Gary Speed enjoyed a highly distinguished footballing career. Making his debut in 1988, he went on to make over 200 appearances for Leeds United. A relatively brief spell at Everton followed, before he became a cult hero at Newcastle United, being one of the major players during the success they enjoyed in the early 2000’s. While playing for Bolton, Speed became the first player in Premier League history to make over 500 appearances, before ending his playing days at Sheffield United.
Loath to leave the footballing world, Speed became manager of the Sheffield club. Unfortunately, it was a generally unsuccessful stint in charge, and when his national team came calling the proud Welshman opted to manage his country. At 85 appearances, Speed remains the second highest capped Welsh player, behind only Neville Southall. After an inauspicious start, in which Wales sank to their lowest ever FIFA World Ranking, the team started showing definite improvements. A strong performance against England was followed by wins over Montenegro and Switzerland, while Speed’s last game in charge was a 4-1 win over Norway.
Tragically, the news came through on Sunday morning that Gary Speed died, reports suggesting that he had committed suicide by hanging. The football world was thrown into shock and a deep mourning. Anecdotal evidence flooded in that Speed had generally seemed himself in the run up to his death. The Welsh manager had completed an interview with the BBC’s Football Focus on Saturday, presenter Dan Walker commented that: “He was on great form, cracking jokes and asking about my family and kids. He was talking passionately about the future. There was absolutely no indication at all.” A tearful Robbie Savage appeared on BBC News, expressing his utter disbelief and recounting stories about Speed visiting the Strictly Come Dancing studios.
The Premier League considered calling off the day’s fixtures, but eventually decided resuming play was what Speed would have wanted. Liverpool were taking on Man City while Swansea hosted Aston Villa. A poignant atmosphere pervaded the latter match, the predominantly Welsh crowd breaking into spontaneous applause during the minute’s silence. Former Newcastle team mate Shay Given struggled to control his emotions, still wiping away the tears as he prepared to line up in goal for Villa. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish relieved striker Craig Bellamy of his duties, asserting that he thought the Welsh international was in the wrong frame of mind to play.
The nature of Gary Speed’s death has left many questions unanswered, but he will be remembered as a true Premier League legend. A versatile player who could shine in midfield, but also in defence, Speed was noted for his exceptional heading ability, fitness and tactical awareness. His tragic passing has left behind two young children and a wife, and he was by all accounts devoted to his family. Alan Shearer led the heartfelt tributes to the Newcastle hero: “Gary was a magnificent person, bright, fun and a wonderful family man – he lit up every room he walked into. I am proud to have been his friend and will miss him dreadfully.”
With a steadily increasing managerial reputation, and a golden playing career to look back on, it appeared Gary Speed had the world at his feet. Only he will know the true reasons for his suicide, but for now the country mourns the epitome of a thoroughly professional and popular footballer. RIP.