Ademola Lookman ruthless decision left Everton with regrets despite what everyone knew about him

No-one at Everton was in any doubt over the potential of Ademola Lookman but his stint at the club was destined to fail.

It could have been so different - it took just four minutes for him to display a glimpse of the stardust that on Wednesday night saw him write his name into the history of European football with his Europa League-winning hat-trick.

But up to now, his debut strike in a hammering of Manchester City had been overshadowed by the wondergoal of another youngster in Royal Blue, in another of the ‘what might have been’ moments of recent years. The cause of so many of them has been the same - the instability that has characterised the Farhad Moshiri era.

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When Lookman slid the ball through the legs of Claudio Bravo to add the gloss to a 4-0 home win over title chasers City, to many at Everton it felt like the culmination of a well-worked plan. Lookman had been on the radar of the club’s recruitment team for most of the 12 months before January 2017, when he became the most expensive signing from a League One club as an initial £7.5m move saw him plucked from Charlton Athletic. Then 19, his rise to prominence had seen him earn an England Under-20s call-up and interest from Everton was cemented with the arrival of Damian Matthew as a club scout in the autumn of 2016. As a talent spotter in London, Matthew had been tracking Lookman for some time and his reports fed into the wider interest back at Finch Farm that led to Everton moving for Lookman under director of football Steve Walsh. Days later he was brought on at Goodison Park in a game best remembered for the gorgeous dinked finish of Tom Davies as Everton ran riot - Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Miralles also grabbing goals.

That was as good as it got for Lookman in Royal Blue, however. Only 14 starts followed before his departure to RB Leipzig in a move that left a sense of regret at the club. How much Ronald Koeman knew about Lookman when he was signed is open to debate. He quickly saw the teenager’s potential, but was also ruthless with a player who still had a lot to learn. A few weeks after the City win, Lookman started the 6-3 victory over Bournemouth and played well - but was still given a public telling off by his manager in the second half. His lack of trust appeared to become clear after he missed two good chances in the goalless draw at Middlesbrough that followed and his start in the next game against Sunderland would be his last under Koeman.

Koeman only lasted until the following October but the arrival of Sam Allardyce did not change Lookman’s fortunes and by the January of 2018 the club and player were looking at loan options. Allardyce favoured Derby County but Lookman preferred the opportunity to move to Germany with RB Leipzig and got his way. He quickly found form and scored five and recorded four assists in his first 11 Bundesliga appearances. When he returned to Merseyside there was still hope he could have an impact for Everton, by this time managed by Marco Silva and with Marcel Brands as the director of football. Both Silva and Brands refused to sell him that summer, though Lookman had his heart on a return to Germany and was omitted from the squad for the opening game of the 2018/19 campaign. He was a bit-part player that season and while Silva hoped to keep working with him, it was clear there was frustration with the player it was felt struggled for consistency.

Silva revealed to the ECHO: “He is a young football player but, being honest with you, I expect Ademola to be on a different level already this season. I keep believing, 100%, in his quality as a football player, there are no doubts about that, but what I want to see coming from him is the same desire coming from him, each day, to achieve that, to reach that level he wants and the level I believe he can play at."

Those words were one thing, but competition was another as Lookman was left to battle it out with the likes of Theo Walcott, Richarlison and Bernard. Lookman perhaps took the pragmatic approach and made it clear he wanted to leave at the end of the season and, 12 months after he had initially hoped, secured a permanent move to Leipzig.

Speaking to ECHO back in 2020, Matthew reflected on Lookman’s struggle and pointed to what was essentially an unhappy combination of circumstances. As the dust settles on Lookman’s heroics on one of football’s biggest stages, one of the main talking points is his late development - Lookman emerged from grassroots football in his mid-teenage years. When he arrived at Everton he was still learning the game - but was doing so at a time when heavy investment in the team created pressure that hindered opportunities for his three managers and two directors of football to persevere with youth.

Matthew told the ECHO: "I felt for Ademola because he is an out-and-out forward player and he needs to play with a striker. But he had to play wide and managers play these systems, which I understand. He came in from grassroots football, at 16, and he hasn't had that same football education. The lads he played with would've had four or five years of that development over Ademola. And so it is really important that you judge that player on what he is, where he's come from and what he's done so far."

Lookman, in the immediate aftermath of his Atalanta side’s 3-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen, appeared to acknowledge as such: "I've always had the confidence in my ability,” he said. "In the past two years I've been able to take my game to a new level and show it on a more consistent basis. Maybe it could have come earlier but it's come now. I'm pleased with the progress I've made but this is just the beginning. I hope for more nights like this."