|GARY SPEED - by mufcjr|
|Published: 06 DEC 2011|
How can the death of a player who played for many rival clubs, but not Manchester United, have such an effect?
Gary Speed's death has left the football world and Britain and Ireland in general, stunned. He was a man with a fantastic playing career behind him and a bright managerial career in front of him. Married with two young sons, you could look at this man and think he had it all, yet for some reason he decided to end his own life. In no way can I claim to have known him, nor did I know much about him yet I find his death incredibly difficult to comprehend. I do remember Alan Davies, a former Manchester United player taking his own life in 1992 but he was a man who had not played a lot of first teams games in his career and was maybe not as well known. Both equally tragic, yet the loss of Gary Speed has made so many people feel their hearts touched by a potent sadness.
My earliest and best memories of Gary Speed were of the title race in the 1991-92 season. As Leeds and Manchester United went head to head on all domestic fronts, both sported young Welsh stars in Giggs aged 19 and Speed 23. As the season reached the half way point, Manchester United were drawn away to Leeds in both the League Cup quarter final and the FA Cup third round. When you add into the mix that we had to go to Elland Road in the league also, we ended up playing there three times in three weeks. The games seemed to make the season all the more intense and in those pre-SKY days pubs and clubs were packed with punters gathered for the heavyweight jousts. The first was the league game when United took the lead through Neil Webb, but conceded a late penalty to Mel Sterland. In the second game, the League Cup meeting, Gary Speed scored a cracking goal to put Leeds a goal up, but United fought back to win 3-1 with goals from Giggs, Blackmore and Kanchelskis. Then in the final game of the trilogy Mark Hughes scored a header to knock Leeds out of the FA Cup. Welsh football legends were to the fore in all three games with Manchester United going on to win the League Cup that season.
Football in Wales is so much like football in my native Ireland. Both countries have weaker domestic leagues than the glamour of the English club game so our best players end up playing in England. Yet at International level we strive to match England. Gary Speed was one of those players who loved playing for his country. His 85 caps are a record for an outfield player in Welsh football and when his Welsh counterparts spoke about him this past week, the word they all used was 'Leader'. When the English based media cover the Welsh or Irish national teams the format is usually simple. They show some footage of the sides in action with music from a band of that country. Of the many tributes I've seen this week, SoccerAM's was possibly the most moving. SoccerAM is a show based on the fun side of football. They don't do doom and gloom so in their tribute they simply showed clips from throughout Gary Speed's career with the Stereophonics 'Dakota' playing at the same time. One of the lines in that song goes 'I wonder if we'll meet again, talking about life since then, talk about why did it end'. The producers deserve 10/10 for their effort.
Like Ireland, Scotland and Northern Ireland, for Wales victory over the bigger nations in world football is rare. In October 2002 former United legend Mark Hughes Managed Wales to beat Italy 2-1 in a Euro 2004 qualifier. People in these four footballing nations know we are not as good as the bigger sides so we often have to go above and beyond the call of duty to win. Wales introduced their legendary footballer John Charles to the crowd before the game whipping the packed stadium into a frenzy. Sparky had been telling people the week before the game that Wales deserved to be among the top nations in world football. Then they went out and beat Italy with the versatile Gary Speed playing at left back and players like Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy, John Hartson and Robbie Savage all starring. These players had clearly formed a great bond, willing to go that extra mile for each other. It was evident over the past week that the relationship between these lads was more than just professional. Each of them were visibly moved by Speed's death, trying to find the adjectives to describe him but feeling that what they were saying was not doing him justice. Gary Speed had obviously learned well from managers like Mark Hughes and was putting the same passion back into the Wales national team. After a poor start to his Welsh managerial career the team was making significant progress. It now remains to be seen if this progress can be continued.
Despite playing for Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United there was nothing to dislike about Speed. None of these clubs could be called friends of Manchester United, but Speed never made himself an enemy of our club. He was a powerful opponent who was as good in defence as he was going forward and as we saw in that League Cup tie in January 1992, not someone you ever allow time and space to have an effort on goal. As Leeds took that title in the final four games of the 1991-92 season many of us United fans were distraught as the championship slipped away. Yet fast forward twenty years and that medal was the only one Gary Speed won in club football while Manchester United has gone on to great heights. The fact that he only won one medal and was still held in such high regard as a player spoke volumes for the man. Every club he played at he adapted to the systems and players at that club. The fact that aged 35 he could still conquer the direct approach employed by Sam Allardyce at Bolton shows a player who was always willing to do as much as possible to keep playing football. Just like Ryan Giggs it seemed he wanted to stay at the top for as long as his body permitted.
Back in 2005, Manchester United lost possibly the greatest player in the club's history, possibly in World football, in George Best. When George Best died from Liver failure, he had known for a while that his life was about to end prematurely. Before he died though, he was surely left in no doubt as to how much he was loved and respected for his footballing wizardry, his skill and his generosity as a person. George Best died surrounded by people he loved, who also loved him. He was able to allow the media to photograph him in an effort to dissuade youngsters from excessive drinking which had cut his own life short. While the tributes from the footballing world and from Northern Ireland and Wales were very similar for both George Best and Gary Speed, their deaths could not have been more different. Sadly Gary Speed never realised how loved he was by his family, friends, team mates and the football world in general. Maybe nobody will know why he died in this manner. Unlike George Best, he never sought help for whatever the problem was and he simply died alone. That is the saddest thing of all about his death.
As any of us who participate in the game as fans, players, officials or administrators know, football is a game where you constantly build up relationships and it can have a very healthy impact upon one’s life. I’ve made many friends through sport, some are the people you meet and lose contact with, happy to meet again at gatherings or functions. Others are the kind of people you know will help you out if they can, who you want to stay in contact with and whose welfare you genuinely care about. Shearer, Bellamy, Hartson, Savage and our own Ryan Giggs had obviously formed a great relationship and bond with Gary Speed that in each case began through football but had carried on beyond that. His death, even if only for a short while, lowered the tribal walls that exist within the game and showed that while sometimes top level football takes itself too seriously, genuine football fans still respect hard workers and decent people.
May he Rest In Peace.
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