By Ralph Ellis
As part of our new partnership with the Football Writers' Association, nationally recognised journalists and sports writers will be putting pen to paper in honour of selected Hall of Fame inductees. Here, sports writer and Daily Mail journalist Ralph Ellis (@ralphellis56) looks at the distinguished career of Gary Speed, a Premier League mainstay and one of modern football's much-loved and respected figures.
It is easy, and deeply impressive, to gauge Gary Speed’s career by its statistics: The most Welsh caps for an outfield player (85), at the time he retired the most Premier League appearances (535), a total of 841 senior club games and 134 goals in 22 years as a professional.
Then again you could look at his main achievements. He was a vital part of Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds team which won the last First Division title in 1991/92 before the creation of the Premier League, a campaign during which at the age of 21 he played 41 of 42 games. He helped Newcastle reach the FA Cup Final in both 1998 and 1999.
In Gary’s case, though, the numbers and the honours board tell only the beginning of the story. What they don’t reveal, because they can’t, is the nature of the man both as a footballer and a person.
As a player for first Leeds, then Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, he was the ultimate team man. While others won the headlines for the spectacular, Speed was the one the others would almost always nominate as their man of the match.
Whether in the centre of midfield or on the left, or if asked to play at left back or anywhere else needed to plug a gap in an emergency, he’d get on with the job and not just do it well but brilliantly.
He had a knack of arriving in the penalty box at the right time to contribute vital goals, and another priceless ability at the other end of the field to read the game and cut out trouble with a perfectly timed interception or tackle.
On the field as a captain he knew just how to inspire his team mates, whether by example with his tireless running or by knowing what to say, when and how to provoke the best reaction. Off it he was a conscientious organiser, making sure young players were advised well and looking out for the senior players too.
In his later years at Bolton he was a trailblazer for modern sports science, embracing yoga, stretching, diet and rest to extend his career so he was still doing the hard yards in the Premier League with his 40th birthday on the horizon.
And of course when he turned to coaching as manager of first Sheffield United then Wales he took the same attention to detail into his new life. Before his tragic and untimely death he had laid the foundations of a new professionalism which ultimately saw a country that had not qualified for a major tournament in more than 50 years not just get to Euro 2016 but reach the semi-finals.
Throughout it all he remained a humble man who always had time for supporters and the media, and who treated everybody he encountered as his friend. There were many who played with him, watched him from the stands, or reported on him who had individual tales of his generosity and warmth of spirit.
That was Gary Speed – great player, but also a great man.
Principal English clubs: Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers, Sheffield United
Honours: 1 First Division Championship, 1 Charity Shield
Caps: 85, 7 goals (Wales)