Football: Derby backpackers

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The Independent Online
Leeds United 0

Derby County 0

Attendance: 40,118

NOTHING, not even Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink failing to secure his pounds 80,000 a week and fleeing Leeds without paying his council tax could have dampened pre-season optimism around Leeds United.

But yesterday, in stifling humidity, their need of a class striker was all too apparent. Derby, all honest endeavour and freedom from Premiership glamour, took the gamble of packing their defence and hoping Leeds' youthful exuberance would run its natural course. This is exactly what happened.

A downbeat but satisfied Derby manager, Jim Smith, praised his team's "endeavour, dedication and aggression" but the game was turgid fare and Leeds' goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn, did not have to make a save.

Leeds missed Hasselbaink's niggly persistence and Michael Bridges, the potential new hero striker, proved to be a peripheral presence. Derby's centre-backs Jacob Laursen and Spencer Prior had a significantly quieter afternoon than they may have feared. Certainly, the watching Kevin Keegan cannot have taken too much succour from the performances of Bridges and fellow Englishman Alan Smith. Nor can Sir Alex Ferguson, also in the crowd, have seen much to strike fear into his heart.

According to Jim Smith, the lively Dean Sturridge had played with an injured hamstring. The manager replaced him with Deon Burton at half time, without changing formation. O'Leary was patently unhappy too. He replaced Smith with Stephen McPhail and pushed Harry Kewell forward and David Hopkin wide to stretch the Derby defence. Aside from the alarmingly-combative Seth Johnson, hailed as the new Brian Robson, rashly getting himself booked for a vicious foul on Lee Bowyer, there was little to distract the crowd from their bubbling restlessness.

Mart Poom gave them more genuine hope when he fumbled a long-range Bowyer strike, but Leeds' best chance came when Kewell found himself clean through with only Poom to beat. The Estonian redeemed some of his earlier shakiness by hurling himself at Kewell's feet.

When Derby finally made a game of it after 80 minutes Leeds stood firm despite a back-pedalling Bowyer being cautioned for rolling on the ground with Darryl Powell, provoking a 20-man melee. The mass exodus of Leeds fans during the final third of the game said all that needed to be said, as did the muted groaning which greeted the final whistle.

"Good luck to Derby," said O'Leary generously. "They set out to do a job and they did it." If it had been a job of point-scuffling in late April, it might have been at least understandable;. As the earliest of August's tasks, it was joyless in the extreme.