A boyhood Evertonian, Gary Speed made his name as an outstanding young left sided midfielder in the Leeds United team that lifted the last of the old First Division League Championships in 1992. Tall and composed; a powerful force striding forward who possessed crisp and intelligent passing as well as an eye for goal, Speed was very much the archetype of the modern midfielder.
By the mid-1990s his Elland Road career had started to plateau. Speed had long linked to a Goodison switch and it finally came in the summer of 1996 when Joe Royle paid £3.5million for the 26 year-old. His Everton career started with great promise, as he coolly scored on his debut in a 2-0 win over Premiership title favourites, Newcastle. But despite this good start, there was a sense in the first few months as an Everton player that he flattered to deceive on the left of midfield.
Royle subsequently moved him to a more central role and he flourished. A fine hat trick – two headers and a 20 yard drive – in the 7-1 demolition of Southampton in November was a particular highlight. Speaking about his positional change, he told The Evertonian: ‘It doesn’t exactly give me a free role because I have responsibilities, but it allows me to bomb on and that’s helped. It’s my favourite position and suits my game. I like to be able to do a lot of running and from that position I can.’
By Christmas 1996, Everton were sixth and spoken by some as Premiership title dark horses. However the season dramatically fell apart: Andrei Kanchelskis left for Fiorentina; crucial players, such as Andy Hinchcliffe and Joe Parkinson, were struck by long term injury, while others were also hit with injuries and suspensions; confidence and form plummeted, and by March Royle was out of a job. Amidst the turmoil, Speed maintained his consistency and along with some valuable goals, his ceaseless efforts were one of the few bonds that held a directionless team together.
He was rewarded with the Everton captaincy – like that fellow son of Mancot, Kevin Ratcliffe, he was also Wales captain – at the start of the 1997/98 season. But Everton were a mess on and off the field. Speed was one of the few to be counted upon in a dismal side, but he was displeased with the disarray that pervaded at every level of the club. Through January 1998 rumours abounded that he wanted a transfer to Newcastle. The situation came to a head at the end of the month when Speed refused to travel with the team to West Ham after supposedly learning from a journalist that he would be dropped and stripped of the captaincy. The midfielder was left to hang out and dry by Everton before completing a £5.5million transfer to the north east later that week. Speed never broke his silence on the true reasons behind his departure.
Speed subsequently conducted himself with nothing but dignity whenever he returned to Merseyside, despite facing catcalls and a barrage of abuse from the same fans who once revered him. He remained at Newcastle until 2004, later joining Bolton Wanderers and he continued to play in the Premier League until his late-thirties. In January 2008 he joined Sheffield United, becoming the club’s manager in 2010. Later that year he took over as Welsh national manager.
Always an articulate observer of the game, Speed was a natural at management, overseeing a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the Welsh national team. Under his stewardship Wales rose from an all time low of 117 in FIFA’s rankings to 48th and were the best movers of 2011, a glittering future seemed assured.
But on the morning on Sunday 27 November, the news broke to a bewildered public that Speed had taken his own life. There was no note and no explanation to the shattering news; only a day earlier he had appeared on BBC’s Football Focus, and seemed the same as always: erudite, charming, smart.
‘I found out by text message on the Sunday morning and thought someone was playing a joke on me,’ said Neville Southall. ‘If I thought this would happen to anyone I knew, he would have been the last person on the list. He was a lovely lad, a really great manager. Everyone’s bewildered.’
‘He had a way with people, everyone liked him. Even with fans from other teams, he never got booed, he always got clapped. He’s the only one I know that’s ever happened to. He was fit, he always looked after himself, he was looking at his diet years before anyone else did in the sport. And he was old school. He was the footballer’s footballer.
‘It’s absolutely tragic and absolutely baffling. He was a humble fella, but he was also a battler. This is not the lad I knew. What a tragic waste of life.’