Gary Speed Left Football as Humble and Honest as He Arrived in the Game
The Gary Speed I was introduced to was a marauding midfielder in the Leeds team who won the First Division title in 1992. With a pure left foot, pace to burn and boundless energy, Speed was the kind of player fans get on their feet for.
Even as a Manchester United supporter I couldn't help but admire him. He might have been lining up for our bitter rivals, but there was an honesty in Speed's game that made it very hard to dislike him. The more you watched him, the more you were convinced he was the kind of footballer others should aspire to.
But as fans we live off fleeting 90-minute glimpses into an all-consuming profession. Ours is not to say whether Speed was a good man; or whether his attitude on the pitch was reflected in that he displayed in the majority of his hours in football's employment, or out of it.
For that we rely on the many who were fortunate enough to cross his path in a playing career that called at Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, and spanned a remarkable 22 years. And those who knew him as a young manager of undoubted potential, lost to the game with his revitalised Wales team sparking optimism of qualifying for a first major tournament since 1958.
Those people have spoken. And 24 hours after the tragic news of Speed's death shocked us all, we can say with absolute authority that one of the British game's most respected, and most loved, figures has left behind a legacy to inspire generations to follow. Here are just a few of the tributes paid to Speed.
"I’ve met a lot of people in my time, a lot of sportsmen. Gary had none of those things which we associate with sportsmen. He was ordinary as a bloke, very nice, very genuine, very honest, very hardworking. He was a joy to manage," - former Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson
"The description ‘model professional’ could have been written for him. His preparation for every game and dedication to being as successful as he could was evident to everyone who worked with him. He was someone every young player could look up to: the ideal role model." - Ian Rush, who played alongside Speed for Wales
"Gary Speed was one of the nicest men in football and someone I am honoured to call a team-mate and friend." - Ryan Giggs
"Gary was a wonderful ambassador for our league, and indeed all of football, but more than that he was a decent man widely respected throughout the game and beyond. Gary will go down in history as one of our iconic players, he was a stand-out professional of the modern game and I’m sure all football fans across Britain will be deeply saddened at his untimely passing." - Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore
The words of those who knew him have painted Speed as the role model of role models. Here was a footballer so untouched by the wealth, fame and adulation that came his way, that he left the game as humble as the day he entered it. In 50 years from now, when Speed's contemporaries are leaving us in more timely fashion, how many do you think will be able to say the same?
Perhaps the passing of Speed will serve as a sermon to a game that often forgets itself. Football's news agenda seems to be dominated by corruption, greed and petulance these days, but for now eulogies to a man who sidestepped all three are rightly overwhelming the competition. There's something profound to be learned in that.
But for now, let us remind ourselves of Speed the wonderfully energetic, dynamic and talented footballer. That one at least lived the longest, and fullest, of lives.
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