FOR A few dizzy, delirious minutes of last night's third-round replay before a full house at Elland Road, it looked as if Rushden & Diamonds' fantasy of becoming only the seventh non-League club to beat a team from the top tier of the English game in an FA Cup match might become reality.
The Conference's third-placed side had the temerity to take the lead through Carl Heggs, only for Alan Smith's equaliser to bring them swiftly back to earth. Smith doubled his tally for the Premiership hosts early in the second half, before Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's 12th goal of the season confirmed that Leeds will travel to Portsmouth in the fourth round on 23 January. Rushden, meanwhile, will continue on the Wembley trail; the wealthy Northamptonshire outfit go to Slough in the FA Trophy on Saturday. They left the bigger stage with a lap of honour and an ovation from Leeds' relieved followers, who gave a warm reception to Chris Whyte when the centre-half from their championship class of '92, made a late cameo appearance.
The goalless first meeting had disabused Leeds of any lingering hope that Rushden might be the Doc Martens' works team. David O'Leary obviously considered them dangerous opponents for he gambled on Lucas Radebe, who had played only 70 minutes' reserve football in the previous month. The ploy backfired with dramatic consequences after only 11 minutes.
Radebe was left toiling as Miguel De Souza took him on in the inside- right channel. The striker's cross was met by Adrian Foster, whose shot from eight yards beat Nigel Martyn but was scrambled off the line by David Wetherall.
The ball fell to Heggs, who drilled it through a congested six-yard box. This time the ball struck the post, rebounding obligingly for Heggs to send the visiting contingent into disbelieving rapture.
As the Leeds supporters pondered the possibility of a humiliation to rank above the defeat Don Revie's side suffered at Colchester 28 years earlier, Radebe and company were rattled for the 10 minutes it took for them to restore parity.
Radebe initiated the move with a through pass to which Hasselbaink supplied the deftest flick. Smith had anticipated the touch, his run taking him clear of the offside trap. Showing composure beyond his 19 years, Smith stroked the ball past Ian Feuer in the Rushden goal.
Leeds began to dominate without looking 90 places better than their full- time opponents. Feuer, the 6ft 7in Las Vegan, tipped the ball over to prevent De Souza scoring an unwitting own goal, and then swooped to keep out Ian Harte's free-kick by the base of the upright.
Hasselbaink promptly left three players trailing before driving narrowly wide. But the position from which he shot - 20 yards out, near the "D" - was symptomatic of Leeds' failure to get behind a massed, deep-lying defence in the first half.
Feuer then made a flying catch from Lee Bowyer's centre, followed by a save with an outstretched leg to deny Harte. He was helpless, however, as Leeds' mounting pressure brought them the lead for the first time in 141 minutes of the tie.
Again it was the Hasselbaink-Smith combination that undid the Diamonds. After the Dutchman laid off Harry Kewell's cross with another subtle touch, Smith volleyed the ball instantaneously past Feuer from 16 yards.
Remarkably, Rushden ought to have drawn level in the 55th minute. Brian Talbot had introduced Colin West, the burly, journeyman centre-forward, and his header gave De Souza a chance just six yards out. Off balance and on his "wrong" foot, the goal-maker lashed the ball high into the Kop.
Another chance went begging after 67 minutes when Heggs also fired over after Martyn had been unable to hold a cross by Tim Wooding. Leeds immediately punished his profligacy, Kewell again showing the benefits of natural width with a surge along the left that ended in a cut-back which Hasselbaink converted from near the penalty spot.
Leeds United (3-4-1-2): Martyn; Woodgate, Wetherall, Radebe; Harte, Bowyer, Hopkin, Granville; Kewell; Smith (Haaland, 86), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Wijnhard, Ribeiro, Halle, Robinson (gk).
Rushden & Diamonds (4-4-2): Feuer; Wooding, Bradshaw, Rodwell, Underwood; McElhatton, Hamsher (Brady, 76), Butterworth, Heggs; Foster (West, h-t), De Souza (Whyte, 88). Substitutes not used: Cooper, Corry (gk).
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).