Football Commentary: Leeds look lively in the old routine

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The Independent Online
OTHERS may have fallen prey to the sort of early-season quirks which once had Carlisle United on top of the First Division, but for Leeds United the much-trumpeted launch of the Premier League was just another day at the office.

Well, almost. The champions' 2-1 win at home to threadbare Wimbledon was routine enough. Less so was the sight of the referee decked out in a fetching shade of green, like a refugee from Come Dancing, and the contentious prohibition of the back-pass which led to a booking for the artless Steve Hodge, of all people.

Plastic Developments, proclaimed the advertisement on the Elland Road scoreboard. Quite. If the referees did their job properly, there would be no need for tampering with the laws of the game, but more of that later.

After all the hype and hullabaloo, it was just as we expected. A classic case of the emperor's clothes. No matter how the promotions spielers dress it up, the new Premier League is merely the old First Division by another name.

Not that too many will see much wrong with that. Norwich City, who would probably not have made it had the Premier League been its optimum size, will have chuckled all the way back up the A11 after embarrassing Highbury's arch-elitists.

Twenty-two teams may not be ideal, but there is something to be said for the strength in depth epitomised when West Ham, from the bottom of the table, beat Manchester United four months ago to unhinge their challenge for the championship.

Talking of party pooping, Wimbledon are second to none at that, of course, and for a time on Saturday they were at it again. A bizarre, half-volleyed lob from Warren Barton brought them level with less than a quarter-of- an-hour left, and there were only four minutes remaining when Lee Chapman drove in the handsome winner which finally did justice to Leeds' superiority.

The result was the right one, Joe Kinnear's protestations about the poverty of the refereeing as unimpressive as Dean Holdsworth, his expensive new striker. Wimbledon, who need to be at full strength to compete with the best, had arrived without John Fashanu, who amounts to half their team, and Terry Phelan, their best defender. It was a big handicap. Too big.

Fashanu, nursing a hamstring pull, will be back soon. Phelan may not be. The left-back with pace to burn wants to join Manchester City, who have offered pounds 1.5m; Wimbledon are holding out for pounds 2m. A stand-off saw him refuse to travel, alleging that the club were making him a 'laughing stock' by demanding such an 'excessive' fee. When all the foot- stamping stops, another departure seems inevitable.

David Rocastle, for whom Leeds have just paid Arsenal pounds 2m, is also said to be somewhat miffed over his continued omission. He was not even among the substitutes on Saturday, when Howard Wilkinson again preferred Eric Cantona - he could hardly do anything else after his Charity Shield hat-trick - in a full-blown 4-3-3, which also had no place for Gordon Strachan.

Cantona's performance at Wembley had drawn L'Equipe to Elland Road, but their man left with a Gallic shrug and a shake of the tete. After ooh-aah this was ou est, the pride of Nimes performing a low-key supporting role, with Chapman playing the lead.

His first goal was a direct product of the new law proscribing the back-pass. Roger Joseph dithered over the ball eight yards out, unable to give it to his goalkeeper, and Chapman took it off him before scoring with a firm, hooked shot. There was similar confusion at the other end when Chris Whyte knocked the ball back to John Lukic, conceding a free-kick near the penalty spot.

Hodge, breaking off the defensive wall, was booked for failing to retire the full 10 yards, prompting a post-match master class in trigonometry from Wilkinson, who came over all Magnus Pyke in explaining how players at the extremities of the wall were further from the ball than those in the middle - sometimes 14 yards.

After much pacing, pointing and gesticulating by the referee, the free-kick was an absurd anti- climax; Barton's shot charged down from nothing like 10 yards. Outlawing the back-pass, like the instruction to enforce the laws on dissent and encroachment, would have been unnecessary if referees were implementing the existing laws properly. There was always provision for them to book players for time-wasting and dissent but, such was the lack of consistency about the way they did it that unwanted legislation was deemed necessary.

Instead of giving them pretty- coloured shirts, they should be paying more attention to their training.

Goals: Chapman (13) 1-0; Barton (76) 1-1; Chapman (86) 2-1.

Leeds United: Lukic; Newsome (Strachan, 79), Dorigo, Batty (Hodge, 45), Fairclough, Whyte, Cantona, Wallace, Chapman, McAllister, Speed. Substitute not used: Day.

Wimbledon: Segers, Joseph, Elkins, Barton, Scales (Blackwell, 48), Fitzgerald, Miller, Earle, Holdsworth, Sanchez, Clarke (Dobbs, 69). Substitute not used: Sullivan.

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

(Photographs omitted)