It seems crazy that just under four months ago, I was writing about the huge task that was laid at the feet of Gary Speed to turn the fortunes of Welsh football around. Given what has occurred in the last couple of days, it all now seems completely irrelevant. The news of the death of Gary Speed at the age of 42 has shocked us all and the world of football has united in grief as it tries to come to terms with the loss of one of the sport’s true gentlemen.
One of the most admirable and endearing qualities of Gary Speed as a footballer was his professionalism and his likeability. He wasn’t a player blessed with silky skills and, unlike many players in the modern game, was never interested in the lifestyle of a celebrity sportsman. As a youngster at Leeds United, he earned his reputation simply by working hard on the training ground, improving his technique and working on his fitness levels. This level of dedication did not go unnoticed by his manager, Howard Wilkinson, who handed Speed his professional debut at the age of 19. From then, Speed went on to become a vital part of the Leeds squad, helping them to win the League title in 1992.
His hard work and approach to the modern game never changed and every club that he went on to play for benefited from his workman-like performances. At Everton, he was named player of the year during his first season at the club. He helped Newcastle United reach two successive FA Cup finals and whilst there, enjoyed his only experience of Champions League football. In 2007 he helped guide Bolton Wanderers to European football for only the second time in their history. For his country, he played 85 times, making him the most capped outfield Welsh player of all time.
Another notable quality of Gary Speed was his versatility. Although most renowned as a central midfielder, he could also play left midfield and left-back. Throughout his career at Leeds United, he ended up playing in nine out of ten outfield positions. He possessed fantastic tactical awareness and was the creator and scorer of goals. Not only was he quick with his feet, he was also extremely powerful in the air.
He had a fitness level that most modern players could only dream of. His inspirational approach to diet and fitness meant that he played the majority of his career without picking up any significant injuries. This level of fitness helped him to become the first player to reach 500 Premiership appearances. Only Ryan Giggs and David James have played more Premiership matches than Speed.
Whilst his managerial career was still in its infancy, he had all the attributes to become very successful manager. Even though his time as Wales’ manager was tragically cut short, he still helped them to wins against Montenegro, Switzerland and Bulgaria and most recently, a 4-1 win over Norway just 16 days ago. During his tenure, Wales climbed from 117th to 45th in the FIFA world rankings.
He was simply a hard-working, inspirational figure, who adopted a no-nonsense approach to the game and, because of this, was hugely respected by those who worked with and for him.
As for the likeability factor, you only need to ask the people who worked with him and the tributes that they have given in light of his death to find out what he was like:
“Gary was a magnificent person, bright, fun and a wonderful family man – he lit up every room he walked into. I am proud to have been his friend” – Alan Shearer
“Gary Speed was one of the nicest men in football and someone I am honoured to call a team-mate and friend” – Ryan Giggs
“He was a privilege to work alongside and call a friend.” – Mark Hughes
“Today the world has lost a great football manager but even more sadly a great man.” – Aaron Ramsey
“I knew Gary Speed as a fantastic footballer but more important than that he was a decent man and there will be a lot of people very saddened by what has happened.” – Kenny Dalglish
Speed’s death has left a massive hole in Welsh football. One can only hope that his successor can build on the solid foundation that he has created and the players are inspired by how Speed devoted himself to the beautiful game. Qualifying for the World Cup in 2014 would undoubtedly be the ultimate tribute.
For the many who knew him and for the millions that watched and admired him, it will be impossible to fathom the circumstances surrounding Gary Speed’s death. For the majority of us, it will remain a mystery as to why this seemingly trouble-free and happy person, with an exciting managerial future ahead of him, would take the ultimate sacrifice. But for now, let’s remember him for who he was: a gentleman, a family man, a professional, a hard worker and one of the great ambassadors of the modern game.