Wednesday, November 30, 2011

God Speed

Like most people who enjoy football, I was shocked to hear about the death of Gary Speed. Aged just 42, he enjoyed a successful playing career and settled into management exceedingly well as he knocked Wales into shape. He was found hanged at home on Sunday morning and while Cheshire Police say there is no suspicious circumstances, an inquest will be held into his death. Whatever the coroner finds, Speed’s death is an enormous tragedy that must be devastating and inexplicable for his wife and two teenage boys. Friends of the family say his marriage was happy and Speed was not depressed.

Just a day before he died, Speed exhibited no sign of problems when he appeared as a guest on the BBC’s Football Focus. Speed was in a “gaggle of Garys” with fellow former Leeds United player Gary McAllister. Both men won the old (and last ever) First Division with Leeds in 1992. It was the only time either would win the championship. Leeds slowly fell from grace and both Garys would move on to many other clubs. Speed started his professional football career at Leeds in 1988, aged 18. But as he said in Football Focus “If I wasn’t playing somewhere I’d had to move and go play somewhere else.” Speed would spend eight years at the club before bowing out with a League Cup final defeat in 1996.

Speed supported Everton as a boy, so they were a natural fit to follow Leeds. Everton boss Joe Royle paid £3.5 million and Speed repaid the debt by scoring 11 goals from midfield to be the club joint leading scorer. But lack of goals was Everton’s problem that year and they finished 15th. Joe Royle resigned at the start of the following season bringing club hero Howard Kendall back. Though Kendall made Speed his caption, the pair did not get on and he played his last game for the club he loved in January 1998. Famously he told a journalist “You know why I’m leaving, but I can’t explain myself publicly because it would damage the good name of Everton Football Club and I’m not prepared to do that.”

Though never a flashy player, he was hard-working, versatile and rarely injured – attributes that made him saleable. Newcastle paid £5.5m for him and he played in successive cup final defeats in 1998 and 1999. By 2004, Speed was 34 years old and a hardened veteran of the game who had broken the record for the most number of premiership games. But he still had much to give. Bolton paid £750,000 to buy him. Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd took the money with mixed feeling saying it was always difficult to let a player like Gary go. “He is one of the best of the best,” Shepherd said. “He is totally professional and he always gave 100%.”

Speed spent another three successful years at Bolton rising to first team coach when Sam Allardyce quit. His 20 year tenure at the top table finally ended when he accepted a move to then Championship side Sheffield United. His love of the game made him a crucial member of that side until a rare injury finally ended his playing career in November 2008. He scored 109 goals in 677 games. Fans called him the "model professional". He continued as a coach for United and was appointed manager just after the start of the 2010-2011 season. He lasted til Christmas when he landed the job of manager of his country.

Speed was a Welshman by quirk. His brothers and sisters were all born in England but his parents had Gary at Mancot, Flintshire, five miles from Chester. Speed played for Flintshire Schoolboys and cemented his Welshness with games for the youth and under 21 teams. He made his national debut in 1990 in a friendly against Costa Roca in front of just 5,000 fans at Ninian Park, Cardiff. Speed was a 76th minute substitute in a 1-0 win. He went on to take the outfield record with 85 caps scoring 7 goals. Wales never played in the finals of a major tournament in that time.

It was that poor record (just the one famous World Cup appearance in 1958) that Speed set about addressing when he was made manager in December last year. After a rocky start with defeats to Ireland and England, he slowly began to turn things round with four wins in the last five outings (narrowly losing again to England at Wembley). With Speed promoting promising young players, expectations were high when the 2014 world cup fixture list was announced last Wednesday. "This is such a well-balanced group that we knew everyone would be looking for an early advantage," Speed said on the day. "As always, there had to be some give and take, but I am very glad that we did not have to use the June qualifying dates”.

Four days later Speed was inexplicably dead sending the football world into mourning. Even the usually ultra cynical Guardian “Fiver” was shocked. His death was up there with any 'stop all the clocks' news they had ever heard, Glendenning and Ronay said. “On Saturday, we watched the Wales manager joshing along with his old mucker Gary McAllister on the Football Focus sofa,” the Fiver said. “24 hours later we were among hundreds of thousands of football fans numbed with total disbelief by the astonishing revelation that he was dead". Gary Speed was as the Fiver said, a great man gone at a preposterously young age, leaving behind a wife, Louise, and two sons, Tommy and Ed.

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