When Chelsea won their first league title in 1955, Sir Matt Busby paid them the respect of a guard of honour, with our players applauding the new champions on to the pitch. It was the final day of the season and United beat the newly crowned champions 2-1 thanks to goals from Albert Scanlon and Tommy Taylor. Taylor sadly died at Munich less than three years later, aged just 26-years-old, but still ranks as one of our all time top scorers, with more league goals than the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Cristiano Ronaldo, despite playing for us for just five years. West German police officers performed a guard of honour at Munich airport as the coffins were carried on to the plane to bring them home.
50 years after Busby honoured them, Chelsea won their second league title at the Reebok Stadium after a 2-0 win over Bolton, then played at Stamford Bridge, and then faced United in the penultimate game of the season. It was one of the darkest days for United fans of the modern era, with the Glazers just two days away from confirming their ownership of the club and the team had won nothing and finished 3rd. To have Roman Abramovich’s boys rub our noses in it was the last thing we needed, but that’s exactly what they did. Our players lined up either side of the tunnel on the pitch to clap the Chelsea players, lead out by captain Frank Lampard, on to the pitch. After Van Nistelrooy took the lead Chelsea hit back three times and we were well beaten. It felt as though that Chelsea team, that machine, was going to dominate English football indefinitely.
Thankfully, they had just two seasons of dominance before United reclaimed their trophy in 2007. Chelsea added one of the best players in the world for each position to their title winning team in the summer, with Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack and Andrey Shevchenko all signing, whilst United just bought Michael Carrick. We were 7 points clear on the day the title was won though, after Chelsea failed to beat Arsenal, making us champions with two games to go. Our next game, which had been billed as a potential title decider earlier in the season, was a damp squib, as our second string and Reserves travelled down to West London. Kieran Lee, Chris Eagles and Dong Fangzhuo were amongst those in the starting line-up that were applauded on to the turf at Stamford Bridge by the Chelsea team. With only pride left to play for, our lads put in a decent shift and left with a point against a fairly strong Chelsea side. At the time, I remember thinking the guard of honour was a nice gesture but also something that was expected from them after we had paid them the same respect a couple of years earlier. It would have made them look like sore losers if they didn’t do it. But I don’t remember thinking we were entitled to the guard of honour, that by being champions it was something that we were owed.
Several newspapers reported last week about Robin van Persie receiving a guard of honour at the Emirates at the weekend. Following the criticism by their bitter fans (as is always the case when one of their players leaves them for a team that wins trophies) that Van Persie was a mercenary for jumping ship and joining United, it would be a fairly spectacular return. He left Arsenal to win the league and just eight months after signing on the dotted line at Old Trafford, it looks as though that’s exactly what is going to happen. But should Arsenal really be expected to give us a guard of honour if they were the first team we played after winning the league?
Whilst Blackpool players gave us a guard of honour in 2011 after we beat Blackburn in our previous game to win our 19th title, 90 minutes before they were relegated thanks to our 4-2 victory over them at Old Trafford, Hull didn’t give us one in 2009 after we had drawn with Arsenal in our last game to win the league. In 2003, United won the league after Arsenal lost to Leeds, meaning we entered the pitch at Goodison as champions again. When the United players came back out after the game to the receive the trophy, the Everton players performed a guard of honour. Before that, Newcastle gave us a guard of honour in 1997, which is decent of them when you consider it was them we beat to the title that season, and the year before we clawed back their huge 12 point lead to win the league. In 1994, Coventry gave us the guard of honour before the final game of the season. A week earlier, Newcastle had given Arsenal a guard of honour at St James Park after they beat Parma in the European Cup Winners Cup final.
As you can see, it’s fairly hit and miss, so even if United beat Villa and travel to the Emirates as champions, there is certainly no obligation for them to give us a guard of honour. However, if we cast our minds back to the 1990-1991 season, United travelled to Highbury in the penultimate game. Just before kick-off Liverpool were beaten by Nottingham Forest, confirming Arsenal had won the league. United formed a guard of honour as George Graham’s team entered the pitch as champions. Would Arsene Wenger show Manchester United the same respect? He should do, particularly now that there doesn’t seem to be the same bad blood that there was between him and Fergie a decade ago, but the fans won’t be happy. Yes, the same fans who still sing about winning the league at Old Trafford in reference to their victory in 2002. The humbling experience of watching their players perform a guard of honour may mean that song is no longer a regular in their repetoire, and it will almost certainly mean they can’t get away with calling our Robin a mercenary anymore
But let’s get tonight’s game won first eh. Come on United!