The words of condolence, remembrance and respect poured in over the weekend, one that should have been notable for its drama and action on the field yet will instead be forever etched as the time soccer lost one of its genuine good guys.
The tributes to Gary Speed came from former teammates and rivals alike, coaches, administrators and those in the media, all from people whose lives were touched in some way by a man who embodied an older, and in some ways better, era.
Speed, the manager of the Wales national team, was one of the English Premier League’s stalwarts, becoming the first player to rack up 500 EPL appearances in a career that included stints with Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton.
He is believed to have committed suicide after being found hanging at his home in the North West of England on Sunday. He was 42. The British soccer community was left in a state of shock, exacerbated by the fact that this came with no prior hint that Speed harbored any personal demons. An inquest will begin Tuesday.
It was with Leeds that he secured his only piece of silverware, the 1992 League Championship, in the final season before an influx of television money spawned the formation of the EPL.
Yet Speed’s contribution to the game cannot be measured by statistics or silverware. A humble and grounded man, he had little time for the “bling” culture that has infiltrated the modern game. While his off-field approach was very much of the new era – he was one of the first players to fully embrace nutritional developments and the importance of rehydration – his mindset was old school, and refreshingly so.
He was a champion for causes he believed in, which included both charitable works and fighting for improved rights for his fellow players. It was in 2004 and toward the end of his time as Wales captain that I came to know him personally.
Speed engaged in heated discussions with the Welsh FA over the paltry allowance given to national team players, often leaving them out of pocket on international trips. Through sources close to Speed (he had promised the authorities he would not reveal details of their discussions and he kept his word) I reported in the Daily Mirror newspaper an account of the ongoing dispute.
The story took no sides, merely gave a description of the talks, but Speed made a point of seeking me out at the team hotel and congratulating me on the exclusive and its accuracy.
[Related: Speed's family is "overwhelmed" by support]
Speed spoke with a straightforward tone and betrayed little emotion, yet there was a fierce competitor’s heart beating beneath that soccer shirt. He was devastated to lose twice in FA Cup finals with Newcastle, to Arsenal and Manchester United, but shed tears of joy on a remarkable night for Wales in October 2002.
In the second game of qualifying for Euro 2004 Speed captained Wales to an incredible victory over a star-studded Italy team at the Millennium Stadium. With the Welsh squad packed with midfield talent, Speed volunteered his services in defense, standing in as a makeshift left-back.
His defensive partners were Mark Delaney and Andy Melville (unable to make the first team at their respective EPL clubs) and youngster Danny Gabbidon, then playing in the third-tier of the English league system, yet they combined to keep world-class strikers Alessandro Del Piero and Vincenzo Montella quiet and help Wales to a memorable 2-1 victory.
Always a thinking player, Speed’s transition into management was inevitable. He got his chance first with Sheffield United, before Wales came calling once John Toshack departed in September 2010. With several senior players having retired and limited depth coming through, Wales’ fortunes had dipped considerably.
But with four victories in the last five games and an overall record of 5-5-0 things began to pick up under Speed and Wales’ ranking had leapt from an all-time low of 117 into the top 50.
The future for Wales looked bright, as did that of its manager. In his early 40s, it was widely considered that he had decades of service to the game left, service which had already been recognized by his being made a Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II last year.
Tragically, that future is no more as a soccer journey, a career, and a life came to an end on Sunday. Gary Speed is gone, and soccer feels its loss.
- Gary Speed