London: Already on Merseyside, they are gargling, readying their throats in anticipation. The T-shirts are being printed; the old replica shirts being prepared for burning.
Because when Romelu Lukaku returns to Goodison Park with Manchester United on New Year’s Day, it is unlikely he will receive anything other than the most vituperative of seasonal greetings. He can forget the generosity afforded to Wayne Rooney when he moved in the opposite direction.
As Rooney, in Everton blue, was cheered to the echo on Sunday at a stadium where he was for so long a fixture, it is safe to suggest Lukaku’s very presence at his old stamping ground is likely to provoke poison to pour from the stands. If the reaction to his return was never likely to be overly friendly given the manner in which he sought a move, it will now be toxic.
Because Lukaku has been found guilty in the court of public opinion of the most heinous modern footballing crime: he not only scored against his former club, he celebrated doing so. Like failing to kick a ball out when an opponent is injured, a refusal to show adequate humility when putting the ball in your previous employers’ net is these days regarded as morally indefensible.
What fans want to see in such circumstances is a ritual show of contrition: keep your arms by your side, look at the ground and ignore the adulation from your teammates. The template of how to do it was set in 1974 when Denis Law reacted to his winning goal in the Manchester derby by looking as if he had just unwittingly precipitated the end of the world.
The thing about Law, however, was that his response was genuine. Here he was, a former United hero seemingly condemning his erstwhile colleagues to relegation while wearing the shirt of their rivals. As it transpired, they would have gone down whatever the result, but you could understand his forlorn demeanour.
In truth, he had done his best not to score, his soft back-heel only crawling over the line due to the manifest incompetence of the United defence. He was crestfallen. But, over the years, the Law approach has been formalised into a meaningless rite.
These days, players are even expected not to acknowledge a successful strike against clubs where they were sent on loan as a youth prospect. And it does not matter how much your old supporters boo, you are required to look suitably shame-faced.
On Sunday, Lukaku preferred not to follow convention. If not quite embracing Emmanuel Adebayor’s lead of running the length of the pitch to slide on his knees in front of his former admirers, he first put his finger to his lips, then cupped his ear in the direction of the Everton followers, a clear reaction to their constant verbal abuse.
On social media, always an outlet for moral superiority, the censure was extreme. Never mind that his goals used to be cheered to the skies at Goodison, fuming posts insisted his actions offered abundant evidence of his ethical shortcomings. “If we didn’t know what he was like before, we do now,” read one, adding the hashtag “disgusting”, as if Lukaku had just been found guilty of wilfully drowning kittens.
If the bright, multi-lingual Belgian was guilty of anything, it was of falling into the trap of being riled by the goading.
The moment he responded to the endless verbals he gave his provocateurs what they wanted: legitimate reason to feel superior. And in the world of modern football support, that is the most valuable commodity of all.
- The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017