Zola warns suitors off Carlton Cole

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The Independent Football

West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola has issued a firm "hands off" warning to potential suitors of Carlton Cole as the England striker prepares for his return to first-team action.

Cole will go straight back into Zola's starting line-up for tomorrow's trip to fellow strugglers Hull in the Barclays Premier League after recovering from a hamstring problem which caused him to miss the Hammers' 2-1 defeat to Everton on November 8.

There is speculation Cole, who is the club's top scorer in the league this season with six goals, will leave the Londoners in the January transfer window, with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool linked with moves for the striker.

Zola, though, insists his chief marksman is happy at West Ham, is going nowhere and that the player's availability will lift his side for what is a crucial match tomorrow at the bottom of the table.

"This year we are scoring more than we did last year so I think we are improving there but we all know Carlton Cole is an important player for this team, not only for his goals but for his presence," the Italian said.

"We are very happy with him and we are going to help him keep scoring the way he is scoring.

"I know Carlton is happy here. I know the club have no intention of selling any of our important players.

"There is a lot of speculation and I know that a lot of messages coming out are not true. I don't want to pay attention to it.

"It's been 13 or 14 months that I've been in charge and it's never stopped."

Centre-half Matthew Upson and goalkeeper Robert Green, who like Cole have established themselves as regular members of Fabio Capello's England squad, are also believed to be on the wanted list of some of the Premier League's big guns.

That trio, together with central midfielder Scott Parker, form a solid and experienced spine to West Ham's first XI but the team continue to struggle this season.

The Hammers find themselves third from bottom in the division, just one place below their opponents this weekend, and look set to be embroiled in a relegation battle this term.

Zola predicts things will turn for his side sooner rather than later.

"It's a massive game tomorrow, not only for the points but for the confidence," he said.

"All the players know that and I know that. We are aware of it.

"The players are training well, they are confident and it's just a matter of time before we turn things around. Sometimes you do everything correctly and the result doesn't come, and some days you don't play as well as before and you win.

"It's a very fine balance. But I am expecting this moment to come soon."

Zola is one of the league's more likeable managers but he will come under increasing pressure the longer West Ham stay mired in trouble at the wrong end of the table.

However, the knives have been out for Hull boss Phil Brown for some time now, with his job seemingly on the line every passing weekend.

Zola is sympathetic to Brown's plight but knows that cannot affect his thinking this weekend.

"All the media have said he was going to leave but until his chairman decides, he is still there," Zola said.

"I am pleased to see him (still) on the bench. But hopefully I am going to make him disappointed after the match!"

Kieron Dyer is another England international on West Ham's books. The winger, though, has been ravaged by injuries over the last few years and he will be missing again this weekend as he bids to recover fully from a hamstring injury.

Zola cannot wait for the day the nippy former Ipswich and Newcastle star returns.

"Kieron is back in training this week and is doing very well. The problem with him is he finds it very difficult to keep his fitness for a long time," said Zola.

"I am hoping this time is a good run for him. He is a player who can give us something."