At the City Ground this evening, Leeds United will play their first match since one of their modern-day legends passed away. At the 11th minute of tonight’s match versus Nottingham Forest, the crowd will chant the player’s name for 11 minutes, to honour their number 11, Gary Speed. It will be a poignant moment, and truly confirm to many that the unbelivable has happened, that such a charming, positive man has passed.
Speed had an illustrious career as a professional footballer in the 90’s and 00’s, playing for Leeds, winning the old Division One at the tender age of 22. It remains the club’s last major trophy. After 8 years at Elland Road, Speed moved onto his ‘boyhood’ team Everton, spending a couple of years at Goodison, that ended due to his sour terms with then manager Howard Kendall. Newcastle United beckoned. This was the time that I was made aware of Speed’s presence within the game, especially during the time when the late Sir Bobby Robson was in charge on Tyneside. He was never one of those outstanding players who had to show off skills or get sent off, he was always there in the midfield engine room, controlling games like a ventriloquist. He then moved onto Bolton, where he reached 500 appearances in the Premier League. He moved onto final club Sheffield United in the Championship, before finally retiring in October 2009 as a player, but staying on for a year as a coach. Throughout his career, he was an integral part of the Welsh national side, playing for 14 years, 1990-2004, making 85 appearances and scoring 7 goals.
After Speed’s retirement at Sheffield United, he stayed on at the club in a coaching role until he was awarded the manager’s job in August 2010. It wasn’t the most successful spell of his career, and rumours were abound that he was close to be sacked, before he left Bramall Lane to take on the big job: Wales boss. December last year, saw Speed take over the job from the departing John Toshack, and in less than a year, he took them to their lowest ranking ever and their highest for a number of years. It took Speed a number of games to inbed his own style of play and tactical nous into his side, but after dropping to 117th in the FIFA rankings in August 2011, he galvanised his squad. They won the next 4 out of 5 games, the loss being a closely fought defeat at Wembley, rising to 47th, and with the likes of Gareth Bale and a reviatlised Craig Bellamy, were lookign better than ever. There was even talk of qualification for their first World Cup in 50 and more years, with Brazil 2014, not looking as much of a dream as previously thought.
Tragically, Gary Speed’s death may have robbed him of his career’s highlight, leading his team out at a major tournament. His passing on Sunday morning has been well documented already, with a number of ex-pro’s, close friends and journalists all expressing their utmost sorrows and disbelief at the suicide of the man. Based on all their contributions one derives a few points from them:
1) He was a well-loved, kind-heartened man.
2) He left behind a wonderful family.
3) He showed no signs of any illness or never expressed any wishes of ending his life, as he so sadly did.
What is even more incredible is his television appearance on the BBC’s ‘Football Focus’ on Saturday, in which he appeared normal and enjoyed laughs with host Dan Walker, who less than 24 hours later was being interviewed on the radio about his guest’s death. It’s a sad time for football, to see one of the most reliable players ever, and a bright, young manager exit his life at the age of 42, never mind the family he leaves behind. But the saddest clip I’ve heard or seen comes from Sky Sports News’ Welsh reporter Bryn Law. He’s at Elland Road, Speed’s first club and describes his feelings regarding his close friend’s death. It’s heartbreaking.