IT’S now been exactly a year since Gary Speed’s death, one that left such a giant hole for so many.
Considering this forum I hope it won’t seem inappropriate that I don’t dwell too long on those who will most acutely feel his absence, his wife, children, parents, friends and family who will mourn Gary in a very personal and private way.
What I can do, hopefully, is to express the sorrow and the regret left by Gary’s absence that we the Welsh footballing public feel and, to be honest, if reaction to his death is a measuring stick, the whole footballing public felt.
Dealing with death is an occupational hazard for a journalist, the worst part of the job – or certainly the hardest part to get right – is reacting in the aftermath of losing someone of importance to your readers.
I am no stranger to this and have represented the Argus at many funerals and written far too many obituaries, very much a pitfall of the job.
Journalistically speaking, the death of Gary Speed is the biggest news story in Welsh sport in my time at the Argus.
Bigger than the Ryder Cup, bigger than anything you care to mention and yet the media coverage it received was universally respectful and avoided rumour mongering or sensationalising the circumstances (unlike social media).
That tone has remained in everything I’ve seen or read about Gary since.
That’s a measure of two things, what Gary was like as a man and the place he has in Welsh and British football history.
I was actually on holiday with my partner when I received the news of his death – about 30 text messages and 12 missed calls arriving in South East Asia – and the news absolutely floored me. Still does.
On a personal level it was the horror of the loss of a nice man, the shock of his death and on a professional side the loss of the Pied Piper of everything good that had been happening in Welsh football.
The performances of the national side in the final year of Speed’s life was the best I’ve witnessed, including the campaign under Mark Hughes which so nearly took Wales to a major tournament.
I was a genuine Speed sceptic too. His record at Sheffield United and slow start as national coach doing little to remove my misgivings.
However, slowly but surely the embers of the John Toshack era gave way to something different, something better and the results reflected the fact every Welsh player was buying into Speed’s philosophies and vision for the future.
As a man, Speed was always a pleasure to work with. He was a fantastic player, of course, and never anything less than fantastic when offering post or pre-match comments during his days across the Welsh midfield.
That’s far from the case with 90 per cent of the Welsh players today, who other than Chris Gunter, Steve Morison and a handful of others seem to find doing interviews about as enticing as visiting the dentist.
As a manager Speed was occasionally a little aloof with the press, certainly guarded, but never less than professional and courteous of everyone, as was the case whenever a horde of autograph hunters flagged him down. He was generous with his time.
The last time I spoke with him was two months before to his death at a private function at Newport County director of football Tim Harris’ business.
Speed was there really as nothing more than a favour to Harris and former South Wales Echo sports reporter Mark Bloom and, after shaking the right hands and posing for pictures, Speed did an interview with a handful of us.
Once the recorders were switched off, the subject (between us hacks) switched to the matter of Premier League relegation (we were all wrong in who we thought was going down) and Gary jumped in to offer his own views (he was right).
Conversing with Speed about the sport like you do in the pub is how I’ll remember him decades from now, his passion and zest for everything football part of what made him special.
I can’t believe it’s been a year and I still struggle with the fact Gary Speed has gone. At the time the suspicion was it would set Welsh football back and that’s certainly the case.
Things will get better on the field, but we’ll never forget Gary Speed and can only hope the huge affection we hold him in is a small comfort to his family.