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Disbelief, despair and hopelessness: all were sentiments felt by anyone affiliated with Welsh football on the morning of November 21, 2011. Gary Speed had been found dead in the garage of his home in Cheshire, his own life taken just hours after he had appeared on national television, seemingly in good spirits. His close friend and former team-mate Robbie Savage summed up the feelings of a nation, appearing on BBC News: “I just can’t believe it,” he said, almost inconsolable by the end of his interview.

The shock was made even more profound by the unfamiliar optimism that had surrounded the Welsh national team in the weeks prior. Just two weeks earlier, Speed had overseen an emphatic 4-1 win over Norway in Cardiff. It was a friendly, but it represented visible progression of this youthful side. For those not familiar with the country’s struggles, this victory’s significance, Wales’ third in a row, may not have been apparent. But for Wales fans, it allowed for rare positivity amongst a sea of historic cynicism and pessimism.

“I remember interviewing Gary after Wales had beaten Norway when things really seemed to be clicking into place,” says Bryn Law in his book Zombie Nation Awakes. “We both sensed there were good times ahead and a mate of mine rang me the following day to say it sounded like we were about to burst out laughing at the wonder of it all.” 

There was hope. Speed had planted the seeds of a cohesive unit, both fluid and effective, and reinvigorated the increasingly disillusioned supporters. There was a sense of a long-term plan – not just reactive football. Speed was building something. But in tragic circumstances, it was brought to an end. “That was the last post-match interview I ever did with Gary,” Law added.

Optimism was replaced by devastation. Wales were at their nadir, having been riding the crest of a wave of almost unprecedented anticipation only two weeks earlier, and the immediate future appeared bleak, obsolete to an extent, such was the situation. Looking back now, Speed’s comments in his final post-match interview were poignant.  “We’ve got talent in abundance and I’m fortunate to be in that position,” he said. “I think these players can achieve what they want, they just have to have the confidence to do it. We are building for the future. There is still a lot of improving to be done but we are going in the right direction.”

It’s testament to Speed’s influence that Wales had reached this point. When he was appointed as manager 11 months before his death, the overriding feeling around the national team was one of exasperated indifference. The 41-year-old replaced John Toshack, whose tenure had been ultimately uninspiring, with fleeting moments of near-success. Speed, though, was inexperienced, a potential gamble but a popular appointment. As a player he was revered for his unerring professionalism. A battling, technically gifted midfielder, and natural leader, his managerial potential was undoubted, but expectation remained typically low.

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Wales had grown accustomed to their position as effectively an embodied footballing cliché – the plucky underdogs, the gallant failures, occasional giant killers. Speed, however, had no intention of settling for those labels. “It’s my job to lift Welsh football from top to bottom and I’m really looking forward to the challenge,” he claimed at his unveiling. “We need to consistently compete on a world stage, not just coming close to qualifying every now and again. The group of players that we’ve got are of an age where we can be together for a long time and improve and grow as a team. I’m looking forward to that challenge of putting things in place so we can try and be successful with those players.”

These were bold, ambitious statements, and they were not met without doubt. Speed’s only managerial experience prior had been a four-month spell with Sheffield United, which had included nine defeats in 18 games. Added to that, Welsh fans had been promised similar progression on numerous occasions in the past, only for the cycle of continuous anonymity to persist. But upontaking control of Wales, it became evident that Speed was certainly suited to international management.

Speed had pointed towards the age of the squad and its potential for growth, and this was indeed the area around which he based his plans. He arrived at a time when the best group of young players – arguably in the country’s history – were beginning to introduce themselves, some at the top level of club football.

The most prevalent was Gareth Bale, although it was Aaron Ramsey, then a raw 20-year-old, upon whom Speed centred his philosophy. The midfielder was made captain, such was the level of trust felt. That decision was indicative of Speed’s emphasis on youth and his clear long-term aim of creating a squad with years of development and cohesion through playing together. 

“Aaron will learn a lot as he goes on,” Speed said. “I’ve not put any extra pressure on him. I just want him to go out and play. He is going to have quiet games and great games but the reason behind it was the future of the team and it was definitely the right decision. When we are in a position to compete in two years’ time then I think Aaron will benefit from the experience he is getting now.” 

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The decision has certainly been more than vindicated by now. Ramsey has been equally as impressive as Bale, and equally as pivotal, during Wales’ recent success.

Speed’s first game in charge was a 3-0 defeat against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin before a 2-0 defeat against rivals England in a Euro 2012 qualifier, his first competitive game. After that loss, Wales were at their lowest ever position in the world rankings – 117th. By the time of Speed’s last game, they had climbed to 45th, and were given the title of Best Movers by FIFA. Impressive victories against Switzerland, Bulgaria and Norway had seen a marked improvement, though it was the style of football that proved the most notable element of Speed’s all too short time with Wales.

One of Speed’s first changes was to drastically improve the increasingly out of touch sports science department, bringing in Damian Roden as Head of Performance and fitness coach Raymond Verheijen. Those inside the camp have regularly spoken of clear progression in these areas. Speed had modernised the Wales setup, realising that a certain lack of professionalism may have been a hindrance for previous squads.

Training was more structured and discipline was demanded, and it allowed Speed to implement his ideas on a team that had lacked identity. Emphasis was placed on controlling the ball in a 4-3-3 system, with Ramsey and Joe Allen key in midfield. The defence was instructed to play out from the back, while the front three were allowed freedom to express themselves in attack.

His successor, Chris Coleman, implemented his own tactical changes, but Speed had introduced something crucial at international level: cohesion. This was a group of players growing increasingly assured of their own, and each others’, abilities, and how best to work together to utilise them. The early defeats against the likes of Australia and Scotland had served as experimentation to an extent. This was, after all, a project.

It was against Norway that everything appeared to fall into place. This was Wales at their fluid best under Speed, against a side 24th in the world rankings. The football was “sensational” in Speed’s own words. An exceptionally measured, composed display in front of 12.000 fans appeared to have set the tone for change, but it was to be entirely overshadowed by what happened just days later. In fact, the Norway game ultimately made the tragedy hit home harder. Such encouragement and excitement had quickly turned into crushing grief.

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Two months passed before Coleman was revealed as Speed’s replacement. The positive mood had all but disappeared by the time of his arrival; football felt largely irrelevant. “We’re still all shocked by what happened and we’re still grieving,” said Coleman. “And the only way we can put smiles on fans’ faces again is to continue to win matches but I don’t think we’ll ever get over the loss of Gary. On one hand it is the proudest moment of my career but on the other hand, with the circumstances, I was very close friends with Gary for 30 years.”

Again, there was a return to the natural pessimism for Wales fans, particularly after Coleman’s less than impressive start. A 6-1 defeat against Serbia in his second competitive game was a setback, effectively eradicating any hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup with just two group games played. But much of that can be put down to the effect that the loss of their first team manager in such circumstances would have undoubtedly had on the players.

Coleman eventually found the solutions, leading Wales not only to qualification for Euro 2016, but to the semi-finals of the tournament, capturing the imagination of a nation and completing an extraordinary chapter in the country’s history.

As I wildly celebrated Hal Robson-Kanu’s Cruyff turn inspired goal, and Sam Vokes’ heroic, powerful header in the now historic game against Belgium in the quarter-final, there remained the underlying thought that Gary Speed should have been here to witness it. He was the creator, the instigator of this astonishing tournament, the best moments in Welsh footballing history, and to think that he would never know how far Chris Coleman had taken this group of players made it somewhat bittersweet.

But that unprecedented success, perhaps the greatest experience I and many other Welsh supporters have had as football fans, has ensured that his legacy is now immortalised in the country’s footballing history. Wales had faced adversity, but together they had emerged stronger.

Ahead of the semi-final against Portugal, Coleman again paid tribute to his predecessor. “If you think about Gary Speed, he had 10 games as a manager. He won five and showed great promise as a young manager. He’s not just a Welsh but a sporting icon. He could be sitting here where I am, enjoying what we’re enjoying. Unfortunately that was taken away. We always remember Speeds.”

By Callum Rice-Coates    @Callumrc96