A lot of people have written about the death of Gary Speed over the last few days, and most of them far more eloquently and with greater personal knowledge than I ever could. I grew up watching Gary Speed playing for, often captaining, Wales; in the early 90s – up until the 17th of November 1993, which one day I might be brave enough to write about – I had more emotional investment in the Welsh national team than I would ever again have in any football team (or indeed in most other things).
Why has the tragedy of his death touched football fans more deeply, and more universally, than that of any player I can remember? There are the obvious feelings of sorrow, grief and loss, as well as the shock of this having happened so suddenly to someone so unlikely.
There are also two emotional responses within me which I’ve been struggling with over the last couple of days.
The first is guilt. In the two periods during which I was a real, avid Wales fan, in the early 90s and the early 2000s, Speed was a player we took for granted. We would mentally tot up the number of Premier League players available to us, and then hold our breath to see who would withdraw, and then see who was left and what sort of side we could be expected to put out. Whoever else would pull out, be it against a big nation or a smaller one, competitive match or friendly, Gary Speed would be there – it was not by chance that he ended up as Wales’ most-capped outfield player. Because of that, we would almost pass over his name on the teamsheet – of course Speed would be there, now who else? And he would often end up playing at left-back, or wherever else needed filling in, since we were short of talent, players had pulled out, and Speed wouldn’t complain. As his friend Alan Shearer said yesterday,”The stupid and sad thing is that he can’t see what he meant to people.” Perhaps we can all think of that guy who is always there, who we take for granted, the Prodigal Son’s older brother, and shake his hand, buy him a pint, whatever it is we do to show we appreciate our mates being there.
The second feeling is fear. I don’t remember ever discussing this explicitly with friends, but if the average football fan was given the chance to come back as someone, you’d probably pick a professional footballer, with a 20-year career at the top level, captain of your country, famous in the sense of being good at what you do and appreciated by those who know, but not so famous as to be a celebrity rather than a normal bloke, good-looking, reasonably intelligent and with a successful career beyond your playing days. In other words, you’d choose to be Gary Speed. Like the crew of the Indomitable after Billy Budd’s death, in the inarticulacy of our grief we wonder – if he, the best of us, couldn’t cope, what hope for the rest of us?