Match-goers understand that it’s those life-lasting ‘I-was-there’ moments that keep you going back week-in, week-out despite the dross. You’re lucky if you get even one a season. Real fans know these snatched moments-in-time don’t just mean cup finals or last-day relegation dogfights. Sometimes they happen on a cold, foggy December day in a mid-season, wrong-end-of-the-table, hum-drum match in a place like Leicester. So it was that in 1997 Gary Speed etched himself forever in my brain.
Filbert Street was a dump, and the atmosphere had a slightly narky eighties feel to it. The game itself was scrappy and ugly. Our team at the time was so mediocre I struggle to remember anyone else in our midfield. For context, it was an entire calendar year since Everton had last won an away game. I’ll say that again: an entire calendar year. Muggins had nearly bankrupted himself travelling to, and suffering through every single one of them. Anyway, it was heading to, and should have been a nil-nil draw. Then, right on the brink of injury time Everton got a penalty. Step forward, without hesitation, Gary Speed. I can still remember that adrenalised joy surging through my veins the instant the spot-kick was given and then that equally sudden emotional surge where the joy flicked to heart-thumping, crowd silencing anxiety through those seconds while he waited to take it. He scored. The joy let loose again unrestrained. A whole year of angst felt lifted. It was bedlam in the away section. A couple of thousand Evertonians celebrating as if we had just won the world cup. A chorus of ‘Jingle Bells’ with a line substitution ‘Oh what fun it is to see Everton win away’ sung all the way home. It was a nothing game in the history of football. But any Evertonian who was there will never forget it. Gary Speed gave me that moment.
Gary departed Everton in strange circumstances, never fully explained. Perhaps the stubborn length of time many Evertonians have borne a grudge is actually a telling measure of how highly regarded he really was for us. He was treated as a pantomime villain by chunks of the crowd whenever our paths crossed again (on a par with Steve McMahon, Nick Barmby or Wayne Rooney). It was a sorry end to his spell with the club he supported as a boy, shone for as a player, and was so proud to Captain. Events this weekend add some much needed perspective to all that pantomime villain nonsense.
For an outsider his actions seem unfathomable. Anyone who watched him on Football Focus on Saturday will not be able to reconcile the Gary Speed they saw with a man within 24 hours of ending his own life. The testament of his friends suggests that even aside the theatre of TV they had exactly the same impression. He hid his depression. The consequences of that are unbearable for his friends and family.
Perhaps the best insight we can get comes from another footballer from that era. At around the time Gary Speed took his life, Stan Collymore posted this remarkable description of his own recurring depression on the net: http://www.twitlonger.com/show/ecoqm1 I urge everyone to read it and reflect.