In the early 1980s, Kevin Ratcliffe used to have to leave early for training from his house in Flintshire to make it on time to Everton’s Bellefield training ground. Most of the time, he would have to collect a newspaper from the training complex in West Derby, as the paper boy in his home town would often arrive late. Gary Speed never gave an answer as to why he was late in delivering to the former Everton captain’s house as a teenager, and he probably never gave one to the teachers at school when he would routinely turn up after the morning bell.
Perhaps apophenia, the curious human ability to find patterns in seemingly unrelated phenomena, intervenes here, as Speed’s natural timing on the football pitch – arriving late into the box or jumping to meet the ball with a header – turned him from a failed paperboy into a footballer time will not forget.
In 1969, Gary Speed was born to parents Roger and Carol in Mancot, a tiny town that sits in North Wales. Nothing much has ever happened in Mancot and that is probably the reason why, in 1988, at 18 years of age, Speed decided to leave Wales and move 80 miles north-east to Yorkshire, to join Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds.
Put up in local council housing, a teenage Speed – who had climbed the ladder up from Kevin Ratcliffe’s paperboy to Peter Swan’s boot boy – found life up north a breeze, albeit for the wrong reasons. Secret detours on the way home from training often meant Speed dined in the local Burger King and, coupled with lazy afternoons watching TV alone in his new house, he was quickly falling short of the high expectations set by the new management.
Inside the club, the responsibility of change for the Welshman fell to a Scottish veteran of the squad: “Gordon Strachan was on bananas and seaweed. I thought to myself ‘what is he eating that for?’” Speed conceded in an interview with The Standard, “then he runs past you in pre-season and you realise why.”
The fiery-haired duo of Bremner and Strachan took Speed under their wing and enlightened him on the benefits of nutrition and well-being: a facet of football championed by Speed for the rest of his career. Speed soon quit the fast-food diet and telly binges, choosing to focus on getting into the first-team squad alongside his mentor.
Leeds had struggled through a tumultuous few decades in the lead-up to the end of the twentieth century; an ill-fated European Cup final appearance went by quickly but was not forgotten, and the club were desperate to resurrect a mind-set of glory after the failure that was the 1980s. Wilkinson was their answer, and with him came Gary Speed. In Leeds’ title-winning campaign of 1991/92, Speed – still a teenager and very much the baby of the squad – was used as the ultimate utility man, playing in every outfield position for the champions except centre-back.
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It becomes hard, possibly even unjust on the man, to label Speed as solely a winger in the squad. Mainly used by Wilkinson as the left-sided midfielder, the quartet of Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed gelled together famously, becoming one of the all-time great Leeds casts. Strachan was a wise owl on the right, who had been convinced by Wilkinson and the legendary figure of Bill Fotherby to cross the Pennines from Manchester United. His experience on the opposite flank to the floppy-haired teenager proved invaluable for the perfect balance of the midfield.
Speed, who was excelling thanks to his epiphany on his dietary and fitness requirements, provided typical fearlessness and an exciting burst of raw, youthful pace: the youngster quickly became indispensable. Gary McAllister pulled the strings in the middle while local boy Batty held the rigging of the ship that won the last First Division title before the creation of the Premier League.
This triumph would prove to be Speed’s first major honour, and what an honour it was. The baby-faced winger had propelled Leeds from the Second Division to the top and won the league in three years. He played every game in the 1991/92 season bar one; his excellent jumping ability was a trait now universally lauded by fans, as was his innate knack of arriving into the box to score. The lateness as a youngster had finally worn off and the wide midfielder finished an incredible league campaign not only with seven goals to his name but a manager’s player of the season award, too.
Along with the popular, if not very imaginative, moniker ‘Speedo’, the Welshman was assigned another name by his teammates at Elland Road. ‘Mr. Versatility’ was the nickname of choice for Speed from many of his work colleagues, and Wilkinson described why to The Guardian in 2011: “I think I’d played him in nine or ten outfield positions,” wrote Wilkinson, “Gary never complained, never ever showed any dissent … he was a terrific footballer.”
After 312 games and nearly a decade in Yorkshire, the Welshman packed his bags for the only club that could prize him away. His beloved Everton had come calling and Speed signed in 1996 for £3.5m under then-manager Joe Royle. Speed had achieved his dream and the blue side of Stanley Park gained a legend.
The only hat-trick of his playing career came in his maiden season as a blue, as did the Everton Player of the Year award. A perfect start to playing for his boyhood club got even better as, in his second year, Speed was appointed captain by new manager Howard Kendall. Despite Speed’s best efforts, Everton struggled: a sixth-place finish in his first season was quickly made irrelevant after the club finished in 17th the following year.
A cloud of smoke descended over Everton and out of it came Speed, transfer request in hand. The fans that had rapturously welcomed him on his arrival to Goodison Park were left dumbfounded amidst the swirling rumours that had started to circle. In classic Speed fashion, the midfielder was calm and kind-natured regarding the silence during his exit, the Liverpool Echo the recipients of his decision: “I can’t explain myself publicly because it would damage the good name of Everton and that is something I am not prepared to do that.”
A move north to Newcastle ensued, and with it came arguably Speed’s best performances as a footballer. His trademark wide-left role had changed to a central position, where he could use his calmness, so evident in his personality, to control the game from a deeper role. Speed saw out the century in black and white stripes, in a Newcastle team that always looked significantly weaker when he was not present.
FA Cup final appearances – in losses to Arsenal and Manchester United – coupled with a taste of Champions League football would be the prize for Speed, who continued to serve in Northumberland until 2004, before he continued into his third decade as a player with Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United.
It could have been easy to dedicate 10,000 words on Speed’s numbers as a professional footballer alone – all too easy. In the modern era of the game of football, it becomes difficult, perhaps impossible, to avoid talking about statistics and data: its sheer ubiquity forces readers and writers to conform to the trend and succumb to utilising such tools. With over 500 professional games in the Premier League, five clubs represented and his country too, Speed is a statistical gold-mine. The sheer quantity of ripe, juicy numbers could feed data analysts for years; mathematicians could go without water for 40 days and nights and live solely from Speed’s xG ratings and GPG ratios.
It could’ve been easy to write about this, and it would have turned the other way and explicitly overlooked exactly what made Speed who he was. Gary Speed was a man who cannot be measured by numbers on a page. Despite the aforementioned gold-mine, his impressive statistics do not come close to describing the reason he touched the hearts of so many who love football. Numbers sent man to the moon in the year of Speed’s birth but they do not come close to measuring him one iota as a person.
The gentle, polite, always smiling face of Speed graced the English game for over three decades; his professionalism and capacity to bring joy to the fans were unparalleled by anyone else and it will no doubt stay that way forever. He was never prolific, never unbeatable, never did his trophy cabinet bulge at the seams. But he was a gentleman whose presence is still felt and is still missed. His tragic death in 2011 left a huge hole in the game, one that remains unfilled.
Memories of Speed live on – his single top-flight trophy is perhaps the high-point – but whether his picture shows a shirt of white, blue, or black and white, it does not matter: the fans do not care, for he was, and still is, undoubtedly loved.
By Joe Brennan @j4brennan