Middlesbrough 0 Bolton Wanderers 1: McCann's defiant strike pulls Bolton out of the danger zone

Close-range effort gives Megson's men a lifeline after heroics from Al-Habsi
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The Independent Football

Clearly no one has told Bolton Wanderers that April has a reputation for being quite a cruel month. It may be late in the season but Gary Megson's team have a spring in their step as they put back-to-back victories together for the first time in over a year. Bolton now have safety and an eighth consecutive Premier League season in their grasp and self-determination is all anyone wants at this stage.

As Megson blew out his cheeks at the final whistle, the Bolton players walked wearily but happily to their larger-than-usual contingent of travelling fans, where celebrations were not confined to keeping kits on.

After Kevin Davies's solitary goal did for West Ham eight days ago, Gavin McCann's one-yard effort on the hour did the same to a bemused Middlesbrough.

Boro, who are not yet safe from relegation, felt the pain of McCann's close-range stab instantly but, as the news of it filtered south, Birmingham City and Reading felt it too. The win, only Bolton's second on the road this season, lifted them out of the bottom three above the teams managed by Alex McLeish and Steve Coppell.

Megson sounded relieved and exhausted afterwards but there was some contentment in his voice. "We've given ourselves an opportunity that didn't exist a fortnight ago," he said, "but that's all it is, an opportunity. We still have work to do because if we stay on the same points we'll not be safe.

"Psychologically, it is big to get out of the bottom three but we must not forget we have work to do."

Everyone here, including Megson, watched the first 10 minutes and wondered how many Middlesbrough would win by. Bolton were being sliced apart and it took three excellent saves from Jussi Jaaskelainen's replacement, Ali Al-Habsi, to keep the visitors not only in the game, but perhaps in the division.

"We were poor in the first 20 minutes," added Megson. "I was really concerned and really angry because I expected a different start from us. We were thankful that we have a good goalkeeper, Ali made three great saves. In the second half we were miles better, it was chalk and cheese."

Megson explained that part of the reason for the turnaround at half-time was the knowledge that Liverpool were winning at Fulham, after Arsenal had beaten Reading earlier. "We knew we wouldn't have a better chance."

Next Bolton go to Tottenham and then have a last home game of the season, against Sunderland. Roy Keane's team could still be sweating by then as they face Newcastle today and Middlesbrough next week. Bolton finish their season with a trip south to Stamford Bridge.

Boro, with one win in their last nine matches, have been left looking nervously beneath them. Five points off relegation, Gareth Southgate said: "We're not naïve enough to say 36 points will keep you in the League. We had the chances to be in a strong position at half-time but when you have those spells of pressure, you've got to score. Once they did, we weren't clever, we were a bit panicky."

The analysis of both managers could not be disputed. Boro began smoothly, dangerously, and David Wheater, Tuncay Sanli and Afonso Alves all had good efforts expertly parried away by Al-Habsi. The passing and movement of Julio Arca and Stewart Downing was intelligent and sharp and Bolton were simply making up the numbers.

It was half an hour before the visitors managed a shot, Matt Taylor testing Mark Schwarzer's stand-in Ross Turnbull.

At that point there was no suggestion that Bolton were about to take control but after that half-time talk, added to the introduction of Danny Guthrie for Tamir Cohen, the game changed markedly.

Turnbull made blocks from Ivan Campo, Taylor and Kevin Nolan, and Luke Young then cleared off the line after Turnbull was beaten by a beautiful chip by Guthrie. Bolton were coming.

Taylor hit the post in the mêlée that followed but when the same player swung in the resulting corner, Gary Cahill won a header, Turnbull parried away again but McCann was there to poke the ball in.

Mid-April, what a good time for McCann to register his first League goal for Bolton.