This was West Ham's third visit to the Riverside and they must have approached it with some trepidation, having leaked four in both previous appearances and being sunk by a similar score at Leeds the week before. And within the first 20 minutes Middlesbrough could have racked up their regulation four - and perhaps even more. That would have thwarted West Ham's reshuffle and rejuvenation, and prevented the biggest noise in the second half being the groan of anxiety that greeted the fourth official's board when it showed three minutes of injury time in which to hold on.
In the first half, though, Boro had been brilliant and Paul Gascoigne shone. He might have dried out but his inspiration has not dried up. His passing, be it a flick with the outside of his boot or a dynamic drive on the volley, was superb. And in the 15th minute when he and Andy Townsend combined to capture Stan Lazaridis in possession he was quickest to his feet and tried a cheeky chip that cleared both keeper and bar.
The league's leading scorer, Hamilton Ricard, had been rampaging at the Hammers from the 33rd second when he was unceremoniously hauled down by Steve Lomas. Towns-end swiftly swung in the kick and somehow the sliding Brian Deane failed to get the necessary touch.
In one stunning three-minute spell Middlesbrough could have scored three. Ricard played Deane in but Steve Potts nicked the ball away; Ricard then overhead-kicked a spectacular cross which Steve Vickers placed precisely on the post, and finally Gascoigne made a mockery of Ian Wright on the half-way line, sent Dean Gordon free down the left but his perfect cross was headed inexplicably wide by Deane. Fortunately, though, Deane atoned for his profligacy in the 40th minute when he flew through a forest of players to convert Townsend's corner.
But there was still unease at the Riverside at half-time. Wright had had two dangerous breakaway moments, one which Mark Schwarzer had advanced well to block and another that had been intelligently tidied up by Vickers. But Middlesbrough had drawn six of their previous nine league games and in their last two had surrendered leads to Newcastle and Arsenal in the dying minutes, so the doubts remained.
As the second half started, Middlesbrough failed to maintain their mayhem. For West Ham, John Moncur replaced Marc Keller. Frank Lampard pushed further forward and Trevor Sinclair went wider. In the 55th minute Lampard's run earned their first corner. Six minutes later John Hartson's shot was deflected narrowly wide. In the 71st minute Lampard found Wright free on the edge of the area but the veteran marksman disappointingly dribbled his shot at Schwarzer.
Closer and closer came the Hammers until in the 76th minute Hartson, distressingly unmarked, chested down Lampard's corner and slammed his shot against the bar. "Normally they manage to squirm in from there," complained Harry Redknapp.
Bryan Robson withdrew Ricard and sent on Phil Stamp to batten down the hatches. Gascoigne and Townsend retreated to the corners in a bid to fritter away precious seconds, and in the 87th minute Mikkel Beck's header was splendidly touched over by Shaka Hislop.
No surprise, then, the roar when the referee eventually gave the Riverside some relief with his final whistle.