So, here we are then. It’s been four years today since the awful day that Speedo died. Forty-eight months down the line, and where has the time gone? It seems like five minutes since, driving to my parents house after running a few errands, the bleak words came out of the car radio and fell like a hail of rocks into my unwilling mind. Gary Speed – that smiling boy, that shock of dark hair, the towering presence in attack and all over the park in the white shirt of Leeds United, our home-grown and beloved Speedo – was dead, and apparently by his own hand. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was a “JFK moment”, one where you’d forever remember where you were and what you were doing when the shocking blow fell. What about you? What were you doing when you heard that Gary Speed was dead?
We remember him in many different ways. He was an exuberant quarter of that magnificent United midfield of a quarter-century ago. It was the best around, the engine room of the early nineties United team that swaggered back into the First Division after an eight year absence, had a little look around, decided that “there were nowt to fear” – and won the League in 1992, by four clear points. Decent at the back, productive up front, that team was powered by the four guys in the middle of the park; energetic leader Gordon Strachan, robust and implacable David Batty, elegant and creative Gary MacAllister – and, of course, the late, great Gary Speed.
What can we possibly say of Speedo that will give us the remotest chance of doing his memory justice? Bursting from his own half to score that fourth, decisive, hammer-blow goal against Sheffield Utd when we were battling each other for promotion and the second division title in 1990 – “Go on, Gary lad, get one yourself, son. And he has!” Leaping salmon-like in that favoured inside-left channel (as we old’uns used to call it) – meeting accurate long diagonal passes to head dangerously goalwards for the likes of Chappy, Shutt, Varadi, Wallace – even Cantona… Blasting home from thirty yards against Southampton at the Dell, volleying in at the South Stand against Stuttgart and Man U, powering home a header at Crystal Palace, arm raised in salute, broadly grinning as he celebrated another goal for Leeds United – and always, always doing his bit for that fabulous midfield foursome.
Ridiculously good-looking was the boy Gary, a real pin-up type with the artfully-tousled hair, the chiselled bone structure and the hundred megawatt smile – and yet the kind of down-to-earth lad you didn’t mind your girlfriend fancying, or perhaps your daughter bringing home. In fact, it gave you that warm glow of affirmation – she fancies our Speedo. None of that Giggsy rubbish. You didn’t just not mind – you were flattered, by proxy. Greater love hath no fan.
If you had told me in 1992, when we saw that great midfield play and win, going on to collect that historic last-ever Football League Championship trophy, that a mere 19 years later we’d see three of them gather again to lay a wreath for the fourth – I’d never have believed something so awful could happen. It would have seemed like a sick, horrible, unfunny joke. Back then, it was still five years before we would lose Billy Bremner, twelve before we would say goodbye to another iconic Welsh hero, Gentle Giant and fifties legend John Charles.
Three years earlier we had shed tears in isolation as Don Revie succumbed to motor neurone disease, and most of football stood by indifferently save for his glory, glory boys and a select few others. It seemed, back in 1992, that losing the Don would be enough of sorrow and grieving for a long time. The Super Leeds side were all still alive and kicking, and we had this new team of Champions to salute. They were happy days; we were all that much younger and more innocent then. It’s a good job that you can’t see what’s coming at you, just around the corner.
Gary Speed holds a place still in the hearts of football fans everywhere, but especially perhaps in his adopted West Yorkshire home. That much is evidenced by the depth and sincerity of the tributes that have been paid to him by Leeds United, the club and even more so the fans, since that tragic day four years ago. In the very next game after Gary’s death, the travelling army of Leeds fans at Nottingham Forest chanted his name from the 11th minute, for 11 minutes, for our former number 11. It was a chant broken only briefly by ear-shattering celebrations as the modern Leeds team scored the opening goal. They went on to win 4-0 with a dominant performance. It was that kind of evening; they dared do no less.
But Gary had other fans, in other clubs – he was a boyhood Evertonian and had a spell at Goodison Park from 1996. That didn’t work out too happily in the end, but he served his childhood favourites well. The reasons underlying Speed’s departure from the Toffees were never revealed. He told the Liverpool Echo: “You know why I’m leaving, but I can’t explain myself publicly because it would damage the good name of Everton Football Club and I’m not prepared to do that.” On he moved to Newcastle and found a new legion of adoring fans, appearing in two successive FA Cup Finals for the Toon. He served Bolton Wanderers with distinction as player and coach and finished up as a player and then coach at Sheffield United – almost full circle from that match-clinching goal he’d scored against the Blades in 1990.
Then of course he went on to manage Wales and, proud Welshman and distinguished international footballer that he was, he was making a fantastic success of that job, putting pride and passion back into the Red Dragon. His last game in charge was a 4-1 friendly success over a classy Norway team on 12th November 2011 – and that sadly was Gary’s final curtain. But a few weeks after his death, on 21 December 2011, the day of the final FIFA rankings of the year, Wales were awarded the title of ‘Best Movers’, having gained more ranking points than any other nation in 2011. A fitting tribute to the impact a talented young coach was having in his tragically brief spell in charge of his country’s national squad. Since then, of course, Wales have qualified for Euro ’16, their first major tournament in well over half a century. They did it by building on the solid foundations laid by Gary Speed.
Four years ago today since the tragic death of Gary Speed. Four years without one of the first of my Leeds United heroes to be younger than I was when he starred in the Whites first team. He was a novelty – I’d always looked up to men older than me in the white shirt, and worshipped them as a boy does a man. But Gary was “nobbut a lad” to me, someone I looked up to whilst realising I was beginning to get old myself. He’s a lad to me still, four years after we lost him.
We’ll never know what was in Gary Speed’s mind on that awful day in 2011. It remains shrouded in mystery, and all we can tell ourselves now is, it was so needless, so unnecessary. Someone who had helped as many people as Speedo did in the course of a long and distinguished career, must surely have known that, at need, there would have been help for him. People would have been queuing up to help him, surely. If the days of unbelieving sorrow immediately after his death showed anything – they showed that here was a man loved by his peers and by his fans in a way that very few have been, before or since. I wonder if he really knew that? We can only hope he did.
Gary Speed MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) You remain very much still in our hearts, minds and memories, Speedo. RIP