He was lauded. He was loved. His name graced our shirts, it was sung by grown men, thousands invested their hopes and dreams in him. He came with his career in the balance. Discarded and unwanted by his former club. Everton invested in him, rebuilt his confidence, brought him on as a player. He was transformed in the process, a superfluous loanee to a £100m footballer.
For him, in football terms, it was a complete success. Just compare the player he is now to the player he was when he first arrived. More than any other club, he owes Everton. He came during a period in his life when time spent with a different club, different managers, different fans could have proven ruinous. There was no guarantee his undoubted talents would have blossomed. There are plenty of young players who fall by the wayside. He has a lot to thank Goodison for.
The side was built around him, no small honour for a young player. The style of play geared to his abilities, enabling him to fine tune his attributes, surrounded by those willing to serve. Players were bought and employed on the pitch with him in mind. He got everything that he wanted and thrived as a result.
The club did everything right. Not a foot put wrong. And as fans, we did the same. We kept up our end of the bargain. And that was even the case when he didn’t keep up his. Think of the games when he disappeared, think of the times that he ran the club down, think of the occasions that he sulked. We forgave it all.
And yet, you would think that all of the above wasn’t the case. You would think that Everton had treated him shabbily, that the supporters had made his life hell, that his time at Goodison was a period of endless misery and frustration. If fact you get the distinct impression that Romelu Lukaku has no affection for Everton or its fans at all.
Perhaps that’s just the nature of modern football. Perhaps we should expect nothing else from the travelling band of mercenaries who occupy the higher reaches of the game. They come for a pay-cheque and personal glory but nothing else. They see football as a business, one in which they sell their labour for the highest price. The fact that their exalted position is built on the hard earned money of those who sit in the stands or watch at home seemingly passes them by. They are economic operators and nothing else, their loyalty paper thin.
They play us though, trade on our memories. Because we remember what players used to be like. We think of the giants of the past. We think of Dean, of Hickson, of Young. Of Royle, Latchford, and Sharp. Of Ferguson, Campbell and Cahill. And we yearn for that feeling again. The lionisation of a terrace great, a player that you loved and who loved you back.
And they know this. They make the right noises, they say the right things, they inhabit the role. And they do it all right up until it’s no longer in their interest. And then you see them for what they really are.
Of course, people will say that Lukaku is a Manchester United player now, and so owes no loyalty to his former employers and their fans. He left for a club that can match his ambitions and if he wants to diminish Everton, if he wants to gloat in front of Blues, if he wants to make it clear how little affection he has for Goodison, then that’s ok.
But is it?
Just think about Lukaku’s behaviour since it became apparent he was off. Think about his indifference towards those who helped him become what he is. And then think about what he did on Sunday too. In that crowd were people who had paid his wages, who had sung his name, who had encouraged their children to idolise him (those same children were likely watching at home and could even have been in the stadium too). Then, to pour salt on the wound, he laughed it off as ‘banter’; the last refuge of the inescapably moronic.
Should the media have really let him off? Surely some exploration of his deliberate crassness was warranted? Apparently not
Instead, Lukaku (as has always been the case) was been given a free pass. It seems that exhibiting the behaviour of a petulant, self-entitled brat, so enamoured by his own ‘brilliance’ that he forgoes such redundant notions as gratitude or humility is acceptable. He will continue to grace the covers of magazines, be sought after for endorsements and remain an ever present face in the ‘Sky’ universe.
When footballers transgress, when they gamble, break the law, shag about or say something that is socially or politically questionable, the media goes for them. The position of a footballer as a ‘role model’ is brought to the fore. Their reputation can be diminished and with that the loss of wages, endorsements and valuable media appearances.
But when a footballer is simply a massive prick; that seems to be ok with the media. In these instances, their position as a ‘role model’ doesn’t appear to matter. And yet, I would argue that it is just as valid to question this behaviour. In the same way that you wouldn’t want your child to grow up thinking that drinking and driving, racist ‘banter’ or rampant misogyny is ok, you equally wouldn’t want them exhibiting the same character traits as someone like Lukaku.
In time, the animosity between Lukaku and Everton will unquestionably dissipate. In part, there is too little heat between the two clubs for it to continue (it’s not like he moved to Liverpool). But equally, it seems unlikely that United will be his last stop. This is a player in search of the top honours, both domestic and European, and it seems unlikely that United will be able to accommodate the latter.
But for a short time, and specifically at Goodison this season, we will likely have to put up with more ‘banter’ from our former forward. Some fans will unquestionably want to give him a hostile reaction. That’s understandable. But surely better to give him no reaction? That’s how you treat petulant toddlers after all. You don’t give them what they want.
He has chosen to act as though the past few years meant nothing to him. Perhaps we should do the same in return.