Football's shortest fuse blew up in Leeds United's faces again yesterday. Alan Smith, who had put them ahead with a fine early goal, left his colleagues to face Aston Villa for an hour with 10 men after swinging his right elbow into Alpay Ozalan's chest and rightly being shown the fifth red card of his fledgling career.
Villa compounded the punishment administered by the referee, Neale Barry, when Hassan Kachloul equalised three minutes later. One has to wonder, though, whether the cherubic-looking striker will make the connection between his folly and the loss of two points towards Leeds' title challenge. He has been in this position before, for club and country, yet learned nothing.
As recently as Friday, after the 21-year-old had tested the referee's patience during Leeds' Uefa Cup win in Zurich, David O'Leary predicted Smith would eventually control his temper. "He'll learn to walk away," the Leeds manager said. "It'll take time, but he's improving."
Ominously for Smith's prospects of making England's World Cup line-up, the only walk he is practised in is the one leading to an early bath. O'Leary, citing misrepresentation of his words by the media after a recent match with Chelsea, declined to comment on Smith's indiscipline beyond saying there had been "a few minutes' madness".
Sadly, it lasted rather longer than that, and John Gregory admitted afterwards he had effectively dismissed his own player, Lee Hendrie, to spare him Smith's fate after he raised his hands and knocked Danny Mills to the ground two minutes after the interval. "Call it bold, or stupid if you like, but I took him off before he was sent off," the Villa manager said.
Rational voices will deem Gregory's response eminently sensible. But while he said that the referee was "100 per cent correct" to banish Smith – "You can't throw an elbow at someone, whether it catches his chest, face or knee-cap" – his action in withdrawing Hendrie will merely draw attention to the fact that Mr Barry neglected to order him off.
The Humberside official has already been demoted from the top flight once this season, and this latest incident was strikingly similar to when Dermot Gallagher only cautioned Robbie Keane after he had pushed over David Beckham. Mr Gallagher was also temporarily relegated to the Nationwide League.
Smith had been tempting fate by conducting a personal vendetta against Alpay. As early as the fourth minute he cut him down from behind as the defender shepherded the ball back to Peter Schmeichel, repeating the offence nine minutes later. Both challenges merited a booking, but the referee mystifyingly kept his cards in his pocket until his third assault on Alpay.
By the time Smith departed, mouthing obscenities and claiming gamesmanship by the Turk, Leeds looked to be on course for their first home victory over Villa since 1995. They led from the 18th minute, after Keane intercepted a backpass by Alan Wright to Schmeichel. With the Dane out of his goal he laid the ball back from the byline to Smith. An angled shot from 15 yards found the net via the thigh of Steve Stone on the line.
Villa, who had won on both previous visits to Elland Road, had just been coming into the game. Wright had drawn a sprawling save from Nigel Martyn with a 30-yard drive, followed immediately by a free header which Darius Vassell glanced wide. But Leeds were the livelier side, Schmeichel having to make a stunning one-handed save to keep out Keane's header, before the nature of the contest was dramatically changed in the 32nd minute.
No sooner had Smith paid for his stupidity than Seth Johnson scythed down Stone and was booked. Johnson's indiscretion meant he will be suspended for Leeds' match with Blackburn next month, the day Smith starts a three-match ban, but Villa exacted more immediate retribution. From Paul Merson's free-kick, Kachloul scored with a textbook scissors kick.
The game seemed to be there for the taking for Villa. Yet despite Gregory's commendable willingness to sacrifice his best attacking midfielder, Hendrie, they showed a wretched lack of ambition and enterprise against 10 men, failing to force a single save from Martyn in the second half.
Instead it was O'Leary's team, shorn of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Lee Bowyer, who nearly snatched all three points in stoppage time. Rio Ferdinand, imperious at the back, met Ian Harte's free-kick, but with Schmeichel rooted to the spot, his header hit the post.
Goals: Smith (18) 1-0; Kachloul (35) 1-1.
Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn 6; Mills 6, Ferdinand 9, Matteo 7, Harte 6; Bakke 6, Batty 7, Johnson 5, Wilcox 5; Keane 5, Smith 3. Substitutes not used: Kelly, Dacourt, McPhail, Duberry, Robinson (gk).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Schmeichel 7; Stone 5, Alpay Ozalan 6, Mellberg 6, Wright 5; Merson 5, Boateng 5, Hendrie 4 (Taylor 4, 50), Kachloul 6; Angel 4 (Dublin 3, 61), Vassell 5. Substitutes not used: Staunton, Ginola, Enckelman (gk).
Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe) 5.
Bookings: Leeds: Johnson, Mills. Aston Villa: Hendrie, Wright. Sending off: Leeds: Smith.
Man of the match: Ferdinand.