MANCHESTER UNITED took the long road to the top of the Premiership yesterday, wandering down highways and byways and into endless cul-de-sacs before Dwight Yorke completed the ascent in the 89th minute with a glancing header. It is the first time they have stood at the summit this season, apart from a 24-hour spell in early December, and climaxes a month of five straight victories and 16 goals.
Yet such was their lethargy for much of the afternoon, and Charlton's ceaseless endeavour, that a goalless draw seemed for a long time the more likely outcome. Only towards the end of each half did a United side that cost some pounds 45m - more than 10 times as much as the opposition - show the necessary urgency and create some chances.
Curbishley had understandably opted for the security of a third centre- half to counter Andy Cole and Yorke, using John Robinson as a right wing- back against his more celebrated Welsh team-mate Ryan Giggs. Making good use of the extra man in the centre of midfield, they prevented Roy Keane and Nicky Butt from establishing a flow of possession, while Chris Powell found time to go forward as well as guarding David Beckham.
For half an hour were alarmed only by Mark Kin-sella's headed back pass, which almost reached Yorke before the goalkeeper, Simon Royce, and not until the last 10 minutes of the half did United establish a measure of authority, creating their first three chances.
Butt drove Keane's square pass just past the post, Royce made a smart one-handed stop from a Giggs volley and Henning Berg jabbed Giggs's cross wide. Against that, Charlton should have scored immediately before the interval: Peter Schmeichel rushed from goal to concede a corner, then pushed away Kinsella's kick as far as Neil Redfearn, who could not keep his shot low enough. Referee Gary Willard also turned down two penalty appeals for Charlton in first- half stoppage time.
Pushed back in the final quarter of the match, but still working their red socks off, the home side left five men back and seemed to have settled for a morale-boosting draw. They had reasonable expectations of achieving it as Butt twice shot with power rather than accuracy, and then stabbed the ball carelessly wide of the far post after playing a one-two with Yorke.
United, however, increased the pressure by bringing on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as a third attacker and also introduced Paul Scholes, whose cross from the right it was that Yorke glanced in off the inside of a post for his sixth goal in four games.
"We deserved to win the game because of the possession we had," said their manager Alex Ferguson. "But credit to Charlton. Their three centre- halves handled our two strikers as well as anyone has. It's a good result for us, because there are games where you have to dig in and find a result."
After looking on as Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Coventry all won on Saturday, Charlton desperately needed to find one as well, but this was not the United of their last League meetings a decade ago, beaten at Selhurst Park and sinking into the bottom half of the table as cries of "Fergie out" were heard. Charlton went down that season, as they did after United's last visit to the Valley in 1957, when Bobby Charlton scored his first hat-trick.
Charlton have now lost nine of their last 10 league matches and gone 13 league matches without a win. The public announcer's parting shot yesterday, looking forward to seeing United return in the Premiership next year, sounded like a definition of optimism.
Goal: Yorke (89) 0-1.
Charlton Athletic (3-5-2): Royce; Rufus, Brown, Tiler; Robinson, Kinsella, K Jones, Redfearn, Powell; Hunt (Bright, 76), Pringle (Parker 82). Substitutes not used: Ilic (gk), Newton, Konchesky, Parker.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin; Beckham (Solksjaer, 70), Keane, Butt (Scholes, 82), Giggs; Cole, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw, P Neville, Johnsen.
Referee: G Willard (Sussex).
Man of the match: Redfearn.