Callum Davies

As fickle as the footballing world can be, where people come and go with the blink of an eye, supporters and players around the globe, from the world stage down to the very grassroots, are mourning the passing of one of the truly ‘nice guys’ of the game, Wales national team manager Gary Speed, aged 42.

Ex-team-mates, professionals and fans alike were left astounded and incredulous at the devastating news which broke at noon on Sunday, and some were left so shell-shocked and stricken with grief that they were unable to speak when interviewed on national television and radio.

Speed’s body was found in the early hours of Sunday morning by Cheshire Police at his home in Huntingdon; he appeared to have taken his own life.

Despite the news, games went ahead on Sunday afternoon. However, it can certainly be said that football took a backseat, nowhere more so than at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea, where some of Speed’s proteges for the national side took to the pitch less than two hours after the announcement. Even Aston Villa goalkeeper Shay Given, who played alongside Speed at Newcastle, had to fight back the tears prior to the start of the match.

Many questioned whether the game should have gone ahead, and although the match was obviously overshadowed, a planned one minute’s silence developed into appreciative applause and chants of “there’s only one Gary Speed”.

The discovery was even more tragic given the way in which he had taken charge of a previously underachieving Welsh side in December 2010 and helped them back into the top 50 of the FIFA World Rankings after being ranked 117th in August.

Without question, Speed had begun to build a side well on the way to fulfilling their potential, having won four of their last five games, including a dominant 4-1 victory over Norway just two weeks prior. The young prospects were beginning to deliver, and this had left fans wondering whether Wales could finally build momentum heading into the World Cup qualifiers which start in October next year. Speed himself appeared to be made for the job.

What remains for these young players to do now, the likes of Gareth Bale, Ashley Williams and national captain Aaron Ramsey, is to come to terms with the man who, as Bale himself put it “changed the whole mentality of the team.” Ramsey went on to add: “Today the world has lost a great football manager but even more sadly a great man.” These players now face arguably the most difficult period of their playing careers. 

Tributes flooded in from all corners. Ryan Giggs, who played alongside Speed for much of his playing career called the Welshman “one of the nicest men in football” and was “honoured to call him a team-mate and a friend.” Alan Shearer, Speed’s team-mate at Newcastle also stated that he was “a magnificent person, bright, fun and a wonderful family man – he lit up every room he walked into.” One of the most poignant tributes came from former team-mate and friend Robbie Savage, who was reduced to tears live on-air while proclaiming that Speed was “a personal hero” and that “he had everything…including two gorgeous kids and a beautiful wife.”

In truth, Speed was a very humble man, as a player and as a manager. He began his professional career with Leeds United in 1988 and was an integral part of the side that went on to clinch the First Division title in 1992. Alongside Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and David Batty, his energetic approach to football caught the eye of many. Following on from his time at Elland Road, he enjoyed spells at Newcastle United and Everton, where his famous late equaliser against Liverpool at the Kop end in 1996 was a self-proclaimed dream come true for the boyhood Everton fan.

Speed then moved on to Bolton Wanderers where he became the first player to reach 500 Premier League appearances and then to Sheffield United to finish his career. Once he retired there at the age of 40, after a brief coaching spell, he was offered the chance to take the helm as the manager of the Blades. Although his first managerial experience was a difficult one, winning just six out of eighteen games, his dedication to the national team as a player, where he is his country’s most capped outfield player with 85 appearances, landed him the managerial job as successor to John Toshack late last year.

Another testament to Speed’s character was that the news of his passing sent shockwaves through every club that had ever come into contact with him. It is rare for one man to command such respect from supporters of all ages and of all clubs, but such were the personal qualities of Speed that he is deemed to have been one of the few universally likeable players in the game.

The football world has lost not only one of the most charismatic and honourable players of the last two decades, but an admirable gentleman who was widely perceived as the archetypal model professional, and one that set an example for future generations.