rambling on Speed

On Sunday afternoon I took a pleasant hike up to the highest peak of the Brecon Beacons, with podcasts and a camera as company.  Clear weather had encouraged me to take the hour’s drive north into the mountains.  Sky Sports’ Super Sunday didn’t look all that super: Swansea City-Aston Villa and Liverpool-Man City.  I’d record them and watch them when I returned.

Having had enough of podcasts and interviews during my walk, I opted for newly discovered mellow music on the drive home, Lia Ices and Agnes Obel.  It proved a beautiful, almost too lulling soundtrack for the twilight, pink-hazed drive back between the mountain valleys and along the A470 back to the capital.  My mind was still simmering well enough to keep my concentration on the winding rural roads though.  I pondered again about the underappreciated medium of podcasts, how public figures can be thoroughly engaging interviewees even if you’re indifferent to their work.  I wondered too about that peaceable rambler culture which makes everyone cheerily greet each other on the hillside, but immediately ignore each other when back in the car park.

So I was feeling relaxed enough upon returning home, flicking on my digibox, hot mug of tea in hand, and beginning to fast-forward through the Swansea-Aston Villa pre-match build-up.  The presenter looked strangely ashen face but Gary Neville looked like he always does, as did Graeme Souness. Then the fast moving pictures whizzed through a still black and white image with a date: an image of the kind used in obituaries.  Who’s died then? I thought, interest piqued, rewinding back to before the image.  Some old, vaguely heard about footballer?

No.  Gary Speed.

Wait.  Hang on. 

Gary Speed?

Graeme Souness went on to burble emptily about not knowing him very well.  Gary Neville too had no direct dealings.  Both were fittingly respecting.  Speed had been found hanged at his family home earlier that morning.  There were no “suspicious circumstances”.  I was brain-dead.

Speed was an inauspicious character whose omnipresence in football most football fans almost took for granted.  Could you ever remember an interesting quote he’d given?  Anything he’d said?  Any act of petulance or remarkable emotion on or off the pitch?  Not really.  And yet you almost didn’t need to acknowledge how impressive he was.  He was solid, firm, reliable, dependable, measured; simply always there.  His consistency, fitness and record-breaking number of Premiership appearances helped cement him as a permanent fixture in the world of professional football, part of the furniture.  His growing stature as an international manager delighted many but surprised few.

Like many, I was numbed by the news.  I watched Neville and Souness and failed to fully compute what they were talking about.  Football would massively grieve the loss of somebody so prominent, possibly more than usual because the man, for such a public figure, felt so unknown.  Why?  This would be the question on everyone’s lips, for how long nobody could know.  Maybe forever.

To me, and possibly to most football fans, you felt like you knew Speed without ever knowing him.  This was because he seemed to give away very little character on or off the pitch; or even standing on the sidelines as an increasingly successful manager of the Wales national team: never overly animated or emotional.  Unknowable, impenetrable, professional almost to a fault.  Mario Balotelli he was not.

Those who know him – team-mates, colleagues and friends – they say what you would expect to hear in giving tributes, of course.  In an interview Robbie Savage listed all the things he had going for him, others said he had everything ahead of him, the world in his hands..  On top of everything he was a strikingly good looking man.  One who, conversely, usually scored ugly goals, arriving late into the box to leap high and score scruffy headers from a few yards out.  You could script the responses because people click into a subconsciously known type of script when such sudden, shocking things happen.

Mental health is a dark beast.  People wear convincing alternative masks in public, in front of other people and in front of those they love.  They hide away the darker sides so as not to hurt others or damage their own reputation.  But there was something different with Speed’s pokerface.  It would have been extraordinary, though not impossible, to be so constantly public and active, for so long and around so many people  – his players and staff at the FAW, to give a long BBC interview just hours before he hanged himself; and to apparently leak nothing at all.

There was a hollow, sinister chill about this which, for me, didn’t ring of mental health issues.  His agent has claimed that Speed was not suffering from depression, and his family have denied it too.  Although you can argue that nobody can ever truly know.  Yet I had an immediately harrowing gut feel that  it wasn’t mental health, a feeling the recent rumours are doing nothing to quell.  They remain rumours and it’s possible the truth may never be publicly known but if true – and there’s a sizable football community of people who are likely to know one way or the other, then it’s evidence of another social stigma which football has always failed to address.  One which has cost life before and could easily do so again.  Just like mental health.

I remained numb, watching the football matches and reading the reports.  Wilting with sadness, I went to bed early and read a book.  Late at night and failing to sleep, Speed and the events of the day – events I felt weirdly guilty for not knowing until so late – still swirled around my head.  I turned to Twitter and saw that sickening rumour.  I wished it wasn’t so believable.  It was possible nobody would ever know, or that the one or two who do would take a secret with them to their own graves.


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