A very sad day.
I don’t recall my location when news broke that John F Kennedy had been shot. His assassination, with or without conspiracy theory, had occurred eleven years before I was born. I can remember the day John Lennon died very vividly though. I was seven years old and despite my tender age had a strong knowledge of the Beatles work; you just did at that time. This is an example of the sort of freakish power of recall that I possess which means I can still give you are fairly accurate rundown of UK chart positions and team lineups from a number of significant matches of the era, although I’d struggle to tell you what I did yesterday.
At the time, I knew Lennon’s death was significant. Here was a man who had appeared on the news regularly and on the evening of his death I can remember sitting in front of the TV, allowed to stay up late presumably, while the BBC played Imagine in full. Accompanying the song was nothing more than a single image of Lennon, obviously quite recent, in front of some New York landmark, perhaps Times Square. A hard day’s night had just been shown and then the movie version of Help! appeared. Selective memory suggests that it may not have been quite like that, but Lennon’s piercing eyes, from behind those small round glasses seemed to be staring straight at me as the music played. This was significant.
Over the course of the last few hours, and for quite a few days, perhaps weeks to come, you will have read and digested masses of information relating to the tragic death of Wales manager Gary Speed. With IBWM, I’ve always been keen not to follow the news, to avoid the stories that are written elsewhere. If Carlos Tevez hands in a transfer request, I want us to be covering the Bosnian second division. I certainly don’t want to appear snobby, I’ll read the news just as you will, but I’ve always liked to go in a different direction to the mainstream. Avoid the big stories and anything that feels too personal has become a mantra here. It’s not a tactic that will lead anyone to commercial success, but then that’s never how I’ve seen IBWM functioning. Something different and that’s it.
When it comes to Gary Speed though, there’s no way I can just walk on by. This was someone that had a huge bearing on my life and still remains one of my all time favourite footballers.
Although I met Gary on a number of occasions, I certainly didn’t know him personally. However, I was always struck by how impressive a person he was. Outrageously handsome yet modest with it and a dedicated family man, father to two young boys. Someone that always had time for everyone, he would talk, ask how you were and those fabled footballers that don’t walk away until every last autograph is signed? Well, that was Gary.
I first saw Gary Speed play during the 1989-90 season when he was with Leeds United. Leeds had invested heavily in the summer of 1989 and were favourites to gain promotion from the second division. After a sluggish start they quickly gained momentum, seeing off season long challenges from Sheffield United and Newcastle to conclude as champions. I was impressed by the then 20 year old Speed’s tenacity and paired with fellow young gun David Batty, he gave the Leeds midfield a real intensity. Youthful exuberance combined brilliantly with the craft of Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister. That those players were able to form the heartbeat of a first division winning side two years later came as little surprise.
As Leeds ultimately stuttered, so Speed chose to move on, and when the opportunity arose to join his boyhood heroes Everton, the Welshman did not defer.
I watched Gary Speed regularly when he arrived at my local club Newcastle United in February 1998. Although ultimately remembered very fondly on Tyneside, those Newcastle fans with slightly longer memories will recall being particularly nonplussed by Speed’s first and perhaps second seasons with the club. Having grown accustomed to the swashbuckling style of Kevin Keegan’s first XI, Speed appeared to represent the embodiment of Kenny Dalglish’s bland magpies. Shorn of the departed Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, Peter Beardsley, Tino Asprilla and, due to injury, Alan Shearer, Dalglish’s side offered little as an attacking force. The prospect of turning up to see lumbering Swedish striker Andreas Andersson mixed with the clearly disenchanted Jon Dahl Tomasson was not akin to the heady days of all out attack the St James’s Park crowds had enjoyed so recently. Deployed mainly as a defensive screen, Speed was a functional player in a functional team; a far cry from the cut and thrust midfielder who had brought so much to Leeds and Everton in previous years.
As Dalglish gave way to Ruud Gullit, Speed remained a steady and largely unspectacular player, but once Bobby Robson arrived back on his native Tyneside, the midfielder began to shine.
Considered nothing special for the previous two years by Newcastle’s paying customers, the void that the Welshmen left became apparent when he wasn’t there. It took a couple of seasons to get the balance right, but Robson was able to fashion an exciting side that furnished the devastating Alan Shearer with a fine accompaniment of creative talent. The wiry athleticism of Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer coupled with the hugely effective wingplay of Laurent Robert and Nolberto Solano offered a ravishing supply line which the England forward gobbled up with aplomb.
That Newcastle were able to achieve fourth and third place finishes under Robson in the early noughties was largely due to the attacking intent and goalscoring threat provided by his front five. For any side to do well, a strong defence is a must and while Shay Given remained an excellent custodian, a back four which would pool from Titus Bramble, Andy O’Brien, Aaron Hughes, Nikos Dabizas and Olivier Bernard could hardly be described as rock solid. For Newcastle to function as a team rested on one player and it was their lynchpin Gary Speed.
Linking attacks and digging in to protect his rearguard, Speed may have been considered something of a water carrier, but he was so much more than that. His boundless energy and drive stood out and the arial threat that Speed posed, especially when combined with Solano and Robert’s crossing ability, gave Newcastle a real sharpness under Robson - his winning goal in UEFA Cup Quarter Final against PSV Eindhoven in 2004 a prime example.
I’ve been asked on many occasions to pick a best XI of Newcastle players that I’ve witnessed, and despite the respective qualities that Waddle, Gascoigne and Rob Lee possessed, I would always consider Gary Speed as first choice. Whatever attacking field I would select, there had to be someone to knit things together and the Mancot born midfielder would always be it.
I mentioned John Lennon and John F Kennedy at the start of this article as they are two names synonymous with ‘where were you when you heard’ moments. I’m rarely shocked by anything that football offers now and tragic stories from wherever they may be will, sadly, always occur. However today hit me far harder than anything I can recall in football for twenty years.
Picking up my phone mid afternoon, I checked my Twitter timeline; perhaps you did something similar. I had been taking my own two young sons for a Sunday afternoon stroll. They were keen to return home as I had, perhaps mistakenly, promised that they would be able to decorate our Christmas tree today. It’s a family occasion which all children look forward to and I was keen to get back and get started.
In amongst the first messages I saw were references to Liverpool v Manchester City, but I spotted a single tweet stating simply ‘Gary Speed RIP’. My immediate reaction was that Speed had, for some reason, lost his job, despite having proved such an energising coach for a Welsh national side embarking on one of their most optimistic periods in many years. The RIP, I assumed, must be something to do with his career. As I scrolled through the messages, the RIP’s came from various sources and it dawned on me what had occurred, although I couldn’t, as I still can’t now, quite believe that Gary Speed is no longer here.
Having staggered through obituaries and tributes (including this particularly succinct one from Leeds fan James Brown), as well as taking in television news, the reporting of Speed’s death still maintains a surreal, almost hazy feel. I watched him on television just over twenty four hours earlier for fucks sake, how can this be true?
What saddens me most is that Gary Speed leaves behind a young family, who understandably have asked to be left in peace at this most horrific time. Our thoughts are with them. But Speed also leaves behind an enormous question mark and you and I are not alone in asking “why?”. It is for this reason that, sadly, Speed’s family are unlikely to be left alone.
It’s probable that Gary Speed’s name will remain on the front pages for the coming days, perhaps weeks. We cannot speculate on the reasons behind Speed’s death, I can only offer my thoughts on someone I met briefly, but who left a lasting impression. Take as you find and all that.
Speed’s tragic death also raises the issue of depression and mental illness in the sporting arena. Of course footballer’s have always suffered from mental strife and anxiety issues, many have taken their lives in the past, unable to cope with the transition to retirement, but as we have reflected on Robert Enke’s sad death recently following the release of a new book, there does appear to be a worrying trend developing. Are our expectations too high?
Among the comments and tributes paid, my wife offered the best quotation I’ve heard today. After watching an obituary on the television news she uttered “people think people are strong, but they’re not”, which I thought was tremendously accurate, and appropriate.
Rest in peace Speedo, you will be missed.