Gary Speed – 1969-2011: Football legend dies at 42

by Willie Gannon

Manchester City’s great run in the Premier League and poor run in the Champions League, Robin van Persie’s unbelievable form, and Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s domination of the game we all love was all put into perspective on Saturday after Gary Speed passed away at just 42-years-of-age.

The former Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United player and current manager of the Welsh international team was found dead at his home in Huntington, Cheshire, by Police at 07:08 GMT. They said there were no suspicious circumstances in the death.

Sources have said that Speed had been found hanged.

Gary Speed is survived by his wife and his two children.

In terms of trophies, Speed’s career was not as successful as many of his peers in the game. However, few have ever or, will ever rival him in terms of discipline, professionalism and determination.

In a career that lasted over 23 years as a player, coach and a manager, Speed played over 800 matches as a professional with some 535 of those coming as a Premier League player at the elite level of the English football.

Speed signed professional terms with Leeds United on a Monday morning on June 13 1988. The addition of the youth was one of Billy Bremner’s last acts at the club before the Leeds playing legend was sacked the following October with the team languishing in the relegation zone of Division 2.

The footballing world was a very different one before the advent of the Premier League and few took notice of the signing other than well wishers and Leeds fans hoping for the next big thing to walk through their doors.

He made his debut for Leeds within a couple of months of his signing but Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager at the time, who was also new to the job at Elland Road, decided to leave the left sided player with the youths and reserves for the rest of the season before gradually introducing him to the first XI the following season.

Wilkinson initially became aware of the left sided player while he was playing left back for the youth’s but seeing that Speed had superior technique and stamina he recommended that the Welsh starlet be pushed into midfield.

Speed’s notable rise as a force to be reckoned with also meant that he was fast tracked into the Wales team by Terry Yorath where he made his debut against Costa Rica in a 1-0 in May 1990.

Few would have thought back then that the Leeds youngster would go on to become his country’s record caps holder of all time with 85.

However, Kevin Ratcliffe, the Wales captain at the time and friend of Speed, remembers talking with the youngster as they traveled home together with Speed telling him that he could go on to become the record holder if he was lucky with injuries and treated his body right.

Within two seasons, Speed was an essential part of one of the best midfield’s in the old First Division with Gordan Strachan, Gary McAllister and David Batty.

The quartet were perfectly balanced with Strachan out on the right showing incredible industry, Speed out on the left offering penetration and pace, while McAllister pulled the strings as Batty provided the iron and defensive qualities needed for any top midfield.

Even by today’s standards the Leeds midfield of the ’91-’92 season fits the template perfectly of how a balanced side should look with each and every player being an expert at their specific job in the team.

If you take a look at the group even closer you can see who were probably the biggest influences on Speed as a professional and as a player, the Scottish duo of McAllister and Strachan.

As Speed’s career advanced his style of play was almost an exact replica of the duo combined as he took all the best attributes from both players (Strachan – industry, honesty, professionalism) (McAllister – technique, vision, playmaking ability) and made them his own. Perhaps the most important attribute learnt at Leeds though was his willingness to take on responsibility.

Speed’s longevity in the game, the fact that he was still playing at 40, can also probably be attributed to his time with the duo where he learned the important arts of hydration, proper diets, yoga, and how to treat his body right. Strachan, in particular, was a huge influence regarding these facets.

At every club there are players who are leaders without having to wear the arm band. Players you can trust to dig the team out of a hole when the chips are down, players who will guide the younger players with no fear of passing on lessons or being replaced, players who will always do the right thing at the right moment. Speed was one of these players.

Writing a tribute in the Guardian newspaper, Speed’s manager at Leeds, Howard Wilkinson, spoke of his devastation upon hearing the sad news.

Gary Speed was honourable, trustworthy and a joy to manage. He was honest, he was a role model and he was a great bloke. An avid learner, he recognised responsibility and he was always fully committed. Above all, he was a lovely person. Out of all the players I’ve have had under my wing, he remained a real favourite.

 

The players I worked with represented all colours of the rainbow in terms of character but, as the ultimate professional, Gary was a star in the true sense. For him to leave us at 42 is such a tragic loss. As a manager he had a life of success to look forward to, I’m sure. He had started so promisingly in charge of Wales, I imagined his managerial career would follow a steadily upward curve.

 

His horrendous passing represents an unbelievable loss to his family and the football world. He leaves a huge, huge void and I can’t begin to try to think what his parents, his lovely wife, Louise, and his boys are going through at this time. I’m finding this very, very difficult to come to terms with. It’s unbelievable. I’m still struggling to get my head round it.

From Leeds, Speed moved to his boyhood team of Everton FC where he enjoyed two decent seasons as captain before Kenny Dalglish brought him to the North East and Newcastle United for just £5 million.

Under Dalglish, Speed seemed to regain the enthusiasm for the game that some had felt had started to falter and he became a key component of the side as they challenged for trophies and the top four over the following six seasons.

Despite being an integral part of the squad, Speed chose to leave Newcastle for Bolton in 2004. It was at the Reebok that Speed won, perhaps, one of the greatest achievements of his career when in December 2006 he became the first player to play 500 Premier League matches.

To this day his record of 535 games has only been beaten by two players, David James and Ryan Giggs.

His Premier League career effectively ended in Christmas 2007 when he left Bolton for Sheffield United in the Championship. His time at the Blades was blighted with injury, which is hardly a surprise when you consider that he joined them at 39-years-of-age!

He played on for three seasons but only managed to take to the pitch 36 times before continuing his life in football from the dug-out.

Speed always believed in player education. It is perhaps the main reason why his career lasted for so long. He would watch and analyse players he played with and take their best lessons for himself. As a deep thinker on the game he had no problem moving towards coaching and attaining his badges as he readied himself for life after playing and armed with this superior tactical knowledge he extended his career far beyond the realms of normal men.

His death has seen a sudden out pouring of grief from across the football world and beyond.

Former Wales team mate, Robbie Savage, tweeted: “The world has lost a great man in Gary speed I’m devastated spoke to him yesterday morning why ! Why. Why !! I’ll miss him so much x

Another former Welsh team mate Ryan Giggs said: “I am totally devastated. Gary Speed was one of the nicest men in football and someone I am honoured to call a team-mate and friend.”

“Words cannot begin to describe how sad I feel at hearing this awful news. It goes without saying my thoughts are with his family at this tremendously sad time.”

Current Leeds manager Simon Grayson added: “We signed on the same day and played in the youth and reserve teams together.

“We also did all our coaching badges together. He was a good friend and this is a very sad day. Gary was such a popular person and this is a hard time for everybody.”

Robbie Savage then went on BBC News to talk about the passing of his friend.

“I spoke to him yesterday and he was in high spirits… I just can’t believe it… He was my mate and he’s gone.”

Savage, so obviously devastated by the loss, found it hard to hold back the tears as he was asked if there was any inclination as to why Speed would take his own life.

Howard Wilkinson was also left bereft by the loss and was equally shocked.

“Gary’s death is a mystery – Gary McAllister says that, on Saturday, he seemed his normal, bright self – but these men are not born footballers. Like everyone else, they had a talent and football became their job but basically they are born human and subject to all the stress and strains and the good things that happen to people in life. My thoughts are with his family.”

What makes the tragic death of Gary Speed, a man so obviously loved by so many, so sad was that he touched so many lives throughout his short time here and had just embarked upon a career where communication is so vital yet he felt so bitterly alone and took the ultimate step to end his own life.

The inquest into Gary Speed’s death will begin tomorrow and will be an incredibly painful experience for all those who loved him dearly.

Nobody knows why he took his life but one of the main reasons for taking one’s own life in modern society is depression.

Although most people who are depressed do not kill themselves, untreated depression can increase the risk of possible suicide.

Allaboutdepression.com informs us:

“It is not uncommon for depressed individuals to have thoughts about suicide whether or not they intend to act on these thoughts. Severely depressed people often do not have the energy to harm themselves, but it is when their depression lifts and they gain increased energy that they may be more likely to attempt suicide.”

Recent studies from the site suggest that suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S.A. with 72 percent of people taking their own lives being men. These figures match up with studies in Ireland where suicide is the No.1 cause of death among young men.

If you look at the suicide of Gary Speed and take the fact that he was a footballer out of the equation then the instance of a 42-year-old man dieing in such circumstances becomes an all too common occurrence.

The death of a professional athlete in such circumstances can be confusing to many as there is usually a perception that the person in question has everything they could ever dream of, so why could they be so such a thing?

Stan Collymore admitted to suffering from depression whilst still playing professional soccer with Aston Villa and was ridiculed by many for being so weak.

Last week on Twitter the TalkSport pundit issued a heart felt plea;

“Around 10 days ago, I started to feel anxiety, which grew into irrational fear and insomnia for three days (little sleep and an incredibly active, negative mind) that turned over last weekend into hypersomnia, whereby my energy levels dipped to zero and my sleep went from eight to 18 hours overnight.

“So fit and healthy one day, mind, body and soul withering and dying the next.

“This to me is the most frightening of experiences.

“It’s me, bed and increasingly despairing thoughts of how long this one will last, a desperately tired but wildly active mind burns through its own blue touch paper until the paper ends and there is simply nothing left.”

It is usually at this stage of suffering that someone suffering from depression will start to have thoughts of suicide.

There are varying types of depression but those who suffer from bipolar depression are more likely to attempt suicide than those without.

Samaritans labels the following amongst the symptoms cited in cases of major depressive episodes.

“It is worth noting that these usually develop over days to weeks. In diagnostic terms, five of these should be present during the same two-week period and have caused a change from previous functioning. For a major depressive episode, symptoms must appear on a daily basis and last most of the day or all day.

  • Depressed mood (such as feeling sad, empty).
  • Markedly diminished pleasure in all (or almost all) activities
  • Insomnia (or hypersomnia)
  • Increase / decrease in appetite or significant weight loss
  • Fatigue / loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Diminished ability to think, concentrate, and/or take decisions
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, having a suicide plan or making a suicide attempt.

Manic depressive episodes typically occur suddenly and symptoms escalate over the course of a few days or hours. In diagnostic terms a person should be experiencing persistently elevated mood for at least one week with three or more of the following symptoms persisting:

  • ‘Racing’ of ideas’
  • More talkative than usual
  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Significantly reduced need for sleep
  • Great difficulties concentrating
  • Engagement in activities which appear pleasurable but can lead to painful consequences.”

Depression and suicide are real problems for society. Unfortunately, those who suffer from depression often do so alone as they feel there is nobody out there to talk to.

In professional athletic circles the ability to talk these problems out with friends becomes very difficult as dressing rooms are not the kind of place where people can let their defences down.

This can be for a number of reasons, including ridicule from team mates, but perhaps the most important reason is not wanting to appear weak to the club and manager who hold your potential future contracts.

There are many organisations specifically set up to combat loneliness and depression and to give someone a sympathetic voice to talk to in tough times when talking to friends or relations is either not available or an option.

The Samaritans are perhaps the best known charity for dealing with such instances and have 201 24-hour clinics across the UK and Ireland.

“Samaritans provides completely confidential emotional support 24 hours a day by telephone, personal visit, email, and letter. Their purpose is to enable persons who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those who may be at risk of suicide, to receive confidential emotional support at any time of the day or night from appropriately trained Samaritans in order to improve their emotional health and to reduce the incidence of suicide.”

People contact Samaritans about a wide range of issues including depression, relationship and family issues, loneliness, physical and mental health issues, alcohol, drugs, self-harm, debt, illness and exam pressures as well as suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Speed was a well liked footballer and manager. His untimely passing is made all the more sad because of the life, potential and family that he has left behind.

Out thoughts and prayers are with his family during this awful time.

2 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    really sad news, a lot of great players grew up on his heritage, Speed is one of the last true soccer legends. maybe not as skilled as Messi and Ronaldo but a true hero. RIP :(

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