Football must learn from Speed's death

Gary Speed

Football must learn from Speed's death.
Gary Speed

"All we've done is cried. None of this makes sense. I don't know if we'll ever know." Jonathan Ford, Chief Executive, Football Association of Wales.

For once Sepp Blatter said the right thing in calling Gary Speed, who died unexpectedly on Sunday, "a model professional and a fantastic ambassador for the game".

The Welsh national team manager seemed a flawless sportsman in so many ways, always trim and industrious, never hot-headed or lazy. Speed always made friends, had no enemies and appeared to have a settled life and loving family as he embarked on a new and successful career. His past was bright and so was his future.

He won a title with Leeds United in 1992, an M.B.E. in 2010 for services to football, enjoyed passing on his experience as a coach and was a popular teacher. His effect on a moribund Wales has been immediately extraordinary. After a remarkably long playing career he excelled in his final job, which makes his apparent suicide all the more unfathomable.The facts just do not seem to fit.

He had planned a family holiday and working trip to the Middle East at Christmas; only hours before he hanged himself, Speed appeared on BBC television, watched a match with Alan Shearer, and joked with Welsh colleague Robbie Savage on the phone before hosting a dinner party.

He spoke in his final hours of organising future friendlies for Wales, of returning to the Football Focus show before Christmas and of meeting a friend this weekend.Never has a suicide made less sense.

The testimony of TV presenter Dan Walker on Speed's final day is typical:

"He was as bubbly as I've known him," said Walker. "He was talking about his kids, how they were really coming on, and talking about playing golf next week."

Gary Speed

Welsh teammate Savage concurred, incredulous,

"I spoke to him yesterday and we were laughing and joking."

"Just cannot believe the news regarding Gary Speed, " tweeted Michael Owen. "We waved at each other two days ago dropping our kids off at school. I'm numb."

Former Leeds teammate Gordon Strachan said that Speed, unlike some players he had come across with mental health issues, had shown no signs of suffering from depression.

"This one is right out of the blue," he commented, while Welsh starlet Gareth Bale, who has shown impressive form under Speed, summed up the ubiquitous sense of dismay:

"Everyone still can't get their head around this."

FAW Chief Exec, Ford added, "He was a model professional, a lovely guy, gregarious person. Players wanted to play for him, fans lo
ved him."

Shearer, who like Speed's former Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson and others has taken the death badly, called Speed "bright" and "fun" and that he "lit up every room he walked into."

And this was the man who felt he could not go on living?

Nobody yet claims to have ever spotted any warning signs. His wife, via his agent, has insisted theirs was a happy marriage and that no row had preceded the tragedy. Speed's suicide remains a baffling mystery to one and all, a completely out-of-character decision, as far as everyone can understand. But the truth must be out there.

The police reported no suspicious circumstances to the coroner, while a full inquest will be held in January. All we know so far is that Speed's wife discovered his body hanging in the garage at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning.

This has set the theory-mongers off, but until we hear otherwise we cannot but play amateur psychologists. We need the world to make sense for our own sanity.

If Paul Gascoigne had taken his own life, no-one would have been surprised. But Gary Speed?

So are skeletons about to jump from the closet to explain his sudden death, or was the placid exterior and professional perfectionism an elaborate mask for a highly troubled soul and his apparent whim of an exit in fact long in the planning? And was this another Robert Enke, a second victim of a high-profile sport's failure to treat mental health as a serious ailment?

In his column for the Daily Telegraph, Liverpool legend Alan Hansen confirmed depression remains a taboo in the dressing-room, and that football is fundamentally a "brutal culture."

"Players know that any admission of a problem or a call for help would see them annihilated by their teammates," he wrote, "so as a result there would be a real air of silence when it came to telling people that you needed help."

Paul Farmer, head of mental health charity MIND, appeared to confirm football itself might have a case to answer."The high-pressure environment of top-level sport can cause huge levels of stress," he wrote, "and just because someone appears to be able to carry on their usual daily life, it does not mean that they are not struggling in private...Three quarters of suicides are by men. The macho culture of football means that we have seen very few professionals come forward to talk about mental health problems."

Society at large understands little about depression, and football still has not got a clue. That a man so apparently successful on the outside should feel so cornered by his inner demons that he could not face another day alive is something we all need to sit down and take stock of. We may not understand it at this moment, but we need to try.

Football must learn from Speed's death
Speed in his playing days
We think we know the symptoms of depression well when we seem them in a person on a regular basis, but they can also remain invisible to outsiders as well as to the sufferer.

Stan Collymore remains the only player to have publicly railed against his treatment when suffering depression as a player, making the unarguable case that missing a match with a bout of poor mental health should be as acceptable as missing a game with a pulled hamstring.

Speed's was a death in the football family and perhaps this will be a catalyst for it to wake up to its dereliction of duty to its members. Sue Baker of the 'Time to Change' campaign for acceptance of mental health issues certainly hopes so.

"We want to encourage anyone experiencing similar levels of despair to try and speak to someone, whether friend, family or their doctor," she said. " We hope that everyone feels able to follow Collymore's advice to seek help if they feel like this."
Encouragingly, Tony Adams' Sporting Chance clinic reports that more than ten players have rung since Sunday revealing serious fears about their states of mind.

Away from match-days, I saw Speed in person once, in a Cardiff nightclub with fellow Welsh internationals about 15 years ago. He was smart, clean-cut, relaxed and had a calm aura about him. In a fascinating moment, he, Ryan Giggs and Dean Saunders stood on a balcony together, the entire dance floor below cheering in worship of the three Welsh demi-gods looking down on them. Speed looked on contentedly, though maybe a little blasé as well.

He was undemonstrative compared to most players and was always in peak physical condition, which suggests he led a life of discipline, perhaps too much so - is this the clue to the mystery? If no-one spotted the signs, then obviously no-one really knew the real Gary Speed. The fame and money probably made it harder for him to come clean about his feelings and certainly distanced us, the public, from the man inside. Better to lose it on and off the pitch like Gazza then, so life-saving help can be forthcoming.

The loss to Welsh football remains immense, yet to his loved ones incalculable. 840 club appearances and 134 goals is a fantastic tally, plus 85 national team caps and six strikes for Cymru completes a remarkable innings.

Football must learn from Speed's death

Whilst he probably considered himself a failure when he took his own life, Speed's final accomplishment in catapulting his little country from 117th to 45th in the FIFA World Rankings with four wins out of five proves he died a shining success.

My abiding memory is of a crowd at Cardiff Arms Park chanting for a substitution to be made during a Wales home game, and a fan turned to ask his friend what was being sung:

"We want Gary Speed, say we want Gary Speed!"When the tears have dried, our best tribute to Speed will not just be a continuation of the winning Welsh team he forged, but a sea-change in football's attitude to the disease which took his life, so tragically at the age of only 42.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

- Coincidentally, Ronald Reng's book on Robert Enke's suicide, "A Life Too Short," has just won the William Hill Sports book of the year award.

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