The Tragic Loss of Gary Speed

There is so little that can be said, or written, to explain the news that popped up on my television screen on Sunday morning. In a desensitized world, little seems to shock me any more, but the death of Gary Speed was one of those rare times. As the Guardian commented, it was one of those “stop all the clocks” moments.

When someone dies, there is the need to highlight the good points of that person, to pick out their achievements, to paper over the cracks. There was no problem doing this with Speed, because we were dealing with a man that no one, absolutely no one, had a bad word about. I know nothing of him personally apart from what I saw on a television screen, but the consensus from those who did know him was clear: we are dealing with a man who went out his way to help others, was a true gentleman, and was a giant of the Premiership era. With a wife, two young sons, a successful career bringing Welsh football out of the doldrums, and Hollywood looks to boot, he appeared to us to have it all – but we were wrong.

I haven’t witnessed such an outpouring of grief and shock from the death of a football man, of any man, in recent years. This spread beyond Welsh football fans and fans of the clubs he wore the shirt of, though their grief will be harder to cope with.

Swansea and Aston Villa made the difficult decision to play their game just hours after the terrible news broke, Shay Given was in tears, as were many others, a minute’s silence breaking out into spontaneous support. Craig Bellamy was withdrawn from the Liverpool squad for their match against Manchester City by manager Kenny Dalglish, Bellamy known to be in awe of the Wales manager who had done so much for his career. Howard Wilkinson too was on the phone, struggling to put his grief into words. There was an impeccable minute’s silence too at Anfield, not only for Speed, but for the tragic loss of Brad Jones’ son, taken by leukaemia at the tender age of five. And as I watched on in my local, the pub fell virtually silent – that spoke more of Speed’s legacy than any words I can offer.

But let’s remember the man. He gained 85 caps for Wales – only Neville Southall had more. He made 677 senior appearances for Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United during a 22-year career, most notably part of that championship winning Leeds side – the only trophy he would pick up. He was a tenacious midfielder, not merely a jack of all trades, but a master of many. Howard Wilkinson spoke of his versatility, commenting that he had played him in virtually every position bar in goal – he would never let his team down, a consummate professional performing to a high standard long after most would have called it a day. Good players don’t always make good managers, but Speed was turning around the Welsh national side. There was an optimism not felt for many years as he nurtured a new wave of youngsters towards some impressive recent results. There was a real feeling that qualification for future World Cup and Euro finals was now a realistic target. And thus it is incomprehensible that the man sat in the Football Focus studio laughing and joking and reminiscing was twenty-fours later no longer with us.

The obvious comment is that it puts everything into perspective – it shames us to have our petty squabbles about whether it was worthy of a yellow card, how bad the referee was, or how much Suarez dives. But whilst the sentiment is true, these minutiae of the sport are an essential part of what makes it the most popular game in the world.

There is no evidence to suggest that Speed took his life because of any link to depression, but I still feel the need to mention it in the week that Stan Collymore laid bare the ravages of the illness. John Gregory once commented that Collymore had nothing to be depressed about, a perfect example of the ignorance of what depression is and how it affects these unfortunate enough to succumb to its destructive path. Collymore went overnight from 8 hours sleep each day to eighteen. He spoke of being fit and healthy one day, mind, body and soul withering and dying the next – he once spent a month in bed.

Much has been done off the pitch to support those who choose football as a profession, and much more needs to be done. Depression does not pick out the poor, the unemployed, the ill. It can pick out anyone. We all have a preconception of footballers having it easy, and many do, relatively speaking. But that is a different argument to that of depression – money cannot keep the demons away. And the support must remain after the playing career ends, as this can be a terrible time for a player who knows nothing else.

Football is a world of machismo and testosterone where you can’t admit to frailties, as it shows weakness. You can’t admit to being gay, you can’t admit to being depressed, you can’t admit to being anything other then perfect. Of course you can really, but it is made very, very hard, and it is no wonder many hide their feelings, their sexuality, and more. This has to change. If anything good can come out of tragedies like this, then the sport must shed this image and catch up with other sports, with other walks of life. Robert Enke was a master at keeping his feelings hidden. The book A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng is a moving and harrowing account of the German goalkeeper’s constant battle against depression. The support structure needs to be there in football to help people like him, like Collymore, like Justin Fashanu.

People often use such terrible occurrences to show their displeasure at other footballers. Graham Poll disgustingly used Speed as a stick with which to beat Mario Balotelli on Talksport, stupidly sinking to even criticising his hairstyle. Similar ire has been directed towards Carlos Tevez, seemingly the antithesis of Speed, representing everything that Speed would have found deplorable. But we must be careful. I, like most City fans, have expressed my disgust at the antics of our rogue Argentinean striker, but who are we to know what goes on in his private life? Who are we to criticise the club’s handling of the whole affair towards a man we know to have family issues? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge after all. Refusing to walk onto a football pitch was portrayed by me and many more as the ultimate betrayal – perhaps sometimes we football fans need a tad more perspective.

The fact is that we don’t know why Speed took his life, and we have no right to know. But sadly the newspapers will dig until they find out, and inflict more pain on a family who have already suffered way beyond what I can comprehend. Already they are pulling apart his final hours, desperate for answers. The family bear the brunt, hence their call for privacy. Our thoughts should be with them, and I hope they can one day move on. No parent wants to bury their child. No child wants to grow up without his or her parents. I hope that Speed’s family can take at least some comfort from the tributes pouring in from around the world.

Rest in peace Gary.

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