Game unites to mourn Speed

Sudden death of popular Wales manager at 42 stuns football and leads to tributes at Anfield and the Liberty Stadium

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The Independent Football

Disbelief at the death of Gary Speed yesterday was perhaps felt most keenly by those who had heard the Wales manager regale them, on Saturday lunchtime, with the story of how he and Michael Owen had once met the Queen together in their happy days at Hawarden High School.

"It's hard to acknowledge that this has happened," said the BBC's Dan Walker, one of several who bore witness to that story on the Football Focus set in Salford. Speed told them he wanted to return to the programme before Christmas; that he had resolved to tweet more because the TV appearance had increased his followers by 3,000. He spoke of some golf planned for this week and of his delight at the football progress of his sons, Tommy and Ed.

Robbie Savage, who played alongside Speed for Wales, remembered a mentor, who had helped him through the trauma of retiring from football and had texted him on Saturday morning to wish him well on the Strictly Come Dancing set. "Don't let Craig [Revel Horwood] give you a 'two'," Speed joked. Savage devoted his 606 programme to his friend last night. "The world has lost a great man," he said.

Kevin Gallagher recalled how Speed had taught him the rudiments of the guitar, when they played together at Newcastle United, where they had roomed for two years.

Dean Saunders, the Doncaster Rovers manager, was another room-mate, with Wales. "I just feel for his wife [Louise] and his dad. I feel sorry for them more than the football," Saunders said yesterday.

Untold numbers of players talked of Speed shepherding them through the ranks. "He helped me through, he was an absolute machine – the best professional in football," said Newcastle defender Steven Taylor, who came into the first team at St James' Park when Speed was the side's senior professional. "He had that aura about him. He always had time for the young lads and helped them feel good about themselves."

Speed was a key part of the Leeds United side which won the 1992 First Division title under Howard Wilkinson, arguably the pinnacle of a long and successful playing career at the top level. "The players I worked with represented all colours of the rainbow in terms of character but in Gary's case he was a star in the true sense," Wilkinson reflected.

"For him – at 42 – to leave us is such a tragic loss. I've rarely come across a better balanced, lovely, genuine person. He was a terrific player – not as gifted as some but he made the most of everything he had. Worst of all for me I knew his parents, in particular his dad, his lovely wife and family – I just find it very, very difficult to come to terms with."

Joe Royle, who signed him "when his time had run out at Leeds and he was ready for a change", as the former manager remembered it, recalled how "he wanted to come and he was always a Blue. He was part of the North Wales-Everton supporters' band and from the minute he came he was perfect for the club."

It was Kenny Dalglish who took him to Newcastle United. "He was a smashing lad, really well respected and a lot of people in football will be disappointed and saddened," the Liverpool manager said.

And there were another 100 appearances between 2004 and 2008 at Bolton Wanderers. "Not only was he a top-class professional but he was a wonderful person," said Bolton's chairman, Phil Gartside.

The loss is felt on so many levels for Wales, for whom Speed was rebuilding an international side, and for Aston Villa's James Collins, one of his international players, the loss was all the keener for playing in Swansea yesterday. "It was very hard to play today. We knew two hours before, just when we were getting to the ground. It was heartbreaking, you know? It was a good game playing here in Wales, probably one he would have been watching."

The image of Owen and Speed, standing either side of the Queen, still adorns a wall in Hawarden High School and the two men have raised families in the place where they once grew up. "We waved at each other a couple of days ago dropping our kids off at school," Owen said. "I'm numb. He has died aged 42. So sad."

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