It was strange enough in 2010 when Gary Speed was awarded the M.B.E. The flash winger I remember from Leeds’ championship team didn’t seem like the type who would get an honour from the Queen; and besides, wasn’t he still only about twenty-four? The way people talked about him seemed odd too: Speed had become a stalwart, a veteran, a seasoned campaigner. This didn’t sound like the kid with the wet-look perm in the poster I used to have on my wall. But the statistics are all there to prove it: 677 appearances, the vast majority at the very highest level, in a career that lasted twenty-two years; Speed was still turning out in Sheffield United’s midfield in his forties.
Gary Speed never looked like a stalwart. Maybe that’s why I return so easily to the times when Speed was winning ‘Barclays Young Eagle of the Month’ back in 1992: he always looked exactly like he did then. There was no visible difference between the man in a suit and tie, standing on the touchline, managing Wales, and the boy who used to throw himself into David Batty’s arms after smashing in a volley. The relaxed, smiling guy on Football Focus on Saturday was no different to the kid who used to set hearts fluttering on Question of Sport. Nothing about Gary Speed had changed; except that, it now seems, something very significant to Gary had.
Speed’s never-changing appearance and eternally humble nature makes it easy, even in the teeth of the sadness, to concentrate on what a good player Gary Speed was for Leeds United. Howard Wilkinson didn’t always seem sure about him, but the teenage girls of Yorkshire certainly were. In England’s greatest midfield Strachan was the heart, McAllister was the brain, Batty was the brawn and Speed was, well, Gary Speed was the sex. The poster magazines always used to put Ryan Giggs on one side of their big pull-outs, and Gary Speed on the other; for young Leeds fans there was an extra bit of pleasure in drawing a beard on Giggs, turning his face to the wall, and letting Speed take his rightful place. And besides, Speed was better. With space in front of him, Gary Speed was unstoppable down the wing: he’d scamper away from fullbacks with the ball at this feet and either swing a perfect cross onto Chapman’s head, without even breaking stride, or, like against Sheffield United in 1990, he’d smash the ball across the goalkeeper and into the net. That goal, and the infamous “Go on Gary Speed, get one yourself, son!” commentary, summed up his youthful promise. David Batty, small though he was, had taken over Leeds’ midfield as if he’d owned it from the very start – a small, old head dictating games in his teens. Gary Speed had lagged behind him, only showing his potential in flashes, but the Elland Road crowd could feel that he was special, and willed him to be good: it wasn’t just the commentators willing him to go on, son; it was the whole club.
It’s sometimes forgotten that the Championship year was only Speed’s second full season in the first team. From the very start of 1991/92, he looked exceptionally confident and assured. It was still only August when, at the Dell, Speed scored twice in a 4-0 demolition of Southampton. His first was characteristic: spotting a loose ball in the penalty area, he instinctively wellied it past the keeper. His second was a beauty. After controlling a Chapman knock-down, Speed seemed to temporarily halt the game. The Southampton players didn’t come near him as the Leeds players ran into attacking positions to receive a pass, while Speed nudged the ball gently to his left foot. It was like watching a private moment between Speed, the ball, and the goal. His shot sailed into the net, like a particularly well aimed paper plane. Even in his celebration, Speed’s nature showed through: some players would have run a lap of honour after a goal like that, but Speed raised his hand and grinned, and almost looked a little embarrassed until Dorigo high-fived him and Gary’s face broke into a smile – he just seemed happy to have made Tony happy. Speed added finesse to his untuned promise that season, able to control a match, make a decision, to head a ball better than any other midfielder I’ve seen, a key part of the best midfield I’ve seen. Right to left; 7, 4, 10, 11; Strachan, Batty, McAllister, Speed. They were the best there was.
He had his bad moments at Leeds, of course: returning after the league title win with that daft faux-Italian mullet suggested he was getting a bit carried away. Speed used to suffer for his versatility, too, as Wilkinson played him in every position except goalkeeper; Wilko loved a utility player, especially one as agreeable as Speed, but it meant that while the fans complained at Speed that he wasn’t racing down the wing like he used to, Speed was sharing their frustration as an emergency centre-half. But he took it all as he seemed to take everything: quietly and in his stride. As Leeds tumbled down the league table, he did the decent thing and got his hair cut and his focus back; and when the fans moaned, he took it on the chin, and carried on doing the job his manager asked. That became the way he did everything in his career. At Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, and as captain and then manager of Wales, it was his quiet and determined nature that transformed him from a Leeds pop star to a national popular stalwart. It’s hard to understand, then, that Speedo’s nature couldn’t get him over this last hurdle in his life; hard to understand, and unbearably sad.
To lose Gary Speed is to lose a lot. Speed bred optimism; if you had Gary Speed on your side, you had a chance to share in his talents, in his abilities, in his potential. You could feel it in the way he was starting to change the Welsh national team; it was the same feeling I had after Speed’s goal that started the fightback against Stuttgart at Elland Road. Strachan took the ball from Speed in midfield, and picked out Cantona; Speed kept running, and was perfectly placed to meet Cantona’s knockdown, but instead of controlling the ball like most players would, he snapped a volley into the roof of the net before Stuttgart’s keeper could even move. For a moment, it seemed like Speed wanted to celebrate this one for all he was worth; but then his expression changed as he remembered, Leeds United still needed more goals. He ran back to the centre circle to get on with the game, his long curly hair streaming behind him. Ah, maybe it didn’t look so bad after all. Gary Speed scored, and though it seemed impossible, we felt like we would win. That’s a feeling I’ll always be grateful to Gary Speed for.
From The Square Ball magazine 2011/12 issue five.