WHILE researching the article on Manchester City’s last-day title win in 1968, I discovered two facts which tell a lot about how football has changed. 1) The Football League had the trophy at Old Trafford, on the assumption that Manchester United would win it. 2) Nobody at City was unduly bothered about this.
Of course, this would never be allowed to happen today. And so the Premier League had the trophy at the JJB Stadium on the assumption that United would beat Wigan to claim the title, but had a replica at Stamford Bridge just in case Chelsea pipped them to it.
Given some of the stuff that Avram Grant and Sir Alex Ferguson have managed to grumble about over the past week, I’m surprised that the replica trophy hasn’t been more of an issue. After all, Chelsea must surely have felt hard done by at the prospect of receiving a giant shiny trophy made in 2008 rather than one made in 1992.
Instead, Fergie and Avram turned their attention to matters of equal insignificance. Fergie dropped a few hints suggesting – without actually saying it – that Bolton may not be on top of their game at Chelsea. Grant argued that it was unfair that the title could be decided on goal difference, arguing instead that sides level on points should be separated by a play-off, as in Italy.
United have been the more attacking side this season, and over the course of nine months, have been the more entertaining to watch. That said, Grant has done something truly remarkable in taking the title race to the last day, when their chances looked non-existant at Christmas.
If United were to hand-pick any destination for a final-day title-clinching win, though, it would be Wigan. They had won all five of their previous Premier League meetings with the Latics. Steve Bruce had faced United 10 times as a manager, losing eight and winning none.
United may have kicked off in a downpour while Chelsea bathed in bright sunshine, but the weather did not match their respective prospects.
And yet Fergie and Co got lucky in the first half. Rio Ferdinand survived a penalty shout for handball; and then United were handed a spot-kick when Emmerson Boyce took out Wayne Rooney. Cristiano Ronaldo, United’s man of the season, scored the penalty.
Paul Scholes – already on a booking – then got lucky with a wild challenge on Wilson Palacios that would, on another day, have brought an early bath.
From then on, United edged towards the victory they needed in much the same unconvincing manner that they have edged through the closing weeks of the season. Scholes should have had a penalty in the second half when Titus Bramble took his legs away, but got nothing.
The singing from the away end was touched with the jitters. Enter stage left Ryan Giggs.
When he came on as a substitute midway through the second half, Giggs equalled Sir Bobby Charlton’s club appearance record. With just over 10 minutes left, he slotted Rooney’s pass beyond Chris Kirkland to score the goal that made sure, just as he had done at Middlesbrough in 1996 – when United’s title-winning side was captained by Bruce.
In the end, the replica trophy was not required – United won the real thing for the 10th time in 16 seasons. And Ferguson need not have worried about Bolton, who got a draw at Stamford Bridge. United are worthy champions; any team who scores 80 goals in 38 games deserves a trophy. But the big one – the really big one – is still to play for. That will come in Moscow in 10 days’ time.