Gary Speed’s death: A day that shook football
Ten years on from Wales’ manager taking his own life, team-mates, friends, colleagues and confidantes relive 24 hours that changed everything
“I have been through everything that he said to me that day in the finest, most minuscule detail…
“…that whole day it was the normal Gary Speed, laughing and joking, asking me about my family and taking the mickey out of Gary McAllister’s jumper.Just normal Gary stuff.”
Dan Walker, then host of Football Focus, which Speed appeared on the day before his death.
For Neil Taylor and his Swansea City team-mates, Sunday, 27 November 2011 felt like a typical Premier League match day.
On a crisp, clear afternoon, there was a hum of anticipation as supporters filled the Liberty Stadium for the visit of Aston Villa in the day’s early televised game at 13:30.
With kick-off a little over an hour away, Taylor was focused.His pre-match preparations and rituals done, the Wales international was ready.
Swansea captain Ashley Williams gathered his players for a huddle in the changing room before stepping out on to the pitch to warm up, the sounds of a capacity crowd filtering through the tunnel.
Then, as he did before every game, manager Brendan Rodgers approached his team.Only this time, it was not to discuss tactics.
“Brendan just came and pulled us out of the changing room to a back room,” Taylor recalls.
“He said: ‘Listen, we think Gary Speed has passed away.’
“It’s hard to explain moments of shock but I think we just sort of didn’t believe it or thought it was going to be one of those silly rumours or whatever.
Your first question is: ‘How do you mean?’
“And then we heard it was possibly suicide.Then someone said it had been confirmed by Shay Given, who was in the opposite changing room for Aston Villa.He was a good friend of his from his time in Newcastle.
He’d confirmed it.”
Taylor could not process what he had just heard.He felt numb.
Speed, the much-loved Wales manager, a midfield great of the Premier League era, had taken his own life.His body was found by his wife Louise at their home.
That morning, the Football Association of Wales’ chief executive Jonathan Ford was at home with his family in Penarth, near Cardiff.
It had been a relatively quiet weekend.It was 15 days since Wales’ last match, a 4-1 win over Norway, and Speed had appeared on the BBC’s Football Focus the previous afternoon.
Then Ford’s phone rang, showing an unknown number.
“I received one of the first phone calls by Cheshire Police,” Ford says.
“You have to phone back and go through an identity verification process.
“I think the shock that we experienced here as a family was echoed throughout the whole of the country, the whole of the football family.”
While trying to process his own shock, Ford quickly became aware of the professional task he now faced.
“When we were speaking, it was quite obvious that the Football Association of Wales was needed to manage the press,” he adds.
“We went and set about doing that and, three hours later, we were left with the Speed family, needing to approve [the statement] and talk to some of their own family members, before we could release that to the press.It was an exhausting morning.
“One of the saddest and most shocking days that I’ve ever experienced.”
It was less than a year since Ford had appointed Speed and Welsh football had been enjoying something of a renaissance.
Wales had risen from an all-time world-ranking low of 117th to 45th in the space of two months, with Speed implementing a progressive new playing style and greater professionalism off the field.
Now Ford was confronted with a unique tragedy.
“I’ve been in some very pressurised and difficult situations in the past but there’s no rulebook for these things,” he says.
“Unfortunately I lost my parents myself when they were quite young, and I just reminded myself that you’ve got to be a real person.
“In these circumstance it’s probably better – rather than just trying to be dignified, professional – to actually say it as it is.
And that’s exactly what Gary would have brought out in us.I expressed exactly how I felt those days, which was grief and sadness.”
Telling the world about Speed’s death with a brief statement was one thing.Informing Wales’ players about this devastating news was another matter altogether.
The FAW had a duty of care for this young Wales squad who loved their manager, none more so than Aaron Ramsey – the young Arsenal midfielder to whom Speed had given the armband he once wore.
“He means a lot to me, having made me the Welsh captain at 20 and having had that much belief in me,” says Ramsey, now at Juventus.
“To be named captain by him, a man who had done so much in the game, was a very proud moment and one I’ll forever be grateful for.”
As news started to emerge of Speed’s death, Ramsey was at home having played for Arsenal in their 1-1 Premier League draw with Fulham a day earlier.
“I was in my house, then I had a few messages,” he recalls.”And then I called Gunts [Chris Gunter, Ramsey’s best friend in the Wales squad].We just couldn’t believe it.
“It really didn’t settle in for a few hours, before it was confirmed elsewhere, but I couldn’t really believe it.
“There were a lot of different emotions going through my body and mind.It was sort of surreal.
“It was just a very, very sad moment for everyone who was lucky enough to know him.”
Gunter had been back in Wales on the Saturday, playing for Nottingham Forest in their 1-0 Championship loss to his and Ramsey’s first club – Cardiff City.
They had both been at Cardiff City Stadium 15 days earlier, playing in Wales’ victory over Norway in what would prove to be Speed’s final game in charge.
“It was all just a blur,” says Gunter.
“It didn’t make sense.It was a tough and strange day, and for quite a while after.”
Back at the Liberty Stadium, while Neil Taylor, Ashley Williams and Joe Allen were in the Swansea team, Aston Villa’s line-up featured Wales centre-back James Collins and Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Given, a close friend of Speed’s from their time at Newcastle.
They were not alone in their grief that day, as the close connections to Speed extended beyond the current players.
Kevin Ratcliffe, his former Wales captain, was working as a pundit for BBC Radio Wales and was visibly shaken when he was told the news.
As a boy, Speed had delivered newspapers to Ratcliffe, the Everton skipper he dreamed of emulating for club and country.
Another former international team-mate, ex-Arsenal and Celtic striker John Hartson, was part of BBC Radio 5 Live’s commentary team.
Hartson had just arrived at the Liberty Stadium when he bumped into his and Speed’s former Wales manager Bobby Gould.
“I got there early – about 11:30 – and Bobby Gould was down there working for another radio station.Bobby walked towards me and he looked at me in a funny way,” Hartson says.
“He basically said: ‘Gary Speed’s dead’ and I said ‘You what?!’
“He said ‘He took his own life last night’ and I just said ‘you’re joking’ and I… I just put my head on his shoulder.”
At this point, Hartson pauses to take a breath, his eyes filling with tears as the memories come rushing back.
“We just embraced for about 40 or 50 seconds.I just couldn’t believe it,” he adds.
“I said to Bobby: ‘I’ve got to go home.
I can’t work.’ I said my head was in the clouds and I couldn’t think straight.
“Bobby’s trying to say: ‘Come on, you’ve got to do your job.We’ve got to be professional.That’s what Gary would have wanted.’
“No chance.I said: ‘I can’t work.’ So I drove away and just went back home.
“I sat in my living room and my mother came home.
My mum and dad lived just up the road from me.She was asking me what she could do and I said: ‘Nothing really.’
“I can’t believe that game went ahead, even to this day.
Everybody should have been sent home.”
The match did go ahead but, as news of Speed’s death spread, the fixture felt hollow.
Where team talks and pounding dance music would usually have filled the changing rooms, there was silence.A full Liberty Stadium felt empty.
Taylor and his Swansea team-mates were still stunned as kick-off approached.
“Brendan asked us: ‘Do you want to play the game? How do you feel?’
“We were that far into preparations for the game, we were sort of like: ‘Well, yeah, we will play the game, of course.
Gary would want us to play the game.’
“And then there were the scenes of Shay when he was crying before the game.”
In one of the most striking images of the afternoon, Given wiped tears away as he took his position in the Villa goal moments before kick-off.
“It was very hard news to process, very saddening, very confusing for both sets of teams,” says Joe Allen, who was playing in midfield for Swansea.
“There were lads who knew Gary very well on their team as well as ours.It was a very sombre mood and the game went on to be a drab 0-0.
“Anyone involved that day was struggling to digest the terrible news.”
Rodgers described his players as “shellshocked”, while his Villa counterpart Alex McLeish said his “blood ran cold” when Given told him the news.
The grief was profound and extended way beyond Wales; this was a forgettable game on a day nobody could erase from their memories.
Speed was loved everywhere he went, for his charisma and warmth as much as his stellar playing career, during which he made 840 appearances for Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United.
Such was the widespread outpouring of grief, makeshift memorials appeared across the UK outside the stadiums of his former clubs.
Flowers lay at the feet of the statue of Billy Bremner outside Elland Road, where Bryn Law was reporting for Sky Sports News the following morning.
He and Speed, the same age and both from north Wales, had become friends when Law worked for BBC Radio Leeds in the early 1990s.
“They [Sky] kept asking and I really didn’t want to do it but they kept asking so, in the end, I said ‘OK’,” Law says.
“My mindset was it should be me because I won’t cover this as a death of a footballer, what a tragedy for the game, I’ll cover this as the death of a really good guy, an absolute tragedy for the family.
“I was told they [Sky] wanted to talk about this text message that I’d mentioned that he’d sent me the day before.So we got into a conversation about that with the presenter in the studio.
“She asked about it and it just hit me.
I couldn’t do any more at that point.I just broke down on live telly.
“I couldn’t carry on talking, I just started crying.From a professional perspective, it was very bad.That shouldn’t happen.You’re a news reporter.You’ve got to stand above this stuff, but at that point it overwhelmed me.
“So they cut the pictures and the cameraman actually rang the office and said: ‘You’ve got to take him off this, he can’t do any more.’ So I then got a call to say ‘yeah, OK, you’re finished’ and I went home.”
Another impromptu memorial appeared outside the FAW’s headquarters near Cardiff Bay.Alongside the flowers and messages from fans, Taylor had left one of his Wales shirts with a message to Speed written on it.
Inside the building, the governing body’s staff were still struggling to comprehend what had happened.
“The day after I brought all the staff together, all into the conference room and we cried together,” says Ford.
“It was that emotional outpouring.”
Months after Speed’s death, there was still a rawness to the grief.
But as well as the emotional toll this had taken on its players and staff, the FAW also had to consider the practical issues it now faced.
The most obvious one in a professional sense was the managerial vacancy.The search for Speed’s successor had to be addressed with sensitivity, both from the FAW and prospective candidates.
When Speed was appointed in 2010, one of his rivals for the job was his friend and former Wales team-mate Chris Coleman.On his first day as manager, Speed phoned Coleman from his new office to tease his old mate about beating him to the post.
Nobody could have envisaged Speed’s tenure ending so prematurely and in such tragic circumstances.
Two months after his death, in January 2012, Wales turned to Coleman.
“Chris had been there the first time around and it got very close, so we’d maintained a good relationship,” says Ford.
“When it came down to us having a job, unfortunately, where we had to find somebody to come in, hopefully help us get over this and help us rebuild, Chris was the first person we called.
“I had conversations with Chris and we brought him to a couple of secret meetings over the Christmas period.We were very grateful to him for picking up the baton, picking up where Gary had left off.
“That was a very difficult task and during his first press conference, I think he got it just right.On the one hand, he was proud – he always wanted to manage his national team.
“But on the other side, it was tinged with massive sadness.”
Coleman dealt with the situation with grace and great compassion.
He had grieved himself and, before taking the job, he spoke to Speed’s family to gauge their feelings.
In one sense, Coleman wished he was not in this role – he, like everybody else, longed for Speed to be there – but now his friend was gone, Coleman wanted to do him proud.
“It was a situation you’ve never been in,” says Gunter, who went on to surpass Speed’s outfield record of 85 caps and become the first man to make 100 appearances for Wales.
“And not just the players but for the staff, for Chris himself.I couldn’t imagine coming in during that situation.
“Because we were doing well, does he change what was working but probably not exactly how we would do it?
“You’re almost damned if you do, damned if you don’t.It was a strange time.”
A month after Coleman’s appointment, Wales arranged a tribute match against Costa Rica, against whom Speed had made his debut in 1990.
Speed’s parents Roger and Carol were at the game, while his two sons, Ed and Tom, led the team onto the pitch with captain Craig Bellamy.
“Roger and Gary’s kids came in the changing room and spoke about how much he loved being the Wales manager,” says Taylor.
“I couldn’t believe the strength they had to stand up and speak so openly about it.Behind closed doors, they obviously would have been hurt really, really bad.
“But I think it’s testament to Gary as a person that his family responded that way.
His kids responded in the same way I think he would have.
“I’ve known Gary’s kids for years because they were with Wrexham in the academy from the age of like nine and 10 when I was in the first team.I used to see him take them to training and take them home as they lived locally.He loved his kids very, very much.
“That was a poignant moment when they did that.They didn’t have to.
They could have hidden away from it and hated the world and everything for it.But they pushed forward as best they could.
“Again, a very weird day that one, the Costa Rica game, but I think fittingly, his kids represented him really well.”
Coleman endured a difficult start to his reign, losing four successive matches after the Costa Rica friendly, the nadir a 6-1 humiliation in Serbia.
Succeeding Speed was a near impossible job but, having sought to change as little as possible in the early stages of his tenure, Coleman knew he had to start doing things his way.
The former Fulham manager made Ashley Williams captain instead of Ramsey, who he wanted to unburden in order to allow him to concentrate on his role as Wales’ creative orchestrator in midfield.
Coleman also made subtle tactical and coaching adjustments, while retaining the staff members and key playing principles which Speed had introduced.
Wales won three of their next four matches and, although they failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, it was clear Coleman and his players were heading in the right direction.
With Ramsey, Williams, Allen and Gareth Bale – then the world’s most expensive player – approaching their prime, this squad was referred to as Wales’ “golden generation” and they would soon deliver on their promise.
Wales ended a 58-year wait to play at a major tournament when they qualified for Euro 2016 and, over the course of a mesmerising summer in France, scaled new heights by reaching a first semi-final in their history.
Wherever they went, Wales carried Speed’s memory with them.Whether it was their fans chanting his name during games or Williams making a point of mentioning him in a media conference the day before their Euro 2016 semi-final, his legacy was evident.
“Gary was a massive part of our success,” says Ramsey.
“What he brought in, he really got the ball rolling with everything, changed so many things in a short space of time.
“He is such a big part of the success we’ve had recently.”
Speed remains at the forefront of Welsh minds.Allen said earlier this month that the team dreamed of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup – in what would be Wales’ first appearance at the tournament since 1958 – as a way of continuing the journey Speed helped set in motion.
“Ten games doesn’t sound like a lot but we all understand, around that time, how much it did change.
The change was huge,” Gunter says of Speed’s reign.
“A lot of the players and the staff that that went on to do well over the next couple of years, obviously in France and things like that, were a major part of when he was in charge.
“He was a huge influence on us and, no doubt, when Wales were doing really well, he was always talked about.With our success, we always mention his name.”
Speed left a sporting legacy which changed the course of Welsh football.
His death also had a further-reaching, deeper effect on how people view mental health and its impact.
It brought unimaginable pain to his family and friends, and it caused others – some of whom may never have met Speed – to consider why somebody would feel like taking their life was the only course of action available to them.
“I don’t know if positive is the right word but the only positive to come out of this was that a conversation began about why this had happened,” says Law.
“The ‘how’ didn’t matter, it was the ‘why’ that was important, and we’re still having that conversation.
“I have three fathers in my social circle to whom the same thing has happened.They’ve lost sons to suicide.I’ve had that conversation now with three different fathers, and that’s ridiculous.
“So there is a major problem here that we as a society don’t seem to be getting any kind of a grip on.We did start a conversation at that point, which is ongoing.
“If you talk about a legacy, there will be sporting legacies, but that legacy is the most important because that’s the central conversation that needs to be had.”
It is a conversation that Wales’ players have had, and continue to have.
“I think it was a poignant moment for mental health and for people to look inwardly at themselves,” says Taylor.
“You couldn’t be looking at a more successful, sort of lucky man, who you think’s got everything in life: a beautiful wife, lovely kids, 800 games, won everything he could, played for Wales many times and now managing his nation.
“Everything’s going great but are we really OK? I think it was an important moment.”
When you ask anybody who knew Speed to describe him, there is a recurring theme.
As well as the universal praise for his playing career, the influence he had on Welsh football as a coach and how his death may have altered perceptions of mental health, the common thread running through every conversation is the sheer love for Speed.
“It just goes to show the impact he made as a footballer, as a manager and as a man,” says Hartson.
“He touched everybody.”
Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey says he “tries not to” remember the day Speed died and instead “tries to remember when he was smiling and seeing him on the sideline”.
As for Ford, the now former chief executive of the FAW says: “Just the beautiful person.
His smile, actually, his smile was probably my overriding memory.
“He had such a cheeky chappy smile, and such a great infectious laugh.He was a lovely person and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him and I thoroughly miss him.”
And perhaps Taylor says it best of all.
“He was somebody who, when he walked into the room, had a bit of an aura about him and you wanted to listen to him,” he says.
“That charismatic character that managers need, I think.He looked after himself, one of those very good-looking guys.
You’re sort of envious!
“I just remember him as being that guy who had that fantastic posture, upright, stood tall, had his head, his chin up, shoulders back all the time, encouragement, attention to detail.
“No excuses, wanted everything to be perfect.Demanding but, at the same time, fair.
“And I think you could tell he was a loving father as well.
He loved his kids.And I just remember him as somebody we’d all want to be.
“I think that’s the most fitting thing we could say really is we’d all love to have been Gary Speed.”
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by any issues raised in this article, support and information is available at BBC Action Line.You can also contact the Samaritans on a free helpline 116 123, or visit the website.
1969 – 2011
Writer: Dafydd Pritchard
Production: Dafydd Pritchard and Phil Dawkes
Editor: John Stanton
Sub-editor: Reece Killworth
Images: Getty Images and Rex Features.