Amidst all of the rhetoric of must win games and 30 million pound matches, it is easy to miscalculate the relative importance of football. The sport dominates the lives of thousands of people, all of whom can be forgiven for occasionally becoming engulfed by the constant spiel of the Premier League and Sky, who tend to depict each match as a monumentally significant battle where defeat is fatal and must be avoided at all costs. Once in a while, a piece of news comes along that not only unites the bitterest of rivals, but transcends the hyperbole and reminds us that football is, after all, merely an expendable pastime.
The passing of Gary Speed last weekend stunned the football world. As fans of Swansea City and Aston Villa assembled at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the mood around the ground was disconsolate, a sickening hush clearly distinguishable even from the live television coverage. Some had already heard the news, others learned of it almost immediately: Speed, the manager of Wales, had lost his life early that morning. Fans who had set off for the ground full of hope and expectation arrived depleted and enervated. Within almost an instant, none of this mattered anymore.
Speed had appeared on BBC’s Football Focus just hours before he took the decision to end his own life. Dan Walker, presenter of the Saturday lunchtime show, subsequently spoke of Speed being ‘in great form’, whilst ex-Newcastle United team-mate Alan Shearer explained that he and his ‘best mate’ had been in the process of planning their next holiday together. There were, it appeared, no signs of what was to come. In his deeply moving book on Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who committed suicide in 2009 after being crippled with depression for six long years, Ronald Reng writes of the subject’s ability to conceal his true feelings and intentions, right up until the moment he placed himself in front of an oncoming train. Speed’s agent Hayden Evans has dismissed suggestions that the former midfielder was suffering in a similar way to Enke, yet the assumptions being made that Speed must have been tormented by something are intelligible. At this point though, his death remains an extensive mystery.
No-one seems to have a bad word to say about him. Despite making 535 appearances in England’s top division, an accumulation bettered only by David James and Ryan Giggs, Speed was not what you would call a Premier League superstar. Shy and retiring off the pitch, a fine midfielder on it, Speed was a consummate professional with outstanding leadership qualities and, let it not be forgotten, a superb left foot. ‘One of the nicest men in football’ said Giggs of his former Wales team-mate, with Aaron Ramsey, the current Welsh captain, describing him as ‘a great manager and a great man’. The harrowing image of Shay Given sobbing into a towel just minutes before his Villa side kicked-off in South Wales speaks just as loudly as the verbal testimonials, whilst the visual interviews with Speed’s close friends Robbie Savage and Bryn Law, the Sky Sports News reporter, are also incredibly moving.
By all accounts, Speed was a down-to-earth and thoroughly likeable man. A 23-year career in the game, which included a brief managerial spell at Sheffield United sandwiched between the denouement of his playing career at Brammall Lane and the Wales job, suggests Speed was widely known in what remains the small world of football. Even so, the sheer extent of the tributes that continue to flood in is evidence of his popularity. It is not just former colleagues and friends that have publicly expressed their shock and sorrow: one of the most apt offerings came from a participator in the latest episode of BBC’s interactive radio show, 606, who anecdotally encapsulated the public perception of Speed perfectly: kind, down-to-earth, approachable. An exiled Leeds United fan, the caller, Steve, spoke of buying Speed a drink at a bar near his home in Chester, an act unexpectedly reciprocated by the Welshman later in the night. A year later, Steve made the eighty-mile trip from the North West to Elland Road with his young son for the 1992 top-flight match against Arsenal.
Intending to pay at the turnstile, Steve was dismayed to learn on his arrival that the match was a sell-out. Dejected, he began to trudge back towards his car with his son in tow, before spotting Speed nearby. Beginning with the words ‘you probably won’t remember me, Gary’, Steve was astounded that, in fact, he did: ‘it’s Steve isn’t it?’, Speed replied. Explaining his situation, the lifelong Whites supporter waited, albeit more in hope than expectation, for fifteen minutes before Speed made good on his promise to obtain a pair of tickets from somewhere. Eric Cantona’s guest seats were filled by the father and son that day.
Each professional match played since the news broke has been preceded by a minute’s recognition of Speed’s life and contribution to football, be it with silence or applause. In most cases, the former has developed into the latter almost instantly, with poignant chants prevalent at grounds up and down the country. Followers of every single club he played for have claimed Speed as one of their own, such was the appeal and commitment of the man. Supporters of Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, who have all seen Speed wear their shirt, were unified, but by no means alone, in their grief. Over at Anfield, where Liverpool hosted Manchester City on Sunday afternoon, the subdued pre-match atmosphere impugned Bill Shankly’s suggestion that football is a matter of greater importance than life and death. Leeds’ supporters paid their respects with a passionate eleven minutes of singing about their former number eleven as their side faced Nottingham Forest on Tuesday evening, whilst shirts and flowers covered the gates of Goodison Park and the Sports Direct Arena.
It would be improper to speculate about the reasons behind Speed’s tragic act; what can be affirmed, though, is that the issue of mental health remains one of football’s greatest stigmas. Peter Kay, who heads the Sporting Chance clinic established by former England captain and recovering alcoholic Tony Adams to give support to sportsmen affected by addiction or depression, talks of a culture where ‘telling someone you are hurting inside is considered a defect’. Football can be a cruel and lonely place, and possessing an inherent talent for kicking a ball does not coincide with exemption from feelings of despair and suffering. The external toughness that is expected to be permanently exhibited by footballers can take its toll, says Kay, with many of them ‘bottling up the problems until it is too late’. Since Speed’s death was announced on Sunday, the organisation has fielded calls from ten different professionals, both current and retired, and from across all of the English leagues. It is regrettable that it has taken such a heartbreaking disaster to instigate such action, yet it must be hoped that the fine work of the charity can continue to help troubled footballers. It is painful to imagine anybody suffering alone, especially someone so considerably loved and admired. As we will no doubt hear again this weekend, there’s only one Gary Speed.