Smith rises to rallying cry in return of good old days

Leeds United 4 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
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The Independent Football

Having rested their hopes of salvation on a sheikh from Bahrain and a Ugandan property developer, Leeds should put their faith in their own players.

Yesterday's match-day programme included a "player portfolio" featuring collectable pictures of David Batty, Lamine Sakho, Jody Morris and Jermaine Pennant, none of whom is likely to be at Elland Road next season. But in the Smiths, the Vidukas and the Milners, Leeds still have a team capable of saving themselves and last night they proved it.

A compelling, emphatic performance, which conjured memories of the old, not-so-distant days under David O'Leary, saw them off the bottom of the table, if only on goal difference, and gave some hope that whoever takes them over may not be buying a club whose future lies in the Nationwide League.

This was a hugely significant result. Despite all their agonies, Leeds are still only three points from safety, although they have played a match more than Portsmouth and are weighed down with a vastly inferior goal difference. Eddie Gray has long contested that their fate will be decided at Elland Road, and of their final six matches in this corner of Yorkshire, four are against teams in the bottom half of the table.

In another era, 32 years ago, Leeds had played Wolverhampton for the Championship. Now the prize was far more vital, the club's survival in the Premiership and probably as a viable sporting institution. There was an acceptance that defeat would have been terminal and yet after six successive losses, Leeds finally played as if they believed in themselves. The Revie Stand was loud, buoyant and aggressive and despite the fact there have been First World War generals who have shown more propensity to lead from the front, Mark Viduka had used the newspapers to give a Henry V-at-Agincourt style rallying call. If it was a front to mask deep fears, it worked.

That the game was bookended by goals from Alan Smith and Viduka was significant. Dave Jones, the Wolverhampton manager, claimed his side had been "outbullied", adding that "too many people lost personal battles". His counterpart, Gray, remarked that Smith and Viduka are "big players for us and if we can keep them supplied, then we can turn the corner". If they can keep hold of James Milner, the night's outstanding performer, then they have a future.

Had Smith been allowed to leave Elland Road for the derisory £2m to £3m Newcastle were prepared to offer, it would have signalled that, at boardroom level at least, Leeds had accepted their fate. His was not a particularly pretty goal; a ballooning cross from Pennant which was touched on first by Steven Caldwell and then by Viduka and finally bundled over the line by Rothwell's finest.

Given how the two men could have been expected to understand each other perfectly, it was curious that this should have been Smith's first goal for Gray - he had not found the net in a white shirt since the 6-1 débâcle at Portsmouth on 8 November which signalled the end of Peter Reid's fitful rule and which still remains the lowest point of the club's season. Frankly, he might have had two more when finding himself clean through on goal and could have won a penalty.

However, in between Leeds' first and second goals, Wolves had, briefly seemed a slicker, better side. This in itself has not been unusual at Elland Road this season. Against Arsenal in the FA Cup, Leeds had started full of panache, scored, and then promptly fallen apart. In driving, desperate rain, they did not quite do that, but in the 21st minute, Wolves were allowed back into the game when Carl Cort chested a long ball down, allowing Ioan Ganea to rifle home his second goal in as many Premiership games.

Dominic Matteo's reply, four minutes from half-time, was almost as crisp. A free-kick from Didier Domi was headed goalwards by Smith, forcing Paul Jones to punch out as far as the Leeds captain, who clattered the shot home from some 16 yards. It must have knocked the self-belief out of Wolves since by Jones' own admission, they were completely outplayed after the interval.

None would have welcomed the final whistle more than Denis Irwin, who was humiliated by Milner, who is plenty young enough to be his son. The contest was as good as settled when Smith sent in a deep, low cross which Milner, driving in unmarked at the far post, slid in to smother any hopes Wolves might have had of a comeback. Viduka had already missed two glaring headers, when, fed by Milner, the Australian barged into the area, shrugged off a last, feeble challenge and shot home. It sealed Leeds' first victory of the calendar year, their biggest win of the season and the first standing ovation at Elland Road since anybody could remember.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Robinson 5; Kelly 4, Caldwell 7, Matteo 7, Domi 4 (Harte, 5, ht) Pennant 6, Bakke 7, Johnson 5, Milner 8; Smith 6, Viduka 6. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Harte, McPhail, Lennon, Richardson.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2): Jones 4; Irwin 3, Craddock 5, Butler 5, Naylor 4; Miller 5 (Silas, 4, 62) Rae 4, Kennedy 5, Cameron 6; Cort 3 (Iversen, 78) Ganea 6. Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Iversen, Clyde, Gudjohnsson.

Referee: M Dean (Wirral) 6.