IT was somehow fitting that on a day everyone remembered one Leeds United great in Gary Speed that another great in the making, Robert Snodgrass, should be the hero against Millwall at an emotional Elland Road on Saturday, writes Tony Harber.
The Scottish winger played the second half in Speed’s old left wing position and produced a superb display, capped by two goals in three minutes – the second a Speed-like diving header from a cross by the current Leeds number 11, Lloyd Sam.
After a largely forgettable first half played against a surreal atmosphere and after the laying of wreaths on the side of the pitch before kick-off by Simon Grayson, Gordon Strachan, David Batty, Gary McAllister and Millwall manager Kenny Jackett, the game was lit up by Snodgrass with a brilliant free-kick bent into the far corner from the edge of the box.
By then United were getting on top after injuries to midfielders Jonny Howson and Michael Brown had forced reshuffles in the opening half and changes in systems that had understandably seen them lose their way after a bright start.
Several players played in more than position with Danny Pugh starting at left-back, then moving to the wing and finishing in centre midfield and Snodgrass taking three roles, yet despite all the
chopping and changing the second half 4-4-2 team did the business in great style.
Snodgrass’s opener was certainly on the cards after he came within inches of a goal with an angled shot, Andy Keogh saw a header saved and substitute Lloyd Sam- impressive against his former club – sent a volley wide and went on a great run only to see his goalbound shot blocked by a Millwall hand.
It was definitely one-way traffic after Leeds went ahead and within three minutes they had added a second as Keogh won a header and Sam served up a perfect cross for Snodgrass to beat Millwall keeper Steve Mildenhall with a diving header.
There was never any danger of defeat from here on and only a question of whether the winning margin would be bigger as Keogh, another to impress, came close to a spectacular goal with a long range volley and Mildenhall made outstanding saves to deny Luciano Becchio and Sam.
Manager Grayson was understandably pleased with his side’s display, but reflected on the emotions of the day.
He said: “It’s been a tough week for Gary’s family and for everyone. I’ve been fortunate in one respect that I’ve had two games to focus on to take my mind off things.
“But it’s been emotional and this was a fantastic way to end a difficult week.
“Everyone should be proud of how everyone has conducted themselves at this football club, the tributes outside at the Billy Bremner statue, the fans inside the ground. That’s what Leeds United is all about, one big family. The recognition that Gary got today would have made him extremely proud.
“The result and the result on Tuesday night was a fitting way for Gary Speed to be recognised. Gary has passed away, but he will never be forgotten.
“Lots of tears were shed over the course of the week, but it’s been a great tribute today and everyone connected with the club and the whole city have conducted themselves in such an admirable way.”
Grayson had words of praise for his players, in particular the adaptable Snodgrass and Pugh.
He added: “The players could be proud of their performance. The defenders defended extremely well their job well and Danny Pugh was a real unsung hero.
“Robert Snodgrass’s free-kick was fantastic quality and after he got a second so quickly it could been three, four or five but the Millwall goalkeeper made some great saves.
“He could have got his hat-trick late on when Luciano (Becchio) should have played him in.
“It typified Snod that he keeps going to the end. His work rate is exceptional and he’s got quality and talent and he’s a joy to work with.”
There was bad news for Leeds with skipper Howson leaving the ground on crutches after suffering a knee injury, but Grayson hopes it would not turn out to be too serious.
He said: “He’s being assessed by the medical staff and he’s in good hands. It had to be a sore injury for Jonny not to go back on because he’s a tough character, but hopefully it’s not going to be too severe. Hopefully he’s just jarred it or banged it.
“Michael Brown had to go off with an ankle injury so we’re a little bit depleted in that area of the pitch, but Danny Pugh showed his versatility and showed his quality as he went about his job as if he’s played there all year and all his career.”
Leeds United 2
(Snodgrass 62, 65)
Saturday, December 3, 2011
Leeds: McCarthy, Connolly, Kisnorbo, Lees, Pugh, Snodgrass, Brown (Keogh 40), Clayton, Howson (Sam 36), White, Becchio.
Millwall: Mildenhall, Smith, Robinson, Lowry (Ward 85), Baker, Feeney (Henry 74), Abdou, Trotter, Simpson, Barron (Bouazza 68), Henderson.
Referee: Michael Oliver.
Leeds United have a chance to add to their exciting FA Cup exploits of recent years after being drawn away to Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup. The two teams met at the same stage last season when the Whites were only denied a famous win at the Emirates Stadium by a last minute Cesc Fabregas penalty. The Gunners then went on to win the replay at Elland Road.