West Ham 1 Middlesbrough 0

The theme from the Great Escape continues to blast out hopefully around Upton Park.

Trevor Sinclair's 77th minute winner against Middlesbrough, and Bolton Wanderers' failure to gain more than a draw at Blackburn Rovers, gives West Ham United a Premiership lifeline to cling onto with three matches remaining.

With Boro comfortably stationed in mid-table, this was never going to be a classic and there was a subdued atmosphere about the Boleyn for much of a game that produced plenty of huff and puff but little of real quality.

We've said it time and again throughout this season, but once again Joe Cole stood out head and shoulders above the rest, although even the mercurial young midfielder's otherwise outstanding performance was tarnished slightly by the poor crossing syndrome that afflicted several of his team-mates. Too often, Hammers worked decent positions on flanks, only to waste crosses that were either underhit or, more likely, overhit beyond the far post. Corners and free-kicks produced nothing of note.

Captain Cole put the unhappy events of the Reebok Stadium on Saturday firmly behind him to again lead by example, scrapping for every ball and, when in possession, looking to carve an opening. He was everywhere. With Fredi Kanoute again missing through injury, joining Paolo Di Canio in the stands, Les Ferdinand was recalled to partner Jermain Defoe in attack but they were well marshalled throughout by Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu.

It was Cole, ever the creative,driving force, who made West Ham's best two chances of a tepid first half, both for himself. The first, a well struck right foot volley that Mark Schwarzer clawed away in the opening five minutes; the second, a 40-yard solo run, just before half-time, that he dragged wide with his left foot. No wonder he looked shattered at the end of that typically thrusting run through the heart of Boro's back-tracking defence.

And if only every player in claret and blue had given as much as Cole in every game of this torrid season, this would have been a stroll in the park, if not a chance to push for European qualification, rather than another must-win game at the wrong end of the table.

Not even the subdued Juninho, man-marked by Edouard Cisse before being taken off at half-time, could inspire lack-lustre Boro, who didn't look interested. Manager Steve McClaren only had words of praise for his keeper and two central defenders.

In fact, the first moment of concern for David James came five minutes before the break when a Juninho cross was badly miscued backwards towards his own goal by Tomas Repka, forcing the England keeper to tip the rising ball over his own crossbar! That, and a Juninho free-kick in stoppage time that James spilled before Ian Pearce hoofed Massimo Maccarone's follow up away from the danger zone, were all Boro could muster..

Sinclair switched flanks, from left to right, immediately after the break and there was certainly more space out there to exploit after the petulant Frank Queudrue was substituted. It was from Sinclair's chip that Steve Lomas, who had worked up and down the right side of midfield in the first half, hooked a shot against the post from close range.

But Hammers also had a rare scare a minute earlier, when Jonathan Greening's low, driven cross was diverted just wide of the post by Southgate.

Despite the bitter disappointment of Saturday's possibly decisive defeat at Bolton, the home crowd got behind the Hammers from kick-off and their patient backing was rewarded with the only goal.

Glen Johnson skipped down the right flank, in the area vacated by Queudrue, and picked out Sinclair, lurking on the edge of the penalty box. Sinclair's struck his right foot shot, first time, inside the far corner of Schwarzer's net at the Centenary Stand end to send a surge of relief and a ray of hope around the ground.

Boro didn't have the spirit or the invention to hit back as Hammers comfortably saw out a victory that could yet prove priceless if Bolton, or even Leeds United (who play Fulham tomorrow), capitulate in the agonising games that remain and West Ham win their last three matches - at Manchester City next Sunday, Chelsea at home and then, finally, Birmingham City away.

It remains to be seen whether the injury-plagued Kanoute recovers from his ankle knock to resume at Maine Road but one Hammer who is highly unlikely to figure is Michael Carrick, who suffered an adverse reaction to his groin injury just 15 minutes into yesterday's training session and may even require another operation to cure the problem.

Glenn Roeder said after the 1-0 victory: ''We've lost one game in eight, the defence has performed a lot better, and this was a well earned win over a good Middlesbrough side today.

''We had a good team meeting at Chadwell Heath on Sunday, when I stressed the importance of not feeling sorry for ourselves, and the lads were very upbeat again today.

''I thought Les Ferdinand was possibly our best player today, yet he needed a fitness test before the game. That shows his spirit and determination.

''The boys are used to being in this position, we've been there for eight months, and the players have hardened up to it.''

By Tony McDonald



1 - In their very first attack of the game, Middlesbrough almost take the lead, as Repka is dispossessed by Christie while trying to shepherd the ball out for a goal-kick. The striker cuts the ball back for Maccarone, whose shot is blocked and flies off for a corner.

5 - Hammers respond positively, as Johnson's chipped pass to the edge of Boro's penalty area finds Cole, who chests down and fires an instant volley goalwards that Schwarzer blocks well.

13 - Sinclair's low shot from the edge of the penalty is fumbled by Schwarzer, but Ferdinand can only divert the loose ball wide for a goal-kick.

17 - Queudrue booked for kicking the ball away at a free-kick.

21 - Sinclair's cross to the far post is headed down by Defoe and collected by Lomas, whose shot on the turn is deflected wide for a corner.

34 - Cole's dangerous cross from the right is met by Defoe, whose audacious backheel loops up and almost catches out Schwarzer, who collects at his near post.

37 - Greening booked for foul on Cole.

40 - After Brevett's poor touch allows Juninho to escape down the right, the Brazilian's cross is diverted goalwards by the boot of Repka, but James thankfully tips over.

41 - The resulting corner is cleared, and a stunning turn from Cole sees him break clear before advancing to the edge of the penalty area and firing a left-foot shot just inches wide.

Added time: 3 minutes.

45 - Juninho's free-kick from 25 yards out is spilt by James and falls for Christie, whose effort is blocked, but the ball then falls to Maccarone, whose shot is cleared off the line by Pearce.

Half-time: West Ham United 0 Middlesbrough 0.

Second Half:

46 - Substitution for Middlesbrough, Job replaces Juninho.

51 - After Lomas is fouled on the edge of the area by Boateng, Sinclair sees his free-kick charged down by the wall.

53 - Substitution for Middlesbrough, Stockdale replaces Queudrue.

60 - Sinclair's cross from the right is met by Ferdinand, but the veteran striker directs his header straight at Schwarzer.

62 - A close call for the Hammers, as Greening's driven cross is poked just inches wide by Souhgate from 10 yards out.

64 - Hammers bounce back and go closest to open the scoring, as Sinclair's cross is headed on by Ferdinand to Lomas, whose acrobatic overhead kick rebounds off the post and is then cleared before Ferdinand can get to the loose ball.

72 - Substitution for Middlesbrough, Ricketts replaces Christie.

77 - GOAL! The relief is overwhelming as Hammers finally make the breakthrough to take the lead. The goal is created by the powerful enthusiasm of Glen Johnson, who rides one tackle on the right and lays the ball back for Trevor Sinclair to blast first time in to the far corner of the net from 18 yards out. West Ham United 1 Middlesbrough 0.

Added time: 2 minutes.

Full-time: West Ham United 1 Middlesbrough 0.