Sunday, November 27, 2011
Gary Speed: Marathon man
When the word longevity is uttered in football conversation, images of Paolo Maldini and Ryan Giggs are probably the first to be conjured. But for 18 top-flight years, Gary Speed plied his trade at the highest level of English football, earning himself a reputation as one of the Premier League's most consistent performers and one of the game's model professionals, as well as setting the goal and appearance benchmarks for Welsh compatriot Giggs to reach.
Born in Mancot, Wales, Speed supported Everton as a child but signed his first professional contract with Leeds United in the summer of 1988. The young midfielder's work-rate, attitude and eye for goal caught the eye of then manager Billy Bremner immediately, earning him a handful of substitute appearances.
Given his chance to shine, Speed played an important role in his side's promotion and Leeds performed well on their return to the top flight - finishing an impressive fourth in the 1990-91 season. But then in 1991-92 the Yorkshiremen edged out Manchester United in a titanic championship race to win last First Division title. Speed was a key part of the side and the title saw the club progress to the inaugural 'Champions League' competition where he would star in an amazing comeback against Stuttgart - scoring the first goal in the Champions League by an English club player.
Despite losing the game on the away-goals rule, Leeds advanced to the second-round after the Germans were disqualified for fielding too many foreign players, but were eventually dumped out by Rangers. The 1992-93 season proved Speed's most prolific in a Leeds shirt but it was not a happy campaign for United, as they slumped to a 17th placed finish.
Speed had firmly established himself as one of the Premier League's foremost midfield performers and, in 1996, despite being offered an improved contract at Leeds, he sealed a £3.5 million move to boyhood heroes Everton. Speed scored on his debut, striking the second goal in a 2-0 win over future club Newcastle United - a game in which the headlines were expected to be stolen by British record-signing Alan Shearer, making his Magpies bow.
Speed, known by the Everton supporters as 'Speedo', was the club's joint top-scorer (with Duncan Ferguson) in his first season, scoring his first-ever hat-trick in his side's 7-1 thrashing of Southampton, and was named Fans' Player of the Year. However, it was a tumultuous campaign as Everton narrowly escaped the drop. Manager Joe Royle resigned seven games from the end of the season, leaving club captain Dave Watson to drag the Toffee's over the finish line, with Speed netting a crucial winner in his side's 1-0 win over Tottenham - the Toffees' only win during Watson's short tenure.
Howard Kendall replaced Watson in the Goodison hot-seat that summer and controversially made Speed his captain ahead of long-time servant Watson. It was another season of struggle, and survival was narrowly achieved thanks to a better goal difference than Bolton. This proved the final straw for Speed and he left Everton for Newcastle in acrimonious circumstances.
The root cause of Speed's swift exit remains a real mystery and a confidentiality agreement between him and Everton prevented fans from hearing the true story. One thing for sure was that Kendall did not want to lose Speed, and offered him a substantial new contract, despite the fact that his current one had over 3 years to run. The Welshman's mind was made up though and he soon departed in early 1998 for a fee of £5.5 million.
Speed joined a host of new faces at Newcastle, including future stalwarts Nobby Solano and Shay Given, brought in as part of Kenny Dalglish's new-look side. His tough-tackling and clinical set-piece ability soon made him a firm favourite with the St. James' Park faithful. He returned to Goodison for the first time as an opposition player on February 28, 1998 - less than six weeks after leaving the club - and received a chorus of boos from the Goodison crowd.
During a six-year spell on Tyneside, Speed played under four different managers. Under Dalglish, Speed helped the Geordies reach the 1998 FA Cup Final, where they met a rampant Arsenal side en-route to the double. Under new boss Ruud Gullit, Speed picked up another FA Cup losers medal the following season, as Manchester United beat Newcastle to secure the second trophy of their historic treble.
After a promising start, Gullit's reign soon descended into madness, and, after dropping Alan Shearer for the much anticipated derby with newly promoted Sunderland, his fate was sealed. Again, Speed drew praise for his calm leadership during a difficult time for the club, and rediscovered his form under Graeme Souness and Bobby Robson. The midfielder had the opportunity to play in Europe with Newcastle and in 2003 - ten years after he had scored his first Champions League goal, for Leeds - Speed netted his second and final European Cup goal, a crucial headed equaliser in a 2-1 win against Dynamo Kiev that helped the Magpies qualify for the second group stage.
Despite never reaching a major international competition with Wales, Speed remained fiercely proud about representing and captaining his country. At the age of 34, Speed chose to bring the curtain down on his Wales career, making his 85th and final appearance in his side's 3-2 World Cup qualifier loss against Poland at the Millennium stadium. After his decision to retire from international football, former manager Mark Hughes and fellow Welsh midfielder Robbie Savage both recommended Speed to take up the mantle of Wales' manager, but the veteran, feeling he still had some more juice in the playing tank, decided against a move into management.
The midfielder left the North East in the summer of 2004 to sign a two-year contract with Bolton Wanderers in a £750,000 deal. Feeling he had lost an important member of his squad, Newcastle boss Robson admitted that Speed still had several seasons ahead of him as a successful Premier League player.
Robson was right and, while at Bolton, Speed set two impressive Premier League records. On December 9, 2006, Speed made his 500th Premier League appearance in Bolton's 4-0 win over West Ham United. Amazingly, his 14 years in the Premier League up to this point had seen him miss just 60 games. Shortly after celebrating the landmark, former Newcastle team-mate and close friend Alan Shearer described Speed as the "ultimate professional footballer", adding: "Gary could go on forever".
Then, on August 25, 2009 he scored a header against Reading in a 3-0 win, making him the first player to score in every single Premier League season to date. Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs has since passed this record.
Speed never dwelt on milestones though. This was evident when, after retiring from the international stage only seven caps short of Neville Southall's appearance record, insisting that it would have been disrespectful to the goalkeeping great to have carried on simply to beat his tally.
The Welshman enjoyed an Indian summer at Bolton, often citing the club's sports science knowledge and application as a factor in his long career. He helped Wanderers move from relegation battlers to top-half hopefuls.
The resignation of Sam Allardyce in May 2007 heralded a new chapter for Speed, as he was made player-coach under the new boss Sammy Lee. The appointment didn't last long though and in October of the same year he stepped down to focus on his playing career.
Speed completed the fifth and final move of his career to Sheffield United on New Year's Day 2008, ending a run of nearly 18 consecutive years playing in the English top flight. The veteran campaigner, again operating as a player-coach, continued to produce the goods and scored three goals in his first season at Bramall Lane.
A back injury towards the end of 2008 - while Speed was still very much a first-team player - disrupted his season, leaving him to concentrate on the coaching side of his role alongside manager Kevin Blackwell; the combination helping United to the Championship play-off final, only to lose 1-0 to Burnley.
The summer of 2009 saw Swansea City approach Speed to take over from departing manager Roberto Martinez, but the Welshman turned down the offer in favour of remaining as a player-coach at Bramall Lane. He played his last game against Wolves on November 25, 2008.
In 2010 he ran the London Marathon in aid of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
He replaced Kevin Blackwell as Sheffield United boss early in the 2010-11 season, but his time in charge was short as he was appointed the coach of Wales in December 2010. Wales were 113th in the FIFA world rankings when he took over - and within 11 months he had led them to 45th with four wins in five games.
Speed tragically committed suicide on November 27, 2011 at his home at the age of 42.