When Unknowable Became Unknown

In 2018-19, Free, Issue 04 2018-19, Leeds United, Subscribers by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Gary Speed should have written an autobiography. Gordon Strachan wrote two; his first, Strachan Style, came just before Leeds United won the league. Captain’s Log: The Gary McAllister Story followed in 1995. Hell, even David Batty, the most outspoken player ever to say so little, published a book in 2001.

Of the rest of the title winning team, Lee Chapman was on the shelves soon after Strachan, always alert to his celebrity status as Mr Leslie Ash. Steve Hodge wrote a book after retirement, as did Mel Sterland.

Sterland’s playing career ended early. He never recovered from an ankle injury sustained in the title run-in, and after two years of painful operations and failed comebacks, he was told to give up. His autobiography opens in the countryside near Sterland’s home in Derbyshire, shortly after he retired, as his car fills with exhaust fumes through the hosepipe he was using to kill himself. He quickly changes his mind, and after an hour of sitting in his car and thinking, he goes home. Life didn’t get much easier for Mel after that, but he didn’t try again.

The book we now have from Gary Speed was meant to be his autobiography, but he cancelled the project after two chapters. They’re printed in ‘Gary Speed: Unspoken, The Family’s Untold Story’, and are exactly what we would have wanted from a book by a successful Premier League footballer: the story of how he made it from a sporty schoolboy to a Leeds apprentice, and a correction of the record around his move from Everton to Newcastle. After completing those two chapters Speed told his friend and ghostwriter John Richardson that he didn’t want to continue. He said, “I don’t think I’ve done enough to warrant a book.”

Instead of the story of his career, ‘Unspoken’ is dominated by the story of Speed’s death. Louise Speed, his wife, outlines their teenage romance and adult life and happiness together, providing some of the career background Gary didn’t think was worth telling. But she soon comes to the terrible morning when she discovered her husband’s body, and the rest of her chapters are about her recovery, bravery, moving on, raising two sons and wondering why their father did it.

The gaps are where the questions start

Among the chapters by Gary and Louise, broken into sections roughly according to phases of Speed’s career, are eulogies written by his friends and teammates. It’s possible to piece together the story of the Gary Speed they knew from these dozens of contributions, as anecdotes and memories confirm the picture of Speed as a dedicated professional, sensible and caring, fun and fair. But each contributor begins by telling how they found out about his death, and the cumulative effect of the repeating descriptions of shock, disbelief, of accusing callers of joking, of sinking realisation, becomes numbing. Perhaps it’s necessary to describe that morning over and over, to underline the impact on the people Speed left behind, but it doesn’t help us understand.

Between the anecdotes and the shock is the grief, in the form of a constant question: why did Gary do it? Then the constant questions that first one leads to: if there was something wrong, why didn’t he say something? And if there was something wrong, what was it? And why did Gary Speed, diligent, professional, sensible, kind, decide to end his life without explaining his reasons? Nobody can answer any of that except Gary Speed. Searching the eBook for the word ‘why’ returns 71 results. ‘Mental’ — as in ‘health’ or ‘illness’ — returns 38. The root ‘depress’, as in ‘-ive’ or ‘-ion’, returns 29.

The first impactful explanation of depression I read was a series of tweets Stan Collymore posted in 2011, which wasn’t all that helpful, because of all the dickheads in the world, it was him. But as someone who did, and does, prefer stoic denial to GP appointments, reading my own symptoms in the words of someone who had been and got their diagnosis made my situation unavoidable.

One of the most striking parts of what Collymore was saying was that, while “suffering one of the most challenging, soul destroying bouts of this cruel illness,” he had simultaneously completed all the prep work for his contracted media roles. He hadn’t seen daylight for four days, unable to sleep or move from his bed, detaching himself from family, friends and reality, going through hours of exhausting panic before doing something simple and normal. Well, some of that’s his tweets, some of that’s me. But he was still getting shit done, as was I, which is one way that everything still seems okay, making the stuff that isn’t okay seem avoidable and silly.

My old boss actually cottoned on to me long before I did, once suggesting that a sunrise alarm lamp that helps seasonal affective disorder might help me get up in the mornings (it does). That dovetailed gently with the semi-fictional ‘insomnia’ I’d been using as an excuse when I phoned in sick at 5pm, when I knew I could probably just speak to her directly, instead of before 9am like I was supposed to, when anyone might answer. I could truthfully say I’d been awake all night and in bed all day, and that I would be back at work when I had reset my body clock. But insomnia was just a symptom and a convenient scapegoat, and she saw through that.

So one person suspected, and helped, by navigating me through the sickness bureaucracy — that I was a dedicated, diligent and valued worker helped — and urging me to get a grip of whatever was causing this ‘insomnia’, while never delving further. My urge to never face up to what lay behind that was powerful, in how it would force me to work hard as a disguise and a defence, and how I’d end up diving down side streets and walking twenty minutes out of my way if I spotted even a close friend at the other end of the street, who might ask where I’d been for the last three months. But listening to that urge was helpful in that it kept the problem in my own hands, as if it was under my control, not vice-versa. Besides, even if I did try to make an appointment, the GP wouldn’t be free for two weeks, so I could just tell myself I’d sort myself out by then anyway. Sometimes I did, so it was fine. Sometimes I didn’t, but by then I would be back to feeling so pointless that bothering a doctor would only be wasting their time, when all I wanted was to disappear.

The clue uncovered by ‘Unknown’ is a letter Gary wrote to Louise when she was still living in Wales, and he was seventeen years old and apprenticed at Leeds. Louise doesn’t remember receiving it at the time and doesn’t know if Gary even sent it; it was found after his death.

“I have been thinking about finishing at Leeds,” he wrote. “I’ve also been thinking of other things which I won’t say. I’m so depressed. I’m just going to go to sleep now and hope I never wake up … you might see me sooner than you think, or otherwise.”

Finding this letter, says Louise, “is like a lightbulb moment in many ways. It answers an awful lot about why he did what he did. Maybe the mental illness or depression, however you want to describe it, was always there from an early age and returned at times in his later life. It seems that no one knew what was going on in his head at times.”

The gaps between the depressed seventeen year old who didn’t want to wake up again, the smart and reliable professional footballer and manager, and the person who killed himself aged 42, are the gaps where the questions start about why Gary Speed did what he did in the end, and about who he really was. Implicit in the question, Why didn’t he say anything? is another question: What was he hiding? And another that his friends and family ask themselves: did we know the real Gary Speed?

Of course, they did. But they knew the Gary Speed he wanted them to know. That’s not unusual in itself. Lots of people have friends from football and friends from work, and each group will see a different person; you don’t always bring your weekend to the workplace. Gary Speed was caring, sensible and kind; among his friends and colleagues, he wanted to be. Louise remembers him being critical of people who ‘had everything’ but also had depression; he couldn’t understand them. That’s not how he wanted to be, even if sometimes he was.

He didn’t think Bobby Robson would remember him

There is another hint in the book, apart from the letter. Matt Hockin was player liaison officer at Bolton Wanderers, becoming close to Gary late in his career, and remembers a slightly different Speedo to the other people in the book who knew him longer. Hockin says that when retirement was looming Speed was worrying about money after his playing career, fixating on selling his house. One day he wouldn’t go into Waterstones in Leeds when he realised Bobby Robson, his old manager at Newcastle United, was holding a book signing there; he didn’t want to jump the queue, and he didn’t think Robson would remember him anyway. During this time Hockin was having his own problems with mental health, and would discuss them with Speed, finding not only a sympathetic listener but, he felt, a kindred spirit.

Hockin’s nickname for Speed was ‘mournful’, because he saw a different expression to the smile and laugh other people remember. Speed’s mum Carol would recognise that; at her son’s inquest she said he was “a glass-half-empty person, certainly no optimist,” adding in an interview later that he grew more positive and confident as his career progressed, but that, “He took everything very seriously, and even when he was playing football if he was ever dropped, which wasn’t very often, it was the end of the world.” The week before he died Speed phoned Hockin from the office where he was working as manager of Wales. “I’m bored,” he said. “I’m really, really bored.” He wanted some ideas about how to fill his days. “You can help me.” They made plans to see Cardiff City play and catch up over a meal; but that game wasn’t until the following Tuesday.

Why should Hockin, who only met Speed in the last five years of life, describe such a different Gary from the lifelong friends who shared changing rooms and hotel rooms with him, who saw him every day? There’s an answer in the question, and in the letter Gary wrote to Louise at seventeen. The letter was found in an envelope, but without a stamp, probably never sent; perhaps because it’s not what Gary wanted the person he loved most to see, even though we can imagine she was the person he would have most wanted to tell. You write the letter to get it out, but you don’t send it because of what it might do to their life, to your life. What you need sometimes is someone without a stake in you, without a preconceived picture you don’t want to disrupt.

That’s what therapy is; for Speed, that meant watching Champions League matches at his new mate Shocsky’s house, talking things over where the stakes were low and the consequences were minimal. Some mental health campaigns stress the importance of confiding in people you trust if you’re feeling depressed, or of getting someone you think might be feeling down to open up, and that’s good advice, but not for everybody. Some people can only confide in people who don’t care, because the people who do care are the people you think need you to be the person you want to be. And you need them to need you to be that person. It’s a vicious circle with a big hole in the middle, where your sense of self is supposed to be.

That doesn’t make one version of Gary Speed more true than the other. Speed was high-functioning: 859 club appearances, 85 caps for Wales; 142 goals; a Second Division, First Division and Charity Shield winner; twice an FA Cup finalist; he played in Europe, he was transferred for millions, he managed his country. And at the end of it all, he didn’t think he’d done enough in the game to merit an autobiography, didn’t think Bobby Robson would know who he was. (After Hockin assured him the public had gone and Robson was alone, he finally persuaded Speed to say hello: ‘”Alright gaffer,” said Speedo. “I didn’t think you would remember me.” Bobby replied: “I always remember the good players, Speedo.” All the way back he was buzzing that Sir Bobby Robson had called him a good player.’) Without football to play, Speed was bored. But he didn’t seem to think the football he had played was worth much.

It’s hard to describe the dual feeling of achievement and emptiness, how you can play a great game of football or write an article everyone thinks is good but feel like you’ve done nothing, as if it never happened, no matter how hard you know it was to do. You can lie awake for hours thinking about how little you’ve achieved, feeling overwhelmed by how much there is to do, despite consciously knowing that if you were smart enough or brave enough to open the to-do app on your phone, you could tick about ten things off, and the things that would remain are things you’re good at and can do tomorrow. You might say you’ve done nothing of value in your career and wonder what any of the last twenty years have amounted to, and refuse to open the drawer where all your international caps are kept. And you can’t explain why doing the thing you love or are good at, like managing a football team or writing something, can feel like it’s presenting an insurmountable challenge just to begin each day, how it’s the last thing you want to start doing despite knowing that, once you start, when the team starts following your instructions or the words start forming from your keypresses, it’s the best feeling you have.

Among the hardest hit of Speed’s friends were the people who saw him at the BBC the day before he died, Alan Shearer and particularly Gary McAllister, who has agonised over every detail of the day in conversations with Football Focus’s presenter, Dan Walker. Speed looked healthy, he seemed happy, he was making plans to play golf and looking forward to Wales’ next fixtures. Hours later he was dead.

It doesn’t have to take hours, and there aren’t always clues to see. That’s what’s frightening sometimes. I remember being second to last out of the office for a works do I was looking forward to; I decided not to wait for my mate, telling him I was going to catch up with the others and he should finish up and not miss out on the fun. Something like that. I was feeling great. He actually got to the pub before me because the ten minute walk took me half an hour, because I started feeling like I was falling apart. When I got there I couldn’t speak to order a drink, couldn’t drink whatever was put in my hand, couldn’t hear what was being said to me. After an hour I made up an excuse and headed for home, but instead went to the river, to try to clear my head in a place with options, and then staggered around Leeds on a sunny day of such contrast with the way I was feeling that it was blinding me. I remember walking past an acquaintance whose face was like a flashbulb firing in my eyes, and was the trigger to get home to safety.

I didn’t recover from that for nine months, going to work every day, going home at night, going nowhere I didn’t have to go, seeing no one I didn’t have to see, keeping up appearances until it went away again (it does just go away). I had time to read a lot of books, which was the upside. They’re nine months I’ll never get back, and I don’t know why I lost them in the first place, and when they’re added to the other spells of lost days if I got off easy, weeks and months if I didn’t, it forms a formidable bank of time that presses down on me from my past — all the time I’ve wasted — and from my future, because I don’t know if it might happen again, and if it does, when it will end, or if it won’t.

“I thought to myself that he would fly now” — Howard Wilkinson

Not mentioned in ‘Unknown’, but crucial to Speed’s inquest, is the fact that his death could not be conclusively determined as suicide. At a party earlier in the evening he’d enjoyed being thrown, fully clothed, into a swimming pool. A damp patch on a step in his garage was evidence that he had been sitting there, probably with a ligature around his neck, for some time before he died. He had been drinking, although not excessively; but the coroner couldn’t be certain that Speed had not, without making a final decision, fallen asleep and been killed by accident. He recorded a narrative verdict, describing the events of the night, concluding that the exact circumstances would always be unknown.

It’s awful to contemplate the possibility that, had Speed just stayed awake, he might have changed his mind, like Mel Sterland did. Sterland wrote that, despite not being religious, he believes the voice that saved him was his late mother’s: “Oi, you daft bastard,” she told him, “You’ve got a lovely wife and two great kids, what are you doing?” With the engine off, Mel thought to himself, “What ARE you doing, you silly twat? There’s more to life than football.” He drove home and did what he often did back then: he poured a stiff drink. It was two months before he told anyone where he had been; that he had made his mind up and the engine was running. If only Gary Speed had heard a voice, he might have got down off the step, gone back to the house to sleep, and woken up the next day.

It’s awful, but perhaps helps us understand, because who knows if that was the first time Gary had gone to the step. What seems hardest to comprehend is why he died the day after Football Focus, or what was special about that day, but perhaps nothing was. Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing on the tape for Gary McAllister to scrutinise, no clues in his demeanour that he missed. It was just one of those nights in Gary’s life that perhaps even he couldn’t explain or understand, one of the nights he didn’t want anyone to know about. Turn off the engine, go home. Get off the step, go manage Wales. Get up in the morning, go to work. Mel Sterland made it and is doing well. Vinnie Jones has told Howard Wilkinson that, after football, he contemplated suicide before finding his second career, and perhaps his true calling, as an actor. Last year Aaron Lennon was found distressed by a motorway, the culmination of four or five years when, he’ll only say, he “was not enjoying my football”; now he’s enjoying playing for Burnley. Stan Collymore is still annoying. Sometimes things are terrible, but turn out okay. People carry on.

It may have been that way for Gary Speed for a long time, since he was seventeen or younger, and then it wasn’t. It might have been something else. Asking these questions, as more than twenty of Speed’s family and friends do in ‘Unknown’, forces us to walk a hard line between wondering and speculating, estimating and guessing, between wanting answers and respecting the silence of the past. It makes you analyse your position, as a Leeds United fan, reading about the pain of Speed’s wife and parents; they need an answer, not me. It makes you analyse yourself, how you’ve been, how you are today, how you’ll be tomorrow; how you want to be.

I don’t have to watch the video of Speed’s header away to Crystal Palace in 1990, when he ran through the air to meet a corner and must have felt like he was flying even before the ball hit the back of the net, because I can picture it clearly. Speed scored that goal almost a year before the two at Southampton at the start of the title season, a night when Howard Wilkinson says, “Like a butterfly, he had emerged from the cocoon. I thought to myself that he would fly now — and he did.” Flying; it sounds effortless, but has been mankind’s dream for centuries, to become weightless and soar free from ground level’s mundanity, from the world you know that grinds you up. We don’t know what weighed Gary Speed down, but however heavy his burden was, we know he flew, perhaps for as long as he could. That’s what a lot of us are aiming for, I guess. ◉