Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Gary Speed – thoughts and condolences

Like many football fans, I was shocked and upset to learn of Gary Speed's untimely death. I was however proud to hear that Aaron Ramsey led the flurry of tributes with an eloquent and heartfelt statement:
“To say I am devastated is an understatement … My thoughts and prayers go out to Gary’s family and friends. Today the world has lost a great football manager but even more sadly a great man. He will be missed by all.”

Gary Speed was of course the man responsible for handing Aaron Ramsey the Wales captaincy; a brave decision that indicated he was a forward-thinking manager with faith in the abilities of young players in his squad even at the highest level.

In the short time he was manager of the national side Speed was already starting to make a real difference. The Welsh players – who have always been a proud bunch, you only need to look to ex-Gunner John Hartson for evidence of that – sensed genuine opportunities to play for a side on the up, and seemed, almost without exception, eager to get involved in internationals again. As Mark Lawrenson pointed out on MOTD, the suspect ‘groin strain’ that had commonly been cited as an excuse not to join up with Wales suddenly became a thing of the past. As a result the national side began taking steps in the right direction after a difficult period under John Toshack; indeed, when Speed took over Wales were placed 117th in the FIFA world rankings system, they subsequently climbed to an impressive 45th.

That stat alone is testament to Gary Speed’s evident managerial abilities at this level, regardless of his illustrious achievements as a player. And he was a great player, one who helped to define the Premier League in long stints at Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton. The old cliché was that if there was ever a pub quiz question about the Premier League, the answer was always Gary Speed – the man’s longevity and ability to stick around at the top level of English football was incredible. Part of this was his talent – he had a cracking left foot, for one – but it was also attributable to his great industry (he was, perhaps, the archetypal ‘midfield engine’), and his selfless team play.

It does not do to speculate on the circumstances of his death. It is clear, however, that modern footballers, accustomed to intense media scrutiny, are practised at hiding inner thoughts, conflicts and problems – and Arsenal know that better than most clubs, given the battles with demons faced by ex-players like the addictions of Highbury heroes Paul Merson and Tony Adams. Their frank autobiographies Rock Bottom and Addicted, respectively, offer revealing insights into the ways that both managed to function as players on the pitch for many seasons whilst their lives off the pitch gradually descended into chaos.

Neither is Gary Speed the only figure in the football world to have (as has been reported) taken his own life in recent years. Many will remember the death in November 2009 of German goalkeeper Robert Enke; an internationally capped Bundesliga star who battled with long-term and periodically debilitating bouts of depression. Again, Ronald Reng’s excellent book A Life Too Short is a poignant read that gives a real insight into the intense high-pressure world of modern football.

That the game can be responsible for tragedies like this is a sad indictment of its power and influence; it brings joy to millions, but it also has a destructive side, and, more than that, the notion of football as spectacle often detracts from the fact that those who play and run it are only human, with human emotions, worries, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses.

RIP Gary Speed.

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