Monday, 28 November 2011

Gary Speed - The Ultimate Pro

Gary Speed, 8th November 1969 – 27th November 2011.

The world of football is still reeling in shock from the death of Wales manager Gary Speed. In fact the world further afield from football is still very much in disbelief that Gary has passed. Many tributes and obituaries have already been flying through the media, both from writers more experienced than yours truly and from people who actually knew Gary – unlike myself.

Like any football fan in this country though, I too have been very much affected by Gary Speed’s death. Feelings of astonishment, surprise and most certainly sadness have gripped followers of the beautiful game. Many will want answers as to how and why is the tragedy has occurred. This however is not the time for these questions. Now is a time to reflect on what a great man and fantastic professional that Gary was and to commiserate how much of a loss to football his death is.

Gary Speed came through the youth ranks at Leeds United and signed a professional contract at the beginning of the 88/89 season. He went on to become a prominent player for Leeds and won the last ever ‘Old Division One’ Championship starring in midfield alongside the likes of Gary McAllister and Gordon Strachan.

After four seasons at Leeds he moved onto Everton where he became captain after his first season. After two years on Merseyside Gary then moved further north to Newcastle United. Joining aged 28, Speed was arguably at his peak while at the Magpies and made two FA Cup finals and featured in the Champions League for them. He formed a close bond with legendary manager Sir Bobby Robson who was sad to see him go in 2004.

Speed moved onto Bolton where he played for three and half years and he also became the first man to reach 500 Premier League appearances during his time. He is still third in the all-time Premier League appearance list, sitting behind fellow countryman Ryan Giggs and David James. Gary also cut his coaching teeth whilst at the Reebok, something he built on at his next club Sheffield United.

Speed grabbed a few goals in his time with the Blades but early in the 2008/09 season he suffered an injury which ne never really recovered from. After eventually retiring over a year later Gary Speed then became a coach at Sheffield United, working under manager Kevin Blackwell. Following Blackwell’s sacking early last season Speed emerged as his natural successor and signed a three year contract giving him his first management role.

His first management spell wasn’t exactly groundbreaking but it gave Speed vital experience when he decided to part company with the Blades just four months later to become manager of his national side, Wales.

Speed made his playing debut in 1990 for Wales and went onto make 85 appearances for his homeland, a record for an outfield player. He scored seven goals for Wales and captain his country in many of his appearances, inspiring younger colleagues such as Ryan Giggs, Robbie Savage and Craig Bellamy.

Not long after becoming manager of Wales they slumped to an all-time low of 117th in the Fifa rankings. Wales followed this with wins against Montenegro, Switzerland, Bulgaria and a 4-1 friendly win against Norway this Month. On the back of these wins Wales have now raced back into the top 50 of Fifa’s world rankings. With extremely talented younger players such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey in their team there was huge optimism for the Welsh ahead of qualifying for the next World Cup. This optimism was of course largely down to having Gary Speed at the helm and this, sadly, will no longer be the case.

Gary Speed was one of the few lasting members of a generation that has died out in football now. One of the phrases we will constantly hear this week is ‘model professional’ and so we should. This is exactly what Gary Speed was. He played for the love of football. He didn’t play for excessive money or for an inflated social status.

Speed wasn’t a dirty player, he wasn’t a devious player. He didn’t need to use tricks to beat his opponents, he used his ability. He was never on the front pages of a newspaper, he stuck to the back. He kept his private life private and his professional life professional.

Aside from the football pitch, Gary was usually a regular in the TV studio as well. He was often brought in for his punditry views, as recently as Saturday’s 'Football Focus'. In these appearances he showed himself to be insightful, level-headed and very witty. Something that has been repeated aplenty in the immense amounts of tributes paid to him since yesterday’s tragedy.

Glowing messages for Speed have come from all quarters since his death, managers, celebrities, politicians and players who are only just making their way in the game. I recall several years ago when Craig Bellamy was speaking about the influence Gary Speed had on his career when he was a youngster during his time at Newcastle. It would appear this relationship continued into Speed’s managerial role with Wales and this was personified yesterday when it was decided Bellamy wouldnt’t appear against Manchester City upon hearing of Speed's death.

Even the much maligned Fifa have shown their respects by lowering both their own flag and Wales’ at their headquarters in Zurich. Whilst a respectful gesture, it pales in comparison to the Swansea fans breaking into applause whilst Shay Given wept for the loss of his former teammate.

The words that have been spoken about Speed since his death have shown what a great human being he was. One word however has been mentioned and it will no doubt become much more prominent in the weeks to come – “why”? He had a great career, a lovely family and a very promising future in a job that he adored. The intensity of grief towards this event has obviously been multiplied by the fact that it was such a shock. This would have been devastating whoever it had happened to but no one would ever have thought Gary Speed would have taken his own life. Especially as we think back to him laughing and joking on Football Focus as he usually did, just hours before.

As I have said though, now is not the right time to pick apart the bones of why this man decided to end his own life. If that is indeed what happened, as we shall find out from tomorrow’s inquest.

Now is the time to cherish the great man who graced the best sport in the world. A man who was revered and respected by so many. One of the old guard.  Gary Speed, the ultimate professional. A man who showed all up and coming players what being a footballer was all about, playing the game. He will be sorely missed but never forgotten.  

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Throwing The Book At John Terry. 'If' He Is Guilty.

(At the time of writing this) England will line up against Spain and Sweden over the next week with no poppies adorning their shirts. Fifa have ruled that allowing such symbols being worn on a shirt would set a dangerous precedent, opening the door for “similar initiatives from all over the world” therefore damaging the neutrality of football. Fifa rules outlaw shirts carrying political, religious or commercial messages. Yeah because Umbro, Nike and Adidas aren’t commercial at all are they? Yet they will be on the majority of shirts wore over the next week.

Basically Fifa fear that wearing poppies will offend other countries, perhaps they have our German friends in mind? Of course, wearing poppies is not offensive in the slightest. It is merely a tribute to the soldiers that fought and died for our country. The fact that the England team won’t be wearing them is just another reminder of the ludicrous behaviour that Fifa seems intent on displaying on a regular basis.

What about though, offending our own citizens? Regardless of whether England shirts have a small red flower on them, will our players be lead out by a racist? Will a country as diverse as ours be represented by someone who is abusive to his own countrymen because of their race? John Terry is expected to be wearing the captain’s armband on Saturday and/or Tuesday. Whether he is guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand however is pending investigation.

Let me just state that I think it was the right decision for John Terry to be included in the England squad for the imminent matches. In football as well as in the country as a whole we have the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. To punish Terry before a thorough and accurate investigation would have been unfair and would have shown the FA buckling under pressure from the media. Even QPR chairman Tony Fernandes has agreed with this, see

I am not going to spend hours picking apart whether Terry should have made the England squad. I want to look at if we have a racism problem in football in general and what kind of consequences any guilty parties should face.

Is racism more prevalent in football now than it was 15 years ago? 25 years ago? Well no. Not as far as I can see anyway. The days of John Barnes having to use his dribbling skills to evade banana skins as well as defenders have thankfully now gone. 

Campaigns such as ‘Say No to Racism’ and ‘Stand Up, Speak Up’ have helped to isolate and somewhat diminish the problem. It still exists though, in this country and throughout Europe. We have seen over the years as some of our players have been abused when playing in Europe by fans, as recently as England’s game in Bulgaria in September.   

Fortunately it would appear that racist incidents amongst fans in the UK are fairly rare. What has not been so rare though, particularly this season, is incidents amongst players. The John Terry incident, Luis Suarez clashing with Patrice Evra. It is allegedly happening at all of levels of the game, see Blyth Spartans’ Richard Offiong accusing a Colwyn Bay player of a racist slur (

Wigan chairman Dave Whelan came out after the Terry and Suarez incidents claiming that players who had recently complained of racist abuse “should get on with it”. Whelan claimed that abuse of this sort can work both ways in the stressful environment of top-level football, with white players facing racist comments as well. Whelan almost went as far to say that when players complain of racist abuse they are “a little out of order”.  Dave is clearly not one for mincing his words.

So on this theory John Terry and others should go completely unpunished if accused of making racist taunts. And players shouldn’t mention it if they are targeted by fellow professionals or even a team of professionals because they are black. Or any colour for that matter. I don’t think so Dave. Probably best to focus on getting your team out of their eight match losing streak.

One of the big problems surrounding racist abuse amongst players is that it can be very hard to prove. Any comments made can often be in close proximity between players. Unless an official is close to what is being said or is directly caught on camera then accusations are largely hearsay.

The difference with the John Terry situation is that he was caught on camera. The racist abuse that he was alleged of was captured by Sky’s cameras and as anyone who has seen it will agree – it doesn’t look good for JT. That wasn’t meant to rhyme.

If it is proved without doubt that Terry did say what it certainly looks like he did then punishment will surely follow.  What level of punishment are we talking here though? A slap on the wrist or more?

After the incident against QPR, Chelsea travelled to Genk in the Champions League. There, their fans were heard to be chanting “Anton Ferdinand, you know what you are”. Whether this was in support of their captain, an attack on Ferdinand or anything in between is not the point. They were criticised and chastised for it. QPR manager Neil Warnock stated afterwards that he felt the perpetrators should be jailed for two years.    

Imprisoned for two years? Not like Neil Warnock to exaggerate things. Having said that quite a lot of people will agree with good old Neil. So then why not imprison John Terry for two years? It is the same principle. If anything, in his position of power he should get more time. The fans would not have chanted such things if he hadn’t started the whole thing. If he did indeed start it.

OK, well Terry shouldn’t be locked up for two years. Or even banned from football for two years. His punishment though should be proportionate to the kind of consequences fans face for such actions. Match-going fans can face extortionate bans if caught for racist abuse at a ground. Some fans have even been banned for life from attending the ground of the teams that they support.  So why should John Terry only get a fraction of the kind of retribution that a fan would face for doing the same thing? If anything as Terry abused Anton Ferdinand more directly his actions were worse than his fans. Again, IF he did actually do it.

By introducing much greater bans and punishments the FA would go substantially further to eliminating the problem of racism in football. Longer bans would also create significantly more equality on the matter.  Why on earth should supporters be treated much worse than professionals when they are carrying out the same offences.

The fact is even if the consequences for being racist in football are increased, the problem will still remain. At least for now anyway. Much like in society as a whole there will always be people who are prejudiced. The FA cannot change the views of every footballer that plays in this country.  However if they come down hard on players who are racist on the pitch then this would help to discourage people expressing their views in the public domain.

The FA would certainly be largely unsympathetic on fans and they must do the same with John Terry. IF (for the last time) he is actually guilty of the racist actions he is accused of.