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A Proper Footballer

10 years ago

I always played number eleven at school, left wing, or outside left as it was, when 3-5-2 was the done thing, before the Dutch came along with their Total Football and bright orange Adidas shirts and all that hair. Those were the days of right halves and inside forwards and keepers picking the ball up from a back pass, which just looks bizarre now when you see it on old clips. No real pace but I fancied myself as Eddie Gray so I learnt a few tricks from him, as well as the obligatory Cruyff turn, which was de rigueur between ’73 and ’75, particularly at Chester Place Juniors (yellow shirts, blue trim, blue shorts and socks and don’t forget your Leeds United sock number pennants – ask your dad).

Number 11s were always tricky and jinky in that era, or a bit of a fanny, depending on your viewpoint, and there were loads of great ones: Gray of course, Clive Woods at Ipswich, George Best, for the most part, not forgetting that promising lad from Bensham. For my home town club, there was Terry Hibbitt, who’d ironically had to depart Leeds when Eddie Gray began to establish himself in Revie’s affections. Then of course came Scott Sellars (hallelujah) and Gary Speed, again both Elland Road alumni, which suggests something but don’t ask me what.

Gary Speed was a different kind of player to the other Sweet Left Footers he followed, both in West Yorkshire and on Tyneside. More central midfield box-to-boxer than prancing wide man (no one could accuse him of being ‘a bit of a fanny’), he was undoubtedly ‘a proper footballer’, the archetypal modern day player – strong, athletic, great in the air, driven, committed, honest, a tireless worker and, as has been highlighted elsewhere, a remarkably handsome chap to boot.

Like Keegan before him, but so unlike many current overpaid stars throughout the domestic game, Gary knew that talent was nothing without hard work, application and honest endeavour, which, together with his crisp passing, resolute tackling and keen eye for goal, will be my abiding memory of a life interrupted.

Fittingly enough, Eddie Gray was Leeds manager when Speed first walked through the door with his father to sign on as a youth team player in 1984. This quote from my boyhood hero perfectly sums up the character and integrity of a player, manager and, above all, a good, decent bloke who will be sadly missed  –  “It’s quite funny, because I recall saying to him, ‘Try to remember, son, it’s not just about ability. If you want to make it, you are going to have to apply yourself and work really hard. It’s going to need a lot of dedication. Imagine saying that to Gary Speed”.

Imagine indeed.


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