Speed determined to stay in the fast lane

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The Independent Football

Sam Allardyce had just called him "a robot" and Gary Speed was not quite sure how to take it. "Is that a compliment?" he asked on Friday evening as the Reebok Stadium prepared to boot in its new season at lunchtime today.

And in a way the self-styled "Gaffer" had indeed gaffed in damning the 35-year-old he had just signed for another two years with his highest praise - Speed is so much more than a robot. For a start, this side of the classic Yul Brynner film Westworld it is held true that automatons must have a power source that will eventually run out.

Well, Speed does not seem to. After all, here is a midfielder who is, by some distance, the most experienced player in the Premiership, having played 453 games in the élite league's 13 seismic years. (Incredibly, this works out at him missing an average of just four games a season since 1992-93).

Then there is everything else Speed has that C3P0 could only go all R2D2 about: that loyalty, that desire, that depth of often overlooked talent that Sir Alex Ferguson has long been an unashamed admirer of and about which another knight, Sir Bobby Robson, once so famously commented: "Am I going to sell Speed? Where the hell am I going to find another player with a left foot and a head?"

For once, Sir Bobby was making perfect sense, as he did when he lamented Newcastle United's extraordinary decision to offload the Welshman at the beginning of last season. Perhaps the 61 games he played for Newcastle that season were not quite enough for the chairman, Freddie Shepherd, and why should they be when you have such selfless individuals on your staff as Kieron Dyer?

But whatever, like his Magpies, Speed is not bitter. "I certainly did not want to leave," he said. "But that's football and I've no regrets. You can't afford any in this game. You've just got to grin and get on with it."

Except, dig deep enough into perhaps the most focused psyche in football and there is the barest trace of a what-if, one that is bound to reappear again at 1.30pm today when he peers across the centre circle and glimpses the beloved blue of his youth. "Yeah, I am an Evertonian, have been since I was a boy," he said. "And, if I was being truthful, if I could change some things I would."

A long-standing confidentiality clause restricts him from revealing exactly what went on in Merseyside in those 18 months from 1996; suffice to say that his premature departure cannot have been anything to do with commitment or fitness. At Leeds he made 248 League appearances, in Newcastle 213, and for Bolton last season he started all the matches but the away fixture at Man-chester City - and even there he came on in the first half. "Not bad for an old bloke," he said.

So how is this old bloke still motivated and what in the name of Pete String-fellow keeps this millionaire constantly up for it? "It's not the money, regardless of how much we're being paid now," he said, "And believe me, the salary goes down as you get older. No, the desire to get up and win things remains as strong as it always has, despite me not winning any silverware since the League and Charity Shield with Leeds. Sure, the recovery time between games might hurt a bit more, but that's only because my training is harder nowadays."

His tireless regime includes "yoga twice a week", and he also confesses "to grabbing hold of any daft idea that may be going round the place just to see if it works". But essentially there is no secret to Speed's longevity. "It's just hard work. I remember training with Gordon Strachan when he was 33 or 34 years old and I couldn't keep up with him then. That showed me what you can get out of yourself. You know, we are athletes and we are expected to look after ourselves. If you're not an athlete, you shouldn't be in football."

It is a mantra that he is certain to relay if, and when, he goes into a managerial career at the end of his current playing deal in 2007. "If 37 is the end," he says with a grin. "I have done some coaching with the reserves, but only once or twice, and we will see what happens when the time comes around. I haven't any long-term goals."

Not even to reach the mythical figure of 500 Premiership appearances that last week's contract extension has now brought tantalisingly in his sights? "Honestly, I haven't really thought about it. My only goal is to finish in the top six or above and qualify for Europe again. The fans expect us to do that at least. At Bolton none of our goals are personal. They are all for the team."

If Speed is a robot, then Allardyce will have 10 more, please. Year of make not important.

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