Boro remain the freefall guys

West Ham 2 Dowie 1, Dicks 59 pen Middlesbrough 0 Attendance: 23 ,850
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THE question is becoming not one of when will Middlesbrough pull the rip-cord but whether they have packed the parachute. Their free-fall down the Premiership continued at West Ham yesterday, and although they have eight games left, the fact that they have picked up only one point from their last 11 underlines the potential consequences of their downward spiral.

Boro will no doubt point to the apparent security zone between themselves and the third-from-bottom club Southampton, but the nine-point deficit is offset by three games in hand, which suggests that Boro could yet be the Norwich of this season.

More ominous than the manner of their defeat yesterday was the suspicion that Boro are beginning to concede "daft goals", as their manager Bryan Robson referred to them after the match. The first, after just 67 seconds, will haunt both the defender Neil Cox and the goalkeeper Gary Walsh, while the second, a harsh penalty for hand ball, may not look too clever to the referee Michael Reed when he sees the replay.

Robson continues to cling to the hope that once he has a full squad Boro's form will pick up. They brought a jet-lagged Juninho on in the second half after the Brazilian had flown in yesterday morning. And, with Branco also coming on, there was some optimism generated by the instant understanding between the two internationals.

Nevertheless the goalscoring drought continues. Nick Barmby's cropped head looks like a penance for his continued lack of goals, and Craig Hignett and Jan Fjortoft, who had little impact, were both substituted midway through the second half.

By then, Boro were already chasing a game that had started to slip away from them once Cox dithered over a back-pass, and Walsh attempted to flick the ball up for a volleyed clearance. Tony Cottee's challenge sent the ball squirming across goal leaving Iain Dowie an easy tap-in.

Boro's five-man backline looked instantly redundant in the context of getting back into the game, and though Hignett did force one good save from Ludek Miklosko, West Ham exploited their numerical advantage in midfield to create chances for at least three more goals.

That they didn't score them owed much to Cottee's off-key performance. He was just wide with a curling left-footer, and his header from a Danny Williamson cross was even closer. And with a Julian Dicks header cleared off the line, West Ham left the field at half-time feeling unrewarded.

Boro fought back early in the second half but they had the fight knocked out of them by Cox's inadvertent hand-ball from a wicked bounce, which was seen as deliberate. Dicks buried the spot-kick past Walsh's left hand. "Are you beginning to look over your shoulder?" someone asked Robson. "Slightly," he admitted, with the expression of a man bereft of good news.