Sir Alex Ferguson admitted Manchester United were fortunate not to concede a last-minute penalty as a slender victory over Fulham moved the champions three points clear of Manchester City in the race for the Premier League title.
Wayne Rooney's 21st league goal of the season returned United to the summit with eight matches remaining but the win was shrouded in controversy when the referee, Michael Oliver, dismissed Fulham penalty appeals in the 89th minute. Danny Murphy, the Fulham substitute who was a scourge of United in his Liverpool days, scoring the decisive goal in three 1-0 victories in four seasons against Ferguson's team, was tripped by Michael Carrick as he burst into the area only for Oliver to wave play on.
An incensed Martin Jol raced on to the pitch in protest at the decision and the Fulham manager later accused Oliver, the youngest man to referee a Premier League game, of not being brave enough to award a crucial penalty at Old Trafford.
Ferguson said: "I think Michael has caught his heel. It wasn't a stonewaller but it could have been a penalty. Maybe he [the referee] was thinking about the one in the first half that we had. Certainly it was a claim, there's no question about that.
"I think the referee has been a bit lenient when we had a claim for a penalty-kick in the first half. It was a clear handball. It was a claim and Patrice Evra thought it was a stonewaller. He thought he [Stephen Kelly] handled the ball as it was going into the penalty box and denied an opportunity and maybe he was thinking about that. But certainly Michael Carrick caught Danny Murphy's heel as he's come back. We made enough chances to finish the game off but didn't do it and nearly paid the penalty."
For Jol, United's reprieve rekindled memories of the Pedro Mendes "goal" that was not given here when he was in charge of Tottenham Hotspur in 2005 and should, he insisted, have also had led to a red card for Carrick. He said: "It was a difficult game anyway. Three or four five times before then he told our players to get up as if they were diving. But when a brave decision is needed … The ball was a metre over the line [in 2005] and they did not give it. But now it needed a brave decision again because it was either a dive and he should book someone or he has to give Carrick a red card.
"I don't want to see Michael Carrick sent off but it needed a brave decision and I think it was a penalty-kick. The referee was there in line. A brave decision is needed to give a penalty near the end like that. No one in the stadium could say Danny Murphy dived and everyone in the stadium expected a penalty."
Ferguson rued United's failure to add to Rooney's 42nd-minute goal and the careless passing that allowed Fulham to rally late on, but claimed the dogged win was a sign of "championship form".
The United manager, who withdrew Rio Ferdinand with a slight injury problem but expects the influential defender to be fit for next week's game at Blackburn, said: "We gave them the opportunity to do something at the end of the game because we didn't finish them off. I think there was a bit of edginess but it was a fantastic game for us to have in the sense that that's the way it's going to be. They may as well get used to it.
"Over the years I don't know how many times I've said '1-0, what does it mean?' It means championship form. I don't mind the 1-0s. It tells you we're determined, we're going to do the right thing. We know there are no easy games. The experienced players know that. The crowd still don't know it. They've watched us for a hundred years but still get nervous when we don't finish teams off."