Although it is likely to be remembered for events off the field, Leeds enjoyed 2001, losing fewer games in the calendar year than any other top-flight side. The first day of 2002 saw them become the latest club to lead the Premiership after one of their most complete and compelling performances of the season.
But for some inspired goalkeeping from David James, Elland Road would have joined Goodison and Ewood Park in the list of grounds where this season West Ham have been buried by an avalanche of goals. Having conceded two to Mark Viduka in the opening seven minutes, they never remotely looked as if they were capable of staging a recovery. Leeds, who had slipped to 13th on New Year's Day last year, by contrast suggested they were more than capable of remaining at the summit until the season reaches its climax.
"We need some luck; we seem to be putting fires out all the time," said David O'Leary, assessing his own title chances. "We want to get to March in the shake-up with 10 games to go. We know what to expect; we have been down this road before but we have the bottle and we won't be afraid."
The presence of young Harpal Singh on the bench demonstrated the continuing thinness of O'Leary's resources compared to his other championship rivals. The Leeds manager, who had nine players unavailable, would not, for instance, have chosen to field Gary Kelly as a central midfielder or Alan Smith as a right-winger but the quality of the cross driven in for Viduka to open the scoring would have had the casual observer putting Smith down as a specialist. It was met first time by the in-rushing and entirely unmarked Viduka, whose shot gave James no chance.
Leeds' second of the night and Viduka's 11th goal of the season also came from the right wing some three minutes later as Nigel Winterburn made a present of the ball to Danny Mills. The Australian anticipated the cross better than his marker, Tomas Repka, who was sporting the bizarre combination of gloves and a short-sleeved shirt. The diving header from some eight yards was a classic of its kind. In the away dug-out, Glenn Roeder, who admitted that the seven-goal mauling at Blackburn in October is "ingrained in me for life", feared the worst.
That West Ham were not massacred was almost entirely down to James, whom Roeder confessed "did not get the protection he deserved". He made seven saves in all, ranging from a Viduka bicycle kick, to a Fowler volley and a free header from Smith, who, six yards out, aimed straight at the keeper's gloves. Mostly they were the product of beautiful moves, the kind that West Ham, for all their efforts to regain control of midfield, failed entirely to replicate.
Within five minutes of the restart, Fowler demonstrated the full range of his abilities. His goal was created by a little fortune a tackle on Lee Bowyer sent the ball straight to his feet and a deal of skill. Noticing James had committed himself beyond his six-yard box, Fowler chipped him delightfully. Then came a run which beat two men and a wonderful crossfield pass to Smith that had Elland Road chanting: "Are you watching, Liverpool?" Smith promptly unleashed a first-time shot which James did extremely well to turn away. Moments later he had to deal with a shot from a more unexpected source: from Mills' boot, but was again equal to it.
His defence's inability to deal with a rampant Leeds attack was further demonstrated when Fowler was allowed a clear volley from eight yards which James, so often maligned for rare idiosyncratic errors, turned away.
It is not often a goalkeeper in a team so comprehensively beaten would have increased his international chances but this was a display the watching Sven Goran Eriksson, seeing a team with eight Englishmen rise to the top of the Premiership, would have appreciated.
Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn 6; Mills 7, Ferdinand 6, Woodgate 6, Harte 5; Smith 6, Kelly 6, Batty 7, Bowyer 7 (Wilcox, 87); Viduka 8, Fowler 8. Substitutes not used: Duberry, McPhail, Singh, Robinson (gk).
West Ham United (4-4-2): James 8; Schemmel 4, Repka 5, Dailly 4, Winterburn 5; Hutchison 5, Cole 5, Moncur 5, Sinclair 7; Defoe 4 (Todorov 4, 75), Kanouté 4 (Garcia, 83). Substitutes not used: Foxe, Minto, Hislop (gk).
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol) 7.Reuse content