Gary Speed's teenaged sons will lead out Wales in the company of Aaron Ramsey and Craig Bellamy tonight, after their grandfather has given the team-talk in the dressing room. For very obvious and understandable reasons this friendly will resemble no other as the country pays tribute to their deceased manager.
The Football Association of Wales are confident the Cardiff City Stadium will be full for the memorial match planned in the wake of Speed's suicide last November. With Ed, 14, and Tommy, 13, acting as mascots and Roger, Speed's mentor and father, addressing the side this is certain to be a night of high emotion. Costa Rica are the opponents, the first country Speed faced in his 85 caps.
After planning to play a backseat role in the stands, Chris Coleman, Speed's successor, will be in the dugout. His involvement is largely because of the exit of Speed's assistant, Raymond Verheijen, last Friday. The Dutchman accused the FAW of "political and destructive games" and so, whether unintentionally or not, ensured that a build-up which was supposed to concern one man would be marked by controversy as well as sentiment. There has also been intrigue as the question arose whether this will be Bellamy's last game for Wales. The 32-year-old has admitted he is considering his future.
Bellamy, who is extremely close to the Speed family, was handed the armband after Ramsey was forced to pull out with an ankle injury. Coleman said: "It is fitting. Aaron is our captain and he will be leading the team out with Gary's two sons, Tom and Ed, and Craig is captain on the night, which is right thing to do and it is also a nice gesture from Ashley Williams."
Williams is Wales's official vice-captain, but after talking to Coleman he agreed it was an appropriate role for Bellamy. Coleman said he was "hopeful and confident" Bellamy would make "a positive decision". Coleman revealed that he had had talks with him. Apparently these conversations went well, although the country is no nearer knowing if the left-winger will extend his international career into the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup which begins in September. "I will do my best to keep Craig, because we are a better team and squad with him about," said Coleman.
However, he refused to discuss the Verheijen saga, and said: "I don't want the spotlight or headlines to take away from this match in Gary's memory."
In truth, many things are on hold until this tribute is out of the way. Monday was the first time the squad had been together since the 42-year-old's body was discovered in his garage. Coleman said: "The squad did come together for the first time and we watched a montage of Gary's moments as a player and a manager," said Coleman. "It was touching and needed to be in done."
Ramsey summed up the determined mood in the camp. "All the players want to give it their best to remember a great guy and a manager who started us playing really good football," said Ramsey. "I'm disappointed I can't be part of this game, but I really felt that wanted to be here."
The night will begin at 7pm with the Welsh band the Super Furry Animals, followed by the former Alarm frontman Mike Peters, who will sing the adopted Wales song "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", and then, the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, as well as the Risca Male Voice Choir. A minute's applause surrounding an image of Speed covering the centre circle will precede the game, together with the national anthem from Courtenay Hamilton.
At half-time more than 50 former Wales internationals who played with Speed will be introduced to the crowd, including Ryan Giggs – who is working for Sky Sports at the game – and Mark Hughes. From the stadium's largest hospitality box, Speed's family and friends will look on, including his widow, Louise.
And in the midst of all this, Wales will try to keep themselves on the good run of form which has yielded four wins from the last five.
"It's a friendly leading up to the big one against Belgium on 7 September, but there's no getting around it, there's a different slant to this game," Coleman said. "But I knew Gary as well as anybody and he would have wanted us to win. And to keep going where he left off."
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