Sir Alex Ferguson could not stop smiling when What A Friend, the horse he jointly owns, finished in fourth place, and pipped only by a nose for third, in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday. So joyous was the Manchester United manager, he even deigned to talk to the media about football, a rare event of late, as well as racing.
Ferguson was just as happy yesterday. United, not for the first time this season, performed scrappily and yet emerged still top of the table, increasing their lead over Arsenal to five points, and still in contention to complete the treble.
If cries of "1999 Here We Go Again" are a tad premature, just think what might happen if United get back a large number of their injured personnel over the run-in. Even operating at half-power, and having lost Jonny Evans to a red card late on, they just about pipped Bolton at an increasingly edgy Old Trafford. "We got better with 10 men," Ferguson said. "Everyone put in a shift and we got a deserved winner. I thought that we were far the better team. It's a great lead to have at the top, though Arsenal have a game in hand, but we have the points. If we get our players back, our major players, we have a great chance of winning the title."
Ferguson watched on from high. He decided not to appeal against his five-match FA ban, for questioning whether referee Martin Atkinson was "fair" to United in the 2-1 defeat against Chelsea this month, so that the suspension would start yesterday and make him available for a possible title decider against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on 1 May.
Perhaps released from the stress of the touchline, Ferguson looked relaxed when he took his place in the directors' box before kick off, signing autographs and shaking hands on the way to his seat behind David Gill, the United chief executive. It was left to Mike Phelan, his assistant, to prowl the technical area and issue instructions to a United side shorn of many a first-team regular by injuries.
United opened sluggishly but Wayne Rooney looked lively again, his return to form long overdue. With Javier Hernandez isolated up front, Rooney was to able to forage from deep and to effect, once and then twice driving wide in the first half. He also forced a decent save from Jussi Jaaskelainen, the Bolton goalkeeper, as United attempted to wrest control from their fellow FA Cup semi-finalists. Not that Bolton were overawed. Far from it. And they gave as good as they got from United early on, with Fabrice Muamba slipping when well placed for a shot.
Ferguson was so concerned at one stage that he had to use his directors' box hotline to pass on instructions to the bench. It was not working out on the pitch, United were too disjointed, and he could not wait until half-time. Allowed into the dressing room during the interval, he clearly made his feelings felt there, too.
Hernandez was replaced by Dimitar Berbatov and the injured Wes Brown by Fabio da Silva. Ferguson had spoken and acted. Not that it made much immediate difference and it got worse, when Evans was dismissed for an over-the-top challenge on Stuart Holden, who left the pitch on a stretcher suffering from a gashed right knee.
"We'll not know how bad it is until he's back from hospital," Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager, said. "The knee was open but I hope it's only a cut rather than ligament damage. I don't think there was any malice in the challenge." Ferguson just about concurred: "Jonny's not that type of player," he said. "It was unfortunate but I don't think we can have any real complaints [about the red card]."
"Character" – Ferguson's favourite quality – was required and, at last, his team began to show it. Fine saves from Jaaskelainen denied Rooney and Nani yet, still, another two points, to add to their previous defeats against Chelsea and Liverpool, appeared to be going down the pan. Not so. Jaaskelainen erred, spilling Nani's low shot, and Berbatov bundled the ball home for his 21st goal of the season. Unitedare up and running again and, just like What A Friend, closing on the winning line. And for Ferguson, this time, fourth place will not do.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Rooney
Match rating: 6/10