Hatred's growing hold on football
On the field, Wayne Rooney has stood up pretty well to a week that most people would consign to hell.
But how well will his reportedly brittle composure stand up to the unbridled hostility he can expect at Goodison Park today?
No doubt many of his former fans will claim a great mob triumph if they manage to publicly break Rooney. It is an outrageous prospect and will give us perhaps the grossest example so far of the depth at which hatred has taken root in football.
It would be wonderful if Goodison Park was capable of the restraint which would make the playing of football the heart of today's events. It would be great if the atmosphere was relieved by hints of a common humanity -- but when was the last time you heard a hint of that in an English football ground?
Rooney's trip home has such horrendous potential because we have seen before the wrath he has provoked in the place where, as a 16-year-old, he scored a goal against Arsenal so stupendous Arsène Wenger said he was the best young English player he had ever seen.
It is so hard and specific, this animosity, so filled with bile, that it makes the systematic booing of John Terry and Ashley Cole across the land, the tribal prattling of Gary Neville, and the time-weathered obscenity of Liverpool fans singing about Munich in response to their United counterparts chanting Hillsborough, seem almost perfunctory.
The worst of it probably came in 2005, when United aggravated the situation by playing Everton off the park. Most unforgettable about the match, though, was a boy of around 10 years of age, who was wearing a blue shirt inscribed "Rooney Traitor", a good-looking little chap who won proud looks from his doting parents each time he leapt to his feet and screamed abuse.
There was a time, believe it or not, when supporting your team was just an aspect of an interest in football. If Manchester City were in town you might try to get behind one of the goals to take a look at Bert Trautmann. Hate, not the real stuff, anyway, just didn't come into the equation.
Of course, the paying customer is entitled to his partiality. He also has a right to voice displeasure at a football culture which seems to lurch from one failure of judgment to another.
But let's be sure about one thing. We are not talking about mere censure when we discuss the possibilities at Goodison Park today.
No, what is anticipated is another example of that institutionalised hatred. The kid wearing the "Rooney-Traitor" shirt was being taught a way of thinking, a way of hating, and the lesson was being conducted in a football ground.