Sunday 17 December 2017

‘I was laughing and joking with him on Saturday, as we always do. There was no sign. The last thing I said was see you next weekend’

Paul Hayward

Twenty-four hours after a death that he may never be able to comprehend, Alan Shearer was still helpless with grief.

"I don't know what to do. I feel numb. I can't go out," he said, thinking of his dear friend, Gary Speed.

"I've cancelled everything I had on, even various charity engagements," he said. "Nothing like this has happened to me before.

"I don't know whether I'm doing the right thing speaking. I don't know what the right or the wrong thing is."

This was Alan Shearer, all right, but not as we know him. Speed's great ally from their shared Newcastle United days was not calling to talk about himself. His hope was to pay tribute to a comrade whose death has become a cause for mourning in Britain.

Beneath the outpouring of affection and remembrance, something deeper was at work across the UK. Most deaths are absorbed, or at least faced, when the immediate storm of news has passed.

But Speed's end, at 42, defied comprehension. It made no sense. For Shearer there can be no peace or understanding.

"No, that's the question I keep asking myself. Why? Why?" he said. "He was the sort of friend who would confide in you. But I was laughing and joking with him on Saturday (in a BBC TV studio), as we always do. There was no sign. The last thing I said was -- 'See you next weekend'. We were supposed to be going out, to a charity dinner together."

Speed joined Shearer at Newcastle in 1998 and the two recognised each other as kindred spirits.

"I'd played against him several times but I didn't get to know him until he came to Newcastle. As you go through your career you're bound to make a few enemies, that's the nature of football.

"But he didn't have any. Nobody said anything bad about him."

In the shadow of sudden and baffling loss people advance their own memories, however fleeting, of the departed public figure. On a day of bewildered recollection, people tweeted about handshakes, autographs, childhood memories of all the teams Speed played in and even spotting him out on runs, in Sheffield, where he finished his career.

Michael Owen, whose first football trophy, at nine years old, was handed over by Speed, talked of waving to him last week at the gates of the school their children attend.

The abiding theme was an insurmountable inability to reconcile the healthy, humorous and high-flying Gary Speed they knew with the tragic figure in the news who was found hanged at his family home.

"You read about this type of thing in the paper but you never imagine it's going to happen to a friend," Shearer said.

In his halting voice you could pick up the confusion and sense the pain that will stalk him as he tries to understand why a mate would walk into oblivion without a word, without asking for help.

The first sign came early on Sunday when Shearer looked at his phone.

"I had a few missed calls, which I thought was strange," he said. "It was a mutual friend, and when he told me I said -- 'stop messing around'.

"Don't joke about things like this."

He says he spent the rest of the day in a trance, then sought comfort in others in Speed's circle who were equally stunned.

"I was numb. I went and got drunk last night with a few of his friends. It's all I could manage.

"Obviously then you wake up with a hangover and you're back to reality again. I keep thinking of Louise (Speed's wife) and the two boys (Edward, 14 and Thomas, 13), they're the important ones.

"You can't do anything, you can't say anything. You're just at a loss."

Football's camaraderie is built on shared athletic ability, high spirits, the good life. Men are drawn into groups and say goodbye at the end as mere colleagues, close friends or sometimes even enemies. The common image of footballers is of a limited kind of intimacy, built around mutual good fortune, and fun.

It was not this way for Shearer and Speed, or Speed and his other close friends. There was a bond. You could see it in the face of Shay Given as he towelled away his tears in the Aston Villa goal, at Swansea. You could feel it in the compassionate leave extended to Craig Bellamy when Liverpool faced Manchester City.

"There are handful of guys who I would trust my life with and he was one of them," Shearer said.

He managed to put grief aside to talk about his bereavement but you could tell he found it unbearable to be churning it all up again. Words were no use. They brought no refuge.

On the field, the lines were clear: "He was everything the game is about. Hard work and dedication."

But what did the football matter now?

"I just keep coming up with the same question: Why? Why didn't he call me, why didn't he say anything on Saturday, if something was bothering him?" Shearer asked.

There is no guarantee that anyone in Speed's orbit will be able to function properly anytime soon.

Shearer looked at all the tributes and thought: "This is how important he is. The stupid and sad thing is that he can't see what he meant to people." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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