The footballing world has been jarred this week by the news of the demise of one of the most respectable midfielders of the Premier League era. The speculations and the reasons engulfing Gary Speed’s death will not be dealt here; the column would rather pay homage to one of the leading figures who were synonymous with the English Premier League’s upsurge in popularity around the globe and especially in our part of the world.
Gary Speed was one of those rare breed of footballers who make optimum use of their footballing prowess. Starting off at Leeds United, where he came through the ranks and gradually lit up the league with his pace and wing-play, he gradually matured into a combative central midfielder at the tail-end of his stint at Newcastle and then at Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United. Such was the versatility and all-round savoir faire of Speed that he played in nine of the ten outfield positions in his career.
His exploits at Leeds, set the foundation of his play where he was a part of the midfield that had the likes of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and David Batty – arguably one of the greatest midfield lineups in the English game; especially in the 90s. Speed was pivotal in Leeds United’s title winning 1991/92 season, where he played all but one of their league encounters. He was also instrumental in guiding Leeds to 1996’s League Cup final.
Speed was an Everton fan since his childhood, and when Everton came up with a 3.5 million pounds bid (a hefty amount in those days) in the summer of 1996, Leeds could not refuse. Although Speed scored the only hat-trick of his career in Everton’s colours in a 7-1 thrashing ofSouthampton, his time at Everton bore a picture of unfulfilled promises.
Kenny Dalglish came calling in 1998, as Speed signed for Newcastle United. By that time, Speed had adapted into a more conventional central midfield role, and he enthralled the Magpie faithful with some commanding displays in midfield. 1999’s F.A Cup final and the Champions League run in 2002/03, were the highlights of his time at Newcastle.
Approaching the twilight of his career, after losing a yard or two of pace, Speed settled down in the traditional ‘water carrier’ role and just when one and all prognosticated Speed to call it a day, he showcased his versatility and prolonged his career at the very top level, playing a decisive role in Bolton’s rise.
Speed’s dexterity as a footballer was indubitable, but what made him stand out was the respect he commanded from his peers, opponents, managers, referees and all those concerned with the English game. His resolve and tenacity made him a menacing opponent, and his esteemed persona begged reverence from one and all. He managed to translate his mélange of deference and steadfastness in his managerial career as well. He had transformed the fortunes of Wales – a nation prowling on the periphery of footballing fulfillment. And just when he looked like completing his quest of Welsh rejuvenation, the tragedy has struck the football domain.
To say that every football fan is feeling the loss of the great man is an understatement. However, football moves on, life moves on and the momentous memories of an illustrious past are immortal.
Bruce gone; who’s next?
The Premier League sack race is something that intrigues the betting men in particular. After Sunderland’s abysmal run off-late which saw them plummet all the way down to 16th, merely a couple of points off the dreaded relegation zone, Steve Bruce was rightly hogging the betting odds and the limelight in that particular domain. The fact that it took us as long as December to witness the first EPL manager to bite the dust is quite atypical to say the least – especially during the recent past when patience reservoirs have shrunk considerably. And now with Bruce gone, would the sacking floodgates open?
Of the remaining 19 EPL managers, the two hot favourites are Steve Kean and Andre-Villas Boas. Kean’s side has only conjured up a single win during the entire season, and hence he is justifiably the overwhelming favourite to be shown the door. The fact that Andre-Villas Boas is a Chelsea manager, and that particular creed of managers are guillotined mercilessly, makes the Portuguese’s prospects gloomy as well. AVB was touted as a long-term investment, and earmarked to bring Champions League glory at Stamford Bridge. However, the recent trade fair of his side has seen Chelsea being way off the pace in the league – losing three of their last five games – being knocked out at home in the Carling Cup, and needing a result against Valencia to filter through to the last 16 of the Champions League. Villas-Boas’ future rests on that match against Valencia; if he fails to invoke the desired result, he might well be shown , what is now fast becoming a revolving door for managers at Stamford Bridge.
Apart from those two, Martin Jol, Owen Coyle and Mick McCarthy need results as well. Or else the accumulating pressure might become too cumbersome for them to manage at the helm.
Big match preview:
Newcastle vs Chelsea
As the pressure mounts for Villas-Boas and Chelsea, facing a resurgent Newcastle United off the back of a valiant display at Old Trafford is definitely not something you’d be looking forward to. After being dumped out of the Carling cup, and facing a tricky final match-day in the Champions League,Chelsea need to get their act together, or else their season maybe be derailed beyond salvation.
Chelsea do have almost their full squad available to pick and the likelihood is that Villas-Boas would opt for a front three of Mata, Sturridge and Drogba – leaving Torres on the bench. Meireles, Ramires and Lampard should be the trio in midfield, but the real question marks are over Chelsea’s defense – and not only in terms of their composition, but also more importantly as to how they would perform, after their run of the mill performances off-late.
Newcastle on the other hand would be brimming with confidence after holding out United for a draw last week and knowing that a win against Chelseawould further bolster their credentials for a Champions League spot. St James’ Park would be buzzing in the early kick off today, and Newcastle would have the onus on them to go for all three points against Chelsea – something that was unfathomable at the start of the season.
Even so, Newcastle would be without Tiote and Gutierrez – two of the star performers of the season so far – and hence Chelsea’s midfield might dominate matters. Nevertheless, the ethos exhibited by the Magpies is one of teamwork and camaraderie, and hence if they continue to follow their game plan against a shaky Chelsea lineup, Newcastle can bag all three points.