The Robson Report: acclaiming – and understanding – Gary Speed

Long experience of coroners’ courts has persuaded Monsieur Salut that depression can afflict the most successful, normally intelligent of people. We do not yet know what drove Gary Speed to suicide. Jeremy Robson offers a little more than the sympathy everyone feels …

Only Ryan Giggs and David James have played more games in the Premier League than Gary Speed who, sadly, was found dead yesterday at the age of 42.

A great many tributes have been paid to Speed, about his character and competitiveness. And he appears to have been a genuinely nice bloke. It would appear he had suffered from depression, and his suffering with this illness may have led in some significant way to his untimely death.

While I would not wish to speculate on his health history it is clear to anyone who follows football that Gary Speed was something rather exceptional not only as a footballer whose career outlasted those of so many of his peers, but also his true professionalism.

I mentioned Giggs and James in the opening sentence. Giggs’s personal indiscretions have been allowed to blur appreciation of a career that, it should be remembered, is unprecedented in the modern era. David James, of course, continues to play well into his forties, and still looks sharp. I recall a time when he was known as “Calamity James” and his penchant for video games was blamed for some of his less glorious goalkeeping moments.

So let me ask this question. When did you ever hear a bad word about Gary Speed? I dare say that you will be hard pressed to think of a single example.

In an era where professional footballers have every minor lapse scrutinised by the media, indeed where a great number seem to regard any publicity as good publicity, Gary Speed remained silent about an illness which seems to have been responsible, ultimately, for him taking his own life.

Reading the comments of his closest friends within the game, his death has come as a complete shock. Few if any were aware of the demons that afflicted one of the modern game’s most recognised faces. He was never a man to court publicity, or seek excuses for anything, and the game has lost a real gentleman.

More importantly, his wife has lost a husband, and his two children awoke yesterday morning without a father to guide them.

Depression is an illness that people often prefer not to speak about as sufferers recognise the stigma still associated with it. But for many it is a lifelong battle. It is hugely to Gary Speed’s credit that he was able to maintain such an illustrious playing career for so long.

Possibly, the football field was the only place he could escape the inner demons which gripped and tormented him, and it was only when he stopped playing that he could no longer keep them at bay. We may never know of course. It is only by speaking openly about this dreadful illness that we will help remove that stigma so unjustly associated with it and hopefully prevent the tragic waste of good lives. RIP Gary.

11 thoughts on “The Robson Report: acclaiming – and understanding – Gary Speed”

  1. We shall have to wait and may never really get to know the real reasons behind this tragedy. In the week that Stan Collymore was open about his own illness it seems even more poignant.

    Thank you to those who have shared personal experiences. It’s tough to know else what to say.


    I CARED DEEPLY FOR MY FAMILY I no longer see my children because of their mother and for ten years I felt I would never find anyone with whom to share my life. The light at the end of the tunnel is not necessarily the oncoming train.

    I finally met a girl I first saw when she was 15 and I was 21, an obscene age gap, she married as did I and eventually after divorce we got together. After 20 years engaged we married 2 years ago and both Lady Sue and I have not had one second of regret. Learn to value yourself, you deserve it

  3. I really enjoyed reading your experiences, AT Hedley; depression is in so many ways treated as one of those illnesses that must not be named.

    The thing about suicide is most of the time you don’t see it coming. I had been struggling with depression for years before I decided to commit suicide. It was really a snap decision; really no thought at all went into it. Just one day it occured to me that I’d had enough. I was 19 and doing my BA. I’d occasionally had bouts of depression when I was younger, but when I started uni everything tumbled down and down. One day I was sitting on my bed watching ‘Oz’ on DVD and out of nowhere I realised tonight I was going to die. A few hours later I’d collected the apparatuses and began to indulge.

    Turns out I either took too few sleeping pills or drank too little booze, but in the wee small hours of the morning I was thrust into consciousness as I projectile vomited over the student living quarters. Really unpleasant way to wake up. Then there was the crushing guilt and shame that came with being unable to kill myself. Overdosing is suprisingly difficult; the body fights to survive. One of those evolutionary impulses apparently. But I didn’t know that at the time, and spiralled further downward.

    After several months of intensive therapies, I did start to recover. It sounds really horrible, but it was about that time that I entered in to what would become an abusive relationship. There was something therapeutic about having someone else thinking I was worthless. In some strange backwards way my existence was justified; I was here to be worthless. I was here to be a punching bag. Somehow it all made sense. Depression is a highly personal illness and it’s, for me, impossible to describe what’s going on in my head when I’m ‘grey’ (my very middle-class mother’s euphemism).

    I’m in recovery, and I suppose I’ll always be in recovery. Like an alcoholic’s impulse to drink, the impulse to self-harm always exists. I mostly get through life by constantly reaffirming that life is worth living. Every day, in between breakfast and eyeliner application, I make a list of the things for which I am grateful. It’s actually a good focusing exercise for anyone to do, on those ‘blue’ days. Or if you’re starting to self-pity for some reason, and would like some perspective.

    I just keep thinking of Gary Speed’s family, and how difficult this time must be for them. Obviously we don’t know what goes on in a private family home, but it seems Speed was effective in disguising his illness from his close friends and teammates. It’s possible his wife didn’t understand how he was feeling. Even wishing that they find peace seems inadequate now. It’s quite simply a a tragedy.

  4. Alan. To say a simple thank you for sharing those experiences and wisdom with us is just not enough. A wonderful post. I wasn’t sure when I wrote this article whether it was the right thing to send to M. Salut, but your comments made it feel more appropriate.

    There’s a colleague of mine who often says that if you could dump your troubles at the bottom of the drive and pick up someone else’s instead, that you’d soon come back to look for your own. It holds a message that I often ponder. Sadly for some, it just isn’t the case.

    For anyone who has come into contact with a relative or close friend who has suffered from depression then they will know all too well about its debilitating effects. Dealing with the most extreme consequences of depression can be a whole lot harder as we see in this most tragic example.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences Alan.

  5. Many years ago, when I had the energy to run everywhere, I thrived on adrenalin. I rarely slept more than 5 hours a night My work, my choice of sports and the break down of a marriage plus gallons of alcohol and black coffee, pumped adrenalin into my system on a constant basis.

    Letters from lawyers on divorce and litigation all served to increase the stress, so when finally all such matters were over I knew a peace I could barely recognise. I felt so ill. Now there is a purpose to this Corbettesques style story because the doctor, a specialist in stress, diagnosed a clinical depression to which I replied bloody nonsense I am always so up it is sickening, how can I be depressed?

    His reply was that depression is more often than not a chemical imbalance that affects the brain in different ways, some do not sleep, some get twitchy, some aggressive and some felt that they cannot cope with life. I felt as though I had constant flu symptoms. In my case the doctor said I was an adrenalin junky who constantly sought competitive excitement. Now, when my much wished for peace of mind had arrived, my body had gone into withdrawal mode because the adrenalin kick was no longer there.

    Whatever the multiplicity of causes for this pernicious illness there is at least one common symptom we all try to hide it from others. Sadly some are very good at hiding the extent of the problem tot he point where family and close friends can miss all the signs and are then ,often feeling personal guilt for what has happened. They should not.

    For me one simple lesson changed my entire way of reacting to life and can work for many others faced with what to them grow to be insoluble problems, where, horrifically, death seems preferable to waking to new worries each day of one’s life.

    I had one meeting with a therapist who emptied a pile of children’s building blocks onto a table and said that is your life. Those two or three green ones are the good parts, which we can all recognise. Those four are the serious problems we all seek to cope with in our lives and those twenty are the things that are just ok not good not bad but ok. Most people spend all their lives worrying about the four problems we pick them up put them down, go over them time and again, even when there is little we can do, thus energising them and inflating their importance.

    He said put them in a cupboard and when you can actually do something about them take action and then, put them back in the cupboard and concentrate on the rest of your life which is good. It may be simple but for many it works by stopping us inflating our problems in our mind.

    For a man with so much to be proud of in a life many of us could never dream of achieving, his torment must have been unbearable. Rest In Peace is probably the one overriding thing he could not find in his mind and therefore the thing he craved. You have so much respect in this game from so many fans of different club allegiances, I wish someone had told you to look at your children’s building blocks and explained their secret.

  6. Thanks for the words of appreciation. Hilary, your words gave me considerable food for thought as I had never previously considered the motivation that may well lie behind Ryan Giggs career. There are as you observe, possibly more commonalities between Giggs and Speed than people recognise. Stark contrasts it would seem between professional and private life.

    Some of the comments from Gary Speed’s closest friends, people he has known for decades makes the tragedy all the more shocking. Gary McAllister was talking to him only a few hours before he was found dead and says that he gave not the slightest indication of being troubled. It would seem Gary Speed had become expert in hiding his feelings, which for someone suffering from depression must be unimaginably difficult.

  7. The scariest thing about this is that it can happen to anyone at any time. It’s a very badly understood illness. For people who aren’t suffering it is extremely hard to understand how someone could do such a thing. Everyone who knew Gary Speed saw a different side to the one which drove him to this end. If he had perhaps been more open about his problems then maybe someone could have done something and at least tried to help. His family will be tormented beyond all measure. It’s hard enough to lose someone close but the sense of it all being so unnecessary will be a hard thing for them to cope with I am sure. RIP Gary Speed. I hope your heart is at peace now.

  8. Yes, lovely piece Jeremy. Gary Speed and Ryan Giggs were two of the finest British players of their generation. I was shocked to hear of Ryan Giggs indiscretions, as he had been and continues to be, one of my great footballing heroes. There was something particularly dark and disturbing about his personal behaviour, so strangely at odds with his immaculately professional public demeanor. It wasnt just the usual footballer and page three girl story, this was something which suggested a deeply troubled psyche.

    Both Giggs and Speed aspired to perfection, their professionalism and skills singled them out from their contemporaries. To be so controlled and command the degree of respect which both of them did, must be a stressful thing in itself. Giggs behaviour was self-destructive, he must have known that it could bring the reputation he had worked for for so many years, crashing down. Gary Speed’s tragic self destructive act indicates a personal torment at odds with the imposing public persona. He obviously gave so much support to others, and seemingly asked for nothing for himself. Both he and Giggs, have been driven to extend their playing careers for as long as possible, perhaps in the knowledge of the chasm that would remain. As you say Jeremy, those 90 minutes on the pitch must be so intensely life enhancing that they distract from the demons beneath. What has happened to Gary Speed is such a shocking and dreadful waste of a life of such potential. If only football was a bit less macho and more accepting of personal vulnerability.

  9. As you say, nobody knows what the lad endured for so long, seemingly without complaint. It is such a waste. This is a really lovely piece by the way. Well written.

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