Preamble Today is an iconic day for one of the all-time greats of British football. Yes, Michael Owen is on the brink of his first title winners' medal. It's deserved reward for a man who has never scored 20 league goals in a season, and who has played 239 whole minutes in 2010-11, scoring one goal in the process.
Hang on, let's try that one again...
Preamble II Sir Alex Ferguson? Bloody hell. If Manchester United draw at Blackburn today, he will win his 12th title and United's 19th, putting them ahead of Liverpool for the first time in their history. You can argue until you're blue in the face and purple in the nose about whether he knocked Liverpool off their perch – in reality it was a combination of George Graham, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness – but the fact he has kept them and almost everyone else off that perch for the next 20 years is a
mind-blowing achievement. And now he is on the cusp of the magic number. De La Soul didn't know what they were talking about; in half of Manchester, at least, 19 is the magic number.
This, more than any other, feels like Ferguson's title rather than United's. His Glazerphilia may be pretty unpleasant, but as a football manager he takes some beating. To win the league with this squad is a minor miracle. Some of us have made complete tools of ourselves by writing him off at various points over the last five years; yet again, the old man has bent the world to his will.
Today is not all about Ferguson and United, though. Blackburn need points if they are to avoid relegation, which some would see as an appropriate punishment for the ludicrous decision to sack Sam Allardyce. Their last game is at Wolves next week, and Blackburn are so hopeless away from home – just 12 points in 18 games – that this might almost be their best chance of picking up the point they need to reach 40. United don't win very often at Ewood Park; they have done so just twice in the league since 1998. Then again, they don't need to win today. Nor do Blackburn. If this was a Serie A match I'd be putting my imaginary life savings on the draw.
On 22 November 1986, Sir Alex Ferguson's first programme notes as Manchester United manager were published ahead of the match against QPR. "A man is very fortunate if he gets the chance to manage Manchester United in his lifetime," he wrote, "and I can assure you I have no intention of wasting my opportunity."
We are, it is safe to say without even the teensiest fear of contradiction, assured.
Plug department If you're a fan of Manchester United and/or high-class modern writing, you really should read Daniel Harris's On The Road, which was shortlisted at the British Sports Book Awards. It's the best United book I've read in years.
Team news Blackburn make two changes, with Michel Salgado and Phil Jones replacing Morten Gamst Pedersen and Mame Biram Diouf. For United, Edwin Van der Sar and Park Ji-sung have been given the day off, while Jonny Evans is preferred to Patrice Evra at left back. It may be that Evra has not fully recovered from his thigh injury, or that Sir Alex Ferguson wants more height to deal with Blackburn's set pieces.
Blackburn (4-1-3-1-1) Robinson; Salgado, Samba, Phil Jones, Givet; Jermaine Jones; Emerton, Nzonzi, Olsson; Hoilett; Roberts.
Subs: Bunn, Dunn, Kalinic, Pedersen, Andrews, Santa Cruz, Mwaruwari.
Man Utd (4-4-1-1) Kuszczak; Fabio Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evans; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Nani; Rooney; Hernandez.
Subs: Amos, Evra, Owen, Anderson, Berbatov, Smalling, Scholes.
Referee Phil Dowd (Staffordshire)AQS
Pic of the day that has nothing to do with this game Neil Shipperley, after. More players should let themselves go like this. More people should. Indulge yourself. It's not a rehearsal.
1 min "MUFC 19-18 YSB" says a flag in the crowd. United, in red, kick off from right to left. Blackburn are in their usual blue and white.
2 min "Is Owen going to get a medal if he played so little?" says Mateusz. "I remember a couple years back there was a discussion whether Kuszczak would be getting it because he played in less than 10 games I believe. Do the 239 minutes spread out over 10 games? And does Bebe get one too?" Owen will; he has played 10 games, nine as sub. Bebe won't, although the two low-flying aircraft he demolished with his crosses against Wolves count as a memento of sorts.
3 min United have started like the home side, as you would expect, with some crisp, high-tempo passing. The away fans are in fine voice, almost certainly fuelled by industrial quantities of booze for breakfast.
4 min Nani hits the bar! This was a real reversal of roles: Rooney drifted to the right and curved over a beautiful, Nani-like cross, and Nani got between Samba and Phil Jones to thump a header against the bar from seven yards. He probably should have scored.
5 min "Afternoon Rob," says Chris Hunt. "Speaking of medals, Gary Neville will get one won't he? Reckon he'll pop out of the Sky box to go and fizz some champers round later?" The viewers would love him even more if he did. But no, he won't, as he only played three games. (And should have been sent off in two of them.)
7 min It's still all United, but Blackburn have defended pretty well apart from that one moment when Nani hit the bar. Salgado exemplifies that with a superb tackle on Nani.
8 min Hernandez wins United's first corner off Phil Jones. It's taken by Giggs and headed clear by Phil Jones. Giggs picks up the loose ball and stabs a dangerous cross from the right of the box that Samba boots clear. Blackburn are being under a helluva lot of pressure, and 15 seconds later Nani drags a shot wide of the near post from the edge of the box.
9 min "Thanks for the tip re: Daniel Harris' On The Road.," says Kim Taylor. "For those who may be interested, Nemanja Vidic's biography is rubbish... but it has some lovely pictures (sigh!)." Daniel's book, I'm sad to report, doesn't have any pictures of him in his lovely flip-flops.
10 min Olsson earns Blackburn's first corner down the left. It's headed clear by Nani, but Hoilett picks the loose ball up and runs between Giggs and Nani on the left of the box. His cut-back deflects off Ferdinand and comes to Samba, who shanks it over the bar from 12 yards. It was an awkward chance, because it bounced higher than he expected, but he probably should have scored.
13 min It's still all United. Giggs plays a neat one-two with Rooney and then tries a through ball to Hernandez. The accomplished Samba comes across to clear.
14 min "Whilst even I think it churlish to quibble too much about SAF's achievements, his titles have coincided with the structural advantages that accrue to the CL teams who are, literally and metaphorically, in a different league to the rest," says Gary Naylor. "Finding a way to beat the same few challengers is more straightforward than dealing with the barbarians that massed at the gates of the top dogs of the past, the attacks coming thick and fast from all quarters from one season to the next." That's true up to a point, but that only applies to the last decade or so, and the Glazers have taken away many of those advantages.
16 min United have had 74 per cent of the possession so far, which is three times as much as they'll have at Wembley in a fortnight.
17 min "I see Sir Alex is up on a charge again," says Gary Naylor. "Any chance of that keeping him in the stands when the trophy is awarded? Harsh, but it would seem right somehow." He's been charged for saying exactly the same thing as Carlo Ancelotti and Harry Redknapp, who haven't been charged. I'm sure it all has nothing to do with David Bernstein becoming the FA chairman.
18 min Samba has a goal disallowed for a push on Vidic. Everybody had stopped playing, so it's nowhere near as dramatic as it sounds.
19 min A bad mistake from Kuszczak almost gives Blackburn a goal. He faffed around with Carrick's bobbling backpass, and for a moment he thought about picking it up. Roberts was on him, and Kuszczak tried to dribble past him, and in the end it needed the covering Ferdinand to boot the ball clear. Moments later, Jermaine Jones is booked for a foul in midfield.
GOAL! Blackburn 1-0 Manchester United (Emerton 20) That volcanic heat you can feel is coming from newspaper editors all round the country, whose plans for tomorrow's papers might be going up in smoke. Hoilett played the ball wide to Olsson, who clipped over an excellent cross to the far post. Evans was flat-footed and Emerton, 10 yards out, swept it sweetly past Kusczak on the half-volley with his weaker left foot.
22 min The ball was very nearly out of play in the build up to the goal, but the assistant referee got the decision right. It was identical to the Gomes/Chelsea incident, in terms of how much of the ball was on the line and how much was over (around nine-tenths).
25 min "So... with Samba & Nelson being the most undervalued centre half pairing in the league, is Phil Jones of similar quality?" says Adam Hirst. "Will they still have a good pair if Samba joins Arsenal in the summer?" I haven't seen much of him, but apparently he is extremely good and a cert to play for England sooner rather than later.
27 min After a few minutes of Blackburn pressure, the game has reverted to its early pattern: United passing and moving, Blackburn diligently putting out fires all across the field. They have defended really well.
28 min "My biggest regret of the Ferguson era is that Paul Rachubka never made it as first choice keeper as I had a rather nifty song for the stretford end based on Kate Bush's Babushka," says Niall Murphy. "Oh well. I am still hoping that Have You Heard About The Berb (The Berb is the word) finds a greater audience than my increasingly pissed off friends." I was looking at some of the lesser-known players who have been part of United's title campaigns yesterday: Rachubka, Colin McKee, Craig Lawton (an unused sub at QPR in 1992-93 I think), Bojan Djordjic, Michael Stewart. I wonder what they're all doing now.
30 min A wonderful cross from Emerton, curved from deep on the right, is expertly headed clear by the backpedalling Ferdinand.
31 min It's not a great surprise to see United struggling a wee bit. They have won only five or their 18 away games this season, potentially the lowest total by a championship-winning side since 1977.
32 min More excellent defending from Samba, who was left one on one with Rooney and blocked him off on the edge of the area.
33 min I'm a bit of a stuck record, but Blackburn have defended so well thus far. Apart from that Nani header, United haven't really created anything of note. That said, it's a hell of a strain mentally to keep this up for 90 minutes. It's like a 90-minute game of Tetris.
35 min Giggs's low cross from the right finds Hernandez on the edge of the box, and he drives a shot on the turn with his left foot that is creeping in the bottom corner when Robinson dives to his right to palm it away for a corner. That was an excellent effort, out of nothing really.
36 min "Any chance you can link to this?" says Alex Netherton. Why the flip not.
37 min Nzonzi leaves his foot in on Fabio and is booked.
38 min "From my memory of Michael Stewart, if he is still approaching life in the same unique style, he's probably starting a fight in an empty room at this very moment," says Jon Millard.
39 min A fine break from Blackburn almost brings a second goal. Salgado, 97, winces forward and drills a clever angled cross, beyond the far post and over the head of Fabio. Olsson, arriving late, thrashes a volley wide of the near post from a tight angle. He might have had time to control it first.
40 min Nani, put through on goal, is wrongly flagged offside. That's a big call. He shoots wide anyway; some Blackburn fans call for a card, but that's only a yellow-card offence against Barcelona.
41 min Some more diabolical faffing from Kuszczak, who spends ages over a backpass, gawping at the ball like a moron. Hoilett charges towards him, and Kuszczak's panicky clearance deflects off Hoilett before going out for a goalkick. It could have gone anywhere. Moments later, Evans' cross-shot from a rtght angle on the left is pushed away Robinson. It was a fairly comfortable save.
42 min "De La Soul? Tetris?" sniffs Linda Howard. "Your age is showing." Pass me the Werthers Original.
43 min Nani plays a good one-two with Rooney, and Givet comes across to make a good interception. Moments later, Olsson's excellent defensive header stops Nani's cross reaching Valencia. Excellent defending. "Any word on how well Blackburn are defending?" honks Damian Wims.
44 min Rooney tries a cute chip from just outside the box on the right, but he overhits it and it drifts a few yards over.
45 min Lovely play from United. Rooney and Hernandez almost reprised the Yorke/Cole classic in Barcelona, with Rooney dummying, then picking up the ball from Hernandez before trying to play a first-time return pass. Hernandez was blocked off, but the ball came to Nani 20 yards out. He swept his shot miles over the bar.
Half time: Blackburn 1-0 Manchester United That was a really interesting half, with Blackburn's defensive tactics working extremely well. See you in 10 minutes.
"As per Wikipedia," says Nicholas Grundy. ""Djordjic: playing for Hungarian side Videoton; McKee: retired in 2001 aged 28 after playing for Fauldhouse United; Lawton: playing for Bala Town in the Cymru Alliance; Stewart: playing for Charlton; Rachubka: is at Blackpool. Someone should tell the managers who rush to buy Fergie's castoffs for exorbitant sums that he's not such a bad judge of a player..." You had to mention Videoton.
Half-time email "You mentioned that Daniel Harris's book is one of the best United books you've read in recent years," says Ashleye Soanes. "Having not read any United books, what would you recommend?" Richard Kurt's stuff is extremely good, especially The Red Army Years, which is a classic of its genre, and As The Reds Go Marching On. The Eamon Dunphy book on Sir Matt Busby, Keane's autobiography, Ferguson's autobiography and his two season diaries from 1994-95 and 1996-97, the two Michael Crick books, Daniel Taylor's This Is The One, Brian McClair's Odd Man Out. Philippe Auclair's biography of Eric Cantona is apparently outstanding, though I haven't read it yet. George Switzer's autobiography by Alex Netherton. My 1000-page opus on a teenage obsession with Giuliano Maiorana. There are loads of others, but my head is hurting.
The longer it stays at 1-0, the greater the possibility of the ultimate nightmare for United and Liverpool fans: Michael Owen scoring the goal that wins the title. The dream scenario, for United fans at least, is that the title will be won in the 90th minute with a moment of the purest Berbarotica.
46 min Blackburn kick off from right to left. No changes on either side.
47 min "Has there been a better buy in the last few years than Christopher Samba?" says Gary Naylor. "He's a classic late developer, but how do you spot them? There's a lot of stuff written about how people could tell that Rooney, Messi, whoever was going to be a player not long after they learned to walk, but little on how to spot a 23 year-old journeyman who will become a 27 year-old star. David Moyes might be the man to write that piece." Samba is a beast. Arsenal should try to sign him.
48 min The game has slipped back into the expected pattern, with United knocking the ball around and Blackburn getting nine outfield players behind the ball at all times.
49 min "How's Valencia playing?" says Cormac O'Sullivan. "Not heard much of him in the MBM." He's been pretty quiet. He hasn't played badly; he just hasn't had much of the ball. I suppose the only way was down after what he did to Ashley Cole last weekend.
50 min Carrick has a shot from the edge of the area blocked by a posse of charging defenders. Then Valencia and Givet bounce off each other in the box; United appealed for the penalty but the foul was given to Blackburn, rightly I think.
51 min An excellent angled through pass from Giggs finds Hernandez in the box, but his first touch is heavy and it goes to the keeper Robinson. It was a hard pass to control, be because had to hit it firmly to get it through the eye of the needle.
53 min So what should Sir Alex Ferguson? The obvious first substitution is Berbatov for Nani, who has reverted to his old, risible, indulgent self in the last couple of months. Then Rooney would play from the left.
54 min Jermaine Jones, who has screened the defence very well, comes across to intercept after a long run from Fabio.
55 min Fabio wins a corner off Givet. Nothing happens. Though United are dominating possession, there is no real sense that a goal is coming.
56 min "Plug department 2," says Phil Podolsky. "If you're a fan of substandard modern writing and/or Joey Barton, you could do worse than clicking on this link. WARNING: contains graphic imagery of human arse."
57 min More pathetic goalkeeping from Kuszczak, who comes for a high ball and punches it across his own penalty area. Luckily for United it just evades Jason Roberts and was eventually cleared. Kuszczak is having an absolute stinker.
58 min The first substitution comes from Blackburn, with Morten Gamst Pedersen replacing the impressive Hoilett.
60 min A low cross from the right comes to Giggs on the six-yard line, and Phil Jones does superbly to block the resulting shot.
61 min I've now been accused of revelling in Hillsborough, simply because I reported that a flag on the TV said "YSB". Dear me. That's radged me off and no mistake. Can someone stop the internet please?
62 min United's first substitution: Paul Scholes replaces Fabio. Presumably Valencia will go to right back, Giggs to the left wing and Nani to the right.
64 min Scholes cleans out Pedersen with a late tackle. It looked more dramatic than it was, however, and Phil Dowd decides not to book him.
65 min Olsson hits the post! Emerton dug out a cross to the far post, and Olsson towered majestically above Valencia on the six-yard line before smacking his header off the outside of the near post.
66 min Another near miss for Blackburn, as Emerton's fizzing left-footed cross flicks off the head of Ferdinand and just wide of the far post. That was pretty similar to David Beckham's own goal on this ground in 2001, except this one went wide rather than into the far corner.
67 min Jermaine Jones, already booked, has just been warned that he'll be off if he gives away any more free-kicks.
68 min Fergie is not happy about Blackburn's timewasting, and they are taking a few liberties. That said, United just don't look like scoring. Surely Dimitar Berbatov should be on by now?
71 min: PENALTY TO MANCHESTER UNITED A bit of controversy here. Robinson and Hernandez went for a ball by the touchline, on the right of the box; Hernandez knocked it out of play, but his legs were taken by Robinson in the process. It was stupid from Robinson, because Hernandez was going nowhere. Phil Dowd spent a long time talking to the assistant referee, with players from both sides shouting at him, and then he gave it. Blackburn are furious, saying Hernandez dived. He did leave his legs there, allowing Robinson to hit him, but that's perfectly legal and it looked like a foul.
GOAL! Blackburn 1-1 Manchester United (Rooney 72 pen) Rooney scores, slamming the penalty emphatically into the left corner as Robinson goes the other way. The United fans are going mental. Rooney wanted to leave in October because he thought United weren't going to win anything; now he may have scored the title-winning goal for them.
74 min Blackburn may need a win because of results elsewhere, so the more attacking David Dunn comes on for Jermaine Jones.
76 min That could have been 2-1 to United. A glorious move started with a majestic crossfield pass from Carrick to Rooney on the right wing. He took a touch and then blasted an undefendable cross into the corridor of uncertainty between keeper and defenders. Nani, stretching, sliced it wide of the far post from six yards.
77 min The outstanding Chris Samba is limping off, to be replaced by Keith Andrews.
79 min Now it's United who are sitting in, allowing Blackburn to pass the ball about. They could be in trouble even if they reach 40 points with a draw here, because Wolves and Blackpool are both winning.
81 min Dimitar Berbatov replaces Nani. I wonder what Michael Owen is thinking.
83 min It's a very odd game now. United don't need a win and, while Blackburn do, you suspect they don't believe they can win. So there's a slight West Germany v Austria 1982 air to the match.
84 min Manchester United are just passing the ball around at the back. Blackburn aren't pressing them until they cross the halfway line, so nothing is happening.
87 min Now Blackburn have the ball, and they are passing it round in defence. It's a full-on West Germany v Austria 1982 tribute now.
88 min See 84 minutes.
89 min Carrick and Scholes are having a training session, hitting 10-yard passes back and forth to each other. This game is over, and Manchester United are champions. Again.
90 min "This is like watching paint dry," says Chris Coleman. There will be three added minutes of it. Nothing is happening. Paul Scholes is touching the ball every few seconds.
Full time: Blackburn 1-1 Manchester United Manchester United are champions for a record 19th time. Alex Ferguson hugs his backroom staff and does a little granddad-at-the-disco jig. Fabio and Rafael, one in his kit and the other in a suit, embrace. Now the players are in a line, jumping up and down in the usual style. They might not be up there with the classes of 94, 99 and 08, but they have been the best team in the league and few people would deny that they deserve this title. "We're champions, we're in the Champions League final: we're a rubbish team," chuckles Ryan Giggs. It's a pretty amazing story after all the problems they had last autumn. And now, finally, undeniably, Liverpool are off their perch. Twenty years ago it was 18-7; now it's 18-19. Sir Alex Ferguson? Bloody hell.