With something as momentous as the Munich air crash there is a large list of clubs who could stir sad recollections by their presence at Old Trafford today. Arsenal, for example, the last team Manchester United met before their ill-fated trip into Europe, or Sheffield Wednesday, the first afterwards to face the patched-up team.
Instead it is Bolton who will provide the opposition as yesterday's 40th anniversary is remembered and in many ways they are the most appropriate. It was Wanderers who played in the last League match at Old Trafford before the disaster (losing 7-2) and later they beat United 2-0 in the 1958 FA Cup final.
A minute's silence will be held at 3.04pm today, the exact time of the crash, and the kick-off will be held back 15 minutes. Nat Lofthouse, the scorer of both goals in the 1958 final, will join Bobby Charlton in laying a wreath in the centre circle today and Bolton have appealed to their fans to honour the solemnity of the occasion, warning that anyone misbehaving will be banned from the Reebok Stadium. "We know only too well about losing friends and relatives in a football tragedy," a club spokesman said, referring to the Burnden Park disaster in 1946 in which 33 people died.
Alex Ferguson, the United manager, also expects his team to behave accordingly. "It would be appropriate for the players to perform in the traditions and standards laid down by the pre-Munich team," he said. "The style they set is the hallmark of the club."
In the circumstances, the result today should be an irrelevance, although no one will consider it such. Bolton have not won since 1 December and are anxious for points to lift themselves above the relegation zone, while United's runaway lead has become a more attainable four points after three defeats in four Premiership matches. "It's their last warning," Ferguson said ominously yesterday.
United's travails have given hope to several clubs, but anticipation is strongest at Liverpool, who play Southampton at Anfield today with a nine-match unbeaten run in the Premiership to their credit. "Teams can be pegged back even if they have a good lead," Paul Ince, their captain, said. "People have been coming up with the same old rubbish that it's a one-horse race but it's not. We're showing that."
So are Blackburn Rovers, who maintained the slenderest of leads over Liverpool with a 0-0 draw at Anfield last Saturday and who, on paper, should dispose of the hapless Tottenham relatively easily today at Ewood Park. Spurs have conceded 26 goals in 12 away matches and have won only once on their travels.
Things were bad enough for Spurs' manager, Christian Gross, before Wednesday's FA Cup defeat at Barnsley cost him the services of Jurgen Klinsmann for at least three weeks, while David Ginola seems increasingly disenchanted with life at the Lane. "That's a not a question [about his future] I can answer now," Gross said in midweek. Another stuffing and he may be even less forthcoming.
Barnsley, meanwhile, appear at last to be coming to terms with the Premiership. They have won their last four games at Oakwell and a position that seemed hopeless suddenly has an escape ladder dangling as a win over Everton today could elevate them out of the bottom three.
Danny Wilson, the Barnsley manager, said: "The Everton game is massive for us, much more important than the FA Cup win over Tottenham." Everton's Howard Kendall won the manager of the month award yesterday, but added wryly: "Hopefully I can win it again in April."
With Arsenal and Chelsea not playing until tomorrow, Derby (sixth) could make progress at their expense at home against Aston Villa while Newcastle United (10th) would overtake West Ham (eighth) with a handsome win at St James' Park today.
Gary Speed, Newcastle's pounds 5.5m signing from Everton, will make his debut, but more intriguing is the confrontation between an England World Cup certainty, Alan Shearer, and a possibility, Rio Ferdinand. "Alan is the top man," the West Ham defender said, "but I look forward to playing the best. That's the only way I can gauge myself."
Leicester held themselves up against Manchester United last week and came away fully satisfied - now the trick is doing it again. Only Coventry have avoided defeat in the match following a win over the champions and Leeds, today's visitors to Filbert Street, are among those who climbed the mountain only to fall down the other side.
Coventry are also on their way to scaling another peak, reaching safety before the situation becomes desperate. They meet Sheffield Wednesday at Highfield Road on the back of successive wins and might be 11th by tomorrow morning. What their supporters will do without their springtime dose of relegation fear is anyone's guess.Reuse content