THERE are times when football fans really do step up to the plate. The last few days have been one such time.
Since news of Gary Speed’s death first emerged on Sunday morning to leave the nation genuinely shocked, the response of supporters up and down the country has been as touching as it has been heartfelt.
Much of the focus may, understandably, have been on the Wales manager’s former clubs with shots of the Billy Bremner statue having become a familiar presence on our television screens over the last few days.
Similar impromptu shrines have sprung up at St James’ Park, Goodison Park, the Reebok Stadium and Bramall Lane along with one at the Millennium Stadium, all underlining just how affected fans of his ex-teams have been by the news.
What has been perhaps more remarkable, however, is the outpouring of grief at clubs with no obvious link to Speed other than he played against them sporting the colours of a rival.
One such club is Nottingham Forest, who by a quirk of the fixture list last night were the side due to face Leeds United in their first game since Speed’s passing.
Usually, Forest fans have little complimentary to say about their rivals from up the M1. That is not, of course, something that is unique to the locals at the City Ground with Leeds having long since passed into the role of pantomime villain on their travels.
There is also usually little love lost between the two sets of players, as was proved last season when both meetings saw clashes aplenty as tempers boiled over.
Last night, however, was different. Not only did the Forest players join their United counterparts in donning black armbands for the night but the home fans also provided their own tribute to United’s lost hero by chanting ‘There’s only one Gary Speed’ ahead of kick-off.
The sentiment was appreciated by the 3,600 or so travelling fans, who were always going to be in for an emotional day.
Some had made the pilgrimage to Elland Road to pay their respects before heading to the East Midlands, the ‘Norwich Whites’ flag suggesting some had travelled further than others.
All those who visited United’s will have been affected by the depth of the tributes, including many from supporters of other clubs.
One Manchester United fan had even asked a member of the Leeds staff on Monday if it was okay to leave a shirt of Leeds’s bitterest rivals – complete with the words ‘From a football fan to a football legend’ – at Bremner’s feet.
Similar tributes had also been left by fans of Cardiff City, Sheffield United, Wolves and Newcastle.
For the United fans at Nottingham last night, their own tribute was a bit different. The aim was to honour the shirt number sported by Speed when making the vast majority of his 312 appearances for the club.
The plan, hatched via twitter and internet message boards, was to sing Speed’s name for 11 minutes from the 11th minute.
The lack of a clock inside the City Ground, however, meant the tribute started three minutes early. It did, though, continue for the requisite number of minutes and also drew applause from the Forest fans.
Robert Snodgrass scoring the opening goal briefly brought a halt to the chants, though not for long as the Leeds fans continued to sing their support of Speed.
Just a few hours after the inquest into Speed’s death had been opened in Warrington to confirm that he had been found hanged by wife Louise, the chants were the United fans’ way of showing solidarity with the family.
It once again illustrated football’s ability to handle grief very well. Tribalism may dominate on a Saturday but when something like the death of an iconic player occurs, the football family comes together as one.
That was certainly the case in Nottingham last night when Forest joined with the visitors from Leeds to pay a fitting tribute to one of the game’s genuine good guys.