Football: Irwin lets fly to send Ferguson's hopes soaring

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Coventry City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

MANCHESTER UNITED edged closer to the prize they have pursued obsessively and vainly these past 26 years by winning at Highfield Road yesterday, but not before enduring a fraught finale in which Coventry rattled their woodwork and had Mick Quinn sent off.

After Steve Bruce's late brace against Sheffield Wednesday, United were again indebted to a defender for the points which keep Aston Villa at bay. Five minutes before half-time, Dennis Irwin let fly from 25 yards to score his fifth goal this season and potentially the most valuable of his life.

It was not a vintage performance by the Premier League leaders, which was understandable after their labours on Saturday. As Alex Ferguson suggested, in a joke that would have been lost on Ron Atkinson, they had played 125 minutes against Wednesday. The United manager hailed 'a smashing result' against 'stubborn, dogged' opponents, but declined to tempt fate by elaborating on United's championship prospects.

Ferguson claimed he had not seen the incident involving Peter Schmeichel which led to Quinn's dismissal, while the normally effusive Bobby Gould preferred not to comment. 'The FA have had enough money off me this season,' the Coventry manager explained. 'Mrs Gould won't let me give them any more fines.' Gould, whose side drew at Villa at the weekend, felt United's 'bottle' remained intact. 'I'd say Alex was more relaxed about things than Ron, but then Villa got a great win at Arsenal.

'For United to produce what they did on Saturday and then do it again 48 hours later is fantastic,' he added. 'But we gave them a run for their money - they had one shot on target and scored.'

Statistically speaking Gould was correct, but United, who again used Bryan Robson as a substitute despite hints that he would start, had the better of the first half. Even so, the goal apparently came as something of a surprise to all concerned. Lee Sharpe, on the left wing, rolled a pass inside to his full-back, Irwin. The home defence was ranged across the penalty area, anticipating a cross, but Irwin swung his right boot and was delighted to see a relatively innocuous low drive beat Jonathan Gould's dive.

Coventry certainly did not let Villa down, both Quinn and Roy Wegerle coming close to an equaliser early in the second half. Sharpe drove over after a sinewy surge by Eric Cantona, and the appearance of Robson for the Frenchman, who was carrying a wrist injury, seemed to be the signal for United to shut up shop. Instead, nine minutes from time, Wegerle rounded Robson and sent a daisy-cutter past Schmeichel from 18 yards. The ball struck the inside of the upright, shot across goal and was cleared.

Still the drama was not over. In the 87th minute a high challenge by Lee Hurst on Bruce led to a skirmish involving several players. Paul Ince, perhaps inevitably, was quick to join the fray, while Schmeichel also raced out to become embroiled with Quinn. The striker, already cautioned for a reckless lunge at Bruce, appeared to strike the giant Dane. Schmeichel went down, Quinn went off and United went home more than satisfied.

Coventry City: Gould; Borrows, Babb, Atherton, Gynn, Rennie, McGrath (Jenkinson, 72), Hurst, Quinn, Wegerle, Williams. Substitutes not used: Busst, Ogrizovic (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona (Robson, 76), Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Phelan, Sealey (gk).

Referee: R Gifford (Llanbradach).