Cole winner denies Derby

The relegated Rams put up a spirited fight at the Boleyn Ground but it was just not enough to prevent Alan Curbishley's troops from getting back to winning ways.

Following a hat-trick of defeats, substitute Carlton Cole's sixth goal of the season sealed a second-half victory after an equaliser from former West Ham United defender Tyrone Mears had wiped out Bobby Zamora's first strike of the campaign.Curbishley had made seven changes from the loss at Bolton Wanderers last Saturday as John Pantsil, James Tomkins, Freddie Sears and the fit-again quartet of Lucas Neill, Mark Noble, Freddie Ljungberg and Julien Faubert returned in place of Jack Collison, Dean Ashton (tonsillitis) and injured trio of Jonathan Spector, Matthew Upson and Anton Ferdinand plus substitutes Luis Boa Morte and Hayden Mullins.

Last weekend, former Boleyn Ground keeper Roy Carroll had picked the ball out of the net half-a-dozen times, as Aston Villa dished out six of the best to doomed Derby County. Indeed, visitors Villa had gone one better than Curbishley's side, who had won 5-0 at Pride Park back in November, as they rattled up their biggest away victory since beating Manchester City in 1962.

Despite that six-goal grilling, Paul Jewell made just two changes as Dean Leacock and Mile Sterjovski came in for substitutes Darren Moore and Emanuel Miller. Safe in the knowledge that the Derby defence had already conceded 74 times in the Premier League this season, the claret and blue fans amongst the nearly full Boleyn Ground crowd of 34,612 arrived looking for Curbishley's men to make further dents into the visitors minus 58 goal difference.

Indeed, one of last weekend's survivors, George McCartney, almost celebrated his 50th consecutive start for the club with an early strike but his low, fourth-minute, 15-yarder was blocked. As West Ham continued to seize the early initiative, another old boy, Mears, was forced to send a desperate diving header behind, a split-second ahead of the in-rushing Noble, before Scott Parker deposited a 25-yard shot high into the Centenary Stand and Tomkins nodded over, too.

On 20 minutes, however, the deadlock was broken when the unmarked Zamora met McCartney's right-wing free-kick with a downward, six-yard header that gave former team-mate Carroll no chance. In reply, Mears' dangerous byline cutback was cleared, before top-scorer Kenny Miller hooked over and Robbie Savage went close with a near-post header but, in truth, United, who also saw Faubert let fly from 25 yards, were well worth their interval lead.

Certainly, Jewell's half-time team-talk looked to have inspired his troops, who emerged looking far more resilient for the restart. Although the ever-willing Sears - making his first full start - fired across the face of goal and then Parker sent a low 18-yarder crashing into the boards, the resilient Rams began to battle back and, on the hour, the alert Robert Green was forced to race from out and bravely pluck the ball off the marauding Mears' studs.

Unfortunately, West Ham failed to take heed of that warning and, just four minutes later, Derby drew level when Hossam Ghaly broke upfield from a corner and released Mears, who having got the better of Ljungberg, made no mistake second time around as he blasted a 15-yarder beyond the exposed Green. That galvanised Curbishley's men into action as Noble met Pantsil's cross with a diving header that the well-placed Carroll clutched, before Sears sent Ljungberg sprinting away but the flying winger tumbled under the challenge of the unpunished Savage.

After Zamora scuffed to the Derby 'keeper, Cole came on for the tiring Sears, who departed to a rapturous 73rd-minute reception. Within three minutes of his arrival, the West Ham United substitute generated another round of Boleyn Ground cheers, when he hammered in the winner from Ljungberg's byline cutback, after the Swede played an incisive one-two with Noble.