“Gary Speed, Gary Speed, yn mynd a ni i Gwpan y Byd!”
That was the dream. Gary Speed is going to the World Cup with us, the Welsh fans sang. Gary Speed would be leading us to the cliched date with destiny as his Barmy Army looked to take their own Valley’s carnival to Rio. Thousands of fans flocking from God’s Country with our leader in front of us as we took on the very best the World had to throw at us. Was it a mere pipe dream with little chance of coming true? Probably. Yet the fact we were able to wistfully daydream about such things only 10 matches into Gary’s Welsh managerial career is evident of the impact his short reign had on the fans. We Believed. We Dreamed. Now we’re broken-hearted and in a nightmare.
Much has been written in the last 48 hours about Gary Speed, both about his personal character and his footballing ability. I struggle to recall another human being whom has received such unrepentant grief upon their passing. This is without doubt a prime example of not realising what you had until its gone, for Gary Speed’s death has unleashed a torrent of tears from everyone of us linked to his career, be it as fan or player. I’ve been in a daze since I received the text Sunday morning whilst in the pub before the Swansea vs Aston Villa game. “This isn’t true” I shouted and immediately went to twitter where these days seems to be the ultimate platform of breaking news. There it was. Wales Manager Gary Speed, dead at 42. How? Why? When? Then the eyes started watering and I had to stop reading momentarily. An Aston Villa fan got dragged out of the pub by police apparently and I never saw it. Dazed. Confused. Is it possible for a stranger to have this affect on me? I didn’t think it was. I’m not one for sentiment for those that know me.
I’ve had people I consider to be heroes pass away before, its a part of the growing up process it seems. Michael Jackson. Nate Dogg. Aaliyah. Yet whilst I respected such people and would express grief at their deaths, its different with Gary Speed. He doesn’t seem like a celebrity at all but rather just your local football coach, friend, even family member. One word being used to describe him is how “normal” he was in respect to the overpaid, spoilt footballers of the modern generation whom are not in touch with the local man. Any man that makes a football reporter break down and cry live on air like Bryn Law did must have been a special man. Any man that makes that colossus of a human in Big Bad John Hartson cry his eyes out in public over his friend must have been a special man.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this blog. Dan Walker of Football Focus began his tribute article on the BBC Website by mentioning that it was just a stream of his consciousness. I can relate. Everyone knows of Speed’s solid and under appreciated career for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United. When a play has no ego and doesn’t put himself in the spotlight, it is easy to overlook just how great they were. Paul Scholes is another who has traditionally been overlooked in favour of more showy and PR-savvy players of a more mediocre talent.
I will end by saying I have three overriding memories of Gary Speed and his impact in my life. Again, due to the very nature of Speed and his character he was definitely taken for granted and as such it is sad his talent is only really being expose upon his passing. As a boyhood Newcastle fan it was Shearer or Asprilla I would get on the back of the tops but like all football teams the star is nothing without the true talent pulling the strings behind them. Think Claude Makelele at Real Madrid or the aforementioned Scholes. I remember loving Gary Speed because he was Welsh and I felt with him being at the Toon we had something in common. I remember the poster I had on my bed room wall, an A5 one which had Speed in all his pomp and glory in the infamous Black and White stripes with a Welsh flag in the bottom corner. I loved that Poster. The Welshman at Newcastle. Perhaps I thought I could one day emulate him, I don’t know.
From around 2000 to 2004 this was the period where I really began to support the Welsh team. And what a team we had, key word being TEAM and not individual star players. John Hartson, Paul Jones, Robbie Savage, Mark Delaney, Craig Bellamy and running the show our captain and leader Gary Speed. Solid professionals who got the job done. And get the job done we did. I was there when we beat Germany. I was there when we beat Italy. I was there when we drew to Argentina. We consistently destroyed your Azerbaijan’s, Kazakhstan’s and Belarus’s. What a halycon period. 72,000 fans for every home game, pride, passion, perseverance. Did Gary Speed miss friendlies, consider himself above playing against minnows in favour of a week off to go shopping? No. Some display patriotism with tattoo’s and photo opportunities, some put their all on the line out on the pitch.
Finally, not content with merely leading us on the pitch the man became our mentor, leader, inspiration on the sidelines. Gary Speed, Manager of Wales. It was perfect. It was ideal. It was natural. Again I’m not going to go into specific details about the game as its not important. What I will say is I was at the Wales vs England game in February this year in his second game in charge and we were shocking. A hangover from the previous regime. I was also present at Gary’s last two games of his career and indeed life. His 9th and 10th games in charge. We were fantastic. We played incredible football. We scored, we passed, we ran, we tackled, we entertained. This wasn’t Wales surely? But it was. Red Dragon on the chest and “Gary Speed’s Barmy Army” emanating from our throats in the stands. Without being a Welsh football fan and understanding how ridiculous we have been in general since god know’s when I am not a good enough writer to explain the optimism we were feeling about the future. Bale, Ramsey, Allen, Bellamy, Collison, Blake, Williams, Matthews, Taylor, Vokes. We had the right man to lead them, both professionally and personally.
I’m thankful that I got to grow up a fan of Newcastle who regularly watched and admired Gary Speed. He was present on my 13th birthday when my father took me and my friend to watch Newcastle play Blackburn. I was in awe at that game, the famous Newcastle and I was here to watch them! Given, Speed, Shearer, Barnes. Amazingly my first ever game I went to watch was as a 10 year old when we went to Highbury to watch Arsenal play Leeds. Gary Speed was also present in that game. How coincidental.
Now its gone. Maybe the dream will be kept alive in his honour but at the moment, its gone. Shattered. I don’t know what to say. I’m sad for his wife. I’m sad for his sons. I’m sad for his dad. I’m sad for his friends, team-mates, players, family, supporters. I’m sad for Gary Speed. I’m sad. Finally, another footballing hero of mine, Sir Bobby Robson, has finally found his captain in heaven.