This is a story about the former Wales football manager, a Welsh pop icon and one of the saddest and most surreal days of my life.
This weekend marked the ninth anniversary of the death of Gary Speed. For me it will always provide the most vivid of memories.
It was the day of November 27, 2011, when I left Cardiff by car on my way to Malvern to conduct an interview for the Western Mail newspaper.
It was a chilly, but beautifully sunny day. Not a cloud in the sky. One of those crisp winter days when the sunshine casts a golden glow on the surrounding landscape.
As I drove up the A40 towards England, I was in high spirits. I’d been listening to a CD of the person I was to interview, happily singing along to songs that had long since woven themselves into UK chart history. However, noticing my car’s clock had ticked around to the hour mark, I decided to switch the radio on to catch the news headlines. The words I heard I could scarcely believe. Gary Speed was dead. I couldn’t believe it.
A football fan and a Wales supporter since I was young, he’d always been a metronomic, reliable presence in my life. First as a player and then as manager of a Wales team being rebuilt, recharged and reawakened. I had to pull the car over to take in the enormity of what was spoken, listening intently hunched over the wheel.
It didn’t seem real. It still doesn’t all these years later. I drove the rest of the way numbed, in a state of shock, listening to the radio coverage. I remember Robbie Savage, a close friend of Speed’s breaking down live on air. Only the day before I had seen the Wales manager seemingly happy and relaxed appearing on Football Focus. Nothing made any sense.
Arriving in Malvern I walked to my destination in a daze. The Malvern Theatre was where I was to meet the man whose moniker can be identified in the same singular vein as Elvis, Prince and Madonna. Utter the name Shaky and everyone knows to whom you are referring. I was about to meet Welsh rock ‘n’ roll deity, Shakin’ Stevens, for the very first time.
The biggest-selling act of the ’80s was on the comeback trail, playing the second leg of an extensive UK tour that celebrated three decades since his first hit, Hot Dog in 1980, performing stripped-back, rootsier takes on his catalogue of hits.
I didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard rumours through the years that he could be difficult and didn’t particularly trust journalists. Ironically, it was to be Gary Speed that brought us together, united in shock and grief.
Now I don’t know how big a football fan Shaky was, but I needed to ask him if he had heard the news. As a fellow Welshman I needed to talk.
When I asked him if he knew what had happened to the Wales manager, he had to ask me to repeat myself. My voice wavered when I repeated myself. He could see how visibly upset I was and came and put an arm on my shoulder.
He asked if I wanted a cup of tea and hastily made me a brew. So we sat there, the ‘80s icon and I, the performer who I had grown up watching on my TV. Two blokes from Cardiff, sharing our feelings, both of us shocked, stunned and in total disbelief about the Welsh football hero.
We spoke about what a great guy he was, the model professional who had been doing a brilliant job remodelling the international side. It was as surreal you would imagine it to be. But what I remember most is Shaky’s kindness, empathy and warmth on the darkest of days for Wales.
Eventually I regained my composure, remembered my job and started the interview. He was engaging, candid and funny as we discussed the highs and lows of his career and his brush with his own mortality, having recently suffered a heart attack.
I didn’t mention Gary in the original story. It seemed self-indulgent, trite and, well, disrespectful, but I wanted to tell the story now, about how sadness and grief can bring people together in the strangest of circumstances.
As I say, one of the saddest and most surreal days of my life.
RIP Gary Speed. And cheers Shaky.
The footnote to this piece is that men are rubbish at talking about how they’re feeling. If you’re hurting, if you’re struggling, please speak up. There are plenty of people who will listen. I know myself how hard it can be especially in the midst of a global pandemic. I’ve struggled, I still do some days. But getting help was the best thing I ever did. Please know that there is hope and there is a brighter future.
Please visit Mind Cymru to find out more about mental health services in Wales.