Bolton on the edge

West Ham 1 Cottee 28 Bolton Wanderers 0 Attendance: 23,086
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The Independent Online
BOLTON thought they still had a chance to avoid relegation. That chance faded virtually beyond redemption at Upton Park yesterday, when a first-half goal by Tony Cottee stressed the defensive difficulties that had beset them all season.

The luxury of being in a position to determine the fate of others, rather than having others ganging up on them, was not something West Ham's manager Harry Redknapp found all that enviable. "I've been there, and it's not a situation you wish on anyone." During the week, he had been trying to get the message across to his players that they owed it to themselves, the supporters, but most of all to thegroup of relegation-threatened teams beneath them to play as if their own futures depended on it. Easier said than done.

A lot of unfinished work on West Ham's part allowed Bolton to snatch at a clutch of early opportunities. But grabbing a lead was less easy. In fact, they seemed so astounded to be given the opportunity after 16 minutes that Nathan Blake spurned probably one of his most straightforward chances of Bolton's difficult season. Alan Stubbs had ingeniously lobbed a pass beyond the West Ham defenders who stood predicting that Blake was to be ruled offside. Unhappily, Blake thought the same and hesitated before half-heartedly floating his shot over the bar.

Blake was at pains to make recompense, but when he again found himself in advance of the West Ham defence he wanted too much time and let Ludek Miklosko come out and block him. Those were costly errors. Although Bolton maintained lengthy pressure, their poor finishing allowed West Ham to counterattack dangerously.

More hesitation in the hope of offside led to the game suddenly and undeservedly swinging away from Bolton. When Danny Williamson pushed the ball low through the centre and into the Bolton penalty area, defenders stood aside while Tony Cottee rightly assumed that he was on side, controlled the ball almost unopposed, turned and struck in a close-range shot.

Cottee could have sealed the match, when failure by Simon Coleman to break down what should have been a harmless West Ham attack ended with another huge gap in the Bolton defence. Gavin Ward rushed out and frustrated Cottee, but the inactivity of the men who were supposed to do the job in the first place was symptomatic of so many performances this season.

By then, West Ham had lost Robbie Slater - caught in possession and, worse, caught so heavily on the ankle that he was unable to continue. The loss seemed negligible as West Ham created ample attacking moves early in the second half, again casting doubt on Coleman and Chris Fairclough's capabilities on the retreat. Yet, when a low corner by Alan Thompson was met by Gudni Bergsson, an equaliser should have followed. As it was, Bergsson had little time and his snatched shot went straight into the hands of Miklosko.

Had West Ham banked all of their profit from perhaps a dozen attacks that further embarrassed the Bolton defence, the outcome would have been a rout. In the event, though, Hughes and Cottee let them off and then Ian Bishop almost offered them the goal they desperately needed when deflecting a cross from Scott Sellars on to his own post.

Perhaps Bolton deserved some luck, but by leaving it too late before committing themselves totally to attack they worsened their plight. And even when John McGinlay did finally burst into the penalty area, his shot swept beyond the far post.