Admittedly this post comes some time after the event, but as it was already written I thought I'd stick it up regardless for a number of reasons:
1. There can never be enough pieces written with regard to Gary Speed.
2. This contents of this blog are a little sparse, thus far. And...
3. This is probably the last post that'll be made on here in some time (maybe ever) that isn't tinged (overloaded) with sarcasm, cynicism and a degree of mockery.
DISCLAIMER: May contain excessive sentiment having been written while under the influence of wine...
When the sudden, tragic news of Gary Speed’s passing broke late on Sunday morning, the nation stood witness to an outpouring of emotion and genuine, heartfelt disbelief unparalleled in the modern footballing era. Former team mates, club officials and supporters alike, came forward in countless numbers to pay tribute and express their utter devastation over the loss of a man who’d served his sport so magnificently for over two decades.
As a numb footballing world watched on, still struggling to comprehend the news, all eyes focused on the Liberty Stadium where 20,000 of Gary’s fellow countrymen had the honour of being amongst the first to pay tribute; the poignancy of that minute’s silence was in turn both overwhelming and uplifting; the spontaneous wave of applause reflecting the desire of shell shocked supporters to above all else, express their appreciation, to articulate en masse, just what Gary Speed meant to the modern game, in doing so, setting the tone for similar tributes held across the country, with club and even sporting loyalties, cast to one side as two nations mourned.
Billy’s statue, already awash with shirts on Tuesday afternoon, bared testament to Speed’s immense popularity; a sea of white, yellow and blue, punctuated not only with the black and white stripes of Newcastle, but also representation from the likes of Ipswich, Wrexham and Liverpool… even a Manchester United shirt lay proudly, bearing the simple message ‘From a football fan to a football legend: RIP Gary’, its unchallenged prominence in the display, not questioned, merely appreciated – in times great loss, the relative futility of even the fiercest rivalries can be cast into perspective.
The loss of Speed is felt no more acutely than at Leeds. For my generation - raised on years of 2nd division obscurity, of watching the club struggling to emerge from the shadows of the Revie era on the pitch and ignominy on the terraces off it, and with only John Sheridan as our salvation – the promotion and championship winning sides represented everything most beloved about Leeds United; Gary was OUR Eddie Gray: markedly different in playing style but sporting that same number 11 shirt and every bit as integral to a sublime midfield unit. He was one of our own and despite leaving the club 15 years ago, his omnipresence at the highest level served to ensure he was never out of our collective consciousness; and now he was gone, in his prime and for no conceivable explanation.
As a club, Leeds United has endured more than its fair share of heartbreak and adversity, for the supporters, Tuesday night represented the opportunity to do what we do better than any others; it was about standing up and being counted, it was about saluting one of our heroes. The Meadow Lane Social Club provided an effective gauge for the pre-match mood; awash with Leeds fans but collectively subdued rather than raucous, around a dozen replica shirts emblazoned with ‘Speed 11’ on the backs, a stark visual reminder that just for once, the result was secondary.
The atmosphere prevailed inside the stadium; as the referee’s whistle signalled the start to a rousing minute’s applause, supporters everywhere struggled to control their emotions, many wept openly, whilst others, more hardened looking souls, manfully battled to stem the flow from welling eyes. Yet the tribute still felt like a mere pre-cursor to the main event, when come the 11th minute, we as supporters could pay tribute in our own special way.
When the moment arrived it was at first instigated by a small group, but by the end of the first cry of “Ohhh, Gary, Gary! Gary, Gary, Gary, Gary, Gary Speed!!” the chant had swept across the length of the Bridgford Lower Stand. In a touching moment of solidarity, Forest fans in the upper tier momentarily rose in unison to applaud. During those next 11 minutes, many of those who’d struggled to hide their emotions previously finally buckled, like many others, I struggled at times to sustain the chant; the emotive swell within playing havoc with my ability to do so. It was a truly inspiring moment to be part of, a tide of “Ohhh’s” consistently sweeping down the stand in a relentless crescendo that sent tingles down the spine. Midway through I couldn’t help but notice one lone steward (not an employee of our club), he bowed his head for a full minute before attempting to discreetly turn away and wipe a tear from his eye, so moved was he by the spectacle. The pride I felt then as a Leeds fan then was such that for the first time I actually found myself willing us NOT to score, to allow this stirring tribute to run its full course, even cursing Michael Brown for what in other circumstances would be considered a creditable long range effort.
Then, that moment arrived; one offering such an impossibly perfect symmetry of circumstances that even I - somebody who groans at every trite cliché commentators dig out on these occasions - found myself re-evaluating my thoughts on the concept of fate; as the final roars of tribute gave way to a triumphant chorus of “Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!” Snodgrass and Clayton hustled and dispossessed a hesitant Guy Moussi; Snoddy then strode forward and drilled the ball with his left foot into the bottom corner. I didn’t even see the goal; I was taking a moment out, reflecting and recomposing myself, I only looked up in time to see the net bulge – as it happens, after mad celebrations, it emerged I was far from alone as nobody else around was sure who scored either, it was only the sight of Snoddy’s raised fists that confirmed some fairly patchy collective guesswork.
It was a well merited goal for a Leeds side that was up for it from the start and was sandwiched by two other very presentable Snodgrass chances. With Howson looking reborn in his favoured role and Aidy White providing added impetus down the wing, Leeds bossed the half and Howson’s stupendous second – a brilliant looping half-volley from 20 yards - certainly didn’t flatter the visitors at the interval.
After the break it was more of the same as Leeds continued to dominate, indeed only wayward finishing by Ross McCormack and general ineptitude on the part of Ramon Nunez in their substitute roles conspired to ensure that Becchio’s fine header and Clayton’s close range finish were the only goals added to the tally.
Indeed as the second half progressed, the Leeds fans were even able to salvage some light relief from the evening; Andy Reid obliging in the best possible style to chants of “He eats what he wants! He eats what he wants! He’s Andy Reid…he eats what he wants!” by waddling after Aidan White, clattering into him and promptly receiving a second yellow.
That moment of comedy merely provided a silver lining to a perfect evening; the final whistle arriving as “4-0 for Gary Speed” boomed out from the away end. It was a magnificent display where, just like every fan, every player stood up to be counted, every one of them at least an 8/10 showing… very, Gary Speed.
Yet there was still time for perhaps the most special moment of the evening. At the final whistle, Simon Grayson as he always does, came to applaud the fans, only this time he lingered, probably for a good two minutes, determined to share the moment and his gratitude; finally he turned to walk away, but then paused, just momentarily and pointed to the heavens – “That one’s for you, Gary.”