As someone who has recently wittered on about a personal and much regretted disillusionment with football, I find myself struggling to enthuse too heavily or convincingly over say… the Euro 2012 draw made recently. (Two of the groups are hugely competitive/England will fail to impress, probably from the very start against France/then they will go out with pretty much a whimper.) Even the FA Cup draw – once I swear an extremely big deal in our little footballing household – pitching Manchester United (for whom ahem, my grandfather played) against rivals City drifted distractedly by.
But in mitigation there is something that overshadows; the as yet unexplained death by hanging of Wales manager Gary Speed.
The ‘full’ international side in Wales has sadly limped through an extended period of low morale and low achievement, during which apparent disinterest or less than full commitment from key players has contributed to a sink into uncompetitiveness. Even lack of fire – unforgiveable for a celtic side? – inveigled its way into the table of shortcomings. No wonder the fans, as the cliché goes, ‘stayed away in droves.’
Then in one of those winningly predictable upswings of fortune, after a gently worrying start, a young, new manager began to make a difference. Speed. By being calmly authoritative and (I am told, in a long conversation with the esteemed Ian Herbert of The Independent) just substantially more people-shrewd, organised and critically suss than previous incumbents, the former Premiership skipper changed things. Firstly in training then, invigoratingly, on the pitch.
In the last handful of matches, Wales have looked a threat to middle-ranking European teams in a way that has not been the case for many years. With the alarming pace and confidence of Gareth Bale on the left flank and Aaron Ramsay a coolly-aspirant Spaniard in central midfield, a significant transformation is now in progress. Or was?
We cannot know how things may be – and it probably offends decency to contemplate the matter ahead of further tribute to the man – but suffice to say that Wales under Gary Speed were a) improving immeasurably b) winning c) some way to reinvigorating support for the national side. In footballing terms, given the clear correlation between Speed’s gathering influence and results, the man was on a roll. Which rather dumbly begs the question why? Why, Speedo, did you…?
There are apparently no suggestions of depression or problems at home. Or – more exactly – friends and likely confidants(?) have stepped up to the mike and been universally sure ‘nothing was wrong’. It’s a tragic unexplained suicide. This dashing, handsome, modest and room-changingly engaging man; this only recently outstanding specimen of model pro’-dom; this quietly heroic skipper for his team and country, this man arguably absolutely at the height of his powers/influence/sporting pomp has confounded all this wonderful but meaningless sporting momentum in a single spine-chilling act. Unreally and really, we break the news to fellow sportsfolks, Gary Speed is dead.
Personally (though I never met the man) I was shocked to the core; that amorphous and often fickle bunch the football community was shocked to the core – responding with rare grace through the most heartfelt and dignified of tributes. Some laid wreaths, some sustained flurries of appropriately neutered applause. All were touched deeply and were respectful of the nature of Speed’s contribution to the game. He was honest, he was all-action but never bullish, he sprinted/covered/’gave’ and then sprinted some more. He had and he reflected a true understanding of the game. So better surely to remember the man for his genuineness than to allow fears of some cheap revelation to creep?
We have lost Gary Speed, and we are right to note the passing of an outstandingly complete sportsman. To us fans, he was a top player. To friends and family, it transpires, he really was almost everything.