Gary Speed, the footballer's footballer

Gary Speed made his Wales debut against Costa Rica in 1990
Gary Speed made his Wales debut against Costa Rica in 1990

I would not presume to say I knew Gary Speed as well as those sporting greats who have readily paid tribute to him.

But I am proud to say I had dealings with him as a player and a manager - a privilege not enjoyed by hundreds of thousands who share in the grief of his passing.

Years ago, I remember travelling to a Wales game in Wrexham and hearing that manager Terry Yorath had called up an unknown to the squad from Leeds United. That "unknown" was Gary Speed.

He was on the bench that night, but two years later, he underlined what would be his unstinting commitment to Wales.

On the Saturday he played for Wales Under-21s against Poland at Merthyr - then the following day made his senior debut for Wales at Ninian Park in a win over Costa Rica.

That was in May 1990 and began an enduring relationship with his country which went beyond being just a player, but as a captain on 44 occasions and later as Wales team manager.

85 times Speed played for his country. You might be forgiven for not remembering a game where he stood out. More appositely, it is almost impossible to remember him having a bad game.

He was a footballer's footballer and off the field - in the words of his Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson - ''a consumate bloke".

Blessed with enviable good looks, he appeared to take the trials of a footballer in his stride and as a media man I never found him anything but courteous.

As a young man he was the face of a leading fashion shop. But fame and wealth appeared not to alter him.

I remember being on a plane heading away with the Wales squad and there were no seats left in the area restricted for the team. Speed had no compunction - he came up to the back to sit with the media.

More recently as Wales manager, he had a difficult press conference before the game with Norway as the GB Olympic team issue dominated the agenda.

Speed took it in his stride - then afterwards gladly gave a birthday tribute to Kevin Ratcliffe.

My last interview with Speed was after the Norway game. His father and son had been in the same room as the Wales manager beamed at another fine win for the team he revitalised.

It was, as he had predicted in Dublin airport the day after his first game at the helm - a 3-0 reverse at the hands of the Republic of Ireland.

The morning after that defeat, he'd strolled across the departure lounge to give me a pep talk about not being so disappointed after another Wales setback.

It would, he said, take him a while to turn things around, but his team would be ready for the World Cup qualifiers to start next autumn.

He has been as good as his word. Who takes on Speed's work now in such tragic circumstances is, appropriately, for another time.

But no-one should forget his contribution to Welsh football as a loyal player, a true leader and a manager who has brought renewed hope and expectation to the national team.

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