What a couple of weeks. What a tearful, heart-rending, poignant and proud couple of weeks it has been.
It was the fourth anniversary of Sean Taylor’s fatal shooting last Sunday and all the tributes brought the memories flooding back, with the sadness and thoughts of what might have been. Of how he was turning his life around after the birth of his daughter and of how he was hitting his prime. But 24 hours later, all we were left with were those memories, our sense of loss, trying to understand the whys and what ifs.
In England, my other great sporting passion in our version of football, as you call soccer, is Leeds United. A once great team that has fallen on harder times recently, but is battling to get back to where they belong in the top tier of English football, called the English Premier League (EPL).
I woke up on Sunday morning, 27th November, to the tragic news that our former player Gary Speed had died suddenly, at the age of just 42. He had been on national television just the morning before on the programme “Football Focus” where the forthcoming weekend’s match-ups and issues are discussed. He was joined by his former team mate Gary McAllister, who had played alongside him for a number of years, notably during our championship season of 1991-92, the last time United won the title, the same time as the last Redskins’ championship.
Speed was a product of our youth system, signing for the club when he was just 14, and made his professional debut for the first team when still only 19. He was a key member of the championship winning side offering youthful enthusiasm and no little skill on the field to his film star good looks off it. He left Leeds in 1996 and since he left, he played for a few other clubs before retiring from the playing side in 2010.
He took up club management and it wasn’t long before he was offered, and accepted, the position of the Wales national team manager’s post and within a matter of months, was turning their fortunes around, lifting them from their worst ever international ranking of 140, up to 50, including a 4-1 rout of Norway, a game which proved to be his last.
On Sunday morning, the fourth anniversary of Taylor’s fatal shooting, he was found by his wife in an apparent suicide, an act that shocked the soccer world. Less than 24 hours earlier he had been speaking enthusiastically on TV, catching up with some old friends, and making plans for the future.
It’s true what they say that you don’t fully appreciate things or people until they’ve gone and he hadn’t been part of Leeds United for a number of years but you still keep an eye on how your heroes are getting on even after they move on.
In all the tributes aired since the news broke, they have been universal in their praise for the man, always being genuine, taking time for the fans, always cheerful.
The soccer world united behind a sense of grief, disbelief and also pride, as if we all knew the man. On the following Tuesday night, Leeds’ first game since his passing, away at Nottingham Forest, the fans’ tribute was to sing his name from the eleventh minute (his shirt number), for eleven minutes. And this they did with gusto and pride and a determination to show their respect and admiration for him.
Unbelievably, as if right on cue, at the end of the eleventh minute as the fans began a chant of “Leeds, Leeds, Leeds”, Robert Snodgrass, a left winger and left footed player like Speed, scored the game’s first goal with his left foot.
On Saturday, the first full match schedule, and the first game at Leeds’ Elland Road stadium, Speed’s widow Louise was at the game with their two teenage sons, to witness the shrine at the Billy Bremner statue that became awash with shirts, scarves, and messages of love and support, and the ceremonious laying of wreaths by the managers of the two teams, Leeds and arch rival Millwall, and former colleagues.
All the rivalry between the teams disappeared as the nation mourned the loss, and this was replicated around the soccer stadiums of Great Britain, with a minute’s applause and video tributes played on the big screens before kick off.
Speed’s passing transcended the world of soccer as the Welsh national rugby team took on Australia. A nation was united in grief as the minute’s applause was repeated at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff before the two teams kicked off the international contest.
So as the Redskins lined up opposite the New York Jets, I was thinking of both Sean Taylor and Gary Speed, two huge losses from my beloved sports teams, while I ask myself “Why”, and “What If”.