They have waited for the Premier League in Wales for many a year, but never will all those hopes, all that yearning for the big time seem so utterly meaningless as here at the Liberty Stadium yesterday. Football remembered Gary Speed in its own, some might suggest, unusual way; but no one in attendance could have been left in any doubt as to how highly the national manager was respected.
The minute's applause said it all. After all the agonising and soul-searching in the boardroom and at the Premier League – and dare we suggest it, at Sky HQ – it was time for the stadium to pay its respects. The gentleman with the microphone asked the fans to obey the traditional period of silence, yet after a few moments so the claps rang out. "There's only one Gary Speed," went the chant in as rousing a send-off as is possible from an audience who knew the deceased as a sportsman.
Of course, there were young men on the pitch who knew him as rather more than that. The pictures of Shay Given told the agonising tale. Given crossing himself in the tunnel and then appearing inconsolable as the ground showed its appreciation. "He was so emotional we didn't know if he was going to play," said James Collins, the sole Welsh international in the Villa ranks. On the other side of the centre circle stood three young men – Joe Allen, Ashley Williams and Neil Taylor – who knew Speed in his latter guise. As a mentor, a guardian, the sculptor of their dreams even.
Speed was often referred to as the ultimate professional and those who knew him best performed as professionals do in a scenario which seemed almost surreal. Outside the Welsh flag fluttered at half-mast in the gentle breeze, while the lenses focused on the dejection. "He was doing a fantastic job as the Wales manager," announced the man with the mic. The feeling of waste was palpable and, undeniably, it was mixed with a large dose of discomfort as the fight embarked for three points.
Yes, the question was asked, and will carry on being asked, should this match have gone ahead? Confirmation of the 42-year-old's death only reached the press room at 12.16pm, just over an hour before kick-off, when the email from the Football Association of Wales made all the inboxes buzz. Soon the fans out on the concourse wore the same blank expression as the media. "I saw him on Football Focus yesterday," summed up the general incredulity. Up in the gantries, the former Wales manager Bobby Gould choked back the tears as he provided immediate reaction to Talksport, while John Hartson, Speed's former national team-mate, went home, too crestfallen to act as Five Live's summariser. Kevin Ratcliffe remained for the game. Speed delivered his newspapers and the pair had always been close. Ratcliffe played golf with Speed on Friday.
Brendan Rodgers explained the decision to go ahead. "People will grieve and show their respects in different ways but our message was we wanted to play the game as a mark of respect for a great football man," said the Swansea manager, who spoke to Speed last week. "The news came so close to kick-off. What was important was the mindset of the players. The three boys who played under him were fantastic, although I could tell it affected Joe." Said Williams: "Gary's life was football – we wanted to play for that reason."
For their part, Villa would have been prepared to postpone, if Swansea had so wanted. "We would have understood," said Alex McLeish. "Too many wheels were already in motion – that was the official line I heard." His principal concern was Given, who with his family, would holiday with the Speeds. The Irishman found out while still at the team hotel. "I was worried we would lose Shay," said McLeish. "Collins was as white as a sheet and Jermaine [Jenas] played as his midfield partner at Newcastle – so these guys were distraught. I asked them if they wanted to play and when they said they did, I told them to make it a tribute to Gary."
Inevitably, the atmosphere was flat. The Liberty is normally a cacophony of hymns, chants and verbals. The lack of intensity was summarised in the 0-0 scoreline. There were chances at both ends, with Given making a stunning save as the minutes counted down from Leroy Lita. "It was fitting that it was a point each," said Rodgers. "It would have been difficult to celebrate a victory at such shocking news. It'll take everyone a few days to understand it. We take our point, but it's about more than that today. It's a life lost of a truly great man."
Later, Gould walked into the press room and talked of the midfielder he first made Wales captain. "He was a great skipper, a great player, a great lad," said Gould, his eyes red, his hands shaking. "He was in the top three I ever worked with – as a player and a manager. He'd play left-back for you, he'd play left-wing for you, he'd play anywhere for you. You know, we'll all get in our cars and drive away from here tonight with one question in our heads : 'Why?'."
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