Leeds United showed no greater compassion to their hosts yesterday than the man who programmes the Premier League's fixture computer, ruthlessly quelling an early uprising before demonstrating the superiority of early-season Premiership leaders. If the narrow margin of last weekend's defeat at Old Trafford had offered Albion some much-needed encouragement – they go to Highbury next – the nature of their task in chasing survival at this level was graphically illustrated.
The club's last season at the highest echelon of English football had begun with a draw at home to Oxford United, watched by barely 14,000 people and ended with relegation alongside Birmingham City. Yesterday the atmosphere at yet another splendidly revamped British ground was rather different, creating an occasion resembling an FA Cup third-round tie played in August.
The illusion lasted for almost 40 minutes, before Albion suffered in classic Cup fashion as the favourites, having withstood a siege, broke out to score through the impressive Harry Kewell. Early in the second half, Lee Bowyer curled in a second goal before Mark Viduka capitalised on the sort of error Albion simply cannot afford.
Their manager, Gary Megson, having achieved a small miracle in getting the club out of the Nationwide League and then endured what he called "the nonsense" of the subsequent boardroom shenanigans, is still trying to strengthen the squad, by finalising the protracted transfer of Jason Koumas, a gifted midfielder from Tranmere Rovers, and securing the return of Lee Hughes from Coventry City, where he hardly set the Midlands alight in either the Premiership or the First Division.
Megson made only one change, bringing in Scott Dobie, last season's leading scorer (though only 10 goals were required to obtain that title) in place of Daniele Dichio. Leeds had Jonathan Woodgate fit again, which will have encouraged the England manager Sven Goran Eriksson as he mulls over the possibilities before naming his first squad of the season a week tomorrow for the friendly against Portugal.
There was plenty of work for Woodgate and his colleagues in defence, too, which they carried out with an unexpected lack of authority as the home side picked up on the crowd's mood and stormed into them from the start. Whatever was missing – a final touch, a moment of composure or just a stroke of luck – Albion could not score, even when presented with two outstanding chances in the first half-an-hour.
For the first of them, following Dobie's infiltration of the visitors' ranks with a determined run, Larus Sigurdsson laid the ball square for Andy Johnson, who contrived to pull it wide. Jason Roberts, a vigorous leader of the attack, should instead have claimed the honour of scoring the club's first Premiership goal 15 minutes later. Again the threat came down the left-hand side of the Leeds defence – were West Brom preying on the suspect Ian Harte ? – with the wing-back Igor Balis cutting back a pass for Roberts, whose curled shot flew a fraction too high.
Pessimists in the stands must have felt the best opportunities had come and gone. There was an ominous warning for them in the 38th minute as Leeds finally put together a move worthy of their status, with Harry Kewell's delicious flick carrying Nicky Barmby's pass into the path of Lee Bowyer; the lob over a stranded Russell Hoult drifting a foot wide. Less than two minutes later, Mark Viduka sent Danny Mills on a characteristic sortie down the right flank, and his low cross was as straightforward in its effect as the tap-in from Kewell that followed.
Albion went off at half-time to an ovation, nevertheless, and returned to another one, before being put ruthlessly in their place. Within eight minutes of the resumption, Harte's corner swirled onto the crossbar, Kewell's drive from a shrewd Bowyer pass was pushed on to a post and then, critically, the compliment was repaid: another deft Kewell flick and perfectly flighted curled finish into the top corner of the net.
Gilchrist, a good old trouper from Hartlepool, Oxford and Leicester, unwittingly demonstrated precisely what his side cannot afford to do at either end of the pitch. In the 63rd minute, set up by Dobie, he hit a wild shot over the bar and soon afterwards made a horrible mess of dealing with Mills' chip up the line; Bowyer was immediately on to it and found Viduka free for a cruel third goal.
It was the very last minute before Lee Marshall, one of three home substitutes, scored from close in and sparked another ovation at the final whistle. But it's a hard, hard life. And Arsenal await.
West Bromwich Albion 1 Leeds United 3
Marshall 90 Kewell 39, Bowyer 52, Viduka 70
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 26,618
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