This might not have been the explosive start that David O'Leary had hoped for, yet the Leeds manager could not hide his pleasure come full-time yesterday. The Irishman still maintains that it was his team's sluggish start to last season which prevented them from mounting a serious challenge for the Premiership, so it was no surprise to see him punching the air with joy at the end of this hard-fought victory over Southampton.
Leeds had started brightly but were in danger of drawing until the arrival of Eirik Bakke and, in particular, Alan Smith, changed the course of the game mid-way through the second half. Afterwards, O'Leary praised his two substitutes: "Eirik made things happen in midfield," he said, "and Smithy played superbly up front. They made a big difference and have given me a selection headache for the next match [against Arsenal on Tuesday]. But that's nice. We want more headaches all over the place."
His Southampton counterpart, Stuart Gray, must already be reaching for the aspirin box. He felt his team had done "well enough and only lost because they switched off for five minutes", but he must know that the next nine months could give him plenty more to worry about.
O'Leary's refusal "to buy for the sake of buying" means that only Robbie Keane, who had been on loan from Internazionale, signed for the club this summer. Leeds may have been shy in the transfer market, but, like their fellow title rivals Liverpool, they can at least point to their crop of returning players.
Most exciting was the sight of Harry Kewell completing his comeback. Although the Australian returned at the back end of last season, he never really seemed to have regained his sharpness. He has now, and yesterday we were treated to a virtuoso performance by the Leeds No 10, as he caused the Southampton defence constant problems.
Leeds' two best first-half chances, though, came courtesy of the regular front men. First Mark Viduka, who has signed an extension to his contract, headed an accurate Ian Harte corner inches over. Then, moments later, Keane latched on to a clever Viduka lay-off just inside the Southampton half and sprinted towards goal, only for his left-foot shot to miss Paul Jones' far post.
Southampton were hanging on just and managed only one dangerous shot on target in the opening period, when Kevin Davis' well-struck half-volley was saved by Nigel Martyn. In fact, Southampton would surely have conceded a first-half goal had it not been for the excellence of Dean Richards at the heart of their defence. On this evidence alone, the Tottenham manager, Glenn Hoddle, would be advised to spend the £8m the Saints are demanding for their centre-back.
Having made it to the break without going behind, Southampton returned from the interval with renewed confidence and belief. The former Manchester City striker Uwe Rösler, who did not enjoy the happiest of first seasons with Southampton, looked sharp and might have given the visitors the lead on two occasions. However, the German saw his first effort saved by Martyn and his second miss the target from no more than 12 yards.
Disappointed with his team's attacking play, O'Leary sent on his two "supersubs", Bakke and Smith. Their impact was immediate. Smith won a 50-50 ball in midfield, before Olivier Dacourt and Harte combined well on the left to set up the Frenchman for a shot. Jones saved smartly but, from the ensuing corner, the Southampton keeper was finally beaten. Harte swung in the corner, which the Southampton defence cleared only to Lee Bowyer, who was lurking on the edge of the box. His blistering left-foot shot sailed through a mêlée of players before finding the back of the net.
It is not the first time that the 24-year-old has scored a crucial goal for his team and O'Leary later confessed that he was hoping his midfielder would not be unduly distracted by his re-trial in October.
Leeds were suddenly rampant and it was no surprise when, 10 minutes before the final whistle, they netted a second. Receiving possession in the area with his back to goal, Smith executed a sharp turn before curling a perfect shot wide of the diving Jones. "It was a wonderful goal," smiled O'Leary, who is clearly looking forward to his first big headache of the season.
Leeds United 2 Southampton 0
Bowyer 67, Smith 81
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 39,715Reuse content