The tragic loss of the former Leeds United midfielder at the tender age of 42 has affected football supporters up and down the country, but has hit those who saw him at Elland Road particularly hard. Leeds supporters cherish those who come through the ranks and although he spent the majority of his career away from Elland Road, Gary Speed will forever be “one of our own.”
Speed began to establish himself in the Leeds first team in 1989-90, the year I started going regularly to Elland Road, and when I fell in love with Leeds United. On the fringes in the early part of the season, Speed burst into prominence with a season-changing performance at Oxford United. With Leeds in a sticky patch, and 2-0 down at half-time, Speed’s introduction saw his pace down the left terrorise the Us’ defence and was the catalyst for a stunning 4-2 win, the first in a run of four consecutive wins that revitalised the campaign.
The next two years would be heady times to be a Leeds fan. Finishing 4th and then winning the title in their first two seasons back in the top flight was an amazing achievement and Speed was a fundamental part of United’s success, forming part of probably the finest midfield of its time.
Strachan, Batty, McAllister, Speed are names that roll of the tongues of Leeds fans that remember that side. Speed provided the pace and power to complement the grace and artistry of McAllister, the grit and determination of Batty and the perpetual motion of Strachan. Graceful on the floor and supreme in the air, Speed was the archetypal box-to-box midfielder.
Stunningly good looking he was adored by males and females alike, the long hair he grew in the summer of 1992 copied by many on the Kop. As United’s powers waned, Speed became more and more crucial to the team, particularly following the loss of Batty to Blackburn rovers in 1994.
It’s easy to say Speed was the consummate professional, but it’s true. I hardly ever recall him missing a game, in fact the only time I ever recall being angry about him was when he was clearly rushed back too quickly from a broken cheekbone for the 1996 Coca Cola Cup Final. He was so crucial to the team he played despite being patently unfit, and Leeds lost 3-0.
That summer, with Strachan already gone and with McAllister also on the move, Speed left Elland Road. It wasn’t for big money and glory, but for the chance to play for his boyhood heroes Everton.
I don’t recall any animosity about that move, but I can honestly say I don’t remember hearing his name cheered to the rafters on his returns. Having said that I have always thought of him as a Leeds player first and foremost, and from the reaction of the supporters in Leeds over the last 24 hours or so I am not alone in that sentiment.
Speed’s death has affected me in ways I could not have imagined. I’ve never cried about the death of a stranger before, but as the first part of “my” Leeds team to pass away, I suppose a little piece of me has gone as well. Next time I hear the words “Go on Gary Speed, get one yourself son,” the smile will be tinged with tears.
Rest in peace Gary – and may you find the peace you desired.