James Lawton: He never let pressure show – that makes it hard to accept
In all his time as a deeply respected player Gary Speed seldom, if ever, gave a hint of vulnerability
Even after allowing that some famous, hugely rewarded footballers might lead lives of desperation in varying degrees of quiet, it would still have been a huge reach to imagine Gary Speed could have been one of them.
There were many reasons to be horrified by yesterday's news that the 42-year-old manager of the Wales national team had apparently taken his own life but perhaps this was the most shocking.
In all his time as a notably undemonstrative, but deeply respected member of his celebrated trade, Gary Speed seldom, if ever, gave a hint of vulnerability.
He was the rare animal in the football jungle. He cut his own path, lived by his own values. In a hard and volatile business, he conducted himself with a superb and easy professionalism. If there were pressures and disillusionment and the classic fear that one serious injury might ruin his way of life, he wore such worries lightly.
Out on the field, where he played more than 20 years with distinction for Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton, a brief Indian summer with Sheffield United, and as a young manager of brilliant potential, his public face was invariably composed and agreeable. If football was indeed hard and often precipitous, it didn't offer anything he couldn't handle. That, anyway, was the overpowering conviction of each old team-mate and opponent and friend stepping forward to speak of the man who never seemed to lose his balance, who appeared to have made a pact with himself that he would always take the best of football, something he had been devoted to since boyhood, and live with the rest.
He had done it so conspicuously, unerringly well right to the moment Cheshire police made their stunning announcement.
One friend said, "That this should happen is just unthinkable because of everyone you knew, in any walk of life, in any situation, you would have to say he would have been the last one you might have thought could have done something like this. When you saw him on the television he was the same guy you saw watching his boys play schoolboy football and talking with other parents. There was nothing starry about Gary. In that way big-time football didn't seem to have touched him."
Many good judges within the game believed he might have been on the point of making a significant impact as a manager. In his first year in charge of Wales, for whom he played 85 times in midfield with a balance of hard-edged physicality and skill, the perennial also-rans of international football were showing signs of moving back towards a level they last enjoyed more than 50 years ago, when great players like John Charles and Ivor Allchurch inspired a notable impact on the 1958 World Cup.
Thumbscrews would not have induced Gary Speed to make such claims, but he did admit to excitement over his young captain, Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal and Tottenham superstar Gareth Bale. The challenges of the football field could not, of course, have been more remote yesterday as relatives and friends comforted Gary Speed's wife Louise and his two sons, Tommy and Ed.
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