Gary Speed could be forgiven some trepidation as he surveys the season ahead. The Sheffield United player-coach has not only his 40th birthday around the corner – on 8 September – but an even greater landmark, retirement, also looms for the Welshman.
The 2009-10 campaign will almost certainly be the last in a career of remarkable longevity for Speed, yet he is facing the future with much the same surefootedness he displayed with those trademark runs into opposition penalty boxes in his pomp as one of the Premier League's finest goalscoring midfielders.
Sidelined by a back problem since last November, Speed is uncertain whether he will return to action before his playing contract expires next year but there is no fretting; he is busy focusing on his fledgling coaching career. "It has been a great help to me, I am fully enjoying it. I have not made the decision on my future yet but probably will do in the coming months," said Speed, who recently obtained his Uefa Pro-licence.
"I had a discectomy in my back which is when the disc has come out and pressed on to the nerve and damaged it." Though he is pain-free and able to run, "the nerve is not activating some of the muscles in my leg so I don't have the speed or power I need to play football".
"I wish I was playing but frustrating is the wrong word," added Speed, relishing his first coaching post since a brief spell assisting Sammy Lee at Bolton Wanderers. Indeed, he suggests he is enjoying his football "even more now because I am doing a bit on the other side. It is very rewarding at times. I've got a lot to thank [United manager] Kevin Blackwell for and obviously I can learn from him".
If reticent about his managerial ambitions – he denied he was interviewed for the Swansea post in June – Speed has long been looking and learning. The Berlin Wall was still standing when he made his Leeds debut in May 1989 and, in the two decades since, he has played under 15 managers – including Howard Wilkinson at Leeds, Joe Royle at Everton, Mark Hughes with Wales and the late, great Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle United. Speed paid particular tribute to Robson, who passed away on Friday: "He was a great man, a great guy and a great coach and he made his players feel about 10 feet tall. You wanted to go out and play for him and would run through a brick wall to do that.
"I've learned from every manager I've been with, the good and bad really – bad is not the right word, but things I'd implement and things I wouldn't. The later you go on in your career the more you take notice as you have an eye on your future."
Speed certainly noted Sam Allardyce's methods at Bolton, which helped prolong his top-flight career until he was 38. "What Sam was good at was that he got the best out of his team. Coming to a later age I was quite impressed and I implemented some of it as a player and it made me feel better," said Speed, who took up yoga at the Reebok. "I did a lot at Bolton and it really worked for me."
Long before Big Sam's sports science, a "major influence" was Gordon Strachan, his veteran colleague in Leeds' title-winning midfield of 1992. And not just for his diet of porridge and bananas; the Scot even kept detailed records of his pre-season running times, dating back to his Aberdeen days. "Gordon was doing things in the early Nineties that people have just started doing now. I was fortunate enough to play alongside him and see how someone in the latter stages of his career looked after himself. I was clever enough to watch him and take it on board."
It served him well and Speed remains the outfield player with the most Premier League appearances (535). Perfectly qualified to consider the sport's evolution over the past two decades, he cites "the pace, fitness and athleticism of players" as the biggest change. "Every player is an athlete, and if you are not going to look after yourself in a certain way, you are going to get found out."
Looking ahead, Speed's aim for this season is that United "go one better than last year" when they finished third in the Championship then lost the play-off final to Burnley. "We missed out by three points and hopefully we can take the experience and disappointment and learn from that. If we'd had a slightly better start, maybe we'd have got there automatically."
Though the Sheffield club have sold full-backs Kyle Naughton and Kyle Walker to Tottenham Hotspur, the latter may well spend the season back at Bramall Lane on loan, and Blackwell has recruited seven new faces – among them the £3m striker Ched Evans from Manchester City – with Glen Little and Leroy Lita potentially to follow. They start on Friday at a Middlesbrough side whom Speed places on a long list of possible contenders.
"There could be a dozen teams pushing for promotion. The teams coming down – West Bromwich have done it before and Newcastle and Middlesbrough, though they may find it tough, have good squads. Then you look at teams like QPR and Ipswich who have a bit of money, Leicester coming up might be flying, Peterborough have a great manager and then there are teams from last year like Cardiff and Swansea." As for his own side, "what we have in our favour is the attitude and application of the players, they all want to do well and they all want to achieve". Just like Speed himself.
Life and times
Name: Gary Andrew Speed.
Born: 8 September 1969, Mancot, Wales.
Club career: Made his League debut on 6 May 1989 in a goalless draw with Oldham Athletic at Elland Road in the old Second Division. In his club career he has played 840 matches and scored 134 goals: Leeds (312 games, 57 goals), Everton (65, 17), Newcastle (284, 40), Bolton (139, 14) and Sheffield United (40, 6).
International career: Wales' most-capped outfield player (85 games, 7 goals). Only goalkeeper Neville Southall has more caps (92). Recommended for the manager's job by Mark Hughes when he stepped down in 2004.
League leader: Held the record of most Premier League appearances with 535 until February 2009 when Portsmouth goalkeeper David James overtook him.
Paper boy: At the age of 14, Speed had a round. Former Everton captain Kevin Ratcliffe recalls: "He lived on my street, and my paper was not always on time, which was no use if you were a footballer leaving early for training."Reuse content