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The Redemption of Ademola Lookman

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The prodigal son of prodigious talent has turned his eyes back towards home.

England U21 v Andorra U21 - 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Championship Qualifier Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

January 15, 2017. It happened quickly. He only played one minute. In those 60 seconds, though, Ademola Lookman announced himself to Goodison Park with a tight-angled finish past Claudio Bravo. The 90th minute goal was Everton’s fourth of the day in a 4-0 drubbing of Manchester City. It was an exclamation point for an exclamatory type of player. The kid from Charlton could play.

It all went a bit sideways from there. Lookman made a few more appearances for Everton in the winter months of that season, but by March, Ronald Koeman no longer found him to be a viable option in attack. Ade played 46 minutes of first team football between March 5 and May 21. Soon after, the managerial merry-go-round began.

Ronald Koeman was sacked on October 23, 2017. Lookman had played zero minutes in the nine matches preceding, and it was difficult to understand why - Everton were shut out in four of those games. Why not try a dynamic winger to jump start the attack? That seemingly simple idea never came to the Dutchman, and Lookman was only brought back in from the cold when David Unsworth took over.

Everton v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Ademola played in each league match that Unsworth managed, and credit is due to the ex-Blues defender - Rhino knew the kids could play, and so, he played them. Samuel Allardyce was a different story.

Despite Theo Walcott not being a member of the club yet, and despite the ineffectiveness of Yannick Bolasie, Everton’s sentient gravy boat elected to play Lookman just 11 minutes over the course of roughly two months. It couldn’t - shouldn’t - have been a surprise, then, that Ademola Lookman was finally and perhaps irrevocably fed up.

I paint a contextual picture above not to remind you of what happened, because we all remember. It’s important to revisit, though, to understand why Lookman was agitated. Think of it - you’re barely 20 years old, with an entire promising career ahead of you. Suddenly, your supervisors decide you’re no better than an aging trickster with a bum leg. And sure, maybe you sulked, and maybe you didn’t give your best effort in training, but you can play, and you’re also just a kid.

I didn’t know what I wanted at that age, and you probably didn’t either. One of the things that differentiates me and Ademola Lookman, though, is that he took a stand. He wanted out, and although it was admittedly frustrating to fans at the time, it’s unfair to judge an individual for seeking out the best option for their career and life in general.

At first, Everton did not want to sanction Lookman’s loan move, and even when the club came around to the idea, Sam Allardyce famously wanted to send his dynamic attacker to the place where dynamic attackers go to die - the Championship. In the end, like Jadon Sancho and Oliver Burke before him and Reiss Nelson after him, Lookman got his wish - he was headed for the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig.

England U21 v Andorra U21 - 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Championship Qualifier Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

There’s nothing particularly special about the Bundesliga. It lags behind the Premier League in overall quality, and suffers from the same disease as La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1 - a sole club’s dominance makes true competitiveness nearly impossible.

What the German league does offer, though, is a highly technical game, and a place where you can develop that side of your ability. Combine that with a willingness to play the kids no matter where they’re from - Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie come to mind - and you have a recipe for success for youngsters.

Lookman took that recipe and improved on it. In only 574 Bundesliga minutes, he contributed to a stunning 9 goals - scoring five of his own and assisting four more. Ade returned to Everton this summer with even more hype to his name, and a German club hot and heavy for his permanent signature.

With RB Leipzig insistent on acquiring him, Lookman’s head was turned. After all, he’d just lit the league on fire, and the Leipzig staff were willing to, you know, play him. It became abundantly clear to all watching that Ademola Lookman wanted to be anywhere but Everton, and that he would do what it took to get his move to Germany.

On the one hand, you can reasonably applaud Lookman’s decision to do what he perceived to be the best thing for his footballing career. On the other hand, the way he went about that process quickly reminded us that Lookman was just 20 years old.

The flash point came in Everton’s preseason friendly against Valencia. Marco Silva substituted Lookman in place of Richarlison with about ten minutes to go, and what followed was frankly bizarre. The Blues needed a goal, and Lookman came onto the pitch and just...stood there. He hardly made an effort to move and contribute to the attack, and the few passes he did complete were short in distance and backwards or sideways.

It was a strange performance for someone needing to prove himself. Perhaps Lookman thought that by alienating himself from his manager, teammates, and supporters, he could engineer a move that way. It didn’t work.

Marco Silva remained adamant that Lookman would be going nowhere, despite the increasingly public courtship by RB Leipzig. It seemed at the time to be almost foolish. Everton had wingers, and good ones. Leipzig were willing to provide Everton a tidy profit on their original purchase, and Lookman was itching to go.

To his credit, Silva knew what he was doing. There’s a reason that he’s managing one of the world’s most iconic football clubs and I’m behind a desk writing about it. Marco needed Lookman, and knew that it would take time to repair a broken relationship and restore Ade’s trust in Everton.

The new Silva-Lookman relationship couldn’t be a one way street, though, and required Lookman’s total buy-in. Marco Silva displayed his trust by beginning to give Lookman playing time, and the kid responded. He received an extended cameo against Huddersfield Town, replacing the injured Theo Walcott, and a few weeks later was one of the best players on the pitch in Everton’s cup match against Southampton.

The light at the end of the tunnel that has been Ademola Lookman’s Everton career did not shine brightest, though, until this past Sunday. Marco Silva needed to break down a stubborn Crystal Palace defense, and he needed guile and creativity to do it. On came Lookman - late, yes, but not too late, as it turned out.

Everton FC v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

As Ademola Lookman turned onto his right foot and lifted a curling, inch-perfect cross into the nervous Goodison air, there was a sense of hesitation in the stands. Here was one of our heroes, one that we desperately wanted to love, but one who didn’t quite love us back.

When Dominic Calvert-Lewin slammed home the game winning header, the weight was lifted. They say that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. The stat sheet from October 21 tells us that Calvert-Lewin scored the winner, but in truth, it was Lookman’s doing. The ball was exquisite, and when the mob of players cleared out of their celebratory pile, it was Lookman whose smile was biggest of all.

Marco Silva made sure to pull Ademola Lookman aside as the players came off the pitch and provide a hug and some words of encouragement. We’ll likely never know what he said to his young winger, but I have a guess as to what he was thinking: this kid from Charlton can play.