Whatever happens for the rest of the season, Manchester's two clubs are destined to finish ahead of everyone else in the table for only the second time in history. And a quirk of the fixture list means that if the title is still in the balance on Tuesday morning, memories of the previous occasion will surface for all those of a certain age, with the North-East's major clubs playing a potentially key role again.
Going into the final day of the 1967-8 season, City, 20-1 outsiders only a couple of months earlier, had caught United on points, and were ahead on goal average (number scored divided by number conceded). Just like today, the bookmakers nevertheless favoured United because they were at home to struggling Sunderland, who were only just clear of relegation, while City had to visit a Newcastle side good enough to win the Fairs [Uefa] Cup the following year.
But while Matt Busby's team, conceivably distracted by the forthcoming European Cup final at Wembley, managed to lose 2-1 at Old Trafford, City won a swashbuckling epic at St James' Park 4-3. Twice they took the lead only to be pegged back, before receiving a half-time rollocking from the coach Malcolm Allison and going out in the second half to win the game and the title with goals by Mike Summerbee, the late Neil Young (2) and Francis Lee.
"It was fantastic to be in Manchester at that time when it was the centre of football," Summerbee has said. In the spirit of the time, unlikely to be replicated when the championship is decided this season, he returned to Manchester after midnight to find United's George Best waiting for him as promised and buying the champagne. Just as typically, City only finished 13th when defending their title the following season, despite winning the FA Cup.
"That was a fantastic win for them, to go up there and do that 4-3," recalled United's steely Scottish wing-half at the time Paddy Crerand, who nevertheless believes that if City need a similar result on the same ground next weekend, they will find the opposition hungrier this time. "Newcastle have got a great chance of finishing third or fourth, ideally third in case Chelsea should win the Champions' League and the team in fourth gets bumped down to the Europa League. So they have an awful lot to play for."
United's fixture the same day is at home to Swansea, who have taken understandable offence at Roberto Mancini's description of it as an "easy" game. Then on the final Sunday, when City are at home to Mark Hughes' Queens Park Rangers, United revive further memories of 1968 by playing Sunderland. For an employee of MUTV often accused of being red-eyed in the extreme, Crerand makes his former club only "slight" favourites at this stage. "United don't have to win at City, which is a big advantage. But I don't have them as big, big favourites. Before the Everton game last week I'd have said they were a certainty. And at 4-2 I thought it was all over. Some pals of mine, City supporters, were driving down to Wolverhampton for their game and they told me when it went to 4-2 they switched the radio off."
His overall conclusion is that City may have blown their big chance to repeat the 1968 triumph in a season when United "have done fantastically well to be up there with the injuries they've had and what is a young team." The worst blow, he believes, was losing Nemanja Vidic from the defence: "When he got injured [in December] and when City were playing so well before that, I thought it was a disaster and they'd be uncatchable. And if Carlos Tevez had behaved himself, maybe they'd have run away with it."
And Mancini's continuing dismissal of his team's chances?"He's had a year of listening to Alex Ferguson and he's learning a few tricks."
How they lined up
City Ken Mulhearn; Tony Book, Glyn Pardoe, Mike Doyle, George Heslop, Alan Oakes, Mike Summerbee, Colin Bell, Francis Lee, Neil Young, Tony Coleman.
United Alex Stepney; Shay Brennan, Tony Dunne, Pat Crerand, Bill Foulkes, Nobby Stiles, George Best, Brian Kidd, Bobby Charlton, David Sadler, John Aston.
- More about:
- Newcastle United
- Newcastle Upon Tyne
- Premier League
- Sunderland FC
- UEFA Champions League