More than a year after his passing, Gary Speed’s death is still hard to comprehend. He seemed like a man who had it all: a successful playing career to look back on, a family to be proud of, a reputation as a kind, decent man, and he had just been through an extraordinary year as manager of Wales, in which the team’s fortunes had been utterly transformed.
|The late Gary Speed|
The word ‘tragedy’ is horribly overused in sporting circles. I cannot stand it when commentators refer to a missed penalty in football or a dropped catch in cricket as a ‘tragedy’, but the word is certainly appropriate when referring to Speed’s passing.
It was therefore essential that the Football Association of Wales handled the immediate aftermath, and the plans for the future, with sensitivity and respect. To understand what went on in the aftermath of Speed’s death, we need to know a little more about those in charge of the FAW, and what motivates them.
For as long as I can remember, the FAW has had the feel of an old boys’ club. Appointments are usually made from within and it has never really got to grips with modern football. As the Premier League grew in stature and popularity during the 1990s and 2000s, the FAW seemed reluctant to accept the fact that it needed to operate as a business, with plans, budgets and fresh ideas.
The FAW bottled out of appointing him, knowing that he’d want things done his own way, and wouldn’t be afraid of standing up to the men in suits. Following the FAW-induced farce of John Toshack’s 41 days in charge in 1994, the job was given to Mike Smith, who had managed Wales in the 1970s, but by this stage hadn’t managed anywhere for eight years.
When Smith was sacked a year later, there was talk of a big name like Howard Wilkinson or Ron Atkinson being appointed, but once again the FAW didn’t like the idea of appointing someone who would be independent-minded and rock the establishment boat.
Therefore, it came as a pleasant surprise when, in late 2009, Jonathan Ford was appointed as Chief Executive. Ford’s appointment was an extraordinary break from the past. Here was a man with a proven track record in business, in particular sponsorship, having worked at former radio station Atlantic 252, MTV Europe, and as European Sports Sponsorship manager for Coca-Cola. The initial signs were promising. Ford was using the title ‘Chief Executive’ whereas his predecessors were always ‘Secretary General’. This, in itself showed that the FAW understood the need to be more business-like.
Ford said it was important the FAW came into the 20th century before it started worrying about the 21st century. He then made the shrewd move of appointing my former colleague, the ex-BBC Wales Football Editor and Match of the Day commentator Ian Gwyn Hughes to head the department responsible for media and marketing.
While significant improvements were made with regards to marketing and the presentation side of things, when it came to making real changes to the way in which football was structured in Wales, old habits died hard. Yes, there was a lot of PR spin, while Ford and Hughes produced a well-rehearsed Morecambe and Wise double act as they took their FAW roadshow around Wales.
The general complaint was that while they were talking a lot about the national team, little was said or done about under-funding at grass roots levels. In practical terms, not much had changed. Ford really overstepped his remit in the period immediately after John Toshack’s departure. One of the favourites to take over as Wales manager was Brian Flynn, who had a 12-year run in charge of Wrexham, and was widely respected as someone of experience who knew how to make the most of limited resources.
However, there was a quote in the Western Mail newspaper around this time that suggested that ‘some people in the FAW believe that a big name manager will make the Welsh team more marketable’. With his background in marketing, it’s fairly safe to assume that ‘some people’ refers to Ford.
Why would he, or anybody else for that matter, consider having a manager that was ‘marketable’ to be more important than one who was suitably qualified? There was a leak around this time that Ian Rush was Ford’s preferred candidate. Rush’s track record as a world-class striker and Wales footballing legend speaks for itself. Less impressive is his track record in management, which consisted of an unsuccessful six month spell in charge of Chester City some five years earlier, during which time he became hugely unpopular with fans due to his physical, long-ball style of play, which was ugly to watch and seldom produced wins.
Comparing Flynn and Rush’s managerial credentials is a no-brainer. There’s Flynn, 12 years at Wrexham, followed by two more at Swansea City, followed by six years as Wales Under 21s manager, and Rush, who spent six unsuccessful months at an ailing League Two club.
Fortunately, Rush’s allies were unable to persuade the FAW Council and Gary Speed was appointed manager of the national team. Speed’s CV wasn’t up to much at the time. He only had a few months experience in management at Sheffield United, from where he was poached, and hadn’t been particularly successful in that role.
The men in suits, and, in my view, Ford himself, probably expected Speed to be a pro-establishment manager who wouldn’t upset the status quo too much. If they had intended to appoint a radical thinker, they would have gone for long-time former Sweden manager Lars Lagerback, who had been linked to the job, and, crucially, was affordable.
However, in believing that Speed was ‘one of them’, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Speed became Wales manager following a disastrous start to the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, with leading players regarding international duty as a chore and morale at rock bottom. A number of leading players had retired from international football years before their time was up, and it was clear that relations between many of the players and the old managerial setup were strained.
The facilities and coaching were far removed from what they were used to at their Premier League clubs, and John Toshack himself seemed to have completely lost the magic touch that made him one of the game’s most respected managers across Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s. With qualification for Euro 2012 too big an ask, Speed knew he needed to prepare for the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign.
Speed understood his own strengths and weaknesses, and had a very clear idea of who he wanted around him. What happened next was nothing short of a revolution at the Wales setup. Speed recruited Raymond Verheijen, a freelance conditioning expert and protégé of Guus Hiddink, on a 50 day a year contract.
Verheijen’s track record is extraordinary. He has a detailed, discerning understanding on fitness, diet and recovery. For example, in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, Hiddink and Verheijen were in charge at South Korea, and expectations were modest. Verheijen looked at the players in training and told them that their natural ability was quite good, but that their fitness and upper body strength was lacking. That was something that could be worked on, and, as a result, South Korea surpassed all expectations, reaching the quarter-finals before losing to Spain on penalties.
Verheijen’s theories on conditioning are fascinating but extraordinarily successful. For example, he insists that players, from their late 20s onwards, go in the swimming pool in the hotel after the match, even if it’s very late at night, as it aids recovery, removes adrenaline from the body, and helps them sleep. He also believes that training shouldn’t normally take place for two days after a match, especially for older players, because it’s entirely counter-productive, and he regularly slates Premier League teams for being years behind continental clubs in understanding how the human body works.
Here was a man who had experience at six World Cups and European Championships. Wales were extremely lucky to have him on board, and it was a real coup for Speed. Crucially, Verheijen had a break clause after 12 months that could be triggered by either party. Speed brought Osian Roberts on board as his other assistant coach. Speed insisted that Adrian Davies, a former squash champion and a rival to Jonathan Ford for the job of CEO, be brought in as Operations Manager. Davies, an affable character who quickly became very popular with the players, wasn’t given a contract by the FAW, but Speed promised to try and persuade them to do so.
The setup was completed by bringing in Damian Roden as Performance Manager, who had worked with Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers before stints at Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City and Australia. Speed pushed the FAW to move the team’s training base from the pleasant but basic Vale of Glamorgan Hotel to the luxurious Celtic Manor Resort, which successfully staged the Ryder Cup in 2010.
As Verheijen recently admitted, the purpose of Speed’s appointments was to wrestle control of the Wales setup away from the FAW and to run things as an independent, professional, world-class operation. By taking these steps, the attitudes of the players changed instantly. They were no longer making excuses to skip international duty.
Training sessions were fun and had a clear purpose. The team was built around the three best players: Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Craig Bellamy, with the emphasis on passing and being comfortable on the ball. The FAW, and Ford in particular, hated the fact that Speed was operating independently of their control, and almost immediately began interfering with the setup.
Following the 2-1 friendly defeat to Australia in August 2011, FAW President Phil Pritchard urged Speed to appoint a ‘more experienced’ assistant if Wales lost the next game. However, Speed and his team had helped Wales turn a corner.
They won four of their next five matches, playing some impressive football. FIFA ranked Wales 42nd in the world, their highest position in 17 years. A routine was established whereby Verheijen developed the playing style, took training, and delivered the half-time team talks, while Speed made the big decisions about team selections.
Things were really starting to go well, and there was every reason to believe Wales could qualify for the 2014 World Cup, or maybe even mirror the achievements of South Korea in 2002. Yet Ford was still keen to meddle. Roden, who was on a consultancy contract and was therefore not an employee of the FAW, was sacked in September 20011 because of his links to a nutrition supplements company. Since the FAW actually used supplements supplied by the firm, this seemed like a feeble excuse.
Speed openly admitted to being extremely disappointed, and conceded that it had caused disruption. Despite this setback, results on the pitch had improved Speed’s position shortly before his death. There was much speculation that he would be offered an improved contract as he became an obvious candidate for any Premier League job that may become available. Verheijen’s main weakness is that he can come across as arrogant.
In the days after Speed’s death, Verheijen, a shrewd and intelligent man, calculated that Ford and the FAW would use the tragedy as an opportunity to regain control over the Wales team and appoint someone they could manipulate. For that reason, Verheijen gave an interview to BBC Wales in which he said that Speed’s legacy would be best protected by leaving him and Roberts in charge of the team. Verheijen’s comments were roundly condemned by both the print and broadcast media in Wales.
The general consensus was that he had spoken far too soon after Speed’s death to even contemplate the future of the Wales team. The comments made him many enemies in Wales, he received a barrage of abuse on Twitter, and to this day, he has very few allies in the Welsh media. In hindsight, the reason why Verheijen made the remarks so soon after Speed’s passing is clear. He was right to suspect that Ford and the FAW would use this opportunity to wrestle back control of the Wales setup, but not even he could have anticipated the nasty and spiteful way in which they went about it.
Unsurprisingly, the FAW appointed Chris Coleman as manager on 19 January 2012, who in turn appointed the inexperienced Fulham academy coach Kit Symons to his team. Coleman met up with Roberts on the night he was appointed but a meeting with Verheijen was delayed twice until it finally took place in the second week of February in London.
Coleman ended the discussion with Verheijen by saying he would speak to Ford before getting back in touch. When speaking to the media, Coleman said the talks had been positive, but the two men never spoke again. Some weeks later, Coleman admitted that he and Verheijen ‘hadn’t agreed on everything’. Verheijen and Roberts were made aware, not by the FAW, but through the media, that they were expected to take charge of the Gary Speed Memorial Match against Costa Rica on 29 February 2012, while Coleman watched on from the stands. They were emailed details of the training camp but Verheijen never received the follow-up call that was promised.
Meanwhile, Ford and the FAW were working hard to regain control. A fortnight earlier, Adrian Davies was told by the FAW that his services were no longer required under Coleman. Davies was understandably deeply hurt by this. He was a massive hit with the players and a close personal friend of Speed’s. Indeed, he was one of only around 50 people who attended Speed’s private funeral in Flintshire. Davies was even told by the FAW that he wouldn’t be attending the memorial match. This was later denied by the FAW, but, in truth, he only attended because Speed’s widow, Louise, ordered the ticketing department to send tickets to him.
Verheijen was angered by the way Davies had been treated, and emailed his resignation, triggering the break clause in his contract, and he announced it publicly on Twitter, accusing the FAW of ‘political and destructive games’. Coleman was quick to condemn the timing of Verheijen’s departure, saying he should have waited until the day after the memorial match. However, Verheijen thought this would have been deceitful and misleading to the players, and thought that Coleman would have banned him from the dressing room anyway upon hearing his intentions.
Verheijen did confide in a few senior players that he intended to resign, but left it at that. Two days after his resignation, and after being bad-mouthed by Coleman, Verheijen received a call from Louise inviting him to the memorial match with his wife and three children. He later said on Twitter that upon meeting Speed, he would happily have worked with him for the rest of his life. To this day, Verheijen has few friends in the Welsh media, particularly inside BBC Wales and S4C, where most of the journalists seem to believe every piece of propaganda that comes from the FAW.
A few were quick to make snide comments about him on Twitter or dismiss him as a traitor for his comments in the days that follow Speed’s death.
Perhaps there are other reasons why they are careful to stay on the right side of the FAW. More than a year after Speed’s passing, little is left of his legacy or his influence over the Wales setup. Craig Bellamy, whose career was revitalised by Verheijen’s techniques, quickly resigned as Wales captain citing knee problems, and a real question mark hangs over his international future.
The team of Chris Coleman and Kit Symons has led Wales to just one win from the four World Cup qualifiers they have played so far, and making it to the finals of a major tournament now feels as far away as it did before Speed’s appointment.
If the FAW was being run in a sensible and mature way, they would have been far more co-operative with Speed and been more than happy with letting him get on with things with minimal interference. The team was winning matches, the players were happy, the fans were happy, what more could they want?
As ever, the FAW was obsessed with control, but they sunk to a new low with the cruel and vindictive way in which they responded to such a tragic situation. All football fans, regardless of whether or not they support Wales, should be saddened about what this means for international football.
In the last few decades, football fans in all countries missed out on seeing world-class players like Ian Rush, Neville Southall and Ryan Giggs perform in the finals of a major championship. It now seems very likely that we can add Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey to that list.
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