While it is a trifle early for misty- eyed reflection of the kind which accompanied Ian Botham's exit, Bryan Robson will be 37 in January and is seldom far from his next injury. Today, it is fair to assume, Captain Marvel could well be making his farewell appearance at the stadium he has graced so often for club and country.
Grace, however, is not always a quality one associates with meetings of United and Arsenal, the team most likely to challenge for their title, for all the undoubted attributes which led to the duo monopolising the three major trophies last season.
In 1990 their match at Old Trafford was marred by a brawl involving 18 players. Only a fortnight ago Robson was sent off against Arsenal in South Africa, a fate not unconnected with the referee's apparent conviction that he was the main attraction.
The three-match suspension hanging over Robson should be warning enough to the likes of Ian Wright and Roy Keane, whose every move will be scrutinised by the television cameras, to avoid tarnishing the traditional curtain-raiser. Whether we can expect the entertainment produced by Leeds and Liverpool last August, when the champions beat the FA Cup holders 4- 3 in a fixture which carried an embargo on tackling, is another matter.
Eric Cantona, who hit a hat-trick that day, seems unlikely to play because of a knee injury, which would deprive the occasion of more than a frisson of flair. With Keane also short of fitness, Alex Ferguson looks certain to start with the Robson-Paul Ince axis in midfield, while the creative onus for United - and the contest as a whole - will fall on Ryan Giggs.
Arsenal may find Giggs harder to contain than Chris Waddle in the FA and League Cup finals, though the ostensibly 'friendly' status of this encounter was never going to trick them into uncharacteristic flamboyance. The double success against Sheffield Wednesday - for which George Graham complains they have received insufficient credit - was all the vindication they need.
The folly of football forecasting is illustrated by the fact that today's pairing was ultimately confirmed by goals scored by those improbable history men Nick Henry (whose winner for Oldham at Aston Villa sealed United's triumph) and Andy Linighan. Nevertheless, given the defensive strength of both sides, the game may resemble 1991's attritional draw between Arsenal and Tottenham more closely than Cantona's benefit match 12 months ago.
Each season brings more sartorial sacrileges, and much interest will centre on which strip Robson and co appear in. Will it be the blue, the green and gold, the ghastly new black number, or simply red? Call me a cynic, but United now have more colours than Benetton.
On a nostalgic note, when the clubs last met in the Charity Shield, at Highbury in 1948, United asked for the start to be brought forward five minutes so that they could catch the last Manchester express. By the scheduled kick-off time they trailed 3-0 yet soon had Arsenal hanging on grimly.
The Gunners won 4-3 but as Leeds were later to learn and those seeking auguries would do well to remember, starting out like a train is no insurance against running out of steam.
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