Speed - Welsh football's driving force

Gary Speed's death on Sunday at 42 is not only a huge loss to his family and friends but also to Welsh football for he looked like turning their fortunes around after years in the wilderness.

This despite only having four months managerial experience at Sheffield United when he was handed the job by the Football Association of Wales (FAW) last December as the Welsh floundered in their Euro 2012 qualifying group.

However, despite not qualifying for the finals the 4-1 victory over Norway - good enough to be one of the top seeded teams for the 2014 World Cup European zone qualifiers - brought them their third successive win and fifth in 10 games under Speed.

That run - their best win sequence since 2008 - allied to Speed's decision to hand more responsibility to younger players such as Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale and blend them with what few classy older players remained like Craig Bellamy gave Welsh fans hope for the first time in ages that they could challenge genuinely for a major finals place.

Speed himself knew what it was like to experience the bitter disappointment of getting close to major finals as the cultured midfielder - who along with Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and David Batty formed a formidable midfield in the Leeds side that won the 1992 league title - just missed out on the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2004.

His pride in those exploits during his 85 cap career - in which he captained them 44 times and scored seven goals - was reflected when he was appointed as manager last December.

"Some of my best memories of playing football have been for Wales and you can never take those away," said Speed, who was married with two sons.

"There's no better feeling than playing in a Wales team that's confident, winning games and beating teams - like Italy, like Germany, like Brazil.

"There's no better feeling than that in football, regardless of how well you're playing at your clubs or how many trophies you win at your clubs.

"To be successful and enjoy playing for Wales is a great feeling, so I'll be trying to express that to the players."

The eloquent and intelligent Speed - who was much sought after as a pundit - had made it clear that he was determined to be responsible for getting his crop of players to a finals - which would have been only the country's second after the 1958 World Cup.

And Speed - who also played for the club he supported as a boy Everton, Newcastle and Sheffield United - showed that aside from his own views on tactics he had learnt off the managers he had played under.

"I'm very much my own man but I've learnt from experienced managers," Speed, who invested a lot of his time in carrying out unpublicised work for charity, said.

"The biggest challenge is obviously qualifying for a major championships.

"There's been lots of Welsh managers before me who never managed to do it, so that's the goal really.

"But it's a challenge I'm really looking forward to and I'm looking forward to working hard to try and achieve that."

Speed looked like he was taking Wales into a position where they could help him achieve that ambition especially after the Norway thrashing - certainly leaving him satisfied but still with the drive that had been a feature of his playing days.

"We've progressed further than I'd have thought in this space of time but we've still got a lot of work to do," he said at the time.

Sadly with his premature death that work will remain unfinished and a case of what might have been for both man and country.

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