ALEX FERGUSON looked like the character who had just about negotiated a waggon train through hostile Indian country. A few wheels had been lost, things are looking dicey but, listen, you can just hear the sound of the cavalry coming.
"I can't disguise how delighted we are with the result," the Manchester United manager said, his grin as broad as the Stretford End. His bonhomie was such he even threw a psychological tit-bit at Arsenal, the champions' principal rivals.
"We've six games left to get to the finishing line. Six is not a lot, but 10 is," he said impishly, before warming to the task. "Arsenal are in the driving seat. They've got to lose points for us to win it."
Tosh, of course. Ferguson knows that six points in the bag in April are worth at least the three games that Arsenal have in hand but, buoyed by a match where the championship might have been won and certainly could have been lost, his mischievousness revealed a full recovery from the deep trough that hit him after United's exit from the European Cup. He is looking forward again, as his programme notes revealed.
"I am fed up with people trying to pigeon hole me for retirement," he wrote. "I am 56, feel as fit as I ever did and have a lot more to achieve. I intend to work into my 60s because Manchester United is my life... There is important work to do." The king-makers at Old Trafford can go back to sleep again.
You could not help but feel the work will come a lot easier this season after this result as, for most of the afternoon, United appeared to be about to usher Arsenal towards the title. Stripped of six first-choice players they worked prodigiously but they resembled your favourite charity: very worthy but not exactly exciting.
After Andy Cole had missed a chance after three minutes, hitting a long pass from Raimond van der Gouw into Neil Sullivan's legs, United buzzed round the Wimbledon goal full of intent, only to see attacks become increasingly easy to repulse. Frankly, by the 80th minute, they had run out of ideas.
Which left the final option, throwing big defenders at the problem. David May and Henning Berg created enough chaos at the near post from David Beckham's fourth corner in quick succession and Ronny Johnsen half-volleyed through the mayhem.
Wimbledon, rightly, felt at least two home players were offside - "it's yet to be proved whether they were interfering with play, but if you're in the six-yard box surely it's an active zone," Robbie Earle said - and were not impressed either when Paul Scholes criminally distorted the scoreline in injury time after also coming from an offside position.
Suddenly events appear to be conspiring in United's favour, even to the extent that they do not have to play again until next Monday when John Wayne and his troops will arrive at Blackburn in the shape of Peter Schmeichel, Gary Pallister, Nicky Butt, Teddy Sheringham and, probably, Ryan Giggs.
The spine of the team will be back and, as an extra bonus, Arsenal could have squandered points by then in a less-than-ideal fixture against Bolton at the Reebok. Add the fact that Dennis Bergkamp will be missing when he is needed most and you get an idea why Ferguson was beaming.
"United will get stronger, that's the big thing," Earle said. "They've got influential men to come back. They weren't as fluent as they'd have liked to be against us but they dug out a result. When you compare them to Arsenal they have more options."
Goals: Johnsen (82) 1-0; Scholes (90) 2-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Gouw; G Neville, May, Berg, Irwin; Beckham, Johnsen, Scholes, P Neville; Cole (McClair, 90), Solskjaer (Thornley, 81). Substitutes not used: Casper, Curtis, Pilkington (gk).
Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Thatcher, Kimble; Ardley, Roberts, Earle, Hughes; Gayle (Euell, 60), Leaburn. Substitutes not used: Reeves, Fear, Francis, Heald (gk).
Bookings: Manchester United: Berg, May. Wimbledon: Thatcher, Cunningham, Kimble.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).
Man of the match: Perry.
Attendance: 55,306.Reuse content