Of all the shirt numbers available in football, the No 9 jersey is perhaps the most coveted of the lot.
Typically reserved for a team's top striker, the number comes with huge responsibility. Those who wear it are expected to provide goals, and on a regular basis too. But, as clichéd as it may sound, scoring is the hardest thing in football. It is the reason why forwards command the highest wages and tend to dominate the headlines during transfer windows.
It is therefore no surprise that the No 9 shirt is highly a sought-after item at clubs up and down the country, with one notable exception. At Chelsea, it has come to be feared; a poisoned chalice that has blighted the careers of some of the great strikers of the modern era.
The No 9 'curse', as it is now known at Stamford Bridge, has just claimed another victim in Romelu Lukaku, who took the number when he rejoined Chelsea in a club-record £97.5m move from Inter Milan last summer. Less than a year later, Lukaku has returned to the San Siro on loan after a miserable season with the Blues. Underestimate the curse at your peril.
He is the latest casualty of a hoodoo which stretches back nearly two decades, all the way to 2004 when Chelsea legend Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink vacated the No 9 shirt after joining Middlesbrough on a free transfer.
Serbian striker Mateja Kezman would take the number after joining Chelsea in a £5.3m move from PSV Eindhoven, a transfer which kickstarted the lavish spending of the Roman Abramovich era. But he would last just a single season at Stamford Bridge, managing only four goals in 24 league games during Chelsea's title-winning campaign under Jose Mourinho, before being shipped out to Atletico Madrid.
The next man to try his luck was the deadly Argentine striker Hernan Crespo, who had returned to Chelsea for the 2005-06 season after a loan spell with Champions League runners-up AC Milan. He would fare slightly better than Kezman, scoring 13 goals in 42 games as Chelsea successfully defended their Premier League crown. However, with his family unable to settle in England, Crespo returned to Serie A that summer, seeing out the remainder of his Chelsea contract on loan at Inter.
Chelsea then made the truly bizarre decision to hand the No 9 shirt to a defender, Khalid Boulahrouz. The Dutch centre-back, nicknamed 'The Cannibal', was signed from Hamburg in 2006 and took the shirt number when Crespo departed for Italy. But he struggled for form and fitness during his time in west London and was sent on loan to Sevilla before being sold to Stuttgart in 2008.
While Boulahrouz was on loan in Spain, Chelsea entrusted the No 9 shirt to another non-striker in midfielder Steve Sidwell. The former Reading man would make 25 appearances in the 2007-08 campaign but was unable to establish himself as a regular starter in a midfield that included the likes of Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Claude Makelele and Michael Ballack. Inevitably, Sidwell also managed just one season at Chelsea before he was sold to Aston Villa. The No 9 shirt had claimed yet another victim.
It then passed to another Argentine striker, Franco Di Santo. Unsurprisingly, the inexperienced 19-year-old was unable to lift the curse. He played just eight league games for Chelsea without scoring before being sent on loan to Blackburn, eventually joining Wigan on a permanent deal in 2010. Another scalp had been claimed.
Chelsea then opted for a different approach. Instead of handing the shirt number to bit-part players and youngsters, they entrusted it to a star striker in Fernando Torres. Chelsea had just made the Spaniard the sixth-most expensive footballer in history, signing him in a £50m deal from Liverpool in January 2011.
Expectations were high that Torres would replicate the form he had shown at Anfield, where he had managed 81 goals in 142 appearances. But he failed to hit the ground running at Chelsea, losing his debut match 1-0 to his former club Liverpool. Torres would end the season with just one goal from his 18 matches, compared to the nine he scored in 26 games in the six months prior to his move south.
Torres would spend a further three seasons with Chelsea, helping the club win their maiden Champions League title in 2011-12. But he struggled with the burden of the No 9 shirt throughout his time at the club and managed an underwhelming 45 goals in 172 games for Chelsea - a disappointing return considering the Blues had broken the British transfer record to sign him from Liverpool.
He eventually left in 2014 to return to his boyhood club Atletico Madrid, the striker not quite deemed a total failure by Chelsea supporters but by no means a success.
The No 9 shirt then passed to Colombian great Radamel Falcao, who had joined Chelsea on loan from Monaco after spending the previous season at Manchester United. He would score just once in 12 appearances for the Blues before returning to Monaco. The following season, when he was safely back in French football, Falcao managed 30 goals in 43 games.
Desperate to replace the departing Diego Costa, who wisely wore the No 19 shirt while at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea broke their transfer record again in 2017 to sign Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid for around £60m. But like so many others before him, he failed to settle in west London and would last just one-and-a-half seasons at Chelsea before returning to Spanish football with Atletico Madrid, initially on loan before making the move permanent in 2019.
Morata later admitted he struggled with the pressure and expectation of leading the line for Chelsea.
"I had a very bad time in London. In the end I was training alone. I was very nervous," Morata told Goal in 2019. "My wife was in shock with me. I could not even go out in London! I've never had depression and I hope I never do, but I came close."
Gonzalo Higuain then became the third Argentine striker, after Crespo and Di Santo, to take the No 9 shirt at Chelsea after Morata was sent on loan to Spain. Higuain managed a respectable five goals in his 14 league appearances for the Blues during a six-month loan spell at Stamford Bridge from Juventus. But he would return to Italian football at the end of the 2018-19 campaign. The shirt was once again without an owner.
Chelsea academy product Tammy Abraham was the next man to attempt to lift the curse. He unexpectedly became the club's first-choice striker during the 2019-20 campaign and would finish the season as their top scorer with 18 goals.
But after a poor run of form the following season, he lost his starting place in the side would later move to Roma on a permanent deal. He has since rediscovered his scoring touch in Italian football, managing an impressive return of 27 goals in 53 games under the guidance of Jose Mourinho.
And so the No 9 shirt passed to Lukaku, who looked like he might be the man to finally do the shirt justice when he scored three goals in his first three Premier League games back at Chelsea. However, his form would dramatically drop off as the season progressed, with Kai Havertz usurping him as the first-choice striker midway through the campaign.
Lukaku would end the season with a disappointing return of just eight goals from 26 Premier League appearances. He has now secured a move back to Italian football and may very well have played his final game for Chelsea.
It remains to be seen who will take the dreaded No 9 shirt for the upcoming season. But if history is anything to go by, they won't have it for long.
Featured Image Credit: Alamy