One of the more touching stories among the tributes paid to Gary Speed was the tale of the Manchester United fan who appeared at Leeds United’s stadium on Monday, intending to lay his club’s shirt on the Billy Bremner statue.
He was never likely to find trouble or resistance from the small crowd present but you can understand him asking if his sympathetic gesture would cause a scene. Three months earlier, riot police were deployed to separate supporters of Leeds and Manchester United along the length of Elland Road.
A death as shocking as Speed’s leaves no room for conflict. It says something about football that a tragedy so appalling is needed to douse inter-club rivalry, but more again that inter-club rivalry disappears in these times. Tomorrow, on a day of mourning and celebration, Millwall will contribute to an occasion which in years to come should define Speed as one of Leeds’ most revered and popular footballers. You can only hope that he knew it.
Common ground between Leeds and Millwall is as rare as affinity between Leeds and Manchester United but the Bremner statue acknowledges Speed’s finest quality – the altruism which friends and colleagues of his have spoken about this week. Even old grudges held against him on Merseyside seem to have lost their logic and meaning.
His transfer from Everton to Newcastle United in 1998 was seen by some as a controversial defection but there are Everton scarves at Bremner’s feet, one bearing the message ‘Once a Blue, always a Blue.’ Speed supported Everton before he played for Leeds and left Goodison Park without much of an explanation, saying only that full disclosure would “damage the name of Everton Football Club.”
No doubt he was right. And, to judge by the scarves beneath Bremner, who now cares? There is more to life and more to consider in the passing of a man as young and talented as Speed. The overwhelming feeling in Swansea last weekend was that the Premier League game between Swansea City and Aston Villa should have been postponed as a mark of respect and decency. On Wednesday evening, Tottenham’s players took it upon themselves to stage an impromptu minute’s silence before their Europa League tie against PAOK Salonika. The world of football never stops but most in the English game have had their minds on something else.
In Leeds, the outpouring of emotion has been astonishing – heartfelt on the part of United’s supporters and dignified on the part of the club itself. Leeds have handled a difficult week with good sense and proportion, reflecting the mood of the city around them. Simon Grayson kept his counsel on Sunday but was up in the early hours of Monday morning to conduct multiple media interviews about the loss of a friend he had known for almost 30 years. It was grim but necessary, a part of football management which coaching text books never train you for. Speed would have been proud of him these past few days, just as he would be proud of the club.
And as for United’s supporters? Where to start. In five-and-a-half seasons as the YEP’s Leeds United reporter, I’ve read the charge sheet ad nauseam – banning orders, chants about Munich and isolated incidents of trouble. There are many sticks to beat them with. But every club has a problematic element and few are blessed with a support as passionate and spirited as those who followed Leeds to Nottingham Forest on Tuesday night or those who will give Speed a final send-off in Leeds tomorrow. (December 3)
That is not the view of a partisan newspaper. It was the view of everyone who watched and listened to 11 minutes of chanting in Speed’s name during the first half of United’s win over Forest.
In a sense the tribute was planned, organised via Twitter and online message boards, but it was wonderfully instinctive, setting the tone for a reflective weekend. Speed will be remembered everywhere tomorrow and Newcastle United’s plan to conduct 50,000 spectators in a rendition of ‘Bread of Heaven’ at St James’ Park. It should be spine-tingling if it works.
At Elland Road, the memorials to Speed will be numerous – black armbands bearing the motif ‘Speed 11’, chants, banners and wreaths laid at either end of the field. At the end of a desperate week, it tells his family that he mattered. As Dominic Matteo said in this newspaper yesterday, respect like this only comes to those who earn it. The reaction has been extraordinary.
Tomorrow’s game against Millwall will be preceded by a minute’s applause which, given the opposition, might been seen as a sensible alternative to a period of silence. It was inevitable that questions would be asked about whether a silence could survive in a fixture of such historic enmity. The match, after all, was moved to an early kick-off on the advice of the police. Most involving Leeds and Millwall are.
But the scepticism does Millwall a disservice. At the insistence of their manager Kenny Jackett – who, along with Grayson, was a friend of Speed’s and will lay one of the wreaths at Elland Road tomorrow – the club held a well-observed silence before Tuesday’s win over Doncaster Rovers. In a poll on a fans’ website, Millwall’s supporters voted three to one in favour of a minute’s silence over a minute’s applause. It is unfair to ignore these facts when so much is written about Turkish flags and flying missiles.
As it happens, applause seems the most appropriate way of honouring Speed. He was a cause of celebration in his time as a Leeds player and the club’s win at Forest was as much about that as it was a night of sadness.
But, on the evidence of Tuesday night’s tribute at the New Den, it is more than likely that a minute’s silence would have passed off perfectly tomorrow, regardless of the teams involved or their ingrained sense of rivalry.
That Speed has bridged these huge divides is arguably the truest measure of the man.