This Sabotage Times archive piece was originally published in 2011
One minute you’re running round a park training with 20 young footballers and the next you get back to your car and find texts and calls coming into your phone telling you a Leeds United player you know and admire is dead. You drop the boys off home and then sit by the side of the road crying your eyes out. If ever there was a player you could point to as a role model it was Gary Speed. Maybe one of those kids I train, or the boys they play against, or any other kid running over muddy parks all over the country this morning will become as great a footballer and sportsman as Gary Speed. That’s what you hope for, but they’ll have to go some way to achieve that.
Right now twitter, sky sports and 5Live are over-run with the outpouring of grief for this admirable man. Many are assuming, in the vacuum of details and in the light of Stan Collymore’s open portrayal of his depression, that Speedo was depressed. But as far as I know that’s just speculation, whatever has lead Gary to take his life is probably more personal than illness.
Last night I was stood in the Leeds United manager’s office at Elland Road with Simon Grayson and my two closest Leeds United supporting friends. One of them is Gary’s friend and agent. All four of us have known Gary Speed to differing degrees. None of us could have predicted that 12 hours later Gary would be found dead at home by his wife, Louise. The manager’s area, reception, and players lounge at Elland Road are covered with pictures of the great players who made their names under Don Revie, Howard Wilkinson and David O’Leary. It wasn’t always that way, when Howard Wilkinson, arrived at the club at the end of the 1980s he insisted they take down the images of the Revie legends who were proving too great a team for subsequent groups of players to measure themselves against.
It was Wilkinson’s aim to create a new generation of players who would create a name for themselves. Gary Speed was a vital, vibrant part of the success Wilkinson steered the club to. Of all the pictures of the great Jack Charlton, free-kick expert Ian Harte, midfield dynamo David Batty, and the images of the British Forces soldiers in their Leeds kits the one I looked at longest yesterday was the group image of Howard Wilkinson’s squad celebrating their winning the old League Division One championship.
If Batty was the tenacity in that great midfield, Speed was the pace and the cutting edge, McAllister was the passer, Strachan pulled the strings, but it was Speedo streaking forward with the ball that was the youthful threat the team needed. With Batts, Speedo represented the present and also the future. His recent success after a wobbly start as the Welsh national football manager has given similar hope and optimism to a nation for whom footballing success has been sparse. He was instrumental in helping Leeds United recapture glory and there’s few who could argue that he hadn’t started something significant with his young Welsh team.
If Batty was the tenacity in that great midfield, Speed was the pace and the cutting edge
Back in the early 90s at Elland Road some fans would mock Speedo for growing his hair long, he could have come out in a pink afro for all I cared, so long as he made up the fourth place in the fantastic midfield line-up and carried the game to the opposition like he did. His friend Ryan Giggs might have had that added elan to his play that won him the extra-attention but Speed was pretty much the all-round midfielder, as reflected in the quality of clubs he played for and the men like Alex Ferguson and Fabio Capello who coveted him. When I think of Gary on the pitch I think of a player who works and runs constantly, who can score all sorts of goals.
Those who knew Gary Speed very well, his friends and colleagues in and out of football, are as shocked as the rest of us who simply admired him. But it didn’t matter if you played for Wales, Manchester United or were just a fan of football he would have time for you. He was an inspiration. Everyone who ever met him will tell you what a nice guy he was but that’s the word I would use Inspiration.
We are so often taught to respect our elders that it becomes strange when the footballers in the team you support are younger than you and you find yourself admiring them. Go on twitter or turn on the TV and you will see new and old quotes from the greatest British footballing talent of the last 25 years paying tribute. Sky will be telling you about his appearance records, transfer fees and fitness. I will leave them to deliver the stats and quote the tributes.
For me this is more personal. I’ve been where his family are right now. My mum took her own life in February 1992 and when Leeds won the League that year it was the first time I felt happy. Maybe that’s why I’m still sitting here in tears. Speed was part of something that’s bigger than just football results and performances. He contributed to something that made people feel their lives were better because of it. He was a good man who was good to people and you can’t really ask for any more than that. Most suicides leaving you feeling ‘it’s just not right’ but some deaths are sadly inevitable. Gary Speed’s wasn’t, his death is truly shocking and has rocked the world of football and beyond. He will be painfully missed by those that knew him, those that enjoyed what he gave to the world of sport and for those young kids legging it round the parks this morning hopefully his passing will prompt them to take some time to find out about him.
People like Gary are the reason I still play football, still travel hundreds of miles to watch my team, still get up in the rain and go and train ten year olds after 6 hours sleep. They are what is great about football. He played to the best of his ability and with enthusiasm. Gary Speed was a good man I admired. I can’t say any more than that.
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