A game that glories in its own pomposity, that claims to represent life and death in all their harrowing reality, was rocked Sunday by news of the suicide of one of its great and good.
Gary Speed — son, father, teammate and coach — was respected by all who knew him. His patience, charisma and dedication powered an understated yet elegant career. In an era of transition and financial overhaul, Speed’s modest and straight forward interactions with fans and the press made him a role model among many less virtuous peers.
“He played the game the right way: with commitment, with honesty and with a sense of adventure,” wrote Henry Winter in The Telegraph. The commitment earned him more than 500 Premier League appearances; the sense of adventure guided his selection of a number of young, inexperienced Welsh players. The honesty made him one of the best-loved men in the game.
Speed’s friends on and off the pitch were desolated at his loss:
Gary McAllister said the death, “shook me to the bones.” Robbie Savage held back tears on national television. Michael Owen and Alan Shearer were said to be “numb”.
But outside Speed’s immediate circle, the world of football is sobbing more from self-pity than from a genuine sense of loss, mourning the passing not of a man, but of a manager.
Football sees the potential deflation of Wales’ upward trajectory – the possibility of an end to Bellamy’s resurgence and Bale’s brilliance. Football notes win streaks now sure to terminate.
The game that perpetually and unblushingly serenades itself needs to forget what Speed’s future might have been in order to consider his past – to mourn the troubled man who hid behind a smiling facade. His necessary legacy mustn’t be forgotten in the light of immense footballing loss.
Speed’s name will forever evoke a sadness. But that natural pang needs to be accompanied by realization. Depression and its deadly consequences faded from football’s agenda as Robert Enke’s death slipped further into the past. Speed’s suicide should throw those concerns back into sharp relief. His menace was better hidden than Enke’s. All the more reason to act.
Speed’s death may end Wales’ recent renaissance, so let it also end decades of ignorance about depression and scorn for its sufferers.
Clubs should have psychological facilities to match their continually enhanced weight rooms, with treatment available for both players and managers. English football should strive to change a culture that keeps troubled men silent and trivializes fatal issues.
Mental illness must be combated with the same vigor applied to racism, abuse of officials and match fixing . Pamphlets sent out by the PFA are a start, but unless such measures are built upon football will experience more tragedies like Speed’s.
Although Shankly may have delivered his most famous lines with a twinkle in his eye, the sentiments he espoused still define much of the British footballing attitude. But Shankly was wrong. Football isn’t more important than life and death. Just ask Teresa Enke – Robert’s widow. Just ask Louise Speed and her two fatherless sons. What does football mean to them anymore?