Remembering Gary Speed

The Premier League Legends were in Barbados this June to play in a 7-a-side tournament and meet old friends and foes over a dark rum and coke.

I was there to work. Well, sort of. When you tell your wife that you “have to go to Barbados with ‘the footballers’ for a job” you can imagine the reaction. Work involved getting 16 interviews done over five days on the beautiful Caribbean island. Some interviews would be easy as I knew the players, others less so. I didn’t know Gus Poyet, Gianfranco Zola, Frank Leboeuf, Alan Shearer or Gary Speed and needed to speak to all for FourFourTwo magazine.

A few days into the trip and the players were leaving the hotel at 5pm for a bus to the stadium. I got to the reception at 4pm and waited. The players started to pass by. They had nothing else to do and many stopped to make small talk. Most knew I was a journalist, which could warrant a blanking, but they liked FourFourTwo. Besides, I’d been invited by a player and was considered ‘safe’ and ‘trustworthy.’

“What if I meet a bird on the beach then you pop up with a camera?” asked one single player to a tabloid journalist. But even he knew that journalist and it was said half in jest. The mood was good.

The ex-pros also inevitably gossiped about what X or Y was up too. There were as many negative stories as positive ones. Divorce, gambling, financial problems. It’s not all milk and honey just because you used to be a football star.

I needed to speak to some of the Chelsea and Newcastle lads, that’s why I sat in reception waiting. The Happy Mondays might have done it, but returning from a work trip in the Caribbean with no work was not an option.

I saw Gary Speed approach through the palms. I’d always admired him from afar as a player. He scored well on the grapevine too. He wasn’t a big-time knob. He’d looked after himself after finishing playing, his good looks hadn’t faded and he still dressed well. He was also the current manager of Wales, more reason to interview him.

You sometimes think that you know famous people through their public persona. You don’t. So never take anything for granted when you ask a straightforward question.

I told Speed that I was from FourFourTwo and that I’d like 15 minutes of his time to talk about tactics at some point over the next two days. He said it would be fine and we arranged to meet at breakfast the next day. He was busy having breakfast with Shearer the following morning so I didn’t bother him, but I did see him later on. He said meet in an hour. He wasn’t there in an hour.  

He turned up half-an-hour later, apologised for being late and then said that we should do the interview in his room rather than a public area. I walked with him to his room and made small talk.

Mentioned that I’d interviewed Danny Collins, one of his Wales players, a month before. Collins had fallen out with the Wales manager John Toshack before being recalled by Speed for the Euro 2012 qualifiers.

“I’ve really enjoyed playing under Speed,” enthused Collins. “The training is great and he’s really professional. I also respect the fact that he’s played over 500 Premier League games. If we can get our full squad out – which we need – then I think we can give it a good go at reaching the 2014 World Cup finals. I hope to still be playing then. I was a late starter so I’m not ready to give up yet.”

Speed reckoned Danny was “a good lad.” Such phrases oil and uphold reputations within football.

We got to his room and both sat on a sofa by the side of his bed. He wore an understated Rolex and a Ralph Lauren polo. I put a tape recorder between us and spoke about tactics for seven minutes, specifically scoring from a free-kick from near the touchline, in line with the edge of the 18-yard box. He was serious and went into precise detail.

Then we talked about what to say to players when they are underdogs, before a match and at half-time. One passage stuck out, with Speed saying: “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard – that’s what I tell my players. The best players, the most talented ones, usually work harder than anyone. We have to better that work rate.”  

That philosophy was paying off for Wales.

Then we did an interview, called: ‘At The End of the Day’. I looked back through it when I heard the terrible news of his death on Sunday. Some lines stand out a mile.

“I was heartbroken the day I left Newcastle, but football breaks your heart all the time,” Speed said.

Asked for his proudest moment in football, he said: “Being captain of my country, Wales.”

He still regretted not taking that penalty against Romania in 1993 and said: “If I had missed then it would be easier for me to live with it…”

There were more questions, like: “One thing you couldn’t live without?”

“My kids,” replied Speed. t“I’ve got two at 14 and 12.”

The final question was: ‘What item do you cherish most?’ Sometimes footballers go onto auto-pilot in interviews. They talk clichés, niceties and nonsense. Speed paused for a good 30 seconds.

“Certainly nothing material,” he replied. “I don’t even know where my championship medal is from Leeds. So I’d say family. We’re an item and they mean everything to me.”

I thanked him for his time and wished him well, only pausing to remind him that he’d ruined the summer of an 18-year-old in 1992 by winning the league with Leeds. He smiled and said: “I think you’ve seen your team win enough. That was my only trophy in football.”

I left the room with a positive impression of Gary Speed being a well-rounded individual who had made a great success of his life through a combination of hard work, dedication and talent. No different from the many people who have worked with him in football and are likewise stunned and saddened by his death.

INTERVIEW: Gary Speed discusses his career with Andy Mitten

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