National mourning

wsc299 Huw Richards pays tribute to Gary Speed after his death

Even discounting for the inevitable reaction when someone dies young and suddenly, there was something different and genuine about the tributes to Gary Speed. Along with shock and disbelief was simple bafflement. Why? Maybe the inquest, which reopens on January 30, will provide some answers. His case appears to differ from other sportsmen’s self-inflicted deaths.

Ronald Reng’s brilliant biography of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, A Life Too Short, a coincidentally timed but deserved winner of the William Hill Sports Book of Year prize, makes it clear that his death was to some extent foreseeable. So were those of Justin Fashanu, Alan Davies – the Wales midfielder whose international career ended just as Speed’s was beginning in 1990 – and cricketer turned writer Peter Roebuck, who committed suicide in Cape Town last month. Speed’s death was neither foreseeable nor explicable.

The tributes at every one of his former clubs, the touching way in which the minute’s silence at the Liberty Stadium before the televised Swansea v Aston Villa match transformed itself into a minute’s applause, and the unaffected distress of former team-mates like Villa keeper Shay Given raised the thought that Speed may have been loved by everyone but himself.

Certainly it cannot have been about professional failure. His managerial career will remain an unfulfilled miniature – a total of only 28 matches, 18 in charge of Sheffield United and ten with Wales – but its promise was self-evident. It was something of a surprise when the Football Association of Wales, not infallible judges of talent, persuaded Sheffield United to release him late last year. It was also telling that United, who had brushed off inquiries about his availability – including two from Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins, demonstrably a good judge – when he was a coach under Kevin Blackwell, were willing to let him go.

His early Wales matches were not terribly encouraging. But recent months had seen a perceptible lift in tempo, quality and confidence, with victories over Montenegro, Switzerland, Bulgaria and most recently Norway – exactly the sort of teams to whom Wales had become accustomed to losing.

The credit was not exclusively Speed’s. Brian Flynn has nurtured talent at Under-21 level and John Toshack was always willing to pick players on the basis of promise. His inheritance was a decent one. A midfield featuring Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen could soon be the best in any of the home nations. There was clear evidence that Speed was inspiring and releasing that talent. He displayed an instinct for passing football evidently unclouded by his years at Bolton and Sheffield United. Supporting Wales was fun again. The World Cup handed Wales a qualifying group – Croatia, Belgium, Serbia, Scotland and Macedonia – in which it would be no disgrace to finish last, nor is there anything to truly intimidate. For the first time in years, the nation was looking forward to the challenge.

Speed was always was one of those players who was destined for management. He routinely captained teams, not as a strutting martinet or a brawling Neanderthal, but because others responded to his talent, intelligence, drive and likeability. He was a model in himself. The job description always said “midfielder”, but he could fulfil any role in that baggy monster of a remit, plus a fair few elsewhere.

He was durable. There were 614 games at the top level – not the 535 widely quoted, since that only includes matches since the rebranding of the Premier League in 1992. The exclusion of the earlier 79 is an even more ridiculously contrived distinction than usual as they include his 41 appearances in Leeds’ League title win in the 1991-92 season. This remarkable total is exceeded by few outfield players of any era and was only possible because Speed was rarely injured or lost form – not least because he looked after himself at a time when the predominant culture could drive less disciplined young players to drink and dissipation.

Then there were the 85 Wales caps, exceeded only by Neville Southall. It was not his fault that most of his 15 years in the team saw disappointment and decline. He was simply unfortunate to have been one of the few players of true international quality in a generation short of talent or, as with Ryan Giggs, commitment.

Speed came from Flintshire, a sliver of land that has also given football Ian Rush, Michael Owen, Roy Vernon, Ron Davies, Mike England and Kevin Ratcliffe, a fellow-native of Mancot. A noble tradition, it has never been better represented.

From WSC 299 January 2012