Gary Speed Remembered

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Gary Speed Remembered

An outpouring of warmth and emotion from all four quarters of the footballing world has followed the tragic death of Leeds United legend, Gary Speed. Matt Callard attempts to give a Leeds fan’s perspective…

There’s a generation of Leeds United fans with different heroes.

Sure, they love Bremner and Giles and Lorimer and Charlton – and all the legends that still endure from Don Revie’s epochal tenure as manager in the sixties and early seventies. But, for this generation anyway, those names are mythical and intangible. Enhanced by snatches of clips on YouTube, affirmations from those lucky enough to have seen them play, the still endless stream of biographies and autobiographies.

But there’s a generation of Leeds United fans who lived their own footballing dream too, albeit briefly, in the late eighties and early nineties.

The rise was stratospheric. The club have been mired in second-tier football slop for nearly a decade. Cash-strapped and directionless, the management helm was passed between past legends like a hot potato. The vague hope being – so it appeared – that the manager’s past glories would somehow rub off on the current batch of hatchet men and journeymen. There were brief moments; Billy Bremner’s team losing an FA Cup semi final and a play-off final – and occasional flashes on the pitch; John Sheridan’s sweet playmaking, Ian Snodin’s class gleaming like a jewel in the mud – but for most of the eighties, Elland Road was a frightful place. Ugly, violent, uncultured – and that was just on the pitch.

“The definitive box-to-box midfielder”


Gary Speed on the touchline as Wales Manager
image: John Candy

And then the Sergeant arrived. Howard Wilkinson was young (mid-40s) but had already earned a reputation at Sheffield Wednesday, guiding them into the old First Division and finishing 5th in ’85-’86. And, crucially, he brought with him his lieutenant – Gordon Strachan. How Wilkinson inspired the mercurial Strachan to leave Manchester United and join Leeds, a club then languishing near the foot of the old Second Division, remains one of the greatest managerial coups of all time.

Strachan, almost immediately, lit up Elland Road. His influence lifted and inspired the players around him, transforming the ground’s atmosphere in the process. Within 18-months Leeds were Second Division Champions. Two years later, they were Champions of England. For a generation of Leeds United fans, these first four-years of Howard Wilkinson’s managerial reign are as important as anything achieved by Don Revie’s great team. The Sergeant had somehow dragged the team out from a decade of mud and fixed wings on their backs.

Wilkinson’s Championship-winning team was built around a midfield combination so beautifully balanced, so textbook perfect, that it remains a coach’s blueprint. Strachan, the inspirational heartbeat; Gary McAllister, the creative fulcrum; David Batty the ferocious ball winner – and Gary Speed; the definitive box-to-box midfielder – left-footed, dynamic, versatile, fearless.

Speed’s death at just 42 has, for this generation of Leeds United fans anyway, left a void. Why? Because fans want to see their heroes grow old. They want to hear them reflect on past glories, to dwell with them on happy memories. Through their heroes, fans have an excuse to wallow in nostalgia and good times and shared successes. Life isn’t like that generally, but football – sometimes – can be.

“One of football’s rare good guys”

The Revie squad are rightly venerated and constantly and continually lauded in Leeds. They’ve earned that right. But the ’92 Championship-winning side would have been 20 in 2012. And poised for a deserved bit of reminiscing themselves. Ready to receive the grateful thanks from the generation of supporters who shared in that incredible, unlikely success. A success, in fact, that seems ever more remarkable with the passage of time.

For many, Gary Speed’s death is unfathomable. He was talented, rich, handsome. As the newly-appointed manager of Wales he looked set to lead his national team to new heights. He was also one of football’s rare good guys. Universally liked and admired, it seems – and at a time when footballers have seldom appeared more removed, more distant from their own fans.

But his depression – and depression in general – pays no heed to status or attributes or accomplishments. In its wake there is no cause for celebration or any desire for light-hearted reminiscence. Instead, there’s just a void in midfield.

All at On: Yorkshire Magazine would like to express our deepest sympathies to the family of Gary Speed. A legend, around these parts.


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