Defeat at Bolton on Good Friday left West Ham with two chances of avoiding relegation from the Premiership – slim and none. But Slim has not yet left town.
A goal 13 minutes from time from Trevor Sinclair yesterday earned the home side three points which may yet prove crucial in their effort to avoid returning to the First Division for the first time in a decade.
This edgy but ultimately deserved victory still leaves them in a hugely precarious position above the two sides already relegated: West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland. But as the Upton Park matchday announcer maintained stoically before the game got under way: "Time has not yet been called''.
West Ham's manager, Glenn Roeder, whose advances to the touchline drew boos from some sections of a 35,019 crowd, acknowledged afterwards that his team may yet need to win all of their three remaining games – Manchester City away, Chelsea at home and then Birmingham City away – to be safe. "It might not be necessary, but it's possible,'' he said. "I think the lads showed their mental toughness once again today.''
Bolton's draw at Blackburn meant West Ham only made up two points on the team who had beaten them in such acrimonious circumstances two days earlier. The result at Ewood Park lifts Bolton above Leeds, who are three points clear of West Ham with a game in hand and are home to Fulham today.
Wet Ham' victory was due in huge part to the less than huge figure of Joe Cole. Although he faces the worry of pending investigation by the Football Association and, perhaps, Greater Manchester Police, for his part in an alleged fracas after the Bolton game, West Ham's 21-year-old captain was a model of industry and enterprise from first to last.
Roeder is optimistic that he and Rufus Brevett, who was also implicated in the disturbance at the Reebok, will escape any ban this season as he believes the referee's report does not single out the misconduct of any individual players.
Cole's high point arrived four minutes before the break when he manoeuvred nimbly around George Boateng in his own half before setting off on a solo adventure, meandering his way clear of three converging defenders before driving a left-foot shot narrowly wide.
However, defensive jitters explained West Ham's parlous position. A minute beforehand, their goalkeeper David James had to make an acrobatic save to prevent what would have been a bizarre and spectacular own goal by the ill-starred central defender Tomas Repka.
Five minutes after the break James momentarily stopped hearts all over Upton Park as he decided to dribble out of the box past Middlesbrough's forwards Christie and Massimo Maccarone, before scrambling the ball to a team-mate as he fell to the ground.
West Ham's hopes were revived by a shot from Steve Lomas which hit a post after 65 minutes, but it was not until the closing stages that they settled the match, thanks to an inspirational charge down the right wing by the full-back Glen Johnson, who vaulted a wild challenge from Colin Cooper before pulling the ball smartly back from the byline to invite Sinclair to score with a low drive. Middlesbrough's manager Steve McLaren exempted only his goalkeeper and two central defenders from criticism after what he regarded as a "below standard'' display. "But credit to West Ham,'' he said. "They stuck at it and took the one defining moment of the game.''
West Ham United (4-4-2): James 7; Johnson 8, Repka 5, Pearce 5, Brevett 6; Lomas 7, Cissé 4, Cole 8, Sinclair 6; Defoe 7, L Ferdinand 7. Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Hutchison, Dailly, Breen, Garcia.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer 5; Cooper 5, Ehiogu 7, Southgate 7, Queudrue 6 (Stockdale 6, 53); Wilkshire 5, Boateng 5, Juninho 4 (Job 6, h-t), Greening 6; Christie 5 (Ricketts 4, 72, Maccarone 4. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Doriva.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire) 7.