Hammers end on a high

Goals from Carlton Cole and Junior Stanislas ensured West Ham United ended the 2008/09 Barclays Premier League season on a high note by firing the Hammers to a 2-1 final day win that confirmed Middlesbrough's relegation.

Cole struck 12 minutes before half-time, side-footing the ball into the far corner of Brad Jones' net following neat build-up play from Luis Boa Morte and the rampaging Herita Ilunga.

The goal was the England striker's tenth in the league this term and 12th in all competitions, easily the best single-season haul of the 25-year-old's career.

Gary O'Neil drilled Boro level on 50 minutes, only for Stanislas to hammer the final nail in the visitors' relegation coffin with a 20-yard strike that goalkeeper Jones should have kept out.

Sunday's victory saw Gianfranco Zola end a promising first campaign in charge by guiding his side to ninth in the Barclays Premier League table on 51 points, a place and two points better than they achieved in 2007/08.

The result also saw Boro's stay in the top-flight end after eleven seasons. Gareth Southgate's side went into the fixture needing to win and hope both Newcastle United and Hull City lost, complete with a five-goal swing in the Teessiders' favour.

Although both Newcastle and Hull obliged by going down to Aston Villa and Manchester United respectively, Boro were unable to keep up their side of the bargain.

While the visitors gamely attempted to find the goals that would keep them up, it was the Hammers who created the majority of the game's few clear-cut chances.

Radoslav Kovac had already drilled a low shot into Jones' midriff when Junior Stanislas rattled the angle of post and crossbar with a curling shot that took a large deflection off England Under-21 defender David Wheater.

Tuncay Sanli and Wheater both fired shots off-target, the latter after Robert Green had got nowhere near a high ball into his penalty area, before Cole broke the deadlock with a beautifully constructed goal.

Boa Morte held off his marker before slipping an inch-perfect pass inside right-back Tony McMahon to the rampaging Ilunga. The DR Congo full-back instantly slotted the ball between Robert Huth and Justin Hoyte for Cole, who side-footed it back past the two defenders and goalkeeper Jones into the far corner.

Southgate responded to the setback by making a double substitution at half-time, replacing Julio Arca and McMahon with Academy graduates Josh Walker, 20, and Joe Bennett, 19.

The changes had their desired effect as Gary O'Neil drilled a shot straight at Robert Green 80 seconds after the break. Three minutes later, the former England Under-21 midfielder would have better luck in front of goal.

Tuncay did superbly to force Lucas Neill into committing himself to a sliding challenge before rolling the ball into the path of O'Neil, who drilled his shot first-time into the same corner Cole had found 17 minutes earlier.

Suddenly, Boro had their tails up, forcing Zola into a rethink. Noble was replaced by Kieron Dyer, who was back in the squad after missing the last three matches with a muscle strain.

It took just four minutes for the England man to play his part in a quite brilliant goal.

Collison and Dyer were both twice involved in a neat one-touch move that culminated with Stanislas unleashing a low shot that squirmed under Jones' arms and into the corner of the Australian's net.

Cole, only recently back in action following a groin injury, and Collison were each awarded standing ovations from the home fans among the 34,007 inside the Boleyn Ground as Zola handed run outs to Diego Tristan and David Di Michele.

The veteran frontmen had both been dropped from the starting lineup as the Italian made three changes from the side that lost 3-1 at Everton, the other being the introduction of Jonathan Spector for the suspended James Tomkins.

With an increasingly weary Middlesbrough needing a miracle to stay up, West Ham continued to create the better chances, Stanislas going close to adding a late third with a rasping shot that stung Jones' palms.

Southgate made his last, forlorn throw of the dice with nine minutes remaining, sending on another youngster, 19-year-old Jonathan Franks, in place of Dutchman Marvin Emnes. In truth, however, the game had long since been up for Boro.

Boa Morte saw a low shot tipped wide by Jones in the final minute, allowing him to receive his own ovation as he prepared to take the resulting corner.

Neill then got in on the action, going close with an audacious 30-yard chip that landed on the roof of the Boro net.

All in all, while Zola will have been slightly disappointed to miss out on a place in next season's inaugural UEFA Europa League, he will be proud of the efforts of his predominantly young team over the course of a promising 2008/09 season and will now start planning to achieve even more in 2009/10.