It was a dream come true for debutant Freddie Sears as he stepped from the bench to give West Ham United a dramatic late victory that moved them to within three points of Blackburn Rovers.
Echoing former claret and blue scoring legend Tony Cottee, who also marked his Boleyn Ground bow with a goal 25 years ago, the 18-year-old striker headed in within five minutes of his arrival to etch his name in East End folklore. Although Roque Santa Cruz had given Rovers an early lead, Dean Ashton's 39th-minute equaliser laid the foundations for Sears to strike and land the win that ended an unwelcome run of three straight defeats.
Alan Curbishley made just one enforced switch following Sunday's reverse at White Hart Lane as Nolberto Solano came in for the suspended Luis Boa Morte, while the on-fire Sears and fellow youngster James Tomkins joined Mark Noble, John Pantsil and Richard Wright on the bench. Without a win at the Boleyn Ground on their previous dozen league and cup visits, Mark Hughes' side were looking for their first victory on East End soil since April 1994, when they finished as Premiership runners-up.
The Welshman responded to his team's disappointing 1-1 draw against Fulham last weekend by making a trio of changes as Brett Emerton, David Dunn and Jason Roberts each returned in place of Tugay and substitutes Benni McCarthy and Zurab Khizanishvilli. Following an unwelcome run of three successive defeats, tenth-placed West Ham United desperately needed to get back on track against a Rovers' side, two rungs and six points above them in the Premier League table.
But it was Blackburn who started like an express train as Morten Gamst Pedersen's early, near post corner whipped across goal, before Santa Cruz nodded Brett Emerton's deep cross wide and Christopher Samba deposited a close-range header on to the roof of the net. In reply, Solano had curled a fourth-minute free-kick into the danger-zone that only needed a touch from the stretching, unmarked Ashton, while Freddie Ljungberg's awkward low cross was smothered by the relieved Brad Friedel.
With David Bentley orchestrating the Rovers midfield, though, it was the visitors, who looked most likely to take the lead. Sure enough, when Scott Parker's 19th-minute pass was intercepted by Bentley, the England midfielder's inch-perfect cross-field pass landed at the feet of the breaking Pedersen. The Norwegian's left-wing cross to the edge of the six-yard box was met by the unmarked Santa Cruz, who sent a diving header beyond the helplessly exposed Robert Green.
The Paraguay striker's 16th goal of the season galvanised Curbishley's men into action as Parker, looking to atone, sent a 20-yarder sailing wide, before Ashton met Bobby Zamora's cross with a jack-knife header that the flying Friedel tipped aside. The busy Bentley was booked by referee Martin Atkinson for a foul on Parker and after the hard-working Solano saw his 25-yard free-kick steered over by the Rovers' 'keeper, Dunn received a yellow card for a challenge on the Peruvian playmaker.
By now, Blackburn were not having it all their own way against a West Ham United side visibly finding some belief and, when Green launched the consequent 39th-minute free-kick upfield, Zamora's nod-on into the Rovers' penalty area was met by Ashton, who spun Samba before lifting an angled 12-yarder over the advancing Friedel, to claim his seventh goal of the campaign.
Emerton was replaced by Khizanishvilli for the start of the second half that saw the flustered Friedel defy the laws of science to slice an attempted clearance behind him for a corner before Zamora drilled a low, angled 15-yarder across the face of goal and beyond the far post. The pace and power of Bentley and Pedersen down the flanks still remained a threat, though, and on the hour-mark the Norwegian skied high over from 12 yards to the relief of the claret and blue fans amongst the near sell-out crowd of 34,006, who then saw Ashton's intelligent, intuitive, low curler claimed at full-stretch by Friedel.
With 20 minutes remaining, Matt Derbyshire replaced Dunn and shortly afterwards Curbishley respnded by introducing Noble and debutant Sears as the tiring Parker and Solano departed to a rapturous East End entrance. The teenager quickly marked his arrival with an energetic charge into Steven Reid, who had earlier been cautioned for a foul on Ljungberg and then Sears turned up the volume yet further by forcing a corner.
Then with just ten minutes left, the supporting Sears lifted the roof off the Boleyn Ground when he raced on to Ashton's brilliant backpass and, although, Friedel parried his first shot the grounded 'keeper could only look on in horror as the rookie West Ham United striker sent the loose ball into the net with a diving header that gave his side a welcome win.
Official team sheet