With less than half an hour played in Manchester United’s match against Everton on Sunday, Romelu Lukaku had a brilliant opportunity to put his new club 2-0 up, following the thunderbolt strike from Antonio Valencia that had given them the lead.
One on one with Jordan Pickford, Lukaku opened up his body too much when striking the ball and watched his effort float wide of the post. The home fans were already celebrating before having to rub their eyes and try and fathom how the Belgian striker hadn’t scored.
Ahead of kick-off, this match had been viewed as Lukaku versus Wayne Rooney, with both players facing their former club for the first time since their summer transfers. Rooney had already come close to scoring before Lukaku fluffed this big chance, when dragging his shot wide.
Rooney had captained United, is the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, and used to kiss their badge at Goodison Park when playing against Everton. After 13 years of playing at Old Trafford, it was no surprise to hear his name chanted by the home supporters ahead of kick-off.
By contrast, Lukaku was given a less than warm welcome from the travelling fans, with his every touch booed and every mistake zealously celebrated. Having scored 87 goals in 166 appearances over four seasons, you would have thought he might have done enough to at least be treated with indifference, but it wasn’t to be.
It was a largely quiet day for the Belgian but with United desperate to get the points wrapped up, Lukaku played through a perfectly weighted ball to Henrikh Mkhitaryan with less than 10 minutes to play, which he slotted away with his first touch.
Five minutes later, United were awarded a freekick on the corner of the box and Lukaku placed the ball down. Keen to shut up the fans who had been giving him stick all afternoon, Lukaku struck the ball goalwards, but the Everton wall did its job. The gleeful away end couldn’t be happier. They didn’t care that they were losing, just as long as Lukaku didn’t score.
Yet United maintained possession and a cross came back in to the box. Lukaku darted to the back post and was in the right place at the right time to score.
He wheeled away in front of the Everton fans, celebrating his seventh goal in seven games for United.
Now, let’s be clear. Lukaku didn’t jump up and down in front of the Everton fans kissing the badge, as Rooney used to do against them, rather he cupped his ear as he ran past them.
That’s fair enough, isn’t it? Given they were cheering his miss seconds before, surely he is entitled to give a bit back. The striker called his celebration “banter” in his post-match interview, but the Everton fans were not impressed.
But Lukaku’s decision to celebrate a goal against a former club drags up a much-debated topic. Should players celebrate goals against clubs they used to play for?
The answer isn’t black and white. Had Wayne Rooney celebrated a goal against United, that wouldn’t have gone down well. Some hail him as a club legend, which is why United fans chanted his name before kick-off and sung his song once he had been substituted. Had he scored and celebrated, that would have been a kick in the teeth to the supporters that had greeted him so well.
Some fans would argue that players should celebrate every goal they score though, regardless of who it’s against. Even Ryan Giggs backed Rooney to celebrate. There’s a fine line between respecting your old fans and disrespecting your current ones. Everyone wants to see their players react to scoring a goal for their team.
Danny Welbeck certainly fell in to this camp on his return to Old Trafford for the first time. The Arsenal striker is a lifelong red, who was jumping up and down on his couch in Longsight when United won the European Cup in 1999, and his name was applauded ahead of the FA Cup game in 2015.
Yet when he scored the goal that knocked United out of the competition he jumped up in down in front of the East Stand, looking up to the delirious Arsenal supporters, as if he wasn’t the same striker that had kissed United’s badge at the Emirates in the past.
Per Mertesacker revealed after the game that Welbeck was down in the dumps in the dressing room. The fact that he had still been applauded off the pitch by large sections of Old Trafford probably didn’t ease his guilt. He has scored against United since and managed to contain himself.
In different meetings between the two clubs, another striker had the dilemma of whether to celebrate or not, after Robin van Persie had listened to the little boy inside him and signed for United.
It took him just three minutes to score against his former club on their first meeting, with their fans jeering and whistling him up until that point, chanting that he was c*nt on repeat. Yet respectfully, Van Persie refused to celebrate.
At the end of that season, when he was welcomed back on to the Emirates turf with a guard of honour after United had been crowned champions, he scored against them again.
Despite again being abused all game, he still opted not to celebrate.
The following season, he scored the only goal in United’s win over Arsenal, and celebrated wildly in front of the United supporters. “He has no class” was the reaction of Arsenal Twitter.
Fans can’t have it both ways. You can’t boo someone’s every touch then get upset if they score and celebrate.
United next face Everton on New Year’s Day. After Sunday’s antics, Lukaku shouldn’t hold his breath for a better reception at Goodison Park, but given the adulation he receives from the United fans, I’m sure he won’t be too bothered about that.