A fine footballer, good manager and a wonderful man
A light has gone out in football and the sport suddenly seems a far darker place. A fine footballer, good manager and wonderful man, Gary Speed has gone, leaving behind a grieving family, a sport in mourning and countless friends shivering with a feeling of utter desolation.
Speed gave so much to the game and he had so much more to give. It’s such a waste, such a tragedy. When news broke of his death on Sunday, a wave of despair swept through the sport he served so well. Speed was so well-liked. He played the game the right way: with commitment, with honesty and with a sense of adventure.
Those seeking Speed’s legacy need only look around.
It’s there in the photographs on the walls of Elland Road, pictures that capture for eternity the image of him and his Leeds United celebrating the 1992 title. For Leeds United fans, and all who love attractive football, memories will never fade of that well-balanced midfield quartet of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Speed. Only 22 at the time, Speed played with a maturity beyond his callow years. His intelligence shone through.
His legacy can be seen in the sight of Aaron Ramsey and a vibrant young Wales side winning four of their last five games, a tribute to the organisation and spirit instilled in them by their manager. Far more personally, Speed’s legacy remains in the sporting potential of two young sons, whose depth of loss cannot even begin to be imagined.
Speed achieved so much in his 42 years. One of the many tragic strands to this numbing story is that he had so much more to offer. After the Football Association of Wales released that sorrowful statement, I received a call from one of his horse racing associates.
I mentioned that Speed “loved racing”, to which his friend replied: “Gary loved everything." And he did. He loved his family, his profession and his many, many friends.
He spent part of Saturday morning organising events for this week, a round of golf with a friend here, a meal with an old team-mate there.
Professionally, life was good. Under his guidance, Wales were on the rise, even peaking at 45 in the Fifa world rankings after a low point of 117. Speed was enjoying deserved plaudits.
As a man, Speed had many qualities. Even after long reflection, it is hard to think of many more popular individuals in his chosen industry. He was just a nice guy in a sport that can turn people cynical.
Incredibly generous with his time, Speed would engage any fan wanting an autograph or photograph. He would always look people in the eye, always treat them well. There was none of that superstar dashing to the supercar arrogance. A mixture of politeness and banter spilt from his lips. Any time in his company was uplifting.
Whenever football is being decried by assorted critics, defenders of the faith could always point to Speed, a footballer who never left the fray without his shirt soaked in sweat, who trained as he played, who deservedly was appointed MBE for services to football in 2010.
Using that dexterous left foot, Speed manipulated the ball, whether still or moving, over short range and long. He earned respect for his industry, his willingness to play a range of roles and for his remarkable consistency. His dedication to his craft was seen in his holding the record for most Premier League appearances until overtaken by David James. He never let a club down. Speed was first into training, first to help with community projects and first to the ball.
He took responsibility, a trait ensuring frequent association with the captain’s armband. From Leeds to Everton, Newcastle to Bolton and Sheffield United, his clubs all shook with pain and disbelief as the dreadful news emerged.
The great esteem in which Speed was held was seen in the reaction of his former team-mates. John Hartson could not face broadcasting at the Liberty Stadium and returned home, the big man inconsolable. Tears slid down the face of Shay Given as he prepared to keep goal for Aston Villa against Swansea. Up at Anfield, one of his closest friends, Craig Bellamy, could not bear the idea of focusing on a mere sport at a time like this. “He taught me so much," tweeted Newcastle’s Shola Ameobi, “not just on the field but off the pitch as well." Nobody could believe “Speedo”, their friend, their mentor, was gone.
He’d seemed indestructible. Just as his name was always on the team-sheet, week in, week out, season in, season out, so Speed seemed part of the football landscape for years to come. Photogenic, eloquent and full of thought, Speed could have gone into the television studio but management always appealed to him.
During his days at Bolton, his passion for a future in management was inescapable when I encountered him at the training ground. He talked of the great managers he had worked under, legends of the game like Sir Bobby Robson, and how they had inspired him. During their time at Newcastle, Speed lived close to Robson and the midfielder often acted as chauffeur to the manager, and would spend the journey to the training ground listening to the oracle, absorbing knowledge.
Interviewing Robson one day, I noticed a smiling Speed in the background, waiting patiently. I mentioned it to Speed a month or so later, apologising for delaying his passenger, pointing out in mitigation that once Robson was in full flow, particularly when reminiscing about Italia 90, nothing could stop him. Speed laughed, rolling his eyes at the image of the beloved Bobby chatting away.
Speed was very much the team man, the ultimate in selflessness, even running the London Marathon for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. He also admitted being happy to bide his time, knowing how many tips on the managerial art would come his way on the drive home.
Those craving an insight into the characteristics that made Speed a manager of increasing substance need look no further than Ramsey.
Strong questions were asked of Speed when he appointed Ramsey as captain of Wales. Too inexperienced, said the critics. Too inhibited, they added. Too scarred psychologically after that Ryan Shawcross tackle.
Speed confided later that he found the extensive criticism of his decision difficult. Yet he was vindicated. Ramsey has grown into the role, grasping the responsibility with increasing alacrity, assisted by Speed’s able man-management.
Having noted how Ramsey froze alongside the warrior-like John Terry in the tunnel at the Millennium Stadium before last season’s Wales-England match, Speed worked on Ramsey, telling him that he was good enough for this level. Because the words came from Speed, such a likeable individual with so much experience, Ramsey listened, learned and grew. Speed leaves so much good behind — and so much anguish that a special person has gone.