As I woke on Sunday morning I reached out, as I always do, to my bedside table to check my phone. I had an e-mail from YouTube - “Comment posted on your video ‘Gary Speed Tribute’”. The comment simply said ‘R.I.P. Gary’. My initial thought was “what the hell does that mean?” The possibility that Speed was dead didn’t even register with me, despite the comment being as blatant as it possibly could be.
As I got up and headed to the shower my mind cleared and the gravity of the comment hit me - R.I.P. Gary. Hold on a minute - could Speed be dead? I immediately grabbed my phone again and typed the words “Gary Speed” into a Google search. Ignoring the first result, which was actually a news story about that mornings breaking tragedy, my eyes were instinctively drawn to the second result - Gary Speed’s Wikipedia entry. There, in a preview of the article itself, were the words: Gary Andrew Speed, MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) was a Welsh football player and manager.
I was stunned. Gary Speed was dead. My immediate instinct was to call my dad, the man who steered me from a young age towards following Leeds United. He hadn’t yet wakened so hadn't heard. I informed him of the news and as I hung up the phone I tried to compose myself. What had happened? My immediate thought was a tragic car accident or something similar. Certainly not anything sinister. Further internet investigation revealed the truth. For the rest of Sunday, and everyday since to be honest; my thoughts haven’t strayed far from Gary Speed.
As a child I remember vividly the Christmas of 1993. Squad numbers and names on shirts had become the new thing in football and I was delighted to wake up on Christmas morning to my shiny new white Leeds home shirt. And on the back? Only one choice: Speed 11. In fact on the street I grew up on, in a small Northern Irish town, there were two other kids - brothers - that supported Leeds. They too had ‘Speed 11’ on their shirts. Why Speed? To us he was the superstar of the team, the young, handsome, home-grown winger, capable of scoring spectacular goals and always giving 100%. In that famous midfield quartet of Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed, the latter two were the old heads, the responsible players, the players your dad related too. David Batty's role was difficult for a small child to appreciate. His game centred around crunching tackles and he scored few goals. He was unglamorous. Speed was the young maverick. Arguments would inevitably ensue as to who got to “be” Gary Speed when we had a kick about.
It’s a hobby of mine to compile video tributes to my favourite Leeds players past and present. Just last week I compiled one for Gary Speed. Going back through all that old footage was wonderful - from “go on Gary Speed, get one yourself son” through to his final season at Leeds, reliving those childhood memories is a big reason why I enjoy making those videos so much. From 305 views before the news broke of Speed’s death, the current view count sits at just north of 222,000. That is the measure of people that have been affected by his passing. The heart-felt comments left on the video range from the clubs he played for to their biggest rivals. Leeds and Manchester United, Everton and Liverpool. Why? Because Gary Speed was the kind of player any supporter would have wanted in their team. He wasn't quite world-class, but he could hold his own on any pitch and he always gave his all. He was never in the front pages of the papers. He was never even really a player talked about much. He was simply a constant, something taken for granted. Gary Speed’s name would always be on the team sheet, and he would always give 100%.
On Tuesday night in Nottingham the travelling Leeds support gave Gary the send-off he deserved. The chanting of his name sent shivers down my spine as I listened on the radio. The players also responded with a top class performance. The timing of the first goal, just as the 11 minutes of non-stop chanting of his name ended; was like something out of a fairytale. Today I booked flights I can’t really afford so that I can be at Elland Road this Saturday. Win, lose or draw I just have to be there so that I can chant the name of Gary Speed alongside my fellow Leeds supporters. I have never wanted to attend any game as much in my life.
It’s hard to explain why the death of a footballer has had such a profound affect on me. It’s hard to understand myself. Gary Speed was part of a Leeds team that delivered, a team I was in awe of as a small child. A team that has not been bettered since. The life of a football supporter, especially a Leeds one; can be a heartbreaking and cynical experience. In this day and age players come and go with such frequency an emotional bond is hard to establish between them and the fans. In 1992, with the advent of Sky, football changed forever. The days of the same group of players staying together under one manager over a prolonged period of years is gone. Testimonials are a thing of the past. Gary Speed broke into the Leeds team in 1988 and stayed there until 1996. To think he also served seven years at Newcastle is pretty remarkable.
As a child my VHS tape of the 1991/1992 title winning season was almost worn out because I watched it that much. In adulthood it is viewed with less frequency but still at least a couple of times a year. Last night I watched it and the feeling of nostalgic joy I usually get from it was tinged with sadness. I suspect this will now forevermore be the case. On Sunday 27th November 2011 Gary Speed chose to end his own life. The reasons why may never be revealed or understood. All I know is that with him died a very important piece of my childhood. But, tainted as they are with sadness, the memories live on and for me they always will. For that, Gary Speed, I thank you. Rest in peace.