Old rivalries forgotten as fans unite in grief

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The Independent Online

Along the exhaust-choked stretch of Elland Road the traffic was going at no more than walking pace yesterday as motorists' eyes were drawn to the home of Leeds United Football Club. After the deaths of Kevin Speight and Christopher Loftus in Istanbul last week, fellow Leeds fans turned out in their hundreds in an act of remembrance of which an ever-growing tribute of flowers at the gates of the ground was an inevitable feature.

Supporting a football club is nothing if not a collective pursuit, and for most people it was their first opportunity since Wednesday night to gather in the same place and express the sense of community that is always sharpened by tragedy. Never mind that there was no game going on, or that few people knew either of the dead men, or that the circumstances of their deaths raised troubling questions about the nature of football support.

Among those present there was never more than a murmur of whispered conversation; many were in tears. "We didn't know you personally but you did not deserve to be taken from your families in this way," read one message, typical of hundreds written on one of the countless white Leeds shirts draped from the railings.

To regard the reaction to the deaths of Mr Speight and Mr Loftus as excessive is to overlook the way that football has become one of the prime means of self-expression. Had the two men been stabbed outside a nightclub in Ibiza, no one would have dreamt of piling up flowers outside their favourite nightclub. But support of a football club bestows a badge of pride that binds all who wear it, and when people die in what is seen as "the cause" of the club, those who are left behind are more than ready to turn wasted lives into something significant.

"It could have been us," said Nick Smith, who had come to lay flowers. "It has happened to somebody doing something we all do." Mr Smith had come to Elland Road after finishing a night shift, and his eyes were red, but not from lack of sleep.

Another fan, Ray Ashworth, a Leeds season-ticket holder for 30 years, was equally upset. "I feel I have lost two friends," he said. "I have lost my mum and dad and I have the same empty feeling I had then. I cannot explain it. I cannot explain it to my wife. I cannot explain it to myself."

Shirts and messages left at Elland Road did not come just from Leeds fans. A group from Sheffield United, wearing their team's red and white striped shirts, laid flowers; the day before Newcastle supporters had come to the ground. Even Manchester United fans, perhaps the club's bitterest rivals, hugged Leeds supporters. "It brings it home that all that rivalry means nothing," said Chris Stringer, staring at the flowers piled under the statue of Leeds legend Billy Bremner.

There is, of course, another side to the reaction to the stabbings of Mr Speight and Mr Loftus. Any consideration of the events in which Leeds United find themselves caught up cannot ignore some of the history that attaches to the club. A reputation for violence among its supporters is long-standing, even if recent instances have been few. But following an incident earlier this season in which an Asian man was beaten up outside a Leeds nightclub, three of the club's players are due to stand trial on charges of grievous bodily harm.

At the same nightclub on Friday night - the Majestyk - the talk was of possible violence when Galatasaray come to Leeds in 10 days' time to play the second leg of their Uefa Cup semi-final. "There are going to be some physical repercussions if the Galata- saray fans come over," Tim Rhodes said.

Meanwhile, armoured police vans were keeping a watchful eye on the city's kebab takeaways. Police have advised kebab shop owners to close early. Members of the Kurdish and Turkish communities fear repercussions. Asked how he felt about being in Leeds when the return match takes place, one kebab shop worker said: "I'm frightened and I don't want to be in Leeds. Whenever Galatasaray play in Europe they become racist. Sadly when nationalism and football merge you get violence. Most people who work in kebab shops over here are Kurdish refugees, not Turkish. But English people don't know that."

Though a decision, taken by Leeds United and backed by Uefa, means that Galatasaray fans will not be able to buy tickets for the return leg, there are even warnings that some Leeds "supporters" will try and attack the Turkish players.

One doorman said he had heard that members of the Leeds Service Crew, a gang notorious for causing trouble at matches, had tried to find out which hotels have been booked. "The Service Crew are out to kill," he said.

Unconfirmed reports from the Turkish Embassy yester- day said that a kebab house in the city had been destroyed.

For those Leeds supporters at Elland Road yesterday, revenge is not the issue. "You know what Bill Shankly [the former Liverpool manager] said about football being more important than life and death?" said Mr Ashworth, who was leaving a pub opposite the stadium. "Well, he was wrong."