By Steve
Monday 28 Nov 2011 08:16:00
Browse all Simon Gallagher articles

Today’s news that former Newcastle United and Leeds United midfielder and Wales manager Gary Speed was found dead left what I believe will be a lasting emotional scar on the footballing world, as well as having a profound personal effect. Speed was part of the team under Sir Bobby Robson who threatened to bring the good times of Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers back to St James Park, and his willingness to work for every team he played for endeared him enormously to fans.

He was a professional, the kind of player who cliched adages stuck to with genuine sentiment and who still holds the third highest Premiership appearance record behind Ryan Giggs and David James predominantly in a position that required a serious amount of commitment and energy to become anything close to the highest level. That is some going.

At Leeds United Speed announced himself as a promising attacking midfielder, keen to run, with great vision and enthusiasm, playing part of the Championship winning team on the left-hand side of a fantastically talented British midfield alongside Gordon Strachan, Gary McCallister and David Batty. That eight year stint saw a phenomenal 312 appearances for the West Yorkshire club in all competitions and a very respectable 57 goals, and subsequently saw Speed move to Everton in a deal worth £3.5m.

On Merseyside, Speed was made captain: a key in Joe Royle’s attempt to rebuild a new Everton who could challenge for honours in the early years of the Premiership, who went on to make 67 appearances for the club, cementing himself as a popular player among fans in his short tenure at the club. February 1998 then saw a move to the North East and Newcastle United for £5.5m, one of the only moves by then manager Kenny Dalglish to be heralded as actual quality.

It was at Newcastle that I was lucky enough to see what Gary Speed could offer to a football team in close proximity: like no other midfielder before him, Speedo could arrive late in the box to meet crosses and set-pieces, chipping in with important goals to take the strain off Alan Shearer upfront. His vision was his strongest asset, which allowed him to continue his association at the top level long after central midfielders generally retire, but surprisingly for a player who seemed never to get injured, he wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line for the cause. In contrast to the grittier player in his position, Speed, alongside Rob Lee never seemed to consider CM to be a position of attrition, preferring to look for intelligent passes rather than to break down play.

He was never classed as a spectacular player while at Newcastle, but his presence was invaluable. As Sir Bobby Robson once said, he was one of the club’s blue-chip players who offered stability and a spine to the team both on and off the pitch. He was a consummate professional, who would help younger players develop on the pitch in an early indication of what he would later offer as a coach – especially most recently with a very young, but very capable Welsh national team.

As Sir Bobby Robson brought in young players to mould a Championship-contending team, like Jermain Jenas and Darren Ambrose, Speed remained as equally important – he offered balance and experience to a very young side, chocked full of more eye-catching talents, and helped the team carry the burden of expectation of making strides towards the upper steps of the Premier League. In his final couple of seasons at Newcastle, he became a lynch-pin for the way the team played, dropping deeper in general play to allow the younger legs to advance in front of him, taking on the responsibilities of a more withdrawn role effortlessly and with such class that his move to Bolton in July 2004 was welcomed with vocal criticism from some quarters of the Newcastle United crowds.


That decision, which Sir Bobby Robson didn’t take lightly – replacing him with a player, in the shape of Nicky Butt who was brought in as a direct response to the perceived need to replace Speed – was shown to be slightly premature given how important Speed would become at Bolton, where he moved for £750k. There, as a veteran addition to the team, Speed offered a wealth of experience, becoming the first player to make 500 first class appearances and helping to keep an unfancied Bolton team in the Premier League before taking over as first-team-coach in 2007.

He returned to playing duties briefly with Bolton before joining Sheffield United initially on loan, before a back injury curtailed his career and forced his retirement after a career that had also seen 87 national caps for Wales. The next few months would see him move onto the other side of touchline, taking on more coaching duties at Sheffield United before ultimately succeeding Kevin Blackwell as manager on a three year contract. Just over four months later, the Welsh playing legend, who sits behind just Neville Southall in the appearance stakes for Wales, would take over as permanent manager of his home nation, leading a fractured team to victory over the Republic of Ireland in his first game.

In just a few short months Speed was credited with transforming the fortunes of the Welsh team, taking them from a record low of 117th in Fifa’s world rankings up to 45th thanks to some strong performances, including one that almost embarrassed an England team full of egos (had Rob Earnshaw had his shooting boots on). He was building a young national team, with a genuine air of optimism for the future, with shining talents like Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, and you have to wonder how that development will now continue.

The world of football has been robbed of a genuine talent, a genuine professional and a genuine gentleman.

While the reason for his death remains unclear, the world can and will only speculate, but further discourse will now surely be demanded on the issue of depression in ex-Pros (even if it turns out not to be a factor) which can hopefully help other sufferers not just in the game come forward and seek some help. If one good can come from this devastating situation, it should be that.

I had the privilege in a former career of meeting Gary Speed briefly while he was at Newcastle, and found him to be unassuming, genuinely likeable man, and the sentiment seems to be echoed throughout the sporting world in the past few hours, with tributes flooding in. He leaves a wife and two sons.

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