Editor’s Note: We weren’t going to post a tribute to Gary Speed today. What could we say that hasn’t already been said? This morning we were contacted by our resident Championship blogger James Riches, a proud Welshman who wanted to voice his own feelings. We chose to run James’ piece for no other reason than it is a touching personal tribute to a Welsh football legend. RIP Gary Speed, you will be sorely missed.
There have been many times during my years watching Wales that I have thought it couldn’t get any worse than this. Yesterday proved in devastating fashion that I was a fool to think such things.
As I sat on the sofa, nursing a hangover and waiting for kick off at the Liberty Stadium, I heard my girlfriend getting out of bed with an urgency not usually associated with a Sunday morning. When she came in and told me the news that Gary Speed had died I, like everyone else, did not want to believe it.
Sat in front of BBC News, I was frozen in my chair as the full horror of the situation was revealed. There had been no accident or attack. Our national team manager had hanged himself. It was beyond comprehension.
Like many others, I had watched him on Football Focus just hours earlier talking knowledgably about the game, with absolutely no hint of what was to come. This is a feeling backed up by host Dan Walker, a man who would know having spent a large portion of Saturday with Speed. His subsequent blog conveys the confusion felt by pretty much everyone across the football world.
Former team mates and managers such as Robbie Savage, John Hartson, Bobby Gould, Mark Hughes, Howard Wilkinson, Steven Taylor, Hugo Viana and Kenny Dalglish are among a seemingly endless list of fellow pros queuing up to offer tributes, which is testament enough to how he was regarded in the game.
Speed was captain of Wales for the majority of my childhood, and while my young mind immediately gravitated towards Ryan Giggs in search of an idol, it was clear that Speed was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming team, particularly under Gould.
By the time Mother Riches had decreed I was old enough to go to games myself, Speed was often pushed out to left back by Mark Hughes, a role he carried out expertly and without fuss. However, watching the highlights reels that have been on an almost constant rotation since the news, it is clear that I perhaps missed seeing him in the midfield role he was best at.
Most are aware that he was the most capped outfield player in Welsh football history, only beaten to the overall crown by Neville Southall, undoubtedly a fine keeper but not exactly glancing over his shoulder at the competition.
As international football moved into an era where the slightest niggle would result in a phone call from the club doctor as the player slunk back to his house for a rest, Speed was always there. When an away trip to an unglamorous location came round, there was no question of Speed not being on the plane.
And this, remember, was in a team that frequently suffered disappointing results and only twice threatened to qualify for anything during his 14-year international career. Indeed, he stated that he wished he had stepped up to take that penalty against Romania at Cardiff Arms Park in 1993, a kick that would have seen us qualify for USA ’94, ultimately missed by Paul Bodin.
In all respects, he was what every player should aspire to be, the yardstick against which all other international players should be measured.
I freely admit I had reservations when he was appointed manager. Recent history has proven I was spectacularly wrong, but given his relatively undistinguished stint at Sheffield United, I was concerned. However, the strides taken under Speed, some of which have been covered by me on this site, had put Welsh fans in the curious and unfamiliar position of being confident going into a qualifying campaign.
The inquest into his death will be held this week, but in all likelihood it will reveal little that we don’t already know. We may also never know why Speed was driven to do what he did. None of the suggestions or rumours flooding the internet are very palatable.
Yesterday was a day when football was nothing, and like everyone else, I can only say that I cannot comprehend what his wife and children must be thinking. For Welsh fans everywhere, this is our darkest hour.
There is no way of speculating what effect this loss will have on Welsh football. If what we have seen recently is anything to go by, we will need a manager with pretty much the same ideas and footballing philosophy. It’s an impossible task. There was only one Gary Speed.
James is Headers & Volleys’ resident Championship writer and an extremely proud Welshman. We in turn are proud to work with James, especially when he presents us with articles as warm as this, on such a tough subject.