Whatever some people may think of Leeds United fans – and who cares, after all, because we all know what fine, upstanding chaps we are – they certainly know the ideal form when it comes to paying full and emotional tribute to a hero lost long before his time.
In the universe of all things Leeds, the news of Gary Speed’s tragic and untimely death came as a JFK moment: you just know that, years later, you’ll recall exactly where you were when you heard the awful, mind-numbing announcement that such a recent Legend in White was dead, and apparently by his own hand.
The images are certainly clear and sharp over a year down the line: the sea of floral tributes around the foot of Billy Bremner’s statue; the crowds that gathered in silent, respectful tribute; the sight of that fine professional Bryn Law, struggling to contain his tears as he reported from Elland Road on the death of his friend, the female anchor in the studio clearly moved to tears herself as she witnessed his distress. It was a tragic time of shock and grief.
In retrospect, it is clear that the next opponents for Leeds United in their undistinguished Championship campaign were on an absolute hiding to nothing. Team and fans alike, emerging from that initial shock into a reluctant acceptance, were determined to pay the finest possible tribute to a fallen hero. Speedo was, after all, a true legend from the most recent era of real legends, a veteran of the Leeds United renaissance of the late eighties and early nineties. We had previously mourned our dead of that earlier generation of greats; The Don was gone and so was King Billy, neither having lived to grow old. But the death of Speed was that much more of a shock; that much more distressing for his relative youth, for his contemporary appeal to a younger breed of Leeds support who had not witnessed Revie’s greats, and for the awful circumstances which had compelled a young man with seemingly everything going for him to take his own life.
The thousands of Leeds fans who descended upon the City Ground that November night may well have been pondering the state of mind that leads to such an awfully final act. They were certainly determined to pay characteristically raucous tribute: this would be no solemn wake, but a vibrant celebration of all that Gary Speed meant to the Barmy Army of Leeds United’s travelling support. The match itself was necessarily a footnote to the real agenda of the evening. Forest were pitiful in their ineptitude – a team that would later travel to Elland Road and score seven had nothing to offer in the face of United’s determination to mark the first match after Gary Speed’s death with a thumping victory. The home team seemed out of the running from the start; it was as if they knew, in the face of the emotional momentum behind the Leeds team and fans, that they had no chance at all – and they meekly accepted their fate.
Before kick-off, there had been the now traditional minute’s applause – such a preferable option to the old-style minute’s silence with its potential to be disrupted by a few shandy-slewed idiots. In the 11th minute, a tribute to Speed’s occupation of the number 11 white shirt, the 4000-strong Leeds United army behind one goal erupted into a chant of his name, a chant that was intended to be maintained for that poignant number of 11 minutes. The tribute was interrupted for the best of reasons as Robert Snodgrass fired United into a 20th minute lead, a left foot shot into the bottom corner very much in the style of the man himself. On the stroke of half time, Jonny Howson doubled the lead with an even better strike, the ball sitting up for him to belt a dipping right-footed effort past a helpless Lee Camp. 2-0 at the interval, and the home side had done little to suggest that it had any intention of detracting from the tributes of Leeds fans and players alike.
In the second half the pattern continued unchanged. Forest remained awful, the home section of support seemed to expect nothing better and Leeds strolled to two further goals towards a comprehensive victory. First just four minutes into the second half Luciano Becchio met a left wing cross at the near post to glance a fine header across Camp into the far corner. Then in the 66th minute, the messiest of fourth goals. The Forest defence conspired in its own destruction, parting like the Red Sea to lay on a clear chance for Howson to score his second, only for the over-worked and under-protected Camp to first save the effort, and then scramble after the loose ball. His heroics were to no avail however as Adam Clayton picked up on the rebound to find a yard of space and fire into the empty net.
One thing that stands out in the writing of this article is the fact that, in the relatively short time since Forest were humbled, all four of the United scorers that night have left the club. It’s a rather depressing thought, but they were certainly all Leeds all the way that night, and delighted to be able to help the Whites fans celebrate the life of one of their heroes with their own loud and proud tributes, and with a thumping victory to boot. Forest’s only real contribution to the evening came late on when the frustrated and already-booked Andy Reid earned himself a second yellow with an agricultural challenge on Aidy White. “Can we play you every week?” roared the United fans, a sentiment that would not survive the return game at Elland Road – and they would be glad too that it’s not every week they have cause to mark the passing of a United great at such a tragically young age, and in such awful circumstances.
Gary Andrew Speed MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) Leeds United 1988 – 1996, 2nd Division Championship Winner, First Division Championship Winner, Charity Shield Winner.
Next: Memory Match No. 12: Real Madrid 3, Leeds United 2. The late, great Don Revie always longed for his legendary Leeds United side to be pitched against the biggest legends of them all, and to draw CF Real Madrid in European competition. Sadly, it never happened in The Don’s lifetime, but when a slightly less vintage era of Leeds finally appeared in the amazing Estadio Santiago Bernebeu, they were not disgraced – indeed, I rather think that Sir Don would have been proud.