For an hour at Elland Road yesterday it seemed the Professional Footballers' Association threat to embark on industrial action had already started with Gordon Taylor, the leader of the players' union, ordering his members to conduct a go-slow.
Leeds downed their usual tools of passion, skill and invention while Derby, despite trailing to Eirik Bakke's ninth-minute header, sat deep in defence. As a demonstration of how the players could sabotage the Premiership's pay-per-view experiment it was highly effective.
And then, in a cunning twist, both sides stepped up the tempo, creating chances at will. The transformation was highlighted by Harry Kewell. Hitherto abysmal, he scored two excellent goals in the space of three minutes to confirm Leeds' return to the Premiership summit.
''He needed the goals because he was not playing particularly well until then,'' admitted David O'Leary. The Leeds manager added: "None of the major teams are playing particularly well but it is about getting as many points as possible and letting the League shake down a bit. It's nice to be top but I'm not getting carried away. Manchester United and Arsenal have better squads and better teams. We have the nucleus of a very talented side but we need a bigger squad to sustain it. When we get injuries we are disrupted."
The Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, said O'Leary is signing three more players but the manager responded: "That's news to me. I have people in mind but I am not close to signing them."
O'Leary's plight looked very different from the visitors' bench. Colin Todd, the Derby coach, noted: ''Leeds have good depth in their squad.'' He added of his team, seven of whom were under 23, six of them English: "We are a young side and we gave a good account of ourselves. It is a learning process for some of the young boys. They will come of age I just hope it is this season."
Derby, who last won at Elland Road in their championship-winning season of 27 years ago, were struggling from the moment Bakke rose to head in Ian Harte's free-kick. The timing was cruel. Two minutes earlier Derby thought they had gone ahead via a Rio Ferdinand own goal but Fabrizio Ravanelli had drifted offside. This bright start was misleading because, a well-timed tackle by Chris Riggott on Robbie Keane apart, there were no further noteworthy incidents until first-half injury-time. A foul given against Brian O'Neil, for tripping Mark Viduka, then incensed Seth Johnson so much he was booked for dissent and the free kick moved forward to the 18-yard line. Harte thrashed it past the eight-man Derby wall but Malcolm Christie, on the line, cleared.
Christie should have capitalised on this five minutes after the resumption. Running onto a lofted pass from O'Neil, he beat Dominic Matteo but shot straight at Nigel Martyn. The game continued to drift, though, with Leeds constantly giving the ball away, Derby now had equal possession. This, perversely, worked in Leeds' favour for, as Derby emerged from defence, space appeared for Leeds to run into.
Not that they initially took advantage, Kewell ending a long run by dribbling into O'Neil. The crowd grew restless and, had Ravanelli done better with a free header after 67 minutes, might have become rebellious.
Instead they were soon in raptures. Lee Bowyer's long pass found Kewell on the left and he ran at Youl Mawene before shooting through the Frenchman's legs and in off the post from 20 yards.
It was his first goal of the season but the next did not take long in coming for, two minutes later, the Australian rose to head in Bowyer's cross. With Derby deflated, Leeds could have ended with six but the agility of Oakes ensured the scoreline would not be even more misleading. "It looks a drubbing," concluded Todd, "but until the second goal we took the game to them. The difference was that bit of class they have."
Leeds United 3 Derby County 0
Bakke 9, Kewell 74, 78
Half-time: 1-0 Att: 39,155
Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn 6; Mills 5, Ferdinand 6, Matteo 5, Harte 5; Bowyer 6, Bakke 5, Batty 5, Kewell 6; Keane 3, Viduka 4. Substitutes not used: Kelly, Woodgate, McPhail, Wilcox, Robinson (gk).
Derby County (3-5-2): Oakes 6; Riggott 5, O'Neil 5, Higginbottom 4; Mawene 3, Murray 4 (Kinkladze, 80), Johnson 6, Powell 4, Boertien 4; Christie 3, Ravanelli 3 (Burton, 80). Substitutes not used: Morris, Valakari, Grant (gk).
Referee: A Wiley (Burntwood) 4.
Bookings: Leeds United Matteo. Derby County Boertien, Johnson.
Man of the match: Bowyer.Reuse content