First Birthday parties are normally messy affairs but not even Glenn Hoddle, celebrating a year since becoming Tottenham Hotspur manager, could have been expecting the kind of sloppy defending with which Leeds chose to mark the occasion yesterday. It is they who still harbour faint hopes of European football next season, but the ease with which an under-strength Spurs, through Steffen Iversen and Teddy Sheringham, secured victory in the first half suggests that not all of David O'Leary's current defenders may still be requiring their passports come the autumn.
"I believe in having a good, solid base at the back, with a good goalkeeper, but you cannot legislate for soft goals," O'Leary said. "The six goals we have conceded this weekend have all been gifted to the opposition. If we have a chance of going into Europe, even if it means the Intertoto Cup, we'll have to take it. But whatever happens I think my side will come back stronger next season."
Tottenham were without Ledley King, Christian Ziege and Neil Sullivan, but the return of the towering Dean Richards to the heart of the defence was to prove a decisive factor in keeping Leeds at bay. In doing so Hoddle's side put to rest a run of nine defeats and a draw in their last 10 League meetings with Leeds, a sequence stretching back to the days when George Graham was still manager at Elland Road and yet to figure in the nightmares of Tottenham supporters.
Leeds simply picked up where they had left off in their 4-3 defeat to Manchester United – an incendiary combination of gung-ho attack and comical defending. Robbie Fowler forced a fine save from Kasey Keller after a minute, but it was Spurs who were to profit from the early chaos. Ben Thatcher's cross from the left was easily met by Iversen, who rose above Dominic Matteo to head home unchallenged.
Headers from Mark Viduka and Eirik Bakke were then squandered, and the home side made Leeds pay further for their profligacy after 29 minutes. Again the Leeds defence was at fault, failing to deal with Ben Thatcher's long throw, which fell to Simon Davies. His shot was blocked by Jonathan Woodgate, but the rebound fell to Sheringham at point-blank range, and that was that.
Leeds came out intent on reducing the arrears and did so within seven minutes, Fowler supplying his strike partner Viduka for a crisp, low finish. Long periods of the second half belonged to Leeds, but by then the damage had been done. In pushing forward they left themselves increasingly vulnerable to the counter-attack and only a thrilling, late save by Nigel Martyn prevented another Iversen header from increasing Tottenham's advantage.
"We've had some difficult results after the Worthington Cup final loss and taken some bad defeats on the chin," said Hoddle. "It hurt us and we want to finish the season on a high." That high will be significantly enhanced if Tottenham can throw a spanner into the works of Arsenal's championship charge at Highbury on Saturday.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Keller 5; Perry 6, Richards 7, Gardner 6, Thatcher 6; Anderton 5 (Poyet 5, 61), Davies 5, Sherwood 4, Etherington 6 (Clemence, 82); Iversen 6, Sheringham 6 (Rebrov, 87). Substitutes not used: Herschfeld (gk), Thelwell.
Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn 4; Mills 4, Woodgate 7, Matteo 6, Harte 4; Smith 5, Batty 5 (Keane 6, 65), Bakke 6, Bowyer 7; Viduka 6, Fowler 4. Substitutes not used: Kelly, Robinson (gk), Wilcox, Johnson.
Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield) 7.