Gary Speed

I knew I’d made it as a player when I retired! As I was coming through the youth ranks at Leeds, my coach would say, “You haven’t made it until you are 35 and have a career behind you”. That stuck with me, long after I’d established myself in the first team at Elland Road. Maybe I should have applied myself more when I was younger, but by my mid-twenties I realised I had to work hard to stay at the top. It would have been a danger to think I’d made it: I’d have relaxed and my performances would have suffered. You must keep improving – you can’t stand still.

My proudest moment in football was captaining Wales. It’s something I always look back on with immense pride.

I was happiest in football winning the league with Leeds in 1992. We just kept going, while Manchester United faltered at the end – our team spirit was excellent. I’d say I was happiest over a period of time at Newcastle. I played under Bobby Robson and was there for seven years. I played Champions League football, Newcastle was a great place to live and St James’ Park is a wonderful place to play football with great fans. I didn’t want to leave.

The day football broke my heart was the day I left Newcastle. That was so hard to take. But football breaks your heart all the time. Losing to Romania for Wales in 1993 really hurt. We needed to win to reach our first World Cup finals since 1958. It was 1-1 at Cardiff Arms Park when we were awarded a penalty after 63 minutes. Paul Bodin hit the crossbar and was substituted six minutes later. Romania went on to win 2-1. Wales didn’t go to America, Romania did.

I’ve never told anyone this before but I got selected for the cricket team at schoolboy level, not football. It’s funny how things work out.

If I could change anything about football it would be gamesmanship, diving that sort of thing. Referees giving fouls for nothing really riles me. I’d love to see harsher penalties for diving.

Football means everything. I love it because it’s always changing. You have to keep your mind open to new ideas; anyone who harks back to how it all used to be perfect is wrong. What made people successful 20 years ago doesn’t necessarily work now. You must evolve as a player and a manager: if you don’t move with the times you get left behind.

My one regret is not taking that penalty against Romania. If I had missed then it would be easier for me to live with it. I’d made the equaliser and I was brought down for the penalty. I was playing well and I was confident. I should have picked the ball up. It’s something I’ll always look back on and wonder: what if…

If I had one wish it would be that I’d won more trophies. I won the league with Leeds and the Second Division a few years before. We won the Charity Shield at Leeds but I was runner-up a lot of times: twice in the FA Cup final with Newcastle [in 1998 and 1999], the Intertoto Cup with Newcastle and the League Cup with Bolton. Coming so close only to lose is much more painful than going out early.

The item I cherish the most isn’t material. I don’t even know where my Leeds championship medal is. So I’d say family: we’re an item and they mean everything to me.

Three words that sum me up… hardworking, honest, self-critical. Hang on, is that four?

Interview: Andy Mitten (opens in new tab)From the December 2011 issue of FourFourTwo

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Gary Parkinson is a freelance writer, editor, trainer, muso, singer, actor and coach. He spent 14 years at FourFourTwo as the Global Digital Editor and continues to regularly contribute to the magazine and website, including major features on Euro 96, Subbuteo, Robert Maxwell and the inside story of Liverpool's 1990 title win. He is also a Bolton Wanderers fan.