When looking back on Gary Speed’s extensive and distinguished career four traits particularly stand out.
There was his longevity of course; playing into his forties and bookending a remarkable innings that began with a debut aged 19 for Leeds United. Fortunate enough to avoid serious injuries Speed made 535 Premier League appearances and 840 all told, and like Gareth Barry, and arguably Ryan Giggs too, here was a star whose omnipresence and endurance nearly came to equal all the excellence contained within.
There was also a high and sustained level of professionalism throughout, or at least for the most part. Ensconced in Yorkshire as a teenager, away from family and friends, the midfielder could often be found in fast food outlets when he wasn’t idling away hours in front of the telly and it took the tutelage of Billy Bremner and Gordon Strachan – two flame-haired Scots it would be unwise to ignore – to instill in him the right habits. By the time the Welsh star was a senior pro he practiced yoga daily and kept to a strict diet, embracing every facet of sports science when others in the game still doubted its benefits.
At 41, he ran the London Marathon in a time an ultra-fit fella half his age would have been delighted with.
He was consistent too; that was another marker of the man. Should you ever see a four or five next to his name in a match report it leaped out of the page like a bad typo. Such was Speed’s work ethic and competitive spirit that even when his timing was a little off, he was always, unfailingly effective and when the lowest bar means your still impactful, and the highest bar sees you voted into the Premier League Team of the Year in 1993, that leaves a lot of scope to be brilliant most weeks and sometimes great.
Lastly, the player was synonymous with versatility. Coming through the ranks at Leeds and in his opening seasons Speed was used in nine different positions and if that suggests a club is unsure about an emerging talent, with Speed the motivation was entirely different. The Yorkshire giants were aware they had a rare gift bestowed upon them; a gift they were determined to take full advantage of.
There was unquestionably a good deal more to Speed’s make-up than the characteristics name-checked above. If not he wouldn’t now reside in the same company of Zola, Cantona and Giggs in epitomizing a whole decade when English football exploded into a highly excitable celebration of superstardom, glamour and hype.
He had a sublime left peg. His reading of the game around him was razor-sharp and intuitive. His ability to drift into the box unchecked was unparalleled, ultimately leading to 80 Premier League goals.
Yet if those four traits are acknowledged to be Gary Speed’s biggest strengths what follows is a strange dichotomy. For longevity; consistency, versatility and being a model pro: these are virtues routinely given out when it’s not possible to honestly say that a player is truly accomplished. They are back-handed compliments in that regard. But Speed was truly accomplished.
Elsewhere they are held up as the reasons for a player’s usefulness. A utility player by and large. But Speed was infinitely more than that. He was integral; a mainstay. He was a star.
For every club he played for – Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United – he was loved by the fans and for each too he was greatly admired by rival supporters, even those plonked on his club’s doorstep. He was a favourite of dads everywhere and a favourite of kids, though they only realized why as they got older. He was a player who opponents relished coming up against because he tested their best attributes in a fair and hard fight.
When looking back on Gary Speed’s extensive and distinguished career it is not only those quartet of qualities that come to the fore. Two different eras also make themselves known.
The Leeds midfield that won the league in 1992 was a perfectly balanced force in every conceivable way. From Batty’s grit to McAllister’s guile; from the wily old head of Strachan to Speed’s youthful energy, it was an exercise in physics as much as it was a footballing foursome. Each contrasted the other but in doing so made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It was a fascinating and formidable creation that had Speed at the centre; a genuine class act.
Fast forward to December 2010 and Speed is appointed the new Wales boss. He had the gumption to rip up the stale, institutionalized notion of valiant failure that had held Wales back for generations and he set about installing a principled project that would see the Principality zoom up the world rankings and all while playing attractive, passing fare. He forged a national side in his own image and in doing so made a country proud of itself.
He was in charge for just eleven months until that awful day when it was announced that Gary Speed’s body had been discovered in the garage of his home, near Chester, having taken his own life.
I went to the same school as Gary. I recall him wearing a Kappa coat and being surrounded by girls. He was handsome, cool, and yet notably unassuming. He married a girl who lived five down from me. His dad plays bowls with my dad every week.
On that bleak Sunday morning, when the world of football was stunned and numb, trying to make sense of the unthinkable, I was a year deep into a writing career, interning for a sports site. I was asked to put together a tribute and I did so, crying as I went.
Now, with distance passed there is still sadness naturally but it’s possible to see the big picture, and doing so brings back memories of all those who got in touch when the tribute went out: the numerous folk who met Gary in a supermarket or on the street and couldn’t get over how this league winner with such an outstanding footballing C.V. could be so down to earth and normal.
So when looking back on Gary Speed’s distinguished career and life it is that, above all else, that stands out. He was exceptional, but he was also one of us. That’s why he was a favourite of dads as they instinctively knew this. And that’s what kids would grow up to learn and appreciate. It’s a hell of a legacy indeed.