AS a manager Gary Speed had only just started the job of rebuilding the Wales national side, but he had already ensured a lasting legacy as one of the finest players of his generation.
Although he started his career before the advent of the Premier League era he quickly established himself as one of its icons, becoming one of English football’s most consistent performers during spells with Leeds United, Everton, Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United.
He later dropped down a division to play for Sheffield United, where he accepted his first management job before moving on to manage his country.
Speed, who was 42, leaves a wife Louise, and two sons.
By the time he joined Newcastle for £5.5m, Speed was already regarded as one of the game’s most cultured midfielders. But in 285 appearances for the Magpies he emerged as a genuine leader too.
Speed (pictured right) gave the club six years of outstanding service in a variety of positions and was one of its most reliable players during a period which saw him work under three different managers in his first three seasons.
Despite the turmoil, Newcastle reached successive FA Cup finals in 1998 and 1999. When Bobby Robson brought stability, Speed played in the club’s last and most successful Champions League campaign, in 2002-03. It spoke of his qualities as a person as well as a player that when he left Newcastle the farewell was as fond as his arrival from Everton had been uneasy.
Speed began his professional career in Leeds, where he soon became a vital part of a midfield marshalled by Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister.
Both had a big influence on Speed and it speaks volumes about the sense of professionalism and focus on conditioning that drove the trio on that all three played until their 40th birthdays.
The First Division title came to Elland Road in 1992, with Speed aged only 22, quickly followed by success in the Charity Shield.
Few would have predicted it at the time, but despite the acclaim lavished upon him over the subsequent 12 years, he never again claimed a winner’s medal.
Manager Joe Royle paid £3.5million to take him to Goodison Park and despite some notable highs – he scored on his debut against Newcastle in 1996, equalised in the Merseyside derby and notched the only hat-trick of his senior career – he lasted just two seasons.
The precise circumstances surrounding his departure were never made public but his stoic refusal to criticise either the club or its fans when he was booed on his return in Newcastle colours were indicative of his loyal character.
Approaching 35, his St James’ Park departure seemed to signal the beginning of the end but, helped by manager Sam Allardyce, he extended his top-flight career by another four years at Bolton, becoming the first man to make 500 Premier League appearances in 2006.
A brief stint as coach after Allardyce’s departure was preparation for what seemed an inevitable transition to management and in 2008 he returned to Yorkshire with Sheffield United as a player before eventually graduating to the dugout.
Speed struggled to make an impact at a side low on confidence but in international football he found his managerial feet. Holder of 85 Wales caps – a record for an outfield player in a period when many of the country’s higher-profile players routinely dropped out of international fixtures – he approached the job with passion.
He installed 20-year-old Aaron Ramsey as his captain and swiftly set about empowering a group of players who had only a small amount of star power.
Three consecutive defeats meant he had to deal with pressure from the start but the turnaround was well under way when the tragic news of his death was confirmed by the Football Association of Wales yesterday morning.
Speed had overseen five wins in seven matches, the last an impressive 4-1 defeat of Norway earlier this month, and Wales were bounding up the Fifa rankings.
The work of the Wales team must now continue without him – but like so many in the football world, they will mourn his passing.