Saturday 20 January 2018

Leeds and Newcastle unite in tribute to the late Gary Speed

Gary Speed celebrates Leeds' first goal against Stuttgart in the home leg of their European Cup tie in 1992 CREDIT: ALLSPORT/GETTY
Gary Speed celebrates Leeds' first goal against Stuttgart in the home leg of their European Cup tie in 1992 CREDIT: ALLSPORT/GETTY

Rob Bagchi

It seems appropriate that Leeds United should welcome their first full house since 2011 for Sunday afternoon’s visit of the Championship leaders Newcastle United. The two clubs have enjoyed a long, colourful rivalry since the mid Sixties but they share a common, lasting grief for the loss of Gary Speed, the man who graced both No11 shirts for 590 games, and will unite during the match to pay tribute at Elland Road in front of his family to mark five years since his distressing death at the age of 42.

Leeds have invited Newcastle fans to join in the applause scheduled for the 11th minute to commemorate the midfielder’s life and the wholehearted and consolidated effusion of appreciation will be a rare moment of harmony in the kind of electric, strident atmosphere that used to be routine at Elland Road when Speed dressed in white.

It was like that on the opening day of the season in August 2003 when the two sides last met in Yorkshire and the last time Speed, six years before the end of his career, played at the ground where he had served his apprenticeship sweeping the Gelderd End, dubbining the boots of senior pros and learnt his trade on Fullerton Park 80 yards across the car park from the West Stand’s corrugated, royal blue and gold façade. 

It was Speed’s formative seven years as a first-team player at Leeds that give most of us who watched his extraordinarily rapid and self-possessed progress a perception of primacy when it comes to reminiscences about him and a certain sense of ownership.

But in truth Speed was the quintessential, modern professional, for whom personal development and the opportunity to compete trumped any tribalism. It was he, after all, who left his boyhood club Everton halfway through a second season at Goodison Park despite being captain because the owner, Peter Johnson, had begun to sell players and the manager, Howard Kendall, was behaving idiosyncratically. He also pushed through a move from Leeds in 1996 and left Newcastle in 2004 for Bolton rather than serve out his mid-thirties as a much-valued but still peripheral squad player at St James’ Park.

It would be foolish to say that such hard-headedness about his career made what happened to him all the more startling – had any other successful 42-year-old former footballer or highly promising international manager killed himself, the shock would have been equally palpable.  And yet it was because he seemed such a model player, diligent, mature, dedicated and above all good natured that his death and its dissonance with our perceptions of him continue to jolt.

On Sunday that resonant poignancy will be tangible but there will also be an abundance of more uplifting memories and a universal resolve that the manner of Speed’s death should not define him. Home supporters will have images spooling through their minds re-running his performances in that exquisitely balanced midfield that won the title in 1991-92 when each mandatory quality for a league-winning side – inspirational dynamism, grace, grit and guile – found their ideal embodiment in Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Speed.

While we honour him primarily as part of a quartet his individual pinnacles will not be overshadowed, his goal against Sheffield United in a top-of-the-table promotion derby in April 1990 principal among them. With the insouciance of youth and discordantly astounding composure he ran 50 yards with the ball under his immaculate control to score Leeds’ fourth, roared on by a shamelessly partisan commentary from John Boyd that culminated in a rasping cry of “Go on Gary Speed, get one yourself, son”.

We will recall, too, his peaks as an orthodox left winger, the elegant arc of those outswinging crosses bent disconcertingly early at full pelt on to the head of Lee Chapman and the sensational volley he scored against Stuttgart in the 1992 European Cup when, with his hair grown out as if he had just been recruited to play bass in the Soup Dragons, he thundered in Eric Cantona’s superbly cushioned headed pass. Although his subsequent move into central midfield never diminished the judgment that made the timing of his runs into the box to exploit his remarkable ability in the air an abiding thing of wonder, it is fair to say he became a more efficient and influential player rather than a spectacular one.

But he was routinely capable of outstanding moments during those assiduous and accomplished years at Newcastle and they are the ones that will be treasured in the away end on Sunday afternoon: the diving header against Derby, the cute side-foot volley from Alan Shearer’s looping overhead pass against Arsenal and the crispness of his connection that ignited blistering strikes against Bradford, Portsmouth and Birmingham City.

It was not unusual to bump into Speed in Leeds, Wetherby, Manchester or on the Quayside in Newcastle in the Nineties and though he could be diffident he was always kind. As his family members continue to commemorate him – last year they funded the establishment of a counselling service, the Gary Speed Rooms, at the London offices of the suicide prevention and bereavement charity Console – his football family joins them on Sunday to assert that the bond he forged with the generosity of his contributions and spirit endures.

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