Gary Speed’s Family Will Always Live With Tragedy but Football Is Learning
It is the family stuff, the detail that would usually remain private, that provides some of the toughest passages from the newly released book Unspoken, in which the people who knew Gary Speed the best try to make sense out of a tragedy none of them will ever properly understand.
The story, for example, his widow, Louise, tells of the long, unimaginable battle to start functioning again and the shattering effects of what she describes, more than once, as being put on the scene of a horror film. It was Louise who found her husband in the garage, who had to cut him down and will always have to live with that image. “As time goes on,” she says, “you hope it’s a film that fades.” But there was also a long period when she could not even eat, when she drank to numb the pain and lost so much weight she describes herself as a walking skeleton.
It was one of her friends, Tracey, who convinced Louise she could face the world again, who turned up in the morning to force her to have breakfast, persuaded her to take the dog for a walk and got her back on her feet.
Over time, Louise kept a space on her kitchen wall where anyone who visited the house had to write an inspirational quote. She called it her wonder wall, just a tiny part in the healing process, but it was getting on for six months before she could contemplate going out. A friend had invited Louise to a party and nobody, perhaps, should be surprised that she found it such an ordeal. “I really didn’t feel right putting on a dress and going out. I was Louise Speed, wife of Gary Speed who had hung himself. How could you act normally?” Arriving at the party, the first song she heard was Simple Minds and Don’t You Forget About Me. It was her and Gary’s song.
These are personal details that I suspect would have remained that way had it not been for the bond between Speed and John Richardson, the football journalist who has written Unspoken, the proceeds of which include a donation on Louise’s behalf to the Heads Together charity, tackling mental health issues.
The two men knew each other through their different lines of work, one playing for Wales and the other covering them from the press box. They hit it off and I can still remember being in the pressroom at Bolton one day when he wandered in to catch up with his old mate. It was different to the usual player-journalist relationship. They were friends, genuine friends, and it stayed in my mind because it was unusual to see someone my side of the fence forge that kind of connection with a top-level player.
They had also spent many hours together, usually over a drink and a sandwich in the Grosvenor Arms on the outskirts of Chester, working on Speed’s autobiography until the subject of the book rang his ghost writer one day to say he did not want to share his life story, after all, and hadn’t done enough to warrant a book. They were several chapters in and, knowing what we do now, it is difficult not to think there might have been parts of his life that Speed did not want to delve into.
It is certainly hard to read the letter he sent to Louise when they were 17, telling her he was depressed, that he was thinking of finishing at Leeds United and had been having other thoughts, but didn’t want to say exactly what they were. One line in particular – “I’m just going to go to sleep now and hope I never wake up” – is not, as Louise says, something a boy of that age would usually write. Or not a well boy, anyway.
One of the saddest things is there will never be any definitive answers for Louise, their sons, Ed and Tommy, and the rest of the Speed family, but that letter does at least make things a little clearer. Louise recalls her husband could never understand how people who apparently had everything could be afflicted by depression. Now, coming up for seven years since his death, she wonders whether he had been suffering from an early age, and that maybe it is more a case that nobody, including himself, properly knew what was going on in his head.
Maybe, she says, there was something troubling him for many years but, most of the time, he was able to move on from it. At times, she would notice he seemed low and ask if something was wrong. He would just reply that he was tired and Louise wonders if maybe he was masking something else. So much of what she says has a “maybe” in it because, for the rest of her life, she will always be piecing together the clues. “Looking back now, I do wonder if it was something else … but blokes don’t talk, do they?”
Not always – but more than they used to. Steve Harper, one of Speed’s former teammates at Newcastle, is another contributor to the same book and talks of his own struggles with depression. I think of Marvin Sordell’s interview with the Guardian recently. I think of Danny Rose, Chris Kirkland, Neil Lennon, Lenny Pidgeley, Billy Kee, Dean Windass and all the others who have shown how the culture is, slowly but surely, changing for the better – and that depression is no longer a subject football would rather choose to ignore.
When Stan Collymore endured some of his darkest times at Aston Villa the manager, John Gregory, said he found it impossible to understand how a top-division player, with fame and wealth, could ever complain about feeling stressed. How, he wanted to know, would a 29‑year‑old at Rochdale, in the last three months of his contract, with a wife and three kids to support, feel to hear Collymore was depressed?
Those comments look even worse now than they did then but don’t imagine for a second that Gregory was alone in having that attitude. Gareth Southgate, one of Collymore’s teammates, is clearly one of football’s good guys but even he will admit he didn’t deal with his colleague in a compassionate way and had no understanding in the late 1990s what clinical depression meant.
They used to have a Collymore banner at Villa Park and Southgate, by his own admission, resented it being there. “I used to run out for the warm-up and think: ‘Fucking hell, that banner.’ He’s in the clinic for depression and the way he’s playing is depressing me.” Villa refused to pay the clinic bills and Collymore tells the story of the club rushing him back into the team, including one game when he was “stoned on Prozac”. Doug Ellis, the chairman, asked Collymore if he thought it was OK to go on holiday for a month and when the player returned to the club Gregory suggested it would be a good idea to sit down with the rest of the squad and explain himself because some teammates “were pissed off”. Southgate greeted him with the words: “Where the fuck have you been?”
At least that culture has softened now. The sport, as a whole, is much wiser when it comes to mental health and maybe that goes back, in part, to Speed and the tragedy that somebody 42 years young, with a family, a wide circle of friends and a successful career, managing Wales after playing for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, could end up so desperate he would put a rope around his own neck.
In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Louise also addressed the fact her husband was in Manchester City’s junior system and was named in Barry Bennell’s criminal trial, as one of the boys who played for Bennell and later killed himself. “I don’t want to give Bennell any publicity,” she said. “All I’ll say is that Gary was obviously struggling with something at the age of 17.”
Speed was from the same era as Collymore, when the sport seemed to have no understanding or interest in these issues, and the only good thing that can really be said is that at least we live in an age now when the sport is not quite so hard-faced. I think of the way the football world rallied around Aaron Lennon and the support that Southgate, as England manager, gave to Danny Rose. It is not going to bring back Gary Speed but it is a start, at least.