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.
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.