Loss of a great man has bonded every fan
It was shortly after 11am yesterday when a Manchester United fan approached the Gary Speed shrine enveloping the Billy Bremner statue outside Elland Road. He clutched a Manchester United shirt bearing the message, "Gary Speed RIP".
Wary of the reaction from the 30 or so Leeds United supporters gathered around the ever-expanding memorial to a fallen hero, the man from Manchester walked up to a Leeds official standing nearby.
"Can I lay this?" he asked, holding out the shirt. "Of course,'' came the reply. "But will they say anything?'' added the fan, pointing to the Leeds group. "No, of course they won't,'' replied the official, who accompanied him to where the flowers, cards, shirts and scarves were spreading from the plinth onto the pavement.
He carefully, respectfully placed the shirt of Leeds' fiercest rivals in the middle of a sea of white. Some of the Leeds supporters engaged him in warm conversation.
"I'm a Manchester United fan,'' he explained, "but I wanted to show my respect to Gary for everything he did for football.'' The terrace tribalism that can scar football was placed to one side as a sport united in mourning. Speed's immense standing in the game was reflected by this genuine gesture from a rival.
Fans of all hues admired Speed because he embodied certain qualities that all fans crave in their stars: the hard work, the pride in the shirt, the ability to create and score.
The most bi-polar of sports, football can divide and unite, can reverberate to the vilest of chants and also pause for the most respectful of silences.
After Hillsborough, Alex Ferguson was immediately on the phone to Kenny Dalglish, offering to send fans' representatives over to Anfield. As he told Dalglish, Ferguson wanted Manchester United to show support for Liverpool in a time of such tragedy.
No triteness is intended with the simple observation that football handles grief well. The family of football, often fractious, congregates as one. In Speed's case, there is a desire to record gratitude for the joy he gave so many, to register disbelief at the untimely end of such a handsome, decent, ego-free man and, of course, to pass on condolences to his family.
Other clubs' colours, and scribbled expressions of sympathy from match-day adversaries, could be found at the Speed shrine.
I visited late on Sunday. Even in the dark of a cold Yorkshire night, people were still driving up, parking and pausing for a few moments to remember a club icon.
Leeds responded sensitively to Sunday's desperate news. At 6am yesterday, their manager Simon Grayson embarked on a series of interviews, shuttling between local television studios and the Speed shrine. By 8am, Grayson had done seven live interviews.
He talked and talked, calmly and impressively, when the emotion must have been coursing through him like a rip-tide. For Grayson grew up with Speed at Leeds, the pair had stayed good friends, and now he had to face question after question about the death of a team-mate and a room-mate.
Grayson conducted himself with great dignity in trying circumstances.
Once again, with the Speed tragedy, one comes back to his elevated standing amongst all clubs. The high regard in which Speed was held is also captured in the number of clubs planning special tributes to him, whether periods of silence or applause.
Saturday brings one of Leeds' rivals, Millwall, to Elland Road when the majority of Speed tributes are scheduled for what will be an occasion of raw emotion. Leeds will ask both captains to lay wreaths.
The club are considering a plan for Grayson's players to wear black armbands with "Speed" and "11'' woven into them.
As with Grayson at Leeds, all of Speed's clubs responded to the tragedy with real class. Bolton's captain, Kevin Davies, typically, spoke well of his old team-mate. He even donned black attire for interviews. The chief executive of the FA of Wales, Jonathan Ford, talked powerfully about Speed, and threw open the door to the organisation's office for those needing support at "this terrible, terrible time".
Wherever you look and listen, people are honouring Speed.
This week, any hostilities that stain the English game have been put on hold. Speed's stature in the sport ensured that. In their darkest hour, at least his family know that countless people grieve with them. (© Daily Telegraph, London)