Wales’ football icons: #1 – Gary Speed

PICTURE BY Telegraph

ARTICLE BY Tomos Wyn Jones

Gary Speed was, for me, arguably Wales’ finest and most reliable footballer in our proud footballing history.

Born in Flintshire in September 1969, he played for his county’s schoolboys’ side, attracting the attentions of Leeds United, who signed him as a trainee originally, and then professionally in June 1988.

Speed made his debut for Leeds under the guidance of Howard Wilkinson, where he featured in a stalemate against Oldham United in the Second Division. Playing mainly on the left-hand side of the pitch, he also proved he was a versatile player by playing in a range of different positions throughout the 88/89 season. Speed established himself as a midfielder, helping Leeds achieving promotion back to the First Division of English football in the 1989/90 campaign.

The adaptation of playing at the highest level didn’t seem to faze Speed at all, as he looked comfortable and commanding in the midfield of Leeds, scoring 7 goals during the 90/91 season, where Leeds finished 4th following an excellent campaign. The following season, Leeds had one of the best midfields around at the time, with Speed lining-up alongside the likes of Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan and David Batty. Speed thrived once again, playing with these tenacious footballers, scoring 7 goals once more during the 1991/92 season.

In only their second season back in the top-flight, Leeds were crowned champions of the final campaign in the old First Division, accumulating 82 points, four clear of bitter rivals Manchester United. Perhaps the likes of Eric Cantona and Tony Dorigo claimed the headlines, but Speed and his midfield colleagues were the engines of Leeds’s title win, firing the club to glory in the top-flight for the first time in 18 years.

SPEED IN LEEDS COLOURS. PIC: LeedsLive

As a result of winning the title, Leeds qualified for the 1992/93 campaign of the UEFA Champions League. Speed was pivotal in the club’s second leg comeback against Stuttgart, where he scored an incredible volley in a 4-1 demolition of the German champions. Leeds went through via Stuttgart fielding an ineligible player, despite losing on the away goal rule against the German side. In the inaugural campaign of the Premier League, Leeds struggled throughout the season, finishing in 17th place. After losing Cantona at the start of the campaign to Manchester United, they never really recovered, and looked a shadow of the side that had won the title the previous season. Despite this, Speed scored 12 goals across the campaign, with only Lee Chapman and Cantona having scored more goals than the Welshman. Speed also made the 1992/93 PFA Team of the Year, appreciated by his fellow professionals for his outstanding performances.

The 1993/94 was a much better campaign for Leeds, as they finished the campaign above the likes of Liverpool and Everton in 5th. Speed once again was an integral part of Leeds’s successful season, as he once again scored 12 goals across all competitions, including in key wins against Wimbledon and Manchester City. After another solid season during the 94/95 campaign, Speed was quickly becoming one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, making quite the impression when facing the top sides in the country. Speed was a key figure in Leeds’s run to the 1996 League Cup final, scoring winners against Notts County, Derby County and Reading, and featured in the final, where they were defeated 3-0 by Aston Villa. Leeds found it difficult to keep hold of Speed, despite numerous attempts to sign him on a long-term contract. Eventually, they accepted a bid in the region of £3.4 million by Everton, who Speed had supported as a youth. He finished his Leeds United career with a record of 57 goals in 312 outings.

SPEED CELEBRATES A GOAL FOR EVERTON. PIC: Liverpool Echo

Speed made his debut for Everton against Newcastle United, scoring in a 2-0 victory at Goodison Park. He proved his value throughout the 96/97 campaign, scoring vital winners against West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur, in addition to netting his first career hat-trick in a 7-1 demolition of Southampton. Despite Everton finishing in a disappointing position of 15th place, Speed undoubtably stood out above all else for the Merseyside outfit, finishing as joint top-scorer with 11 goals, also winning Everton’s Player of the Year award. After Joe Royal’s departure towards the end of the 96/97 campaign, the Toffees were on the search to find a manager who had experience at the top level, and they found their match with now-club legend Howard Kendall. This seemed a match made in heaven, with Speed working alongside one of his idols and even being made club captain by the new man at the helm. However, it did not work out as well as one could have expected. Despite scoring 7 league goals in 21 outings, Speed and Kendall never got along, with their relationship souring towards the end of the Welshman’s Everton career. Consequently, he was sold to North-East side Newcastle United for a fee of £5.5 million in February 1998. Speed scored 18 times in 65 appearances for Everton in his year-and-a-half spell.

SPEED ON THE BALL FOR NEWCASTLE. PIC: Vital Football

Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish selected Speed to start after only two days with the club, starting in a 1-0 defeat at St James Park against Londoners West Ham United. The North Walian’s first goal for the Magpies came in the quarter-final stage of the FA Cup, scoring Newcastle’s second in a 3-1 victory against Barnsley. Speed’s second and final goal for the Magpies during the 97/98 season came in their final home game, where he netted Newcastle’s second in another 3-1 win against Chelsea. He started the ’98 FA Cup final against Arsenal, playing the whole 90 minutes in a 2-0 defeat against the Premier League champions. Speed scored 5 goals during the 98/99 season, including a brace against Derby County in the Premier League, in what was yet another disappointing campaign in the top-flight for the Magpies. Despite this, they managed yet another successful cup run, going all the way to the final for the second consecutive season, this time facing treble chasers Manchester United. Speed once again played the full 90 minutes in the final, in yet another 2-0 defeat at Wembley. In what was a poor opening 7 games to the 1999/00 season, Newcastle’s very own Sir Bobby Robson was re-appointed as the Magpies boss. His presence around the club massively helped them get out of their horrible rut, in addition of fulfilling Speed’s exceptional potential. Speed scored Newcastle’s 6th in an 8-0 rout of Sheffield Wednesday, in what was the Premier League’s then second all-time winning score line. Speed scored a brace in Newcastle’s final game of the 99/00 campaign, scoring the decisive third goal in a 4-2 win against title challengers Arsenal. The Welshman ended up as Newcastle’s second top goal scorer of the campaign with 13 goals, behind Alan Shearer’s 30 goals.

After scoring 6 goals during the 2000/01 season, Speed played a crucial role in Newcastle’s finish in the Champions League positions. Scoring in wins against Blackburn Rovers and Derby County, Speed was a consistent in midfield, which was one of Newcastle’s strength in their 4th place finish in the Premier League. The 2002/03 was yet another successful campaign for Speed and Newcastle, finishing as high as 3rd in the table, in addition to making it through to the second phase of the group stage of the old Champions League format. Despite scoring less goals during the 02/03 campaign, Speed dictated the play very well, being made difficult to tackle and disposed of the ball. The 2003/04 campaign was Speed’s final in the black and white of Newcastle; he managed 3 top-flight goals in 37 outings for the Magpies, including scoring in wins against Portsmouth and Fulham. In what was another successful campaign for Newcastle, who qualified for the UEFA Cup, Speed was sold to Bolton Wanderers for a fee of £750,000 in July 2004. Speed will be perceived as a club legend by the Newcastle faithful, appearing 285 times for the Magpies, scoring 40 goals.

SPEED PLAYING FOR BOLTON V LIVERPOOL IN 2006. PIC: Press Association

Speed appeared in every game possible in his first season with Bolton, with his only goal securing a draw against West Midlands side Aston Villa in April 2005. He played a crucial part in Bolton’s quest for European football, finishing level on points with Liverpool, and three points of 4th placed Everton. This meant that Bolton would play European football during the 2005/o6 season, for the first time in the club’s history. Under the guidance of the ever reliable Sam Allardyce and playing alongside the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro, it was a side that many feared of facing, as the opponent knew if they went a goal down, it would be difficult to get anything from the game. Speed was soon becoming a fan’s favourite at the Reebok stadium, as he regained some of his goal scoring form during the 2005/06 season. He scored a late penalty against Manchester City to secure a 1-0 win during the early stages of the season, to maintain Bolton’s excellent start to the campaign. Speed also scored Bolton’s fourth goal in a 4-0 demolition of Everton, the first time he had scored against one of his former clubs. He finished the season with 4 goals in 30 starts in the Premier League.

At the age of 36, Speed played all 38 Premier League games during the 2006/07 Premier League season, scoring on 8 occasions, including winners against Watford, Liverpool, and Aston Villa. During the campaign, Speed became the first player to make 500 Premier League appearances in a 4-0 victory against West Ham United. The Welshman also helped the Trotters to yet another campaign in the UEFA Cup, by securing a 7th placed finish. After Allardyce departed Bolton, Speed became Bolton’s first-team coach, though, left this post in October 2007 to continue with his playing career. Alongside fellow Welshman Ryan Giggs, Speed continued his remarkable run of scoring in every campaign of the Premier League (16 seasons), when he netted Bolton’s first in a 3-0 win against Reading in September 2007. This proved to be Speed’s final Bolton and Premier League goal, as he moved on loan to Championship side Sheffield United on New Year’s Day 2008, with the option to buy in the Summer. In total, Speed amounted 139 appearances for Bolton, scoring on 14 occasions for the Trotters. Speed also ended his Premier League career upon leaving Bolton, amassing 535 games, scoring 81 times.

On the very same day he signed for the Blades, he made his debut at Molineux against Wolverhampton Wanderers, in a 0-0 stalemate. It took until Speed’s 12th appearance to score his first goal for the club, netting the winner against Coventry City. He would go on to appear in 8 other games for the Blades during the 07/08 campaign, scoring three goals. After hinting in November 2008 that the 2008/09 campaign may be the last of his playing days due to a persisting back problem, Speed appeared 17 times during the campaign, scoring 3 goals. As he struggled to recover from back surgery, Speed never played professional football again, despite being registered as a player for the next two campaigns.

His playing career amounted to 841 appearances, scoring an impressive 135 goals for a midfielder.

PIC: FIFA.Com

On the international stage, Speed will be regarded as one of Wales’s best players during his generation. He made his debut for his country in May 1990, appearing in a 1-0 victory against Costa Rica in Ninian Park. He was capped on 85 occasions by Wales, making him the most capped outfield footballer in the history of Wales at the time, and only 7 caps behind the all-time record of Neville Southall. In those 85 caps, Speed captained his country on 44 different occasions, leading his country to near qualification for the European Championships in 2004. He also scored on 7 occasions for his country, including 3 against Azerbaijan on three separate occasions.Speed’s 85th and final cap for Wales came in 2004 in a 3-2 defeat against Poland in the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.

Despite retiring from international football, he was tipped by former international teammates Mark Hughes and Robbie Savage to manage Wales in the future, much admiring his leadership skills within the squad during his time there.

Early on during the 2010/11 campaign, he was appointed the manager of Sheffield United, making an impact straight away, winning his opening two games against Preston North End and Derby County. Despite a strong start with the Blades, Speed struggled to gain consistent form, winning 6 games out of 17 in the Championship in his 4-month spell. Throughout his tenure as manager of Sheffield United, he was linked with the Wales manager job, being touted to join Wales sooner rather than later. Speed resigned as Sheffield United manager in December 2010, being appointed as the manager of Wales’ national team.

SPEED WAS A HERO ON AND OFF THE FIELD FOR WALES. PIC: Sportsmole.

After receiving wide-spread support from many in the country, Speed took charge of Wales for the first-time in February 2011, in a 3-0 defeat against Republic of Ireland in the Nations Cup. Despite losing their next 2 games against England and Scotland respectively, Speed won his first games as Wales manager in a 2-0 victory against Northern Ireland. It was crucial that Wales started to win their games, as they had dropped to their lowest ever FIFA ranking of 117th. Including the game against Northern Ireland, the next four games under Speed’s guidance was like a tennis rally; wins against Northern Ireland and Montenegro were overshadowed by defeats against Australia and Montenegro. Speed looked as if he had adopted an identity into a deflated Wales squad, who had severely struggled under previous manager John Toshack during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. Speed finally looked to have gained consistency in results, winning his next two games against tough opposition Switzerland and Bulgaria. Wales had leaped 72 positions in the FIFA rankings to 45th, with Speed’s unpredictable formations proving to be a puzzle to many opposing managers. Speed’s final game as Wales manager came in a 4-1 friendly win against Scandinavian side Norway, with future superstar Gareth Bale opening the score line at the Cardiff City Stadium. Speed won 5 out of a possible 10 games in charge of Wales, helping his side to install pride back after their dismal qualifying campaigns in 2006, 2008 and 2010. 

On the morning of November 27th, 2011, Speed was found dead at his home. It came as a terrible shock for everyone in Wales and in the footballing community. Tributes poured in from friends and former teammates, including Robbie Savage, Ryan Giggs, Alan Shearer and Craig Bellamy. UEFA and FIFA presidents at the time, Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter respectively, paid their respects to the former Wales manager, with Blatter describing him as “a model professional and a fantastic ambassador of the game”. News of his death was too unbearable for some players, as Craig Bellamy of Liverpool had asked to sit out the game against Manchester City on the day of his death. Sheffield United’s first fixture following Speed’s death was dedicated to their former player and manager, as there was a minute’s applause before the match, in addition to players and coaches wearing black armbands in his honour. All Premier League fixtures played on the week commencing 4th December paid tribute to Gary Speed, as a minute applause was observed in all 10 games. In his memory, the FAW announced that a match would be organised on the 29th February against Costa Rica, whom Speed made his international debut against back in 1990. The game ended 1-0 to Wales, the same score line that Wales won back in 1990 when Speed was in the side.

Gary Speed will always be remembered as a Premier League legend, perhaps deemed as one of the best to play in his position during his generation. His tenacity on the pitch was obvious to be seen each matchday, he was always reliable, never reverted to dirty tactics when he was up against it on the pitch, hence why he was never sent off as a player. The Welshman will always be remembered as the man who galvanised our national team, who had installed belief that we could compete and qualify for a major tournament. His legacy has been key to Wales’ success over the past seven years, from reaching the Euros in 2016 to ending up as Semi-Finalists in the tournament, it would not have been possible to achieve these milestones had he not had an influence within the quad at the time he was in charge.

One thing is for sure, he will always live in our memories, and will be regarded as one of the finest footballers our country has ever produced!

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