27 November 2012

Gary Speed remembered

Gary Speed: 1969-2011. Never forgotten.
It was on this day last year that British football lost one of its most popular figures.

We were all shocked when, at around lunchtime on Sunday 27 November 2011, we heard the devastating news that Gary Speed was dead. The suicide of Wales' popular young manager and former midfielder, who was just 42 years old, came out like a bolt from the blue.

Speed was found hanged at his home in Chester, just a day after appearing to be a picture of happiness and health on the BBC's Football Focus programme. While the show was being filmed, the Wales boss was speaking very positively about the future of Welsh football.

As a player, Speed was a decorated attacking midfielder who won the 1992 Division 1 title with his first club Leeds United and went on to play for Everton, Newcastle United and Bolton Wanderers in a long Premier League career. He made 535 appearances in the PL - a record which stood until David James surpassed it.

Speed also won 85 caps for Wales between 1990 and 2004. After a short managerial stint at Sheffield United, where he ended his playing career, the Flintshire native was hired by the FAW to manage a Wales team in turmoil.

The Dragons had plenty of exceptional young players like Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen. However, building up their confidence and creating a team that could challenge for qualification for a FIFA World Cup or European Championship proved a difficult task for previous manager John Toshack.

His impact as Dragons manager could not be overestimated. When he took over in December 2010, Wales were ranked 112th in a row. Ten months later, they were 45th.

Wales had won five of their ten matches under Speed's tenure, including four of his last five. Their excellent form earned them FIFA's Best Mover award for 2011, and they were placed in a competitive but winnable World Cup qualifying group, but just two weeks after they beat Norway 4-1 in a friendly, Speed was dead.

Speed's loss shattered the morale of the national team, who under Chris Coleman won only one match this year. It is very easy to criticise Coleman, but he took what was almost an impossible job under those circumstances.

His many friends were quick to pay tribute to the man they called 'Speedo'. One of them was Sky Sports reporter Bryn Law, who like Speed was from North Wales and based in Yorkshire. Law couldn't hold back the tears in a report on his long-term pal the day after his passing.

Gary's death also had a devastating impact on his family - his wife of 15 years, Louise, and his sons Ed and Tom.

The Speed legacy lives on in 14-year-old Ed, who was an unused substitute for Wales Under-16s' Victory Shield match in Northern Ireland last week. There is a bright future ahead for Ed, and Gary will undoubtedly be looking down from upstairs as a very proud dad.

Gary Speed, we miss you, and we never will forget you.

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