Leeds United: Gary Speed memories - one year on

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November 27 marks the first anniversary of the death of Leeds United great Gary Speed. Paul Robinson reports on a tragedy that rocked the footballing world and the wider problems that face sports stars after their playing careers draw to a close.

A year on, the same question is still being asked across the football world: “Why?”

Gary Speed.

Gary Speed.

Why would a person with so much to live for, so much to cherish, end up in such a deep pit of despair?

Why did a loving family man with countless friends and fans die alone in his garage?

Why, in short, did Gary Speed do it?

The Leeds United legend was found hanged at his home a year ago today.

To any outside observer, Speed appeared a man content, both personally and professionally.

He was 42 and married to childhood sweetheart Louise. The couple had two sons, Ed and Tommy.

Speed had also built a reputation as one of the brightest young coaches in football since retiring as a player.

It was that seemingly charmed life which made the shattering news of the morning of Sunday, November 27, all the harder to comprehend.

Gary Cooper, chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Trust, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “‘Why?’ is the one word that sums up what everyone thought.

“Even to this day, after the coroner’s investigation and all the rest of it, it just doesn’t make sense.

“‘Why?’ is the word and it will remain that way for a lot of years.”

Huddersfield Town manager Simon Grayson is also at a loss as to the reason behind Speed’s death.

The former Leeds boss, however, feels it is time for the questions to stop.

Grayson, who signed for Leeds on the same day as Speed when they were schoolboys, said: “I think for the first few days and weeks, everybody was speculating and wondering why.

“I think now that it’s best if it’s left, for the benefit of everybody involved.”

Grayson went on: “I think we are still shocked a year on, shocked that Gary is no longer with us. It’s just a massive tragedy that he did what he did.

“It’s also hard to imagine how quickly a year has gone by. People will sometimes almost have the belief that Gary’s still here.

“Losing him has been so hard to take for everyone that knew him. He wasn’t just a very popular sports person, he was also a great bloke.”

Speed’s agent and friend, Hayden Evans, echoed Grayson’s comments.

Asked how he was bearing up a year on from the tragedy, he told the YEP: “I feel pretty much the same, to be honest.

“People talk about time being a great healer – well, it hasn’t been in this case. Gary had such a huge impact on all those who knew him and he’s still very much missed. Not a day goes by when something doesn’t remind me of him.”

The bare facts of what occurred on the weekend of November 26 and 27 last year remain horribly familiar.

Speed was a guest on the BBC’s Saturday lunchtime Football Focus TV show, appearing alongside former Leeds team-mate Gary McAllister.

He then travelled to a game between Manchester United and another of his old clubs, Newcastle United, before attending a dinner party at a friend’s home with his wife.

Mrs Speed told her husband’s inquest at Warrington Coroner’s Court in January that they “had words” after getting back to their house on the outskirts of Chester following the party.

She then decided to go for a drive, “to clear my mind [and for] space to think”, she told Cheshire coroner Nicholas Rheinberg.

After returning home again, she fell asleep in her car and woke at about 6am.

Mrs Speed then went to the outside bathroom, where she noticed some shed keys that were usually stored there were missing.

She first visited the shed to see if her husband was inside, before moving to the garage. Fighting to keep her emotions in check, she told the inquest: “I went to the window and there I saw him.”

She nodded as Mr Rheinberg asked: “Could you see Gary on the stairs?” He continued: “Was it apparent that Gary was hanging?” “Yes,” Mrs Speed told him.

Speed did not leave a suicide note or message, and although he had a conversation by text with his wife days before his death in which he talked in terms of taking his own life, he is said to have dismissed it before speaking excitedly about the future.

Mr Rheinberg said Speed may have killed himself accidentally after sitting for some time with a ligature around his neck.

He went on: “It may have been that this was some sort of dramatic gesture, not normally in Mr Speed’s character, but nonetheless, a possibility.”

Speaking in the direct aftermath of the tragedy, Hayden Evans said there had been no indication his friend had been suffering from depression.

Despite that, Speed’s death helped raise awareness of the problems that can be faced by professional sportsmen and women once the floodlights fade.

The issue was propelled into the headlines again at the start of this year when former Bradford City and Hull City footballer Dean Windass revealed he had twice attempted suicide during a battle with depression.

Adrian Schonfeld, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, said: “Missing the buzz [of playing] is certainly part of it, although it is a little more complex than that.

“Some people can make the transition to the world outside sport without major issues.

“Other people have great difficulty that can, in extreme cases, end with suicide. It’s not uncommon for people to end up with depression – retiring from sport is a major life change.

“There are factors, though, that can influence how people cope with that life change.

“One thing that can make the transition easier is planning. You often hear sports people who are coming towards retirement saying ‘I am doing my coaching badges’.

“In cases like that, they have already been preparing and thinking about what they are going to do when they retire and coaching is one obvious alternative.

“Another factor you can talk about is identity. If you have someone who defines themselves as ‘a footballer’ and that’s the only thing there is, then when football is taken away there can be an issue.

“If you have got someone who plays football but also sees themselves as a husband or a father, or has other interests, then they are much more able to manage football disappearing from their lives.

“It’s still very difficult for many people to admit they have concerns, particularly in sport where there is quite a masculine idea of not showing any weakness to the opposition or even to the media.

“It is better for them to talk about their concerns, however, even before they retire. After they retire there may be a lot less people around to talk to, as they are not going into training every day.”

Mr Schonfeld also stressed that bodies like the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) are doing good work looking after the mental well-being of their members.

Bosses at the PFA responded to the loss of Speed by widening the circulation of a booklet on handling depression.

Entitled The Footballers’ Guidebook, it contains helpline numbers plus case studies featuring the likes of PFA chairman and former Leeds player Clarke Carlisle.

The PFA originally sent out the 36-page booklet to its 4,000 members at the start of the 2011-12 season, after the deaths of Rushden goalkeeper Dale Roberts and German international Robert Enke. Speed’s passing, however, saw it being made available to 50,000 ex-professionals.

The Hampshire-based Sporting Chance clinic that helps sports people fight addiction was also contacted by 10 players in the days after the Leeds hero’s death.

That kind of extra support to people going through a troubled time provided a fitting tribute to the man the fans called ‘Speedo’.

Gary Speed – still missed, never forgotten.

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