In an interview in late 2003, Gary Speed of Newcastle United and Wales was asked if he could see himself managing his country one day. "If everything in life was perfect, yeah, but it's not," he replied. In the manager's office at the headquarters of the Football Association of Wales, on a smart industrial estate near Cardiff Bay, I remind Speed of those words more than seven years ago. He smiles. "That was pretty profound for me," he says.
Speed succeeded John Toshack as Wales manager a month ago today. Does that mean everything in life is now perfect? Another smile. "Well," he says, "it's not really a dream come true, because when you're a little boy you don't dream about becoming manager of Wales, you dream of playing for Wales. But there's no way I could have turned the opportunity down. It's come a lot earlier than I thought." His ambition, he adds, is to become more successful as a manager than he was a player, and if longevity is the measure of success then he's setting the bar formidably high. "In terms of silverware my playing record won't take a lot of beating," he says. "But in longevity terms, yeah. And longevity's not something often associated with football managers."
Speed had made more Premier League appearances than anyone until the record was claimed by David James, and he was capped 85 times for Wales, more than any other outfield player. As a left-sided midfielder with a priceless ability to score goals, he played – for Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United – from 1988 to 2009. And at 41, as trim as ever, he still looks to me as though he could, in that time-honoured football phrase, "do a job". But he tells me that a back operation has diminished the muscles down his right side, putting an end to the prodigious leaping ability that yielded so many headed goals.
I remark that Everton's Tim Cahill, currently doing the same thing for Australia in the Asian Cup, often reminds me of him; not especially tall, but fantastic in the air. "Yeah, he's got a great leap, but more important than that, he only sees the ball. Shearer was the same. He's shorter than me, Shearer, but if you put the ball on the back post, who's going to win it? It's about determination and desire. That's what Cahill has."
We'll come back to Speed's plans for Wales, but for now let's contemplate the chances of a Cahill-less Everton, and for that matter a Dalglish-prepared Liverpool, in Sunday's keenly anticipated Merseyside derby. Speed's father and, indeed, his older son are Liverpool fans, but growing up in north Wales his best friend was John Ratcliffe, cousin of the Everton captain Kevin. So Everton it was, and Everton it has remained, even though his own two-year stint at Goodison Park came to an acrimonious end in 1998.
"There's nothing to say, really," says Speed, when I dredge up the circumstances of his departure, which have long intrigued conspiracy theorists among the Goodison faithful. "I signed a confidentiality clause when I left, and anyway I'm an Evertonian so I would never say bad things about the club. Newcastle came in for me, I wanted to go, and that's all there is to it. I couldn't blame the fans [for booing him when he returned in opposition colours] because they didn't know why I left, but they're great with me now when I go back."
As for the likely outcome of this weekend's derby, Speed has no more idea than the rest of us. "I don't know, though I do know that Kenny's record was always very good in derbies. I love Kenny. He signed me for Newcastle and he's a great fella. Very easy to talk to, very difficult to understand. I want him to do well for Liverpool. But after Sunday."
Sunday's game is at Anfield, but it was at Goodison that Dalglish, as a player, enjoyed his most emphatic derby victory, a 5-0 romp in November 1982. Speed, then an impressionable 13-year-old, was devastated, and recalls it now only because of a story his compatriot and rival candidate for the Wales job, Ian Rush, told him last week. "Rushy and Rats [Kevin Ratcliffe] were best mates, and Rushy scored all five that day [actually, it was merely four]. Afterwards, Rats had to give Rushy a lift home! And when they came out, Rats got more stick off the Everton fans than Rushy did."
Amid our laughter, he adds that he was surprised that Liverpool parted company with Roy Hodgson after barely five months. "Maybe with Rafa [Benitez] it was time for a change, but traditionally they stand by their managers. Straightaway on Sunday [against Manchester United], though, you could see them playing more adventurous football. Kenny always wants to play pass-and-move, quick football. And they'll really want to play for their manager. With that mindset, it's amazing what you can achieve."
He hopes to inspire such loyalty in his own managerial career, and to apply other techniques picked up from the men who managed him. "I learnt a lot tactically from Ruud Gullit. I know he had problems with the other side of things [at Newcastle] but with tactics and positioning, especially with me as a midfielder, he was spot on. And Bobby Robson was the greatest motivator, not so much from what he did, just the way he was. I showed him my backside once, when he took me off, and when I got home I felt so bad. I rang him and said: 'Look gaffer, I'm really sorry.' And he said: 'Don't worry about it, son, these things happen.' He had such a big heart, it just made you roll your sleeves up." Speed's eyes fill with tears. "I'm getting emotional," he says. I ask whether Robson got his name right. A smile. "At the start he used to call me Sheedy, but that was great for me because Kevin Sheedy was one of my heroes."
If the great man were still around, he would doubtless be a tremendous source of wisdom for Speed, even with a Euro 2012 qualifier against England coming up in March. He would also have been able to advise on the rhythms of international management after the daily demands [albeit briefly, in Speed's case at Sheffield United] of managing a club.
"But I'm not missing the day-to-day stuff," Speed says. "Since I've been here I've been busy putting people in place. And Mark Hughes once told me that this job is the perfect grounding for a manager because it gives you time to think. At Sheffield United, playing Saturday, Tuesday, I had to start planning for the Tuesday game before the Saturday game, and as a player that had been foreign to me. "
All the same, and even though his instalment at the FAW offices fortuitously coincides with the prospect of a renewed Home Internationals competition, the words "perfect grounding" rather suggest that he sees the Wales job as a stepping stone, perhaps to the Premier League? "No, I'm fully focused on Wales, and my ambition is to qualify for an international tournament, which as a player I very nearly did in 1993 and 2003."
Then as now, I venture, the Wales team has always comprised at most a handful of players who could get into any international side (Ryan Giggs, Gareth Bale), and lesser fry from the lower divisions. "Yeah, but it's a team thing. We've got Bale, [Craig] Bellamy, [Aaron] Ramsey, but we need 23 or 24 players if we're to achieve anything, and at the moment we have a group with the potential to be together for 10 years."
Next week, Speed has an appointment with Giggs, not to persuade the old-timer to make a playing comeback for his country but in the hope of bringing him into the coaching set-up. "It will be great for the players, the fans and me for Ryan to be involved, but it will be good for him too. I want him to be part of the progression, so when I've gone he can maybe step in."
And what of two of Welsh football's other senior citizens, Robbie Savage and, in yet another spot of bother with the police this week, Cardiff City's Craig Bellamy? "Craig? I watched him last week and he's far too good for the Championship. I saw him at Leeds earlier in the season, and he could've been playing for Real Madrid, he's that good. And Sav? There's always room for the likes of Robbie Savage. He's a fantastic lad, Welsh through and through. I love him to bits. And he's great for the dressing room. Throwing him in there is like throwing in a hand grenade."
Speaking of Welshness, it is always hard to associate north Walians such as Speed with intense patriotism because the accent owes more to Merseyside than the Valleys. But he is as passionate a Welshman as Max Boyce, nonetheless. Indeed, he admits, a little embarrassedly, that in his playing days he would make sure that every time he crossed the border from England he would ensure that Tom Jones was on the car stereo system singing "Green, Green Grass of Home".
The notion that rugby, not football, is the country's principal sporting love does not impress him. "I don't care what the No 1 sport is. I hate this football-rugby thing. I want Wales to win at bowls, darts, everything. We're a small country, we don't need any divisions. I played cricket for Welsh schoolboys, I didn't get in the football team. And I played rugby for Clwyd schools. I thought I was all right, actually. I was a centre, small, but pretty quick. But then we came down to play mid-Glamorgan and we got beat 78-0 or something like that, by lads who had beards." A merry laugh. "I put the rugby ball away after that."
He made his senior debut for Wales in 1990, alongside such giants as Hughes and Rush, Ratcliffe and Neville Southall. "And Dean Saunders, who always led the mickey-taking, a bit like Sav now. Deano was one of those who made you look a good player. He'd run on to a 40-yard ball and people would say 'what a ball that was from Speed', but it wasn't the ball, it was the run."
A composite Welsh side from the last 25 years or so would be formidable indeed, but Speed can't play hypotheticals. He hopes his 85-cap record will fall, perhaps to Bale, or Joe Ledley, though in any case he is prouder of captaining his country more than anybody else. And what pride there will be if he ever gets to manage his older son, Ed, currently in the Under-14s development squad. The younger boy, 12-year-old Tommy, is a boxer, English champion at 40 kilos last year.
"Until they were six and seven, they were both mad keen on Newcastle. Then we moved to Chester, where they got a bit of stick for that. I told them they could change, but would have to support one team through thick and thin, for ever, as long as it was Everton. But Ed chose Liverpool. And Tommy chose Arsenal. He said: 'Dad, I like the way they play football.' And I thought, that's a great answer, I can't argue with that."
Life in the fast lane: Gary Speed's career
Born 8 September 1969, Mancot, Wales
1988-96 Leeds United
1998-2004 Newcastle United
2004-08 Bolton Wanderers
2008-10 Sheffield United
2010 Sheffield United
* Speed was a product of Leeds' youth system and made his League debut in 1989. He went on to make 248 appearances, scoring 39 goals, and was a key component of their title-winning midfield in 1991-92, alongside Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and David Batty.
* A £3.5m move to Everton followed in 1996, but he failed to settle and joined Newcastle two years later for £5.5m. He was an FA Cup finalist twice with the Magpies and also played for the club in the Champions League in 2002-03.
* After joining Bolton in 2004, Speed became the first player to reach 500 Premier League appearances in 2006. After a brief spell as coach, he moved to Sheffield United before retiring last summer. His managerial career began with the Blades in August. He stayed for four months before succeeding John Toshack as Wales manager. His first match will be against England in March.
* Speed won 85 caps for Wales, scoring seven goals. He made his debut in 1990 against Costa Rica, before retiring, aged 35, in October 2004.
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