A feature on the legacy of the late Gary Speed on the sixth anniversary of his death.
It is six years since the football world mourned the loss of Gary Speed. A Welsh football hero, Speed had represented his country with nothing but pride throughout his playing career, and was in the process of building the foundations that would lead to a new era of international success when it all came to a sudden and shocking end.
It was just over six years ago that Wales put on what many regarded as a complete performance with a 4-1 friendly victory over Norway in Cardiff. Back then it was one of the best displays from Wales in recent times, and offered hope and optimism for the future of the team under the guidance of Speed. But it would prove to be his final match.
Leeds United played a key role in Gary Speed’s career, and the footage of the immense joy he took from the 1991/92 title success provided a number of defining images following his death on that fateful Sunday morning of 27th November 2011. It was hard to accept, difficult to comprehend, impossible to understand.
His managerial career with Wales was flourishing, but while his professional life was played out in the national media, his private life clearly remained in the very darkest corner of his mind. Speed came through the youth ranks at Leeds and became a important figure in a talented midfield under the management of Howard Wilkinson.
The complete professional, loved by those that knew him, Speed is a figure that will forever be associated with the early years of the Premier League and of course, with his Welsh national team. A creative and complete midfielder with pace and an eye for goal, he cut a talismanic figure for every club he represented.
Chris Coleman was a close friend of Gary Speed, and remains affected by the events and circumstances of his death. His success in reaching the semi-finals of EURO 2016 is often associated with the foundations that Gary Speed put in place in terms of creating a professional environment and restoring pride in the players when representing their country.
— Wales (@FAWales) 27 November 2017
The familiar string of international withdrawals became a distant memory as Speed created a positive environment that matched what the players were used to experiencing with their respective clubs. Speed had taken Welsh football away from the dark ages, and it was that foundation that provided Coleman with the perfect base to build a legacy.
Coleman still had much to do in order to qualify and then make a big impression in France last summer, and it would be unfair to deflect the praise away from what he and his players achieved. But it is the change in culture that Speed spent the first few months of his tenure developing that set the new standard for Wales, and continues to be the cornerstone for the future.
Against France in Paris a couple of weeks ago, Coleman made a much-heralded triple substitution as youngsters Ben Woodburn, Ethan Ampadu and David Brooks all came off the bench, the latter duo making their senior international debuts. These are the players that will now shape the future of Wales, and it is a future that Speed played a pivotal role in shaping.
These are players that had emerged through the youth ranks, products of the pathway system that was fine-tuned by Speed and his staff, and were the result of the cultural shift that means players no longer automatically gravitate towards England when considering their international future. It is this wider impact that he will be remembered for.
Gary Speed’s untimely death has distorted his international contribution, but it is clear that his contribution to the national team remains as important and as relevant as ever before. He didn’t lead Wales to the finals of a major tournament, and he never achieved any significant results like Coleman has since he succeeded him.
Coleman replaced Speed in the most haunting of circumstances, and it was a role that nobody really wanted to step into at the time. It was considered the impossible job, and the primary task would be lift a squad of young and impressionable players against the devastating impact of Speed’s tragic death. Coleman has since left for Sunderland, but his successor will reap the benefits of Speed’s foresight.
Speed was making progress on the field, but it was a long process, and it was a formula that belonged to him to the extent that Coleman had to abandon it and implement his own plans during the darkest times of his tenure. It proved effective, and while success only followed when Coleman started doing things his way, that does not discredit Speed’s plans and philosophy.
What Speed did for Wales was change the culture. He made Wales relevant and professional. He made players care about representing their country in the same way as he did before them. This was his legacy. Not results, tournaments, or players coming through the ranks. It was about creating the right environment for a sustainable and successful international future to flourish upon.
Speed set the standard that now means investment is made at every age group in terms of sports science, education and development. It has been taken forward in the years that have passed since his death, but more importantly it has never regressed, and his family should retain a sense of pride for the contribution his work continues to make in the bigger picture of the national team.