Moscow on map for marathon man Speed

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The Independent Football

It was another eventful European night for Gary Speed in the St Jakob-Park Stadium on Thursday night. Twice Newcastle United came from behind before emerging 3-2 winners in their Uefa Cup second-round tie against Basle. The veteran dynamo in the heart of their midfield was as euphoric as his young team-mates. "Some other teams may have collapsed after the way Basle started, but not us," Speed said. He has, however, seen it all before.

His first taste of European club action dates back to 16 September 1992, the night Leeds United lost 3-0 in Stuttgart, when Eric Cantona gave away a goal for Howard Wilkinson's newly crowned champions and was replaced by Carl Shutt at half-time. Speed led the fightback in the return leg, opening the scoring in a 4-1 win which gave Stuttgart an aggregate success by virtue of their away goal - until it came to light that they had fielded one foreign player too many. Leeds won a play-off in the Nou Camp 1-0.

So it was just another European adventure for the 34-year-old Welshman on Thursday night. It will be just another Premiership engagement for him at Stamford Bridge this afternoon. Newcastle's visit to Chelsea will be Premiership match No 388 for Speed. No other player has made more appearances since the formation of the Premier League 11 years ago.

And no other outfield player has made more appearances for Wales. After Basle and the Bridge, it's on to Moscow next Saturday for Speed. The first leg of Wales's Euro 2004 play-off against Russia will be inter-national match No 78 for their captain - 14 short of the record number Neville Southall played in goal for the Principality. It will, however, be a first for Speed, who made his debut as a 20-year-old substitute for Glyn Hodges in a 1-0 win against Costa Rica at Ninian Park on 20 May 1990.

"I've been fortunate to get around most of the world through football, but I've never been to Moscow," Speed reflected. "I'm excited about the prospect, but all the players realise that we must perform a lot better than we have lately."

According to Mark Hughes, Wales's talismanic striker turned managerial marvel, the two play-off matches are "possibly the two most important matches in the history of Welsh football". The trouble is, Wales go into them having lost the momentum that took them seven points clear of Italy at the peak of their qualifying campaign. They finished four points behind the Italians in Group Nine, taking just a single point from their last four fixtures. Injuries and suspensions conspired against them, but there was also a worrying loss of form, underlined by the 3-2 defeat in their final match, at home to Serbia and Montenegro last month - their first loss in 10 matches at the Millennium Stadium.

"It's not a worry that we haven't won in a while because we know we have a good team and good players," Speed maintained. "We are a confident bunch who believe in our own abilities, and when you go into the play-offs of a major tournament you can't be lacking confidence."

It must be a worry, though, that Russia won all four of their matches in Moscow, scoring 15 goals in the process. According to Speed, though: "If we start going all defensive in Moscow, then we will have problems. I really think that we have an advantage playing the away leg first. What bigger incentive do we possibly need to take a good result back to a packed house in the Millennium Stadium four days later?"

There will be a 70,000 crowd in the Welsh national stadium for the home leg on Wednesday week, and a big gathering there for the away leg too. The Millennium Stadium will be opening its doors for its first-ever big-screen beam-back on Saturday.

Before the Russians, though, Speed has to tackle the team the Russian billionaire built - in a Premiership contest that underlines his Peter Pan status. He was a teenager earning £90 a week when he made his debut for Leeds, alongside the likes of Mervyn Day, Peter Haddock and Vince Hillaire, in a goalless draw against Oldham at Elland Road on 6 May 1989. This afternoon he will be playing against millionaires and, more likely than not, still proving his own worth at the highest level.

"I've seen Gary's true value during my time at Newcastle," Sir Bobby Robson said. "He's a totally committed, courageous, durable and hard-working player. There's no sign of his first-team career coming to an end. None whatsoever."

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