He was one of the games true gentlemen, described as a model pro, but yesterday the footballing world was left stunned by the shock death of Gary Speed. The world of football came together to pay tribute to the 42 year-old Wales manager as fans, friends, players past and present payed their respects to the football legend, and from the tributes that were payed it was clear that Gary Speed was seen as one of the standout players in the era of the Premier League.
Speed had a tremendous career at both club and national level. He appeared 85 times for Wales, remaining the most capped outfield player and also captained his country. At club level Speed played 677 games for numerous clubs including, most notably Leeds United and Newcastle United. Speed also had stints at Bolton, Everton and Sheffield United, where at all of these clubs he was the model professional and the first name on the team sheet without fail.
Speeds career began as a trainee at Leeds United, signing a professional contract in 1988. At the tender age of 19 Gary Speed made his first team debut and 4 years later in 1992 Speed was a regular in the Divison one winning side, playing a key role in Leeds' midfield, which comprised of more experienced players; Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan and David Batty. At just 19, making his debut it was clear that Speed had something special. Playing alongside the more experienced players was a great honour for Speedo, but nothing he couldnt handle. Speed was key in the title winning season for Leeds and his versatitlity was something to behold. He had a thunderous tackle and a tremendous left foot, his right wasnt bad either, but the main thing I recall about him was his aerial power. His awareness and creativity also helped Leeds to reach a league cup final, which unfortunately ended in defeat to Aston Villa. Yesterday it was key how influential Speed had been at Leeds with fans quick to pay tribute to him by laying flowers and shirts at the Billy Bremner statue outside of Elland Road. Speeds 248 games for Leeds, along with his 39 goals helped him to lift the second divions, first divison and charity shield titles, kicking off his honours list which was to be finished by the greatest honour a Welshman could wish for.
In 1996 Everton paid £3.5million for Speed, puttind him straight into the team for his debut against Newcastle, in which he scored. Howard Kendall immediately made Speed captain for the 1997/98 season. Speeds stint at Everton only lasted for that season and he left in controversial circumstances, still unbeknown to the footballing world. Speed once again impressed in his short career on Merseyside playing 58 games and scoring 15 goals.
The controversy which clouded over his Everton career was soon forgotten when he signed for Newcastle in a £5.5million deal. It was during his time at Newcastle when he became one of the most underrated stars of the Premier League game, and also where my earliest memories of him lie. The first time I watched Speed play was in the Bobby Robson era at St. James Park. Speed, although ever ageing, he was a vital member of the Newcastle team, scoring 29 goals in 213 games, the most notable, that thunderous volley vs Bradford City. Bobby Robson was full of praise for Speed, and had hero Alan Shearer not been at Newcastle, its unquestionable Gary would have been captain. During his spell at Newcastle he reached two FA Cup finals and an Intertoto Cup final. He also reached and played in the Uefa Champions League during the 2002/03 season. Reaching the end of his Newcastle career in 2004, Bobby Robson said he was sorry to see him leave as Speed went on to join Bolton Wanderers.
Bolton paid £750,000 for Speed, signing him on a 2 year deal and it was durin g his time at Bolton that he reached the 500 league appearances mark after playing in Boltons 4-0 win against West Ham in 2006. Speeds goal in 2007, during a game vs Reading made him the only player to have scored in every Premier League season, however this was overtook by Manchester Uniteds Welshman, Ryan Giggs, who until this season remains the only player to have done so. Speed took a coaching role at Bolton when Sam Allardyce left in 2007, but when Sammy Lee took charge of the club, Speed stepped down as a coach but continued to play a footballing role. In 2008 Speed left Bolton on loan and joined newly promoted Sheffield United, the move then became permanent and he took up a player/coach role at Bramall Lane, before eventually taking the managers job when Kevin Blackwell was relieved of his duties.
During his managerial career at Shefiield United Speeds country had lost manager John Toshack, and it was Speed the Welsh FA turned to, in a bid to help change Wales' fortunes, which he did fantastically well. In december 2010 Speed officially took charge of the national side and his first game came 2 months later in the Nation's Cup vs Republic of Ireland. Ireland won 3-0 and Wales slumped to 117th in FIFA's world rankings, but during Speeds revolution Wales had rose to 45th, and were close to qualifying for Euro 2012. Speed's last game as the manager of Wales was a 4-1 win vs Norway just 3 weeks prior to this tragic day. It was no question Speed had ability as a manager, but sadly we will never know how good of a manager he could have been. Speed had turned Wales around, blending youth with experience, getting players such as Craig Bellamy playing again, and playing well. He named Aaron Ramsey as the Welsh captain, and nutured him along with Gareth Bale and Joe Allen, another promising talent. Speed got Wales playing fluently, playing in a way which the players they have available should have allowed them. The target, Brazil 2014, hopefully Wales will get there, if they carry on playing the way Speed had got them to, im almost certain they will be.
It wasnt just on the pitch Speed had an impact, but off it also. The tributes being paid to him by fellow professionals give fans an idea of how much of a gentleman he was behind the scenes. It has shocked the football world and seeing robust characters such as Robbie Savage and Criag Bellamy, break down and refrain from playing respectively, show just exactly what a tragedy this really is. Millions of people tuned in to watch Football Focus on Saturday afternoon, on which Gary was a guest, hours later he was dead. There seemed to be no sign of any problems. His death came as total and utter disbelief, and has left everyone numb with sadness. Former players and team mates of Gary had been tweeting throughout the day after hearing about the tragedy.
"Its absolutely devastating. Everyone who knew him couldnt say enough good things about him" - Gary Neville
"The world has lost a great football manager but even more a sadly great man" - Aaron Ramsey
"He lived his life the way he played football. Without a blemish. Ive never heard anyone say a bad word or make a snide remark about him" - Joe Royle
"Gary was one of the nicest men in football and someone I am honoured to call a team mate and friend. Words cannot begin to describe how sad I feel at hearing this awful news" - Ryan Giggs
"Gary Speed's death has left me totally devastated. A son, a father, a husband. I'll never forget you Speedo. Heartbroken" - John Hartson
"I am proud to have been his friend" - Alan Shearer
"The world has lost a great man in Gary Speed. Im devastated" - Robbie Savage
All the quotes from those above and everyone else in football show what a humbling legend Gary Speed was. As fans you dont really know the personality of a player, you dont know what goes on behind the scenes and unfortunately its taken the death of a legend to make this relevant. Its clear Speed was the true gentlemen of the game. He was hardly ever in bother with referees, he was never clouded by controversy. He was simply himself. Perhaps the true measure of a footballer's worth is the respect in which he was held by his fellow professionals. Gary Speed was held at the highest point.
Yesterday, when football was an irrelevance, the game came together to honour such a good man. Respect has to go to the players who took part in the game between Swansea and Aston Villa at the Liberty Stadium, just hours after the news had broke. Speed's ex Newcastle team mate, Shay Given played the first 15 minutes in floods of tears after breaking down during the minute silence come applause. Given, along with Welsh national stars, James Collins, Joe Allen, Ashley Williams and Neil Taylor played the full 90 minutes, and credit must go to not only them, but anyone involved with the game yesterday.
It was a perfect tribute, to the perfect gentleman.
Gone, but not forgotten.
Rest In Peace.