He scored in seven consecutive matches from December 1993 to February 1994, a Premier League record which stood until Ruud van Nistelrooy (and since Jamie Vardy) broke it. In total, he netted 25 goals in 63 games for Chelsea, before the arrival of Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola limited his playing time.
Following his retirement, he became a physiotherapist at Barnet, before moving onto Crawley Town. Currently, he can be found fixing injuries at Championship strugglers Rotherham United.
Gianluca Vialli (1996-1999)
The Italian joined as part of Ruud Gullit’s revolution at the Bridge, arriving as the former Juventus captain with a Champions League winners’ medal around his neck.
He scored 11 goals in his first season, 19 in the second and 10 in the third… and he became the club’s manager in February 1998. He retired from playing at the end of the 1998-99 season to concentrate on his job as boss, but has gone down in history as a legend at Stamford Bridge.
While at the club as a player, he won the FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Super Cup and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, before adding another FA Cup and a Charity Shield as manager.
Chris Sutton (1999-2000)
There is no doubting Sutton’s ability as a player – at Norwich, Blackburn and Celtic he was prolific – but it just didn’t happen at the Bridge. He had big shoes to fill in Vialli’s, but could not live up to his £10m price tag and scored just one league goal.
His other two goals for the club came against Skonto Riga in a Champions League qualifier, and Hull City in the FA Cup. The side got to the final of the same competition that season, but he didn’t make the squad. In the summer, he was sold to Celtic for £6m… and it didn’t take long to re-find his shooting boots.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (2000-2004)
Perhaps the most iconic No 9 in Chelsea’s Premier League history. A £15m club-record purchase from Atletico Madrid, Hasselbaink scored on his debut and never looked back. He netted 26 goals in his debut season, and went on to score 29 the season after, easily cementing himself as a fans’ favourite.
In the second half of his time at the club, the team was focused around Gianfranco Zola, which somewhat limited Hasselbaink’s playing time under Claudio Ranieri. Still, though, he only scored one goal less than Zola’s 16, and he was top scorer again for the next two seasons after that. In July 2004, he turned down approaches from Fulham, Celtic and Rangers and instead joined Middlesbrough on a two-year deal.
Mateja Kezman (2004-2005)
The 2004-2005 season is fondly remembered by Chelsea fans as their first Premier League title-winning campaign… but in terms of players, the likes of Frank Lampard, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Petr Cech are spoken about way before Kezman.
After tearing up the Dutch league with PSV Eindhoven, Kezman only scored four goals in 25 league games and headed to Atletico Madrid at the end of the season. Not the best time then, you may think. According to the player himself, though, he loved it: ‘Chelsea was the best thing in my career. That was the climax of my career, for sure. Living and playing in London was something I will never forget.’
Hernan Crespo (2005-2006)
Returning from a loan spell at AC Milan for the 2005-06 season, Hernan Crespo took the vacant No 9 shirt and wowed supporters with some scintillating displays and eye-catching goals as he scored 13 goals to help Chelsea win another league title.
His family, though, never settled and Chelsea fans will always feel as though they didn’t see the best of the Argentine in England. After his impressive displays in 05-06, he went back on loan to Italy – this time with Inter – to see out his contract with the Blues.
Khalid Boulahrouz (2006-2007)
You can forgive the casual football fan for forgetting Khalid Boulahrouz’s time as Chelsea’s No 9. In fact, it would be more than reasonable to forget that he was No 9, given that he was a central defender.
He arrived from Hamburg for £8.5m in the summer of 2006, and was given the shirt as it was one of the few available following Crespo’s exit. He made a promising start, playing well against Liverpool and Barcelona in particular, but gradually fell out of favour, in part due to performance, but injuries didn’t help either.
Steve Sidwell (2007-2008)
At this point it was becoming commonplace for Chelsea’s No 9s to only last a season, so Steve Sidwell didn’t really stand a chance. He joined from Reading, and the No 9 shirt got a little closer to a striker but eventually stopped just short in central midfield with Sidwell.
He never really established himself in Jose Mourinho’s starting XI, making his debut as an 83rd-minute substitute against Birmingham. He played 25 times in all competitions that season, but many were off the bench and he headed to Aston Villa at the end of the campaign.
Franco Di Santo (2008-2009)
It would be harsh to dismiss Franco Di Santo’s time at Chelsea as a failure, given his lack of age and experience upon joining the west London club. He was just 19 when he made his debut, and his entire season as No 9 was made up of substitute appearances.
He played 16 times – eight in the league, eight in various cup competitions – but did not manage to score a goal. He was shipped out on loan to Blackburn the following season, before joining Wigan on a permanent deal.
Fernando Torres (2011-2014)
The much-maligned Fernando Torres turns up next. Clearly, there were huge expectations placed upon his shoulders when he arrived. A £50m price tag made him the sixth most expensive footballer of all time, and he had been prolific at Liverpool.
In truth, though, when people discuss the curse of Chelsea’s No 9, Torres’ name is often the first port of call. He scored his first goal in April, ending a run of 903 minutes without scoring for his new club… and it didn’t get any better from there.
In the 2011-12 season, he went on a 24-game barren run, eventually ending the season with six league goals. He got eight the year after, and five the year after that. Indeed, the damage was done, and he moved onto AC Milan on a two-year loan, with his career in steep decline.
Radamel Falcao (2015-2016)
After a season without a No 9, Falcao arrived on loan from Monaco with the potential to make the deal permanent at the end of the season. In Ligue 1, he had scored for fun but a temporary loan spell at Manchester United saw the goals dry up.
It was now Chelsea’s turn to try and turn his fortunes around, but the then 29-year-old once again failed to recreate his scoring form in the French leagues. He netted once in the Premier League, only playing 10 games in the competition overall, before being sent back to Monaco in the summer of 2016.
Alvaro Morata (2017-2018)
Thirteen is unlucky for some, as the old saying goes, and that appears to be the case for Morata. Chelsea’s 13th No 9 in Premier League history failed to hit the heights expected of him in west London and was shipped out on loan. In fact, he even wore No 29, such was his desire to get rid of the ‘cursed’ No 9 shirt.
During his first season, Morata netted just 15 goals across all competitions. While his second season at the club score him score just nine times before returning to Madrid after 12 years, joining the club on an 18-month loan deal.
Having struggled to prove his worth at Chelsea, Morata signed permanently for Atletico in July 2020 – leaving the cursed No 9 shirt vacant for its next victim.
Gonzalo Higuain (2019)
With Chelsea desperate for a focal point in 2018-19, Maurizio Sarri reverted back to what he knew. Gonzalo Higuain had been prolific in his vibrant Napoli side and the pair were reunited when the Argentine joined on loan from AC Milan in January 2019.
Fears over the 31-year-old’s fitness and suitability to the pace of the Premier League proved well-founded. His return of five goals in 18 games paints a better picture than his six-month spell at Stamford Bridge actually was, despite an encouraging brace against Huddersfield in just his third game.
Tammy Abraham (2019-present)
Lukaku’s arrival has pushed Abraham out the Chelsea door – with Roma his destination for the 2021-2022 season.
The 23-year-old had been prolific in two seasons on loan in the Championship with Bristol City in 2016-17 and with Aston Villa, scoring 52 in total in both campaigns.
However, a loan season at Swansea in between ended in relegation and a return of just five Premier League goals. His Chelsea career stagnated following the arrival of Thomas Tuchel.
Abraham – who ended last season as Chelsea’s joint-top scorer with 12 goals – made just seven appearances after Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard – who was a fan of Abraham – as head coach.
The England forward is not in Tuchel’s plans – he was an unused substitute in the Super Cup penalty shootout win – and suggested he was not his go-to No 9 when speaking about Lukaku.
‘Romelu is one of the guys like [Erling] Haaland at Dortmund, [Robert] Lewandowski at Bayern Munich, Harry Kane at Tottenham, who is a real No 9 who loves to score and who has a presence in the box. That is not a secret. The sentence is easy to repeat for any coach in the world,’ he said.