There was an article in one edition of Leeds Leeds Leeds, the official Leeds United Magazine that anomalously littered our Revie-inspired southern home when I was young, that zanily compared Leeds United players past and present to chocolate bars. I found it appropriately hilarious given my tender years and it has stuck with me. It cheekily placed players like Alan Smith to next to Yorkies (“Solid Yorkshire all the way through”) and cast Mark Viduka as a Double Decker (“carrying a little too much weight”).The crush of time has created a need to paraphrase the aforementioned pithy one liners they came up with when recalling them today, but I can remember with pretty much total clarity the comparison they made for one Gary Speed. It read like this: “Gary Speed would be a Star Bar – Why? Because he is sheer class all the way through.”
A throw away gag it may have been but it has accurately mirrored the myriad tributes which have poured in for Speed, who committed suicide this weekend at the age of just 42. The former Wales captain and manager had been live on the BBC sport show Football Focus less than 24 hours before, chatting amiably with fellow pundit and member of Leeds’ title winning midfield Gary McAllister, and had visited Alan Shearer, a team mate from his time at Newcastle in the Match of the Day office. It seems as though he gave no indication that he was in a state of mind which would lead to such a terrible tragedy occuring.
Speed was a poised, combative midfielder who could tackle, pass and move with a verve and sixties glamour that meant he could have been from an era where football highlights were shown on film reels in cinemas. Being born into a Leeds United supporting family, my early years were spent wearing kits that I can vividly remember feeling in all their polyester glory at Christmas – kits emblazoned with the vintage Leeds United badge and sponsored by Thistle Hotels; kits that I would be called upon to wear for photographs with my similarly Leeds mad cousin. I can recall Gary Speed in those kits, celebrating wildly in the glossy photo inserts to the copy of McAllister’s autobiography on our bookshelf, or casually frozen in the action of stroking a pass as a holofoil in a Premier League sticker album.
Millions of other fans will have their lasting memory of Speed given the startling longevity of his career. He was at his peak then but he went on playing at the highest level until relatively recently, distinguishing himself at Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United. He played a staggering 677 games and scored 103 goals. He captained his country and earned 85 caps, a record for an outfield player. At the moment of his untimely death he was in the process of reconfiguring Wales’ golden generation of talent into a team that played slick, fast and attractive football. The dream that many Welsh fans had of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup with Speed at the helm will sadly never be realised.
Regardless of his footballing prowess, it is the seeming decency and dignity of Speed as a man which comes through in the tributes paid to him. His influence and attitude toward younger players is a notable feature, with many current pros expressing thanks for the advice and time that he gave to them. He inspired profound respect and admiration from incalculable numbers of people, even those that had only watched him play and had never met him. In the fullness of time perhaps we may have some semblance of understanding of why he took his life, but it won’t really matter.
All that matters is that Gary Speed was a man held in great esteem for his actions on the football pitch by those who didn’t know him and loved for his actions off it by those who did – and that’s not a bad record by any measurement, is it?