Daily Archives: 03/12/2013

Two Years Ago Today, Elland Road Bids Speedo an Emotional Farewell – by Rob Atkinson

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McAllister, Strachan and Batty pay tribute to Gary Speed

Leeds United 2 (Snodgrass 2), Millwall 0  Elland Road 3rd Dec, 2011   Att. 27,161

A fairly routine win against Millwall wouldn’t normally be the stuff of reminiscence, but this was no ordinary match.  On this Saturday, we were at Elland Road to say “Goodbye” to Gary Speed, who many of us remembered as a bright new talent, nobbut a lad mind you, but promising plenty as he made his mark on United’s promotion charge in 1990.  The memories he left us with from that point on are many, and they’ve been relived over and over in the two years since his untimely death.

Enough, surely, has also been said about the circumstances surrounding the manner of Speedo’s departure – so here I’ll just remember how it was when the crowds gathered early by Billy’s statue, which was festooned with flowers, shirts, flags, toys, all manner of tributes to a great man taken far too soon.  It was a spectacle alright, a reverential throng stood there around the statue, deep in thought, each still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what had happened.  The atmosphere was eerie and yet respectful, sad and yet full of memories and the hushed talk of happier times.

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Tributes to a late hero

The match that followed happened to be against Millwall, normally a lively encounter on and off the pitch when the Londoners bring anything like decent numbers.  That doesn’t happen often these days, security concerns having led to a reduction in the away support due to the annoyances surrounding Police restrictions on how the stadium may be approached.  But whatever the history between United and Millwall, it should be said that those fans who had travelled north conducted themselves impeccably, both during the pre-match on-field ceremony when the remaining three of that fabulous early nineties midfield quartet laid a wreath in memory of Speedo, and afterwards during a game which seemed like a meaningless appendage to the sad, real business of the day.

For the record, Leeds won the game 2-0 with second-half goals from Rob Snodgrass – one special shot and one very good header. Good as the goals were, welcome though the three points undoubtedly felt on the day, I had forgotten the details of the game itself. The images that remain in my mind are those in the images that accompany this article, scenes I’ll never forget. Some things transcend mere sport and mere tribal rivalry.

After all, the sudden shock of Speed’s death had left its mark on fans everywhere, not just at the clubs he had served with such distinction. Everywhere.  You only had to look at the bewildering array of tributes around Billy’s statue to know that,  Leeds, Newcastle, Everton and Bolton, naturally they were represented.  Sheffield United and the proud national colours of Wales, too.  But also Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley, Huddersfield – the list of old foes grew as you walked around the flower-strewn base of our late, great skipper’s statue.

When you think about it; what a great addition that legendary figure of Billy Bremner has been to Elland Road, what a proud focus for everything that Leeds means to its fans – and significantly, what a natural place to gather when we have good news to celebrate or bad news to mourn.  Billy is always there when he’s needed, frozen in time, arms raised in triumph as when he walked off the field at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, knowing that he was in the greatest club game of all, at long last.  It’s an inspiring, iconic work of commemorative art, and it provides such an appropriate backdrop when, as two years ago today, we had a more recent hero to pay our respects to, and for whom we had gathered to say our last farewells. It’s a place that conjures up a feeling of immense togetherness and solidarity, of what it means to be Leeds, in glory and in tragedy.  It’s a sacred place, like that.

I’ll forget all about that game again, now that this piece is done.  It was just another result, albeit one we’d normally savour, with fierce rivals beaten convincingly.  But the atmosphere that day, the tangible tributes left by so many fans of so many other clubs, the dignity of the pre-match proceedings, the laudable and much-appreciated respect shown by the away fans – all of that will stay in the memory long after Snoddy’s two cracking goals have faded away.  It was a sad but a special day, and surely Speedo could not have wished for a better farewell at what was his spiritual football home, the place that made him one of the Last Champions.  It was tragic, awful, a needless waste the way Gary died.  But when it came to saying goodbye to him, on this day two years back, Leeds United – and Millwall, and all the other clubs and fans – did it right.

RIP Gary Speed – never forgotten.

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Leeds Look to Bounce Back Against Troubled Wigan – by Rob Atkinson

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John Stiles: scored the only time Leeds beat Wigan Athletic

Next up for Leeds after the disappointment at Blackburn is a team we’ve met in the league before – but we’ve never beaten them, we’ve never actually managed a draw – we’ve never, shameful though it might seem, even managed to score a league goal against these giants of the game. Then again, we’ve only played them twice in league games.

It is of course the mighty Wigan Athletic we’re talking about, denizens of a town best-known for pies and rugby league, in that order – with the football club still the poor relation of those three preoccupations. Still, the Latics are not to be sniffed at these days – they come to Elland Road as FA Cup holders, still campaigning on the continent in the rarefied atmosphere of European football and of course they’re one of those big boys lately of the Blessed and Stardusty Premier League, with playing staff and parachute payments to match. So we’d better not under-estimate them then, right? Right.

Wigan have actually been a little disappointing so far this season, given high expectations of a swift and trouble-free return to the top-flight. The early optimism seemed justified when they travelled to Barnsley on the opening day and stuffed them 4-0. The Championship settled back and prepared to watch the Cup-holders disappear over the horizon at the top of the league, but it hasn’t worked out like that. Results since then have been patchy with bright spells and Wigan will need to buck up their ideas soon if they’re not to endure a long and frosty winter. The bleak situation culminated this week with the dismissal of manager Owen Coyle, so yet again Leeds are to face a team bereft of a permanent manager, and looking to prove a point or two perhaps.

Leeds have historically fared best against the Latics in Cup competitions, winning at the old and decrepit Springfield Park in the FA Cup 6th Round of 1987 and then achieving two creditable draws against notionally superior opposition in the 2006 competition, Wigan going through on penalties after the Elland Road replay. But all was misery in the league for United in our only season of level-par competition with the Lancastrians, the Pie-munchers running out 2-0 winners in LS11, and dismissing us 3-0 in the return. The aim will have to be the old Wilko battle plan for every campaign – let’s get our first goal, first point, first win – ideally all of them in the same game. Such will be the objective on Wednesday night when a crowd swelled by some freebie tickets should provide plenty of vocal backing – nothing gets a Yorkshireman (or woman) so ready and raring to go as summat for nowt.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Leeds may well have just a little too much for their trans-pennine foes in this latest meeting. Late injury/recovery news will have a big say in how matters turn out – but barring any unforeseen calamity (fingers crossed Rossco is fit) – I can see Leeds winning by the odd goal in three. And who knows – as that seasonal magic begins to gather about us all, maybe Luke Varney will grab a goal as he did at Bolton, to win another Roses battle. Stranger things have happened.