Five years ago this November, the former skipper was tragically discovered dead at his home. But Wales fans haven’t forgotten his work – that which laid the groundwork for the side doing them proud in France right now
While Chris Coleman deserves every accolade for engineering Wales’s ongoing Euros adventure, it should not be forgotten that this is a dream six years in the making.
For it was his predecessor who first laid out the blueprints, a template for change that required guts, a huge amount of trust in the Welsh public, and the hauling of an entire national setup into the modern era.
Though Gary Speed’s appointment before Christmas in 2010 was a popular one, nobody expected the 41-year-old to bring about any meaningful transformation to a nation that had become accustomed to valiant failure. It seemed even more unlikely that Wales’s most capped outfield player and former captain would implant a long-term vision of excellence, based on restored self-belief and attractive, open football.
Cut by the Blades
Though Gary Speed’s appointment before Christmas in 2010 was a popular one, nobody expected the 41-year-old to bring about any meaningful transformation
For one thing, he had just four short months of managerial experience to his name, a steep learning curve at Sheffield United that brought nine defeats in his 18 games in charge. This was not a man who’d navigated the choppy waters of the coaching channels, but rather a retired pro given a quick dunk in an ice bath.
More pertinently, Wales were in the doldrums and their fans had grown jaded. Their previous two qualifying campaigns for major tournaments under an increasingly beleaguered John Toshack had seen them finish third from bottom on both occasions, with all but one of their victories coming against the traditional whipping boys that languished below them.
So the surprise promotion of Speed to the role was met with relief over optimism, and that was largely due to Toshack’s unpopularity at the time. Even so, the former Leeds and Newcastle midfielder said all the right things as he was unveiled to the media at the Vale of Glamorgan hotel.
“I think we need to consistently compete on a world stage and not just come close to qualifying every now and again,” he told the attending press. “The group of players we’ve got are of an age where they can be together for a long time, and improve and grow for a long time.”
Always in transition
In hindsight Speed’s comments have an impressive prescience to them, but truthfully Welsh supporters had heard all this before. They were seemingly always in transition and always determined to finally end a qualifying drought that stretched back to the days of John Charles and wireless radios.
The group of players we’ve got are of an age where they can be together for a long time, and improve and grow for a long time
There was no denying, however, that breaking through were a crop of terrifically talented youngsters – 12 months earlier Toshack had fielded the nation’s youngest-ever side in a friendly against Estonia, with an average age of just 21. Most notable among those prospects was a midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Ledley, with Swansea’s Joe Allen making a debut appearance on 80 minutes. Tottenham’s 20-year-old sensation-in-the-making Gareth Bale was a relative veteran that evening, having made his international introduction at the tender age of 16.
The future, then, looked exceedingly bright for this proud country that, in living memory, had produced the world’s best goalkeeper, winger and goal-poacher supreme in Neville Southall, Ryan Giggs and Ian Rush yet forever seemed incapable of fulfilling their promise.
More encouraging still, the renaissance was not solely reserved for the pitch. In the newly published book Together Stronger, author and journalist Chris Wathan describes Wales’s head coach as “the poster boy with the smile to beam off the back pages, the leader who could bridge an age gap and galvanise a team, and the forward-thinking individual who had bought into the added extras that professionals needed to gain those small margins”.
The last point is particularly salient. Speed was a modern footballer with a modern take on things, who arguably symbolised the Premier League more than any player other than Giggs. One of his first acts on taking charge was to dramatically ramp up the sports science inside the camp, bringing in Jeff Roden as Head of Performance and recruiting ‘Dutch Ray’ Verheijen as fitness coach.
Working alongside Osian Roberts, he set about the root-and-branch reform of a setup that had become stale and institutionalised. The fusty FAW had finally embraced the 21st century.
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Watching the transformation
Speed’s first competitive game in March 2011, however, proved to be a disappointment. Wales lost 2-0 to England, of all teams, and were second-best throughout, with the result realistically ending hopes of qualification for Euro 2012 only four games in.
Speed was a modern footballer with a modern take on things, who arguably symbolised the Premier League more than any player other than Ryan Giggs
The defeats largely kept on coming too; to Scotland, England again, and Australia in a friendly. Yet the overriding theme from the fans and media alike throughout this period was one of encouragement – excitement even – because the metamorphosis that was taking place was clear to see.
The prodigiously gifted but raw Ramsey was installed as captain. Not a fist-pumping centre-back with decades of experience but a 20-year-old who prized possession of the ball and epitomised the values this young side were striving for. Defenders were instructed to play out from the back while elsewhere, control and expression were the mandates.
Implementing such a dramatic shift in philosophy all took time of course – for Speed and his squad, things weren't built in a day – but it also placed a great deal of trust and patience in the Welsh support as they essentially wrote off a qualifying campaign with a view to long-term improvement.
With no shred of arrogance, Speed knew he had that. In 85 caps he had not short-changed his country once, and that wasn’t solely down to patriotic diligence but also through possessing a rare high regard for the intelligence of the paying fans.
Not that any great footballing insight was required to appreciate what was taking place – it was happening before everyone’s very eyes. In their last two qualifiers, against Switzerland and Bulgaria away respectively, Wales won out by playing with a confidence and fluidity that exhilarated before Norway headed to Cardiff for a friendly that November. It was a fixture that has become laden with significance, both good and tragic.
The Scandinavians may have been a fading force, but they still had enough nous to pose a serious threat to the principled project that was beginning to promise much. Instead they found themselves played off the park in a 4-1 thrashing that fully revealed all that had previously been heavily hinted at.
The football on display that afternoon – on a weekend that announced Wales as the 45th-ranked side in the world, the biggest jump by any nation that year – was scintillating, brilliant and composed. It had the hallmarks of the architect behind it; tiki-taka from the valleys. From here anything seemed possible.
Two weeks later, the architect was found in the garage of his home in Huntington, Chester, and a stunned nation mourned. It remains shocking to write and read of it today.
But Gary Speed’s legacy lives on now in every Ramsey through-ball and every moment of Bale wonderment. And it lives on in France.
Throughout his long and distinguished international playing career, he made his country proud of him – but more extraordinary still, he then made his country proud of itself.