You only have to look at Gary Speed’s career statistics on Wikipedia to realise what an absolute legend this man was in the British footballing world. A 22 year career with 677 league appearances under his belt is some going. As if that isn’t impressive enough, 535 of those appearances where in the top English division. He is fifth in the all time Premier League appearances table and if you take cup competitions into account, it comes to 840 appearances. I don’t think I’ve had played that many games on my Playstation, never mind actually on a football pitch. He is still the most capped outfield player for Wales, whom he captained, as he did with most of the clubs he played for in his career. He scored a goal in the Premiership in every single season from its start in 92/93 until 07/08. What. A. Player.
By all accounts he was an outstanding person as well, who was forging a promising career as the Wales manager before taking his own life at just 42 years old in 2011.
From our clubs perspective, Gary turned up in 2004 as one of a long line of Allardyce’s astute signings. I’ll be honest here, I did wonder as to whether Big Sam had gone too far paying a £750k transfer fee and giving a two year contract to a player just shy of his 35th birthday. I was so very wrong. Speed turned out to be an absolute bargain, who went on to play for the next three and a half seasons for Bolton. All in the Premier League I might add. During his time with us he became the first player to make 500 Premier League appearances when he played in Bolton's 4–0 victory over the Hammers in 2006.
I fondly remember watching him, in a team that at that time contained players such as Campo, Jay Jay and Stelios, but still catching the eye game after game with commanding midfield performances. It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to have witnessed Gary Speed playing in a Bolton Wanderers shirt.
But another reason to tip your hat to this incredible man is to acknowledge that mental illness knows no barriers and is a subject that should no longer be taboo. Gary Speed, phenomenal football player, promising manager, intelligent, hard working, grounded, good looking, Mr Nice Guy, adored and respected by both his colleagues and fans alike, suffered from severe depression. One can only wonder at the torment this fella was going through when he took his own life five years ago.
Incredibly, medical statistics show that 25% of the UK population will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life. This isn’t just a condition where someone is feeling down in the dumps for a few days but something that, for whatever reason, will have a big impact on a person’s life for a period of time that in many cases can go on for months or even years. Hopefully the barriers that have kept this subject in the dark are coming down. I know that on Facebook the 22 press ups over 22 days challenge is doing the rounds to raise awareness for veteran suicide prevention and PTSD. There are many other challenges raising awareness for something that affects all walks of life and it is all a good thing. Hopefully, by highlighting this very important issue, some small good can come out of the absolute tragedy of such a high profile figure taking his life.
Ultimately, my thoughts are with Gary Speed's immediate family and particularly his wife and two young lads. They must have had a very tough day for what should have been day for celebration. Yes, Gary Speed's birthday is an anniversary worth remembering.