Sam Allardyce a perfect manager for the autumn of Wayne Rooney's career
Wayne Rooney's disgust was obvious. After 74 minutes of frustration against Leicester City, caretaker manager David Unsworth decided that Everton would have more chance of getting back into the game without their veteran attacker on the pitch. England's top goalscorer of all time appeared to say something before accepting his fate and trudging back to the dug-out.
Was Unsworth making a public play for the job on a permanent basis, proving to the live television audience that he had the courage to make the big calls? Was Rooney's disappointment at least partly fuelled by a quiet voice inside telling him that Unsworth might have a point? It's all speculation. But what was clear, on that Sunday evening in late October, was that Rooney's much vaunted return to Merseyside was looking increasingly like a mistake for both parties.
Rooney was hooked against Watford the following week and his replacement, Dominic Calvert-Lewin brought Everton back into a game they would eventually win. For the Blues' next two league games, he was an unused substitute. And then Sam Allardyce arrived.
With Allardyce in the stands and Unsworth in the dugout for one last game against West Ham at the end of November, Rooney was restored to the team in a central midfield position, his weary legs covered by the effervescence of Tom Davies and Idrissa Gueye. He scored a hat trick, his treble completed with an outrageous effort hit first time from inside his own half.
For Allardyce's first official game in charge, Rooney remained in the centre of the pitch. It has been the story of his season so far, from that bright hopeful first day in August, that Rooney's best contributions have been in unexpected areas. He hit the headlines that day with a perfectly executed headed winning goal against Stoke, but he won the supporters over with his tigerish efforts in the middle against former Manchester United teammate Darren Fletcher.
As Everton's season collapsed, Rooney was often responsible for the creation of their few chances, or at least moments that should been chances. He lacks mobility, he can't do the things he used to do, he can get easily frustrated, but he can open a defence with one deft pass, one sudden shift of balance, the split-second identification of a gap that could be exploited.
You can see Rooney's future in both of Everton's goals against Huddersfield last weekend. He makes the second with two touches, one to bring it under control when Gueye presses and wins the ball in Everton's half, one to thread a perfect ball into Calvert-Lewin. But in the first goal, Rooney is deep, withdrawn from the action. He starts the move with a neatly wedged pass, but there are five Everton players in front of him by the time it goes in. The notion that Rooney's future lies up front, or in the hole, or on the flanks seems to have been discredited. He's a ferocious quarter-back now.
You get the sense that Allardyce is delighted with the immediate improvement in his fortunes. Was he behind the decision to pull Rooney back in from the cold and play him in the centre against West Ham? If he was, it has paid dividends. Allardyce, for all that people diminish his achievements, has a good record with relighting the fire in veteran footballers, as well as those who have been considered difficult. At Bolton, he worked with Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro, Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okocha, as well as Nicolas Anelka, who was considered damaged goods when he turned up at Bolton in 2006. After two years of Allardyce's tender love and care, he'd earned himself a move to Chelsea.
Allardyce has already spoken of his wish to bring a psychologist into Goodison Park, but for the moment he's doing the job himself, behind the scenes and in public. He certainly couldn't have been more positive about Rooney.
"He produced a good performance Saturday and a brilliant one on Wednesday," he said. "So we have to really make sure we get him ready for every game from a physical point of view because he is catching up in years. If we get the physical side of Wayne right, that ability never ever leaves you."
Neither Rooney nor Allardyce will make the trip to Cyprus for this week's meaningless Europa League tie, an unorthodox decision from the manager, but one that makes a certain amount of sense given the prospect of a trip to Anfield on Sunday. Allardyce, knowing that a win over Liverpool is worth more than a win against anyone, is playing his cards accordingly.
It remains to be seen if he can continue to coax these performances out of Rooney, and whether or not he himself has the ability and the drive to repair Everton after he "retired" in the summer to spend more time with his family. But by every reasonable metric, this has been a very positive start for both men.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.