In the last few hours the extremely sad news has broken that Wales manager Gary Speed has been found dead at his home this morning. Details have not been released at the time of writing but it appears that Gary Speed has killed himself, as police have stated there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. Speed was only 42 years old and leaves behind a wife and two children.
Speed was appointed Wales manager in December 2010, and had started to turn things around for a Wales team that were in total disarray when he took over. As a result of some impressive results to finish off a EURO 2012 qualifying campaign that had been a total disaster up to the point of Speed’s appointment, Wales’ current ranking has risen to 50 after being ranked below the Faroe Islands at 112 as recently as July. Under Speed, Wales won 4 of their last 5 games and 5 of the ten games Speed was in charge for, and there was real optimism about the team.
Speed had an excellent playing career and was one of the Premier League’s best-ever midfielders, he made 831 club appearances in his career, for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, scoring 133 goals. He also won played for Wales 85 times between 1990 and 2004, making him the most capped outfield player and the second most capped Welsh player of all-time, scoring 7 goals and captaining Wales 44 times.
Speed won a title with Leeds the season before the creation of the Premier League, he was the first player to reach the 500 appearances mark, and at one time had made the most Premier Leagues appearances of all-time; he’s still third on the all-time list today.
He was one of the rarest kinds of players; one who was respected and appreciated by all football fans, regardless of which team he was playing for or against at the time. Footballers usually make terrible role models, but Speed was an example to all aspiring players of how the game should be played; with maximum effort and intensity, but while always playing the game fairly and while showing respect to the opposition at all times. He was a true gentleman on and off the pitch, and was awarded the MBE (member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), by the Queen in 2010 for services to Football.
After he retired from international football, Speed became a player-coach for Bolton, then Sheffield United, later being named as Sheffield United manager early last season. Speed had only been a manager for a few months when he was offered the chance to manage Wales.
His death has come as a complete shock to everyone. Speed was on the BBC’s Football Focus programme yesterday lunchtime, just hours before his death, the presenter of which Dan Walker tweeted "Staggered by the news of Gary Speed's death. Was with him for much of yesterday [Saturday]. I genuinely cannot believe it. Thoughts with his family. Gary was full of life yesterday talking about his kids, bright future with Wales, twitter, golf. Can't get my head round it. So sad." His former Wales teammate and friend, Robbie Savage, has tweeted of how he spoke to Speed yesterday and they were laughing together and talking about football on the phone, and many other of Speed’s former teammates and friends have been on Twitter to express their sadness and shock.
The Chief Executive of the Football Association of Wales (FAW), Jonathan Ford said “I, and all of the footballing family of Wales, am devastated by the news of Gary's passing. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family at this difficult time."
This was followed by FAW president Phil Pritchard saying “I am completely shocked by this terrible news and my thoughts are with his family. We will do whatever we can as an association to help them in this difficult time.”
I’m writing this whilst watching the Swansea City- Aston Villa match, where the atmosphere is very subdued, both on and off the pitch. The news was broken to the players shortly before kickoff and there was some doubt about whether or not the game was going to be played, as there are a few players from the Wales team playing today, and Villa’s Shay Given and Jermaine Jenas, former teammates of Speed at Newcastle, were also visibly upset during the minute’s silence, which spontaneously turned into a genuinely moving minute’s applause, that took place before the game. Even though the game was a non-event, ending 0-0, I think it was the right decision for the game to go ahead as I believe the best way to honour someone who gave so much to the game of football is to play football.
Understandably, it has also been announced that Craig Bellamy will not be playing for Liverpool in today’s game against Manchester City.
Gary Speed’s death isn’t just a big loss for Wales; it’s a loss for the sport we all love. For what it’s worth my thoughts and prayers are with his family at this sad time.
He will be missed.