By Dan Heard
Five years ago, Gary Speed passed away. I can remember it being announced live Sky Sports, before Swansea City took on Aston Villa. In both teams were players who knew Gary, who had played alongside him, including Jermaine Jenas and a visibly distraught Shay Given, or been managed by him, including his captain for Wales, Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor, Joe Allen, and James Collins.
Tributes poured in from across the world of football. Here was a man who wasn’t just liked and respected by his teammates, managers and fans, but loved. And all of a sudden, he was gone.
He was forty two years old, and had overseen a dramatic upturn of results in charge of Wales. His final game in charge saw them run out 4-1 winners against Norway in Cardiff only two weeks prior.
At his first club, Leeds United, he’d won the league title, a vital player in an outstanding midfield quartet. He later moved on to Everton, his boyhood club, whom he captained, before joining Newcastle United, where he was a mentor to another raw Welsh talent in Craig Bellamy. Spells at Bolton Wanderers, where he made his five hundredth Premier League appearance, and Sheffield United followed, and it was at Bramall Lane that he finally retired.
It was for Wales though, for whom he played for eighty five times, and lead on numerous occasions, that he gave his all for.
He played with a pride and passion that was as genuine as him in every game, big or small. He moved swiftly into management, taking over at the Blades after a tough start to a season, and quickly improved results.
It wasn’t long before his country came calling again, something which he couldn’t turn down. His first games in charge may not have brought wins, but they did install a confidence, as he continued to gel younger players into the national set-up.
The qualifying campaign for Euro 2012 may have ended in disappointment, but a series of friendly wins had highlighted just how much the team had grown under his management. There was a newfound optimism going into the New Year, with sights set on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
With Gary in charge, anything seemed possible. But it wasn’t to be. Chris Coleman said on his unveiling as national team manager how his doubts over his own ability to take the job were quashed by wanting to carry on Gary, his friend’s, legacy.
More tributes have been written or spoken about Gary to do him justice, but I don’t think I’m wrong in reiterating just how special a person he was. A great player, who no doubt would have been a great manager too. Wales, the Wales side he helped shape, proved just how far they had come, in qualifying for and performing outstandingly in France during the summer. They did it for Gary. They’ll continue doing it for Gary. Because there was, and always will be, only one Gary Speed.