How Gary Speed kickstarted Wales revolution before tragic death aged 42

by 24britishtvNov. 21, 2022, 8:20 p.m. 16
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Gary Speed will be in the hearts and minds of Wales players, staff and fans when the team he managed take to the field to feature in their first World Cup in 64 years.

Former Wales manager and captain Speed, who died in 2011 aged 42, is credited with setting in motion Wales' dramatic rise to the top table of the football world. He transformed the culture and standards of professionalism within the men's team and also at the Football Association of Wales, which put them on the path to feature at major tournaments in recent years, now including a first World Cup since 1958.

He tragically took his own life in November 2011, 11 months after agreeing to manage his country.

He left behind his wife Louise - who found her husband hanged in the garage of their home - and two sons, Tommy and Ed, who were just teenagers when he died. A coroner recorded a narrative verdict at Speed's inquest, saying there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove he intended to commit suicide and that his death, aged 42, may have been an accident.

His death was marked by an outpouring of grief from Wales as well as his former clubs Leeds, Newcastle, Everton and Bolton.

Speed's mother Carol, who lives with Speed's father Roger in Deeside, Flintshire, previously said she would never find the answer to why he died. "It's just something that you don't ever get over at all," she has said. "You know, you can smile and you can laugh, and you can have a good day, but it's always there. The sadness is always there. Gary wasn't short of money, he had a nice house, a nice family - a job that he absolutely adored. So, if it can happen to someone like him, it can happen to anyone, can't it?"

Roger now lives with dementia, and Carol cares for him.

Read more: Gary Speed 10 years on — Family, teammates, and friends on the inexplicable tragedy

Gary Speed's role in changing Welsh football for the better

Before Speed's appointment, John Toshack and Brian Flynn had laid the foundations for Wales' rebirth, starting with a meeting over coffee in Verdi's in Mumbles in 2004. The duo honed in on developing youngsters with the view to getting them up to 30, 40 or 50 caps by the time they were in their mid twenties. Bale was spotted at Southampton by Flynn and converted from a left-back to an attacking player, while Flynn also championed a young Aaron Ramsey and brought in the likes of Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes. But despite the concentration on youth development and a long-term vision, Wales failed to qualify for tournaments in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012, with Toshack resigning after just one match of the latter qualification campaign.

In came Speed in 2010, and it was his appointment which really took Wales to the next level and paved the way for Chris Coleman, Ryan Giggs and now Rob Page to flourish on the international stage.

Wales captain Bale said: "Gary brought a new performance and energy to the system and all the players bought into it. Gary came in and changed the whole foundation of the FAW, from top to bottom he built that solid platform for us to grow in the future and made the training facilities better. The camps were more professional, strict and what you were used to with your club. It went up a notch, we gained in confidence and we going in the right direction and improving in all areas. He played a massive role in getting us on our way. It was the beginning of something big, better and greater."

Joe Allen revealed Speed's man-management was spot on, saying: "He took the pressure off us as young players, we were able to go out and give 100 per cent but with enjoyment."

Speed's desire to take Wales to a higher standard of professionalism was also pivotal, Aaron Ramsey believes. "There was a plan in place, a vision. Everything off the pitch was taken care of. But also on the pitch. We wanted to create an identity, a way of playing, he had the vision, the staff behind him to be able to execute this and you could see the players were really buying into it. The mood was good, the camp was good, everybody was excited for Welsh football's future."

From 117th in the FIFA world rankings in August 2011, Wales missed out on qualification for Euro 2012 but shot up the seedings to 48th in the world as their rise accelerated.

Speed's influence off the field should not be underestimated, either: he is credited with getting the ball rolling in instilling the importance of Welsh culture into players.

"Before the England game [in 2011], we were at the hotel at Hensol and he called the players in to talk about the relevance of the anthem and how proud he was of singing it," FAW head of public relations Ian Gwyn Hughes previously told us.

"Courtenay Hamilton, who was singing the anthem for us at the time, said how proud she was singing in front of the fans, and [then Wales assistant manager] Raymond Verheijen, who’s a Dutchman, he said ‘if I can learn it, you can’. We had a bit of historical context to it, and Gary said ‘look, has anyone got any inhibitions about this?’ They stood up in the middle of the room, 26 of them, arms around each other and just sang the anthem. It was quite surreal."

Speed was appointed at a time when the FAW wanted Welsh football to be a part of everyday life for the public. "The rugby was ingrained and when it was an international everyone was interested, so how could we at least try and do the same with football?" says Hughes. "I think [former chief executive] Jonathan Ford knew that the only way we were going to get out of this and get a profile for international football, or football in Wales, is if the national team is successful, so that’s why everything was ploughed into the men’s national team to get them up to qualify for a tournament, and hopefully spin-offs would come from that."

Speed went on the road to truly understand the supporter base, recognising their efforts in coming from north and west Wales, for example, to cheer on Wales. "We did the National Eisteddfod and there were 25,000 people that day on the field, and I walked in with Gary and wow, Wales weren’t going well at the time but everybody wanted a slice of Gary Speed," Hughes says. "Gary was so humble. I’d say 'we’ll go here' and he never thought it was about him."

Other than a sell-out against England, the biggest attendance for a Wales home game under Speed was 14,000. That has more than doubled these days after the move to Cardiff City Stadium.

The 4-1 win over Norway in Cardiff on November 12, 2011, was the lightbulb moment for many in the squad. It came a month after they beat Switzerland and Bulgaria, and represented Speed's fifth win as manager in only his 10th match. After the disappointment of the Euro 2004 play-offs, Wales fans had hope for the future.

"You get in after the game thinking that is almost what it should feel like," said Wales legend Chris Gunter. "Things are on the up, it's more positive, and that weekend was a real good one for us."

"It was the catalyst, that's a keyword, it really kick-started things," added Allen. "I can say with confidence, that we wouldn't have had the decade or so we've had without things he implemented."

Sadly, it would turn out to be the last time Speed would take charge of Wales. Fifteen days after that win over the Scandinavians, the FAW announced the tragic news that Speed had died.

Read more: The story of Gary Speed's final game on a night that gave Wales new hope just 15 days before tragedy

Wales have qualified for three out of their four last major tournaments, and Bale believes that success would be a source of great pride for Speed.

“If Gary Speed was here with us now he would be proud of what we’ve achieved, not just on the pitch but off it," Bale said. "Qualifying for the last three of four major tournaments, it’s what dreams are made of and I’m sure he’s looking down on us with a big smile and happy that Welsh football is in a great place."

On the eve of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Aaron Ramsey discussed his pride at achieving the major target Speed set the players more than a decade ago by qualifying for the Qatar showpiece.

"Gary is always in our thoughts with everything that we have done," said the 31-year-old. "He was the one who got things moving for us. He definitely got us ready for these experiences that we have had. He will forever be in our thoughts and definitely again on Monday before our first game because that was one of the targets that he set when he first came in was to qualify for that World Cup.

"We didn't manage to do so but this makes it even more special that we have actually gone on to do that now. Gary had this way about him that you would believe anything that he would say. He was a leader. He was absolutely brilliant and convinced us all. From where we were to where we got to in that short space of time was remarkable, really. Anything was possible."
• None Wales football team consider name change after the World Cup
• None In search of George Baker, the forgotten 1958 Wales World Cup squad member who never made it onto the plane

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