Gary Speed: A football man of principle who engendered huge affection

The death of Gary Speed at 42 united the football world in shock, astonishment and disbelief

One by one they came forward, to the microphone or on the mobile, speaking from their homes or on the way to a game, to talk about Gary Speed. Voices stiffened with shock, with astonishment, with disbelief.

Voices of football men.

Men who had played with him, men who had played for him. Men with nothing but good to say about a player whose career had yielded great honour and engendered enormous affection, disrupted by what seem now, in the light of the reports on Sunday that Speed had killed himself, to be only the most insignificant of disappointments. Men who, like the rest of the football nation, had listened to him on Saturday lunchtime, chatting away on Football Focus with Gary McAllister, his old Leeds United team‑mate, seemingly happy enough with life, work and the world.

The most resonant of all the tributes came from Howard Wilkinson, his former Leeds manager, who had put him in United's first team as a 19-year-old. "He had a life of success to look forward to," Wilkinson told Radio 5 Live, his voice hollowed by grief and incomprehension.

It was not just fellow professionals in the game who emerged to pay their tributes. There was real sorrow in the words of the young women who used social media to testify how, as girls, they had fixed his poster to their bedroom walls. For he was as attractive a footballer, in every sense, as the modern English game has produced, as well as one of the most effective and admirable.

There will be no disputing that Gary Speed was a football man par excellence. A 22-year career in the professional game, with five of England's most historic clubs. Almost 700 appearances – 535 of them in the Premier League – for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers, then Sheffield United in the Championship, at each of which he earned respect and reverence. Eighty‑five caps for Wales, usually toiling against the odds. A league championship winner's medal. Two FA Cup finals. A decision to retire last year, at 40. An MBE for services to football, followed by the manager's job at Sheffield United and then with Wales.

In the old days he would have been called a left-half. In the modern world he was a midfield player able to cover a variety of functions, with a particular gift for turning up, like a Welsh Martin Peters, in space and unannounced to finish a move with a decisive shot or a header that seemed almost excessively powerful for one of his slender build.

Perhaps that Leeds midfield of 1991‑92, the all-British one – two Scots, an Englishman and a Welshman – that powered the team that won the First Division championship in the last year before the Premier League, is the unit with which he will be most vividly identified: the tricky wing play of Gordon Strachan, the football radar of McAllister, the brusque ball‑winning of David Batty and the all‑round dynamism of the young Speed, for whom the league title came at the age of 22. They were reunited last week at a 20th anniversary dinner.

Any speculation on the cause of Speed's death on Sunday morning seemed intrusive. Acquaintances spoke of his wife, Louise, and their two young sons. Michael Owen, a near neighbour and a former Merseyside rival, tweeted: "We waved at each other the other day dropping our kids off at school." Here, it seemed, was proof absolute that anyone's public face, no matter how famous or how obscure, is merely the tip of their real life. The rest of the iceberg remains unknown to the outside world.

The unspoken thought was this: it can't have been about football. Speed's entire record formed a testament to his natural aptitude for the game on the one hand and to his professionalism on the other, the latter evidenced in a dedication that made him, at one time, the first player to have scored goals in every season since the formation of the Premier League, and the holder of the record for the number of appearances in the competition (both marks later surpassed, both by Ryan Giggs and the latter by David James). His career as a manager held out the entirely reasonable hope of similar distinction.

When he accepted the Welsh FA's offer to take over from John Toshack last year, urged on by his compatriots Mark Hughes and Robbie Savage, the team were in a terrible state. In the course of 10 months he lifted them from their lowest Fifa ranking of 117th back into the top 50, with wins in four of their last five matches.

Their most recent success, earlier this month, was a resoundingly confident 4-1 defeat of Norway in Cardiff, the opening goals coming from Gareth Bale and Craig Bellamy, players who seemed to symbolise Speed's success in blending the promise of youth with the best of the experienced players available to him. Building on a core of young players who had worked together in Brian Flynn's excellent Under-21 sides, he had laid the foundation for a future in which a team steered by Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey – whom he made captain at 20 – could look forward to the coming 2014 World Cup qualifying games with a more justified optimism than any Wales team had dared to adopt for decades.

He was also that rare thing in modern sport, a man of principle. He left one of his clubs after having been required to give a half-time talk, as captain, in place of his manager, whom drink had rendered temporarily incapable of speech. The fans of the club in question were mystified by his departure, but he had signed a confidentiality agreement and never spoke of the incident.

He was a boyhood Everton fan and on Sunday, a mile away from the ground at which he had been revered, Anfield joined in the remembrance. It was there that he scored perhaps the most memorable of his goals: a late equaliser, headed in beneath the eyes of the Kop. On Sunday they, like the rest of football, bowed their heads in silent sadness.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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