They went away hailing another homegrown Elland Road hero, as Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s stunning penalty save propelled Marcelo Bielsa’s side back into the Championship’s automatic promotion places.
Just 60 seconds remained when Barry Douglas rashly dived in on Reading substitute Joshua Sims to leave Mike Dean with no option but to point to the spot.
The hosts led through Stuart Dallas’s strike on the hour and but for the reflexes of Anssi Jaakola in the Royals goal would surely have been out of sight before Douglas’s late rush of blood.
But, as Marc McNulty stepped up to take the spotkick, a much improved second-half showing from United looked to have been in vain.
Peacock-Farrell, however, had other ideas. Former Sheffield United striker McNulty did strike the ball cleanly from 12 yards towards the bottom corner.
On most nights it would have been enough to secure a point. But the Leeds goalkeeper proved to be McNulty’s equal with a stunning one-handed save.
It ensured a fitting end to what had been an emotional night at Elland Road as supporters paid tribute to Speed in various ways.
Some sported old team shirts with his name on the back, others contented themselves with singing his name loud and proud in the 11th minute as a nod to the number the Welsh international sported when helping Leeds to the League title in 1992. But, regardless of how their tribute was paid, the love for Speed was total.
As it was for Peacock-Farrell come the final whistle as the home fans celebrated leapfrogging Middlesbrough in the table and moving to within a point of leaders Norwich City.
He ensured a happy end to a night that had brought a mixture of frustration and delight, with just the one sour note from a Leeds perspective.
That came in first half stoppage time via Ezgjan Alioski’s risible attempt to con a penalty out of referee Dean.
As the ball spun towards the goal-line after a United shot had been blocked, the Macedonian threw himself to the floor long before Tiago Ilori had got anywhere near him.
No matter that Leeds have now gone 57 games since last being awarded a penalty, there was no excuse for such unpalatable behaviour. It was cynical, it was blatant cheating and Alioski got exactly what he deserved as, first, Dean brandished a yellow card and then Bielsa hauled the midfielder off during the interval.
Alioski’s antics pretty much summed up the meagre fare that had been served up for the 27,806 crowd.
Douglas did head wide for the hosts early on, while Leandro Bacuna almost caught Peacock-Farrell off guard with a clever free-kick only for the Leeds goalkeeper to scramble back and tip the ball over the crossbar.
Those two efforts apart, however, neither side did enough to keep the crowd warm on a bitterly cold evening.
Bielsa’s response was to bring an abrupt end to not only Alioski’s evening but also that of the ineffective Lewis Baker.
Jack Clarke and Samuel Saiz came on in their place and the duo combined to great effect within 36 seconds of the restart, as the Spaniard’s volley from a cross by the Academy product looked to be heading in until Andy Yiadom thrust out a boot.
Reading may have kept Leeds out in that instance. Jaakola may also have denied Kemar Roofe with a stunning one-handed save after United’s top scorer had been picked out by Douglas.
But the home side would not be denied, Dallas breaking the deadlock on the hour with a close-range finish.
A delightful back-heel from Pablo Hernandez had released Douglas down the left and his cross found Roofe.
Jaakola did again frustrate Roofe’s bid to snatch a ninth goal of the season with a smart save but the rebound fell kindly for Dallas and he made no mistake.
United should have doubled their advantage 10 minutes from time when Saiz pulled the ball back to Hernandez but his shot was snatched and the ball bobbled harmlessly wide.
Clarke then blew a similarly inviting opportunity when he ignored the pleadings of Saiz to be released with just one Royals defender to beat and was eventually herded away from goal.
Roofe was then denied once again by Jaakola at point-blank range from Clarke’s drilled cross before the game’s defining moment came as Peacock-Farrell preserved United’s lead, pushing McNulty’s penalty round the post.
Leeds United: Peacock-Farrell; Dallas, Phillips, Cooper, Douglas; Forshaw; Hernandez, Klich (Shackleton 73), Baker (Clarke 46), Alioski (Saiz 46); Roofe. Unused substitutes: Huffer, Roberts, Harrison, Halme.
Reading: Jaakkola; Yiadom, Ilori, Moore, Gunter; Bacuna, Rinomhota, Kelly (McNulty 77), Swift (McCleary 61); Meite (Sims 70), Loader. Unused substitutes: Walker, O’Shea, Aluko, Blackett.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).