THE football world has paid tribute to former Newcastle United footballer Gary Speed, who died yesterday morning.
The Wales midfielder and manager was found hanged at his home in Cheshire. Aged 42, he leaves a wife and two children.
Speed spent Saturday watching his old club draw 1-1 with Manchester United.
Peruvian Nolberto Solano joined the Magpies as a 23-year-old in 1998, and paid tribute to the influence the “second captain” had on him.
“He was a special guy, I was very close to him,” he told The Journal last night. “He was a pretty strong character in the dressing room, especially when you had a bad game – he would give you a lift.
“He was a second captain after Alan Shearer. He was a great professional, giving everything in training day by day. He was an excellent leader and an excellent team-mate. It’s a sad day for football and especially for people who knew him.”
Speed made 285 appearances for Newcastle, scoring 40 goals. He also played for Leeds United, Everton, Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United, where he later became manager. Having made his debut before its creation, Speed was the first footballer to make 500 Premier League appearances.
Although his final game was in 2009, he was an unused substitute for the Blades at Hartlepool United in the League Cup, weeks before his 41st birthday, and remains an inspiration to Solano, fast approaching 37 and now a Hartlepool player. “I remember when he was 34, 35, he was always training normally like a young lad,” he recalled. “He always looked after himself.”
Wales’ most capped outfield player with 85 appearances, Speed was appointed manager in December 2010 after just four months’ experience at Bramall Lane. He was just starting to turn around their fortunes, leading Wales to five wins from their last seven matches.
Former central defender Steve Howey, a team-mate throughout Speed’s six years at St James’ Park, summed up the shock.
“He’s a man that will be hugely missed,” he said. “I can’t believe he’s gone but I will never forget him.
“About two or three weeks ago I was with him and his son watching a game. He seemed fine and he was just cracking on.”
Speed was popular at Newcastle – who he joined from Everton for £5.5m in 1998 – not only for his undoubted talent, commitment and versatility, but also his personality.
“He was a gentleman, a good person, honest, shrewd and straight in everything he did,” said Mick Wadsworth, Sir Bobby Robson’s assistant manager from 1999-2001, and now Hartlepool United boss.
“He was a fantastic professional, which is why he played for as long as he did. You got every ounce of effort out of him.
“With Gary it was like it said on the can – what you saw from Gary Speed was what you got. He had a terrific attitude towards his profession and life in the game.”
Newcastle described Speed as “an excellent servant to the club, the ultimate professional, and an exceptional role model for younger players.”
Speed arrived after an acrimonious departure from Everton, the club he supported as a boy, refusing to reveal the circumstances.
He signed at a turbulent stage in Newcastle’s history. The manager who bought him, Kenny Dalglish, left within six months while his successor, Ruud Gullit, was sacked after a year.
Sir Bobby Robson’s appointment in 1999 brought stability, and Speed’s fondest memories of life on Tyneside. He was in the last Newcastle teams to reach the FA Cup final, in 1998 and 1999, and to play in the Champions League, in 2002-03.
His only silverware came early, winning the title in the final season before the Premier League, and that year’s Charity Shield, with Leeds.
A minute’s silence was held before yesterday’s Premier League games, while former Newcastle and Wales team-mate Craig Bellamy was excused from Liverpool’s match with Manchester City.
The North East Football Writer’s Association postponed their annual awards ceremony, scheduled for last night, as a mark of respect.