Football: A day of contrasting emotions in London

The Premiership is to pay tribute to Matthew Harding on what will be a difficult weekend. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
Even before a ball is kicked in earnest today, the absence of one familiar face and the presence of another will send emotions running high at two London grounds.

At Stamford Bridge, all eyes will be on Ruth Harding, widow of the late Chelsea vice-chairman Matthew Harding, as she and their four children honour his memory by attending the derby against Tottenham together. A minute's silence will be observed at all Premiership fixtures.

The barrage of noise which invariably follows such mourning is likely to be particularly fierce at Highbury, where George Graham returns as manager of Leeds 20 months after his sacking by Arsenal. If Harding's death was a horrific reminder to all of their own mortality, Graham's appearance in the visitors' dug-out will be proof that those who caught immortality are prone to the humblest of failings.

It is not too fanciful to suggest that Graham, a keen student of Arsenal history and collector of Gunners' memorabilia, hoped to be remembered as reverentially as Herbert Chapman. Instead of putting his head on a bust in the marble halls, Arsenal delivered it on a plate when poor results and the "bungs" scandal made his position untenable.

Graham left feeling betrayed. So it will be fascinating to see whether he takes up the invitation of Arsenal's chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, to "leave differences aside" and have a post-match drink in the boardroom. In the unlikely event of Leeds winning for only the second time in his six League matches in charge, Graham will for once be forgiven if he succumbs to temptation.

On the pitch, it may prove the kind of contest to test the new-found tolerance of referees, who are reportedly modifying their hard-line interpretation of Fifa's instructions. Leeds are desperate for points, while Arsene Wenger's "intellectual" approach has so far made no discernible difference to Highbury's long-standing disciplinary problems.

At least Graham may soon be welcoming back the errant Thomas Brolin. "I never said I wouldn't play for Leeds again," he said yesterday. "I need to speak to Leeds again to see if we can find a solution to this situation."

Newcastle are set to restore Faustino Asprilla in place of Alan Shearer at Leicester after the England captain's successful groin operation yesterday which could see him return earlier than expected. Kevin Keegan's side have won seven successive Premiership games, including three in a row away from home by a single goal.

Yet instead of being swept along on a tide of euphoria by the 5-0 mauling of Manchester United, Keegan appointed Mark Lawrenson as specialist defensive coach. For the sake of his reputation as a perceptive media pundit, the former Liverpool player must hope Newcastle do not start gifting goals again - no wonder Alan Hansen has resisted all overtures to exchange Match of the Day for three matches a week.

Manchester United face a stern test of their mettle at Graeme Souness' Scandinavian reinforced Southampton. After blaming a grey kit for their grey performance there last spring - when they trailed 3-0 at half-time, switched to yet another of their strips and lost 3-1 - United will play in white. Perhaps more pertinently, Roy Keane and Phil Neville are available after injury.

Wimbledon's own sequence of seven consecutive wins has been so surprising, even to themselves one suspects, that they could be forgiven a nagging fear that a 1-1 draw at home to Luton in the Coca-Cola Cup means the fantasy is over. Their match at Middlesbrough, which pits Juninho against Vinnie Jones, ought to be full of goals.

Only 18 months have passed since Blackburn went to West Ham with the Championship almost in their grasp. They return with only four points from 10 matches, and with Tony Parkes as caretaker manager following Ray Harford's exit. Whatever fate has in store this weekend the football community would do well not to view it in terms of disaster or tragedy.

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