Gracious, a consummate professional, and a manager's dream are just a few of the terms that describe Gary Speed. He was one of the most loved and respected players British football has ever seen. When Speed walked in to a room, he would light it up.
Speed was always consistent, he never dropped below a certain level and every manager he played for could always rely on him. An inspirational character and a great leader both on and off the pitch, Speed led by example and demanded the best from those around him. If any young player dreaming of making it in the game listened to one piece of advice, it would be to watch Gary Speed.
"Seeing his smile when he scored a goal, whether it was a header, a left-foot shot or a brave tap in at the far post. He had this little giggle, whether it was on the training field or in a restaurant... They're the type of things, he had a lot of style about him, a lot of charisma and he's sadly, sadly missed." - Warren Barton.
A player who could adapt to any situation and showed his versatility by playing in a number of positions, whether it was in central midfield, left midfield or even left back, Speed would be one of the players who stood out. Left-footed but also comfortable on his right, Speed was the complete player.
The former Wales captain began his playing career at Leeds United, described by his teammates at the time as not necessarily being the most gifted player there, though he worked hard to make the best of what he had. If there was any weakness in his game, Speed would work tirelessly to improve it. His drive, fight and dedication saw him become a vital player for Leeds United, winning the first and second division titles. Speed was part of a midfield that also included David Batty, Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister. To many at that time, Leeds United was known as "The school of hard knocks" and for Speed to shine through, is a testament to his hard work and natural ability.
"I was proud of Gary Speed, every time I saw him play football, every time I saw him on the TV I was proud of him." - Gordon Strachan
During his time at Leeds United, Speed showcased his intelligence of the game and his versatility by playing nine of ten outfield positions. It takes hunger, desire and a great deal of confidence to be one of the best players on the pitch in each of those positions. Howard Wilkinson and Leeds United laid the foundations for Speed to become one of the most underrated players the Premier League has ever seen. It is at Elland Road where Speed caught the eye of the footballing world. An elegant, intelligent and ridiculously talented player who always wanted to get the best out of his teammates and himself.
Speed supported Everton as a boy, so when manager Joe Royle signed the Welshman for £3.5M in June 1996 it was a match made in heaven. Unsurprisingly, Speed made an immediate impact by scoring on his debut against Newcastle United in August 1996. Speed's high standards never slipped and he would finish as Everton's joint top goalscorer with Duncan Ferguson, whilst also being voted as Everton's 'Player of the Year' during his first season at Goodison Park.
When Howard Kendall replaced Royle as manager before the start of the following season, he named Speed as club captain. Like countless others, Kendall saw Speed as the ultimate professional and a shining example to his teammates. Although the relationship between Kendall and Speed soured by the start of 1998, Speed refused to cause any damage to Everton. The midfielder told the Liverpool Echo at the time, "You know why I'm leaving, but I can't explain myself publicly because it would damage the good name of Everton Football Club and I'm not prepared to do that." Speed was sold to Newcastle United for £5.5M in February 1998.
"He never varied, he was always there for you." - Joe Royle
Newcastle United were a team in transition when Speed arrived on Tyneside. Kenny Dalglish was at the helm, but people were still shaken by the shock departure of Kevin Keegan in January 1997. During his first two seasons with the club, Speed would appear in consecutive FA Cup Finals under different managers. Dalglish guided Newcastle United to the FA Cup Final in 1998, which saw his side lose 2-0 to Arsenal. The following season under Dutch icon, Ruud Gullit, Newcastle again made the final only to be heartbroken once more with a 2-0 defeat.
Two managerial departures and consecutive FA Cup Finals certainly gave Speed a sense of the crazy rollercoaster ride of Newcastle United. In September 1999, things began to change when along came Sir Bobby Robson. In Robson's first game in charge of the bottom of the table club, Speed scored a trademark header as Newcastle United ran out 8-0 winners. The arrival of Sir Bobby Robson galvanised the players and Speed was at the heart of it all. When Newcastle United needed someone to grab the game by the scruff of the neck, all eyes were on Speed. He controlled the centre of midfield with such grace and ease, a delight to watch and he could see things before they happened.
"I could stand here for another ten minutes and talk about Gary Speed. I just want to give him the accolade that he deserves. He'll be a miss, he'll be a miss in the dressing rooms, in the training rooms, in the restaurants, he'll be a miss on the planes, on the busses and in every concept of that boy coming in to play football for Newcastle and departing, he will be a miss." - Sir Bobby Robson
During his time in the North East, Speed played in the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. St James' Park under the lights for a European clash were special nights, none more so than when Speed scored the equaliser in a 2-1 victory over Dynamo Kyiv in October 2002. The Wales captain flourished under Sir Bobby Robson, both hugely respected figures in the game had a fantastic relationship, full of admiration for each other.
While at Newcastle United, Speed racked up 277 appearances in all competitions scoring 35 times and assisting 21. Regarded as one of the best players the club has ever seen, Speed made the perfectly timed runs into the box his own, which would later be associated with the likes of Frank Lampard. When Speed was sold to Bolton Wanderers for a measly £750,000 against Sir Bobby Robson's wishes, heart, hunger, desire and sheer class was ripped out of Newcastle's central midfield.
A new club at 34 years of age, many would've thought it was a last hurrah, one final season. Not for Gary Speed. He would play in over 30 Premier League games in each of the following three seasons. Speed showed his phenomenal fitness during his 4 seasons with Bolton. As was the case at his previous clubs, Speed instantly became a vital part of the Bolton side. He not only added some Premier League experience but also his quality, which freshened up the Bolton midfield. Kevin Nolan, who would later go on to play for Newcastle United himself looked up to Speed when the pair played together at Bolton.
"Without Gary Speed to look up to early on in my career, I don't think I would've had the career I had." - Kevin Nolan
Speed would always be on hand to give advice or help any of the younger players at all the teams he played for. There was no better person to learn from or to look up to than Gary Speed. He was a leader and he would lead by example whether that was on the pitch or on the training ground, a fine competitor and everyone rightly respected him. Speed would always find the time to chat to the younger players, ask how they were and put his arm on their shoulder. Speed also felt it was important to go out into the communities and visit those less fortunate than himself, it was in his DNA, he always wanted to do more and to help people.
"I'm a better human being for having known Gary Speed." - Sam Allardyce.
After a successful spell at Bolton Wanderers, Speed had no thought of hanging up his boots. An opportunity to return to Yorkshire, this time with Sheffield United came as Speed signed for the club at the ripe age of 39. He made his debut on the day he signed at Bramall Lane on New Year's Day, 2008. Speed would go on to make 20 appearances for Sheffield United during the remainder of the 2007/2008 season. The midfielder had hinted that the 2008/2009 season would be his last before going into a coaching role, however, he had stated that he was yet to fully decide on that.
After appearing in 17 games, in November 2008 Speed suffered a back injury. Despite having surgery on the injury, Speed failed to regain full fitness and decided to concentrate on coaching. It was at Bramall Lane where Speed's managerial career began, after Kevin Blackwell parted company with Sheffield United in 2010, the club turned to Speed to take over.
In December 2010 and after 18 games in charge of Sheffield United, rumours started to circulate that Speed was a contender for the Wales managerial position. Shortly after, Sheffield United confirmed that they had given Speed permission to talk to the Welsh FA. Despite being very new to management, Speed was appointed as Wales manager on 14th December 2010.
"Gary was a gentleman. People I’ve met remember him and say what a man he was. He was good at his job and captained every team he played for. We’re very, very proud parents. I want him to be remembered for the gentleman he was." - Roger Speed.
Speed endured a difficult start to his tenure as Wales manager with defeats to the Republic of Ireland and England, which left Wales 117th place in the FIFA rankings - Their lowest ever ranking. Speed celebrated his first victory as Wales manager in his fourth game in charge, a 2-0 victory over Northern Ireland. It was typical of Speed's desire to be better that he wasn't pleased by his side's display.
By the end of 2011, Wales had climbed the FIFA rankings dramatically to 45th in the world. As a result of their progression and improvement, Wales were awarded the title of "Best Movers" having the most ranking points than any other nation in 2011. Speed's hunger shone all the way through the Wales side, the improvement was incredible and there was a distinct vision and a plan in place for Wales to be competing in major tournaments.
"You think of great men, you think of great football men, Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, one of Gary's mentors of course, Sir Bobby Robson - They're great men. Gary had that ahead of him, he had the potential and the ability to go on and do something great." - Barry Horne
Speed laid the foundations for Wales to go on and reach the semi-finals of the European Championship in 2016, losing 2-0 to eventual winners, Portugal.
Speed touched the lives of many people, that is highlighted in the tributes that flooded in after the tragic news of his death broke in November 2011. The fact that it still feels so raw shows how painfully sad Speed's passing was. A gifted player, who could do absolutely anything on a football pitch and a promising young manager who had a fabulous managerial career ahead of him. Speed was simply majestic, as Sir Bobby Robson once said, "We can’t replace Gary Speed. Where do you get an experienced player like him with a left foot and a head?"
"He was just such a genuine, great lovely man and it was such a deep sadness that we hadn't picked up on any of his issues. I hope, on the back of what happened to him, that football picks up on these things and people open up more. Recognising it and talking about it is so important." - Henry Winter
A special person and player who will forever be in our hearts. R.I.P. Gary Speed.