Monday 28 November 2011
Brian Viner: Tragic news that no one saw coming
The man I met 10 months ago seemed witty, charming and self-possessed
In January this year I went to the offices of the Welsh Football Association to meet Gary Speed. It was the first interview he had given to a national newspaper since becoming manager of Wales the previous month, and I reminded him of a comment he had made in 2003, when asked if he could see himself one day managing his country. "If everything in life was perfect, yeah, but it's not," had been his reply. He smiled when I brought this up. "That was pretty profound for me," he said.
Tragically, it now appears that managing his country, and indeed making demonstrable progress in the job, did not mean that everything in life was perfect. Yet he seemed, on that cold winter's day in Cardiff, like a man who had pretty much everything he wanted. He talked proudly about his two sons, both talented at sport. He grinned at the suggestion that he might one day manage his older boy, Ed, who was in the Welsh Under-14s development squad, and told me about his younger son, Tommy, a boxer, who was English champion at 40 kilos last year.
"Until they were six and seven, they were both mad keen on Newcastle," said Speed, who joined the Magpies from his boyhood club, Everton, in 1998. "Then we moved to Chester, where they got a bit of stick for that. I told them they could change, but would have to support one team through thick and thin, for ever, as long as it was Everton. But Ed chose Liverpool. And Tommy chose Arsenal. He said: 'Dad, I like the way they play football'. And I thought, that's a great answer, I can't argue with that."
Speed's own father had been a Liverpool supporter, but growing up in north Wales his best friend was John Ratcliffe, cousin of the Everton captain, Kevin. So Everton it was, and Everton it remained, even though his own two-year stint at Goodison Park came to an acrimonious end.
Some Everton fans, who thought – wrongly – that his abrupt departure was an act of disloyalty, gave him a torrid reception when he returned to Goodison but, in the wake of yesterday's shocking reports, the message boards, predictably, were full of plaudits. One fan recalled upbraiding Speed when he saw him at a service station climbing into his red Porsche, suggesting that no Evertonian should ever drive a red car. "It's Wales red, not Liverpool red," Speed replied.
He was as passionate a Welshman as Max Boyce, and admitted to me that in his playing days he would make sure that every time he crossed the border from England, Tom Jones was on the car stereo system singing "Green, Green Grass of Home". The notion that rugby, not football, is the Principality's main sporting love did not impress him.
"I hate this football-rugby thing," he said. "I want Wales to win at bowls, darts, everything. We're a small country, we don't need any divisions. I played cricket for Welsh schoolboys, I didn't get in the football team. And I played rugby for Clwyd schools. I thought I was all right, actually. I was a centre, small, but pretty quick. But then we came down to play mid-Glamorgan and we got beat 78-0 or something like that, by lads who had beards. I put the rugby ball away after that."
Speed chuckled at that memory, and bantered merrily with me and the photographer while he was having his picture taken. Whatever personal demons drove him to end his life, the man I met 10 months ago seemed witty, charming and self-possessed. It is unspeakably sad news.
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