Gary Speed remembered: Footballing great died three years ago today

COMMENT: It would be a fitting tribute if Wales were to qualify for Euro 2016

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The Independent Football

Three years ago today, November 27 2011, news broke of Wales legend Gary Speed being found dead in his home; news that left the footballing world shocked.

Speed was only 42 years of age, he had just begun what would surely be, a successful spell as manager of Wales. The Welshman was inevitably proud of his roots and where he came from and managing his national side must have been at the very top of his to do list and the pinnacle of his career.

Before that, Speed had enjoyed a glittering career at Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton, gracing the football field with his hard-working, honest performances, whilst leaving his heart compressed within supporters’ hearts and memories for a lifetime.

It wasn’t just that big, smiley grin on a touch-line that stood out a mile that gave him the image of a ‘Mr Nice Guy’. He really was a caring, supportive person; to his teammates, the players he coached, the staff he worked with and of course his wife Louise and his two sons Tommy and Eddie.

‘Speedo’, as he was affectionately known by his Welsh comrades, was an extremely talented footballer. A footballer who played with such professionalism; there was no diving, time-wasting pettiness or any other traits that have plagued the modern day game, in his locker.  Despite his unbelievable levels of concentration in matches, the committed level of focus etched on his face in games, you could see beneath the expertise there was a cheeky grin that exhibited his love for the game.

The left-footed midfielder who enjoyed spells in central midfield and as a left-back was known for having an eye for goal, particularly those bullet headers he possessed; or that memorable volley he scored to help Leeds defeat VfB Stuttgart in their first round European cup tie in 1992.  He enjoyed 312 appearances for Leeds United in which he scored 57 goals.

Moving on from the club he started his career at, Speed was snapped up by fellow Premier League side Everton, where he became the Toffees’ joint top goalscorer and Player of the Year in his first season before being named captain the following year.

As Speed’s potential grew as a footballer, so did the respect people had for him - as did his price tag. Newcastle signed him for £5.5 million in February 1998. Successful spells followed thereafter at Bolton, where he became the first player to reach 500 Premier League appearances by featuring in Wanderers’ 4-0 win over West Ham – before spending the last two years of his playing career at Sheffield United.

Whilst his loyalties lay with all the clubs mentioned above, a big part of his playing career was devoted to his nation. Speed made 85 caps for Wales, 44 of them as captain; making him the second highest capped player for his nation behind goalkeeper Neville Southall on 92.

Speed announced his retirement from professional football in May 2010, news that saddened all those teenagers born in the 90’s who had grown up with Speed being an ever present Premier League Great on their TV screens.

But this wasn’t to be the last time we’d get to see Speed lace up his boots and take to the field. People forget that it doesn’t just take a successful spell as a player to be given the opportunity to return to a former club in a coaching role. If every player did that we’d have a conveyor belt of players going straight into a coaching role as soon as they weren’t good enough to play in the Premier League.

Speed was different. Whilst his playing career spanned an impressive 22 years, you always had that sense that Speed would one day pass on his experience to the upcoming youth in the form of a managerial role.  From being named in the PFA Team of the Year in the 1992/93 season at Leeds to captain of Everton, to being made a part-time first team coach at Bolton in 2007 when Sam Allardyce stepped down – the signs of management had always been on the horizon.

Three games into the 2010/11 season, Sheffield United announced Speed as their new manager on a three-year contract. Sheffield United could only keep hold of their ex-player for a mere four months before the Wales FA came knocking on the door looking for a new manager. Three days after agreeing to become Wales manager, Speed received an MBE from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace.

Despite a 3-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland in his first game in charge, Speed went on to win his third game in a row and his fifth in seven matches as Wales beat Norway 4-1 in a friendly in Cardiff.

And then it happened.  Having appeared as a guest on BBC’s Football focus and then gone to watch Newcastle play Manchester United in the afternoon on the 26 November, his wife Louise, discovered Speed hanging from his garage 7am the next morning.

The news shocked the footballing community, there wasn’t an explanation. Reports of an argument with his wife before and only speculative rumours of depression were banded around but three years on, nobody really knows what happened and most frustratingly, why.

His legacy continues today though, in all those he knew and in particular the current Wales national team. Whilst the initial aim for the national side to honour his death by qualifying for the 2014 World Cup didn’t work out, Chris Coleman’s side currently sit second in Group B of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. Coleman has done a remarkable job, but credit must be given to Speed who started the upwards development of that side, with many of the players chosen by Speed remaining in the current side today.

It would be a fitting tribute to Gary Speed if Wales were to qualify - they have only ever once in their history qualified for the European tournament back in 1976.

That legacy continues to grow in football today, particularly in all those young players he nurtured and passed on his knowledge to.

Gary Speed will never be forgotten.