The specter of Gary Speed -- deceased footballing legend and former coach of the Wales national team -- looms larger than ever over the Welsh squad that entered qualifying for the 2014 World Cup with such great promise. In the run of games leading up to Speed's death last November, Wales was playing its best soccer in decades. But in its first five games since Chris Coleman -- a former teammate and friend of Speed's -- took over as national team manager, Wales has scored just once. It has lost three friendlies (to Costa Rica, Mexico and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and the first two World Cup qualifiers in a group that its fans very recently considered to be one that Wales could win to end a torturous streak of futility on the pitch.
The first of those losses, 2-0 at home against a fast-rising Belgium team, wasn't so discouraging, but the game that followed against Serbia exposed the team as one with limited attack, a porous defense and -- by the measure of the 6-1 score -- a dispirited clubhouse. Coleman, who appeared 32 times for the national team as a player, many of them alongside Speed, declared himself "embarrassed" in the aftermath and called his defense "criminal."
It was a far cry from the promise of early 2012, when writer Josh Dean traveled to Cardiff to drop in on the team and its fans as it prepared to say goodbye to the most popular player this tiny, proud nation ever produced.
Metaphorically speaking, the weather was uncooperative. Feb. 29, Leap Day, was the sunniest day of the week -- the sunniest day of the winter, according to my cab driver. On the one day when a dreary, rainy, gray pall would have been appropriate in this city known for its gloom, a glorious spring had arrived in Cardiff, Wales, along with every living luminary of Welsh soccer -- and then some.
They had not come to see Wales play Costa Rica in an international friendly (although that would happen), but to honor the memory of and say goodbye to Gary Speed, who was arguably the most beloved Welsh soccer personality of all time until the day in November when he took his own life. That one rash and inexplicable act wiped away any argument.
A handsome, charming, fit and extraordinarily popular 42-year-old patriot, Speed was the first man to play 500 matches in England's Premier League and is the second-most-capped Welsh national team player in history, with 85 appearances. (Only former goalkeeper Neville Southall has more, although goalies usually have longer careers.) When he finally retired from playing in 2010, Speed transitioned immediately into coaching and hadn't even finished a full season in charge of Sheffield United before he was summoned to take over as manager of the Welsh national team, assuming a role that was both an honor and a curse. An honor because Speed adored Wales -- to be its manager was basically his dream job. A curse because Wales had not qualified for a World Cup since 1958 and was in the midst of a 10-year run of play so dreadful and dispiriting that it had been banished from the 70,000-seat stadium it once packed into a 20,000-seat ground it still couldn't fill.
For an inexperienced manager, it was a tough spot -- a job you can't turn down that stands a good chance of going horribly. But there was another way to look at it. If Speed could somehow resuscitate the Wales squad and win back some of the glory it once had, he would become not just a beloved symbol of Welsh soccer but also an icon for a tiny but proud nation with a major insecurity complex.
As English manager Howard Wilkinson, who coached Speed in his heyday at Leeds, said of leading a small nation like Wales, "When heroes come along, they tend to be cherished."
After some early struggles, that's exactly what happened. In less than a year under Speed, Wales rose nearly 70 spots in the FIFA rankings, more than any other team on Earth, and with a young core of dynamic players that included Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, the future was brighter than it had been in eons. Excitement was returning to Welsh soccer. And Speed was easily the most popular person in the country, a man, the Times of London wrote, who "almost certainly meant more to Welsh people than the Secretary of State, and his reach went beyond Wales."
On this unseasonably warm and sunny Leap Day in Cardiff, that reach could not have been clearer. Two hours before kickoff of the match that would serve to honor his tremendous impact on the sport -- and his country -- Speed's image was everywhere: on banners reading "Player-Manager-Legend" (in English and Welsh) that hung from the upper terraces; on the massive, round placard with his face in profile that covered the kickoff circle; and in the south stands, where GARY had been painted over the seats and aisles, in giant, red letters.
He was on the minds of the Welsh soccer legends, the current team and the 20,000 fans who showed up wearing the memorial scarves with Speed's face on them that were hawked from shopping carts on the streets around the stadium. Fans like Dean Jones, a Cardiff native with a shaved head and a thick accent who'd followed Welsh soccer his entire life and had come out this night with his young son and daughter, as well as his brother Heath, all of them wearing the garnet jerseys of the national team.
"He was a fantastic player, a fantastic captain," Dean Jones said, patting his son on the back. "We're all hard on new managers, but he got the players playing for him." Asked about his reaction to the news of Speed's death, he replied that he'd been "devastated. My son is barely old enough to understand, but he loved Gary Speed. He had his photograph, his autograph." Jones shook his head. "It was heartbreaking."
He started to walk away to find his seats but turned back. "He was turning Welsh football around. Now he's gone."
At midday on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, Gary Speed appeared on the popular BBC program "Football Focus" alongside his friend and former Leeds United teammate Gary McAllister. Speed was calm, composed and cheerful. Even in the eyes of people who knew him well, he seemed loose and untroubled, and as he watched highlights of his Leeds team winning the league in 1992, his smile sure looked genuine. The show's host, Dan Walker, would later report that Speed was "cracking jokes" and "talking passionately about the future."
After leaving the studio, Speed took in an early Premier League game on TV in the studio with his friend, English legend Alan Shearer (who later said "he was just the happy Gary we all knew") and then went to see one of his former teams, Newcastle, play Manchester United at Old Trafford in Manchester. From there, Speed drove home and went to a party with his wife. The next morning, he was dead of an apparent suicide, found hanged in the garage of his rural English home.
To say that the soccer world -- and the British public -- was stunned by the news is hardly justice to the collective jaw drop that followed. If you were to rank former professional players in ascending order of likeliness to commit suicide, it's impossible to say for certain that Speed would be at the bottom, but he'd be damn close. "It's the biggest shock I've ever had in my life," Ryan Giggs, probably the most talented Welsh player of all time, told the media on the day of the memorial game. "He's the last person I would think could do this," said Carl Robinson, a former teammate who now coaches for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
London Sunday Express soccer writer John Richardson met Speed in 1990 when the two were young and new at their jobs. Richardson was a cub reporter covering Wales, while Speed was new to the national team; the reporter said that not only was Speed always available for interviews, but he often invited the writer and whoever else wanted to come along out for beers afterward. In the ensuing years, the two became such close friends that Speed attended Richardson's marriage vow renewals and asked him to co-author his autobiography -- which Speed pulled the plug on more than a year ago, Richardson told me, saying he "just hadn't accomplished enough yet."
Richardson was running errands with his wife on the morning of Nov. 27 when another reporter called to inform him of a nasty rumor going around. "Gary Speed's hung himself?" Richardson replied incredulously. "Bloody hell. No chance of that." He immediately rung retired Wales and Liverpool star Ian Rush and asked whether he'd heard the rumors. Rush had, adding: "I think they're true."
Richardson then called Speed's cellphone, and when the voicemail tone sounded, he left a message. "Speedo, there are some stupid rumors going around. As soon as you ring me, I'll know they're not true." A half hour later, the news broke officially.
The reaction of the public was so immediate and emotional, Richardson said, that he has come to think of Speed as "the Princess Diana of football." He knew his friend was popular but had no idea of the extent to which he'd affected the public. "You couldn't have predicted it. He definitely wouldn't have predicted it."
Sunday is a match day in the U.K., and at Swansea City, Aston Villa's goalkeeper Shay Given, Speed's teammate at Newcastle, cried in his goal. In Liverpool, Craig Bellamy, Speed's friend and one of the stars of the current Wales team, pulled himself from the lineup of a huge game against Manchester City, unable to play at all.
Robbie Savage, a popular, retired Welsh player and TV personality, appeared on the BBC to discuss the death, telling a host that the two had spoken just the day before and that "we were laughing and joking -- he was in high spirits." As he said the words, Savage began to choke up. "I can't believe it," he said. "He's my mate and he's gone." The pauses grew longer and more excruciating between each sentence. "He had everything. Everything. As my captain, as a young boy, I could go to him with my problems ..." And at that, he broke down fully, unable to continue.
Fans streamed out to stadiums with some connection to Speed -- Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield, Bolton, Everton -- and condolences and reactions filled up comment sections beneath eulogies and obituaries in the media, many of them with some version of this sentiment, from the Guardian's website: "For some reason, this death has affected millions of us," a commenter wrote. "I'm a [Manchester] United supporter, but it's like one of our own has died tragically. He had a presence that made you think humans aren't that bad after all."
Even the prime minister of England, David Cameron released a statement that said: "The Prime Minister was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Gary Speed, who was greatly respected by football fans across the country both as a player and manager. The Prime Minister's thoughts are with his family and friends on this very sad day for fans everywhere, especially in Wales."
Maybe the defining media moment for many in the U.K. was the sight of the prematurely gray BBC sportscaster Bryn Law, a Welshman who'd known Speed for most of his career, standing in front of a makeshift memorial outside Elland Road, home of Leeds United. "He and I were so desperate for Wales to do well," Law said. 'We're exactly the same age." Law reported that on Saturday afternoon, before the night of his death, Speed had sent him a text that read: "First snow of the year has fallen on West Yorkshire." Law replied, but that "that was the last time I heard from him." He said that he texted again the next morning to say, "Sick rumor making the rounds, mate. Please call."
He barely got the words "There was no call" out before he began to weep -- and an anchor soon cut away to the studio.
It's difficult to compare Gary Speed to an athlete we're more familiar with who could elicit such a reaction, because to do, so you need someone beloved and blessed with unassailable character -- also, someone who would never in a million years be someone you'd expect to kill himself. Because the passion for soccer in Europe is so irrational and tribal, and because the image of Speed was also complicated by patriotism, there really is no comparison.
"If somebody said [to the average person], 'Who do you want to be?' he'd be up there in the top 10," Richardson said. "That's not cliché. I think most people would actually say that. It's a hell of a loss. It really is." Especially under the circumstances. If Gary Speed had been killed in a car crash, it would have been tragic, but at least you'd understand -- the result would have been no less horrible, but it would have made sense.
"But this, it's just senseless," Richardson said. "What a waste, an absolute waste. He's left a huge void, which will always be there in my life. I think it will be in most people's lives."
Because of unique circumstances around Speed's death, the cause -- his motivation -- will never be known. Rumors, as they inevitably do, sprung up online, suggesting any number of things: that he was secretly gay, or was buried in gambling debts, or had been hiding depression, or had been caught cheating. There was no evidence of any of these things, and the English tabloids, which basically trade in salacious rumor, left the matter alone, in part because of Speed's beloved stature and in part because the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal had every meddling journalist running scared.
"If this awful event had taken place a year ago, it is quite likely that we would know a good deal more about it," the Times of London wrote in a controversial editorial chastising the media for being so quiet. "More of Mr. Speed's story would have emerged, and with it, perhaps, an enhanced understanding of his motives." The Times pointed out that the spurious rumors were to some degree caused by the lack of media scrutiny; in the absence of information, people trade freely in misinformation.
An early police report suggested that the death could have been "accidental" -- a drunken cry for attention that went awry -- but ultimately the investigation ruled that he'd fought with his wife and had taken his own life some time after she left the house.
Tellingly, since the Times editorial made news, there's been no further outcry for answers. As far as most anyone who cared was concerned, why Speed did what he did is of no consequence. What's done is done.
"Probably no one will ever know why. People have opinions and speculate because we'll never know," said Carl Robinson -- who calls Speed one of his idols and says that he was, after his father, the "biggest influence" on his life. "He's greatly missed now; he'll be greatly missed for the remainder of my life and everyone else's."
I have an expat friend in New York who, like most Englishmen, loves soccer and follows it closely. As I was preparing to travel to Wales, I wrote to ask him what he thought of Speed and his end. "It's a sad story and very shocking," he responded. "It's not like he was some old pro who couldn't handle not being famous anymore and ends up dying of liver failure. He was young and good-looking and seemingly doing fine. He was a real fans' player. Not the best, but good, and he made the most of what he had. Like most fans imagine they'd be if they had any talent."
That all tracked exactly with what I came to know and what I'd hear from just about everyone who knew Gary Speed. But it was what he said next that really struck me, because I think it sums up the shock of his end better than anything else I heard or read. "When he died I reached out to a few friends I hadn't spoken to in a while," my friend wrote. "Not to talk about Speed -- just to make sure they were alright. Because if he could do it anyone could."
Death tends to point a soft-focus lens on the life of whoever's been lost. Even a bad man will have his sins varnished over in the days after his passing, while a decent one will become a saint when judged by the things people will inevitably say about him. Which is why it's difficult to write about Gary Speed as a deceased man; it's just impossible to find any nuance in his biography.
Born in the village of Mancot within jogging distance of the English border, Speed was actually the only Welshman in his family. Both parents and his sister were born in Chester, just five miles away but across the Wales-England border nonetheless. The fact that he happened to arrive in this world on the opposite side of a squiggly line determined so much in his life.
Liverpool was the closest big city to home; Speed grew up a fan of Everton (the city's other popular team) but came up as a player in the Leeds United system, making his professional debut for that team in May 1989. A few years later, in 1992, Leeds United won the league championship. It would be the only major title of Speed's career.
Speed's manager then was Wilkinson -- now chairman of the League Managers Association -- and he says he first noticed Speed when he was a skinny teen on the Leeds youth team. "He was a talented player, but not one who would immediately strike you as very talented," Wilkinson told me. "But he had a terrific attitude. He was thirsty to find out how to make himself better -- physically, mentally, foodwise, trainingwise -- he made the most of what he had." (Speed is often credited with being among the first professional soccer players to emphasize diet and off-the-field fitness.) Naturally left-footed, Speed's main position was left midfield, but he was what soccer people call a box-to-box player: Although he wasn't technically an attacker, he was always a threat to score and often did, especially on headers.
In the seven years that Wilkinson coached Speed, he played him at all 10 of the outfield positions, and said that Speed's versatility -- plus that he'd accept any assignment "without even a raised eyebrow" -- made him one of a "very small number of favorites" of the hundreds of players Wilkinson managed over the years. "If you were pointing out [someone] to kids just starting the game," Wilkinson says, "he would have been a role model."
For 17 years, Speed played at England's top level, going from Leeds to Everton (where he was player of the year in the first of not quite three seasons, or 58 games) to Newcastle (six seasons, 213 games) to Bolton (four seasons, 121 games), before finishing his career at Sheffield United (two seasons, 37 games), where he was appointed player-coach in 2008. Not quite three years later, Speed finally retired his cleats to coach full time.
For his entire career, Speed was also a fixture for Wales, playing his first game as a teenager in 1990 and missing only four games (three of those for a suspension) before retiring from international play in 2004. He captained the team 44 times, and his record 85 appearances is remarkable when you consider that Wales never qualified for a major tournament -- where games pile up over a short period -- and that other stars like Giggs were known to pick and choose appearances. "They say you need a lot of heart to play for Wales," Robinson said. "And Gary epitomized that."
"The reason Gary was so well loved by fans from every club he played for is quite simple," soccer reporter David Wilkinson wrote in The Telegraph after his death. "He worked harder than every other player on the pitch." This quality, Wilkinson argued, connected Speed to true fans of the game. Because "football is predominantly a working class sport. [Its] success derives from the escapism it provides for hard-working everyday folk, who have spent their week grafting away in jobs they hate, counting the minutes until their team kicks off again."
Speed was the consummate all-arounder, good at everything but great at nothing, and his collection of so-called "intangibles" made him the winsome, cleated embodiment of sportscaster dreams.
"Within the game he was universally respected and holder of one of the most exclusive honors any player can have bestowed on him -- a player's player," Howard Wilkinson wrote in the days after his death. In the polarizing world of professional soccer, Luke Edwards, a writer for the Telegraph North East, noted that Speed "was a rare thing because he was universally liked, respected and admired."
Wales is a working-class nation with a noble culture that is distinctly different from that of England, its longtime master. Unlike Scotland, its Celtic rival, Wales doesn't have its own government, and its primary industry, mining, was decimated in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher shut the mines. Its population of 3 million is roughly half that of London's. And because in Europe -- really, in most of the world -- international soccer is about so much more than the game, matches tend to be symbolic events in which a country's strength is either affirmed or denied by the results. When your national team is terrible, it's hard to feel good about anything else, and after a decade of desultory play, the Welsh side had bottomed out.
"I think we lost our way for a long period," Speed's former Wales teammate Mickey Thomas told me on the afternoon of the memorial. "We were going to matches knowing we were going to lose."
The job Speed accepted in December 2010 was a tough one. It's easy to forget now that many fans and journalists felt he wasn't ready for the Wales job. (For one thing, he had yet to manage a full season.) As Huw Baines, a journalist from Cardiff who has covered both rugby and soccer, put it: "Nobody saw the success coming."
Speed inherited a team that had already been in the process of an overhaul. His predecessor, John Toshack, had cast out the veterans and begun a youth movement, building the team on talent and promise as opposed to experience. But Speed quickly put his own stamp on the team, making 20-year-old Arsenal starlet Aaron Ramsey the youngest-ever Wales captain. In his first game as manager, the team was trounced by Ireland 3-0. Wales lost again the next time out, and then again, continuing its long tumble down the FIFA rankings. But Speed was implementing a new system -- one of skillful, passing soccer -- and these things take time.
From there, Wales won five of its next seven games, including convincing wins over Switzerland and Bulgaria. On Nov. 12, 2011 -- in what would turn out to be Speed's final match -- the team trounced Norway 4-1, playing a loose and confident game that was like nothing any Welsh fan could remember. For the first time in at least a decade, there was hope and enthusiasm around the team. The stands began to fill. National team jerseys began to sell. And the team shot up 45 spots in the FIFA rankings. Although Speed had arrived too late to salvage a spot in the 2012 European Championships, the 2014 World Cup seemed possible.
"Football fans in the U.K., and Wales especially, are very passionate," Carl Robinson explained. "[Before Speed's arrival], they didn't believe Welsh football was going in the right direction. They believe now."
"He was a great story," Baines said. "He was every writer's dream. If he could have taken Wales to the World Cup ..." The thought trailed off. "That's why it was so shocking. Completely aside from any human factor, what could have happened if he had not [killed himself]? People devote a lot of their time to their sport. When it's going well, it gives you a boost in everything else, doesn't it?"
There have been so many low points for Welsh soccer over the past half-century that it's difficult to pick out a single nadir.
For James Watkins, it was November 1993. That was when Romania came to Cardiff to play a strong Wales team that had already beaten Belgium and was just one win -- in a fervid and deafening home stadium -- away from qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1958. Romania scored first, but Wales quickly answered and was dominating play in the second half, when the visitors were whistled for a foul in the box. Paul Bodin stepped up to take the penalty with only a shell-shocked goalie standing between Wales and the end of a nearly 40-year curse. The stadium went silent as Bodin approached the ball -- tens of thousands storing up breath for the impending eruption -- only to blast a shot that doinked off the crossbar and into history. Romania scored in the waning moments and qualified for the trip to America and the World Cup. Wales was gutted.
"We'd have been the only home nation to go to America," Watkins told me the night before the memorial match in Cardiff. Reliving the moment quashed his enthusiasm all over again. "It broke our hearts." Which is something you get used to as a Welsh soccer fan.
This despair, however, is what gave rise to The Barry Horns, a nine-piece brass band with two drummers that serves as a raucous metaphor for the optimistic but fragile present of Welsh soccer, as embodied by Speed.
Watkins, who wears a large and greasy pompadour, is also known as Fez, his alter ego in The Barry Horns -- named for famous Welsh midfielder Barry Horne, now a high school chemistry teacher. Fez had come out with Matt Redd, aka Bass Drum Barry, and Tom Stroke, aka Big Sous, to help me understand the perilous state of Welsh soccer fandom.
"None of us have ever seen Wales in a tournament," Redd explained. "England has been. Scotland has been. Ireland has been. We've only seen it all go wrong."
The period since 2003 had been especially bad, the Horns reported, after a close, controversial loss against Russia -- their opponents had included a player who later tested positive for drugs -- cost Wales a spot in the European Championships and began what Watkins calls "the dark ages." This is the period when Wales lost so many fans that it was banished from its home ground. "It was like going to a funeral," he said. "It was horrible." The only way Watkins and Redd and their friends could handle the experience was to meet at 11 a.m. and drink three pints per hour until the traditional 3 p.m. kickoff.
"I couldn't remember anything, but the games were so bad that I didn't want to remember," Redd said. "But it's like you're born with it. You have to go."
Then one day, Watkins had an idea. They should redirect their frustration into a brass band. A few of them had played together in ska-punk bands, so they had the musical know-how -- as well as the instruments. Watkins, who works in the Cardiff office of the BBC, happened to mention it at work in the days leading up to the biggest game of the year -- against Wales' most hated rival, England -- and the network, he recalls, said, "'Right, let's put you in an advert!'" He laughed. "We hadn't even had a practice before."
Thus The Barry Horns appeared in a commercial -- a promo spot for the England-Wales match -- before they played at a single game, but from the England match on, the boys have been a rousing symbol of Wales' emergence from the dark ages. Just recently, the Welsh Football Association gave them a permanent spot on a custom-built platform atop the stand that houses the team's most passionate supporters.
"We're mad about Welsh football," Redd said. "We'll never play for our country. I've accepted that." He smiled. "I've nearly accepted that. This is the closest thing we can ever get to influencing what goes on on the pitch."
Watkins nodded. "And the results so far have been positive. More people have been coming to games since a year ago. It's a much better atmosphere. And team is winning games again."
"It's not like we're jumping on a bandwagon," Redd interjected, as if that wasn't obvious already. "We got on when there was no hope."
This, I said, sounds almost exactly like the kind of thing you could say about Speed and his tenure as the team's manager. "I went to his debut for Wales when I was 10," Watkins replied. "I still have the program. He was a real hero for us. Such a great player -- so handsome and intelligent."
"He ticked all the boxes," Redd said. "Not flashy. Not a showboat." It was suddenly as if I'd smashed their horns, dragging them back to the 12-pints-per-game dark ages with a single question. "When he died, it was like losing a family member," Watkins said. "I cried. We were devastated."
They went silent, and I took an extra long drink of my ale so as to have an excuse for not talking. Finally, Redd spoke. "Following Welsh football has been so disappointing -- just one minor catastrophe after another, and then for this to happen, after the best year of Welsh football in my life ..." The thought trailed off. "I've been watching them for more than 20 years, and I remember all the negative moments so clearly. And then we had this new generation with so much talent and this leader they all wanted to be like. He was 'the man.'"
Redd said that the grief and shock he felt upon hearing the news was worsened by guilt. Because, he said, "I thought, 'What are we going to do now?' It was going so well. It took ages to get to this moment.' We really believed Gary was going to take us to the World Cup."
Watkins nodded. "He was just a really great Welshman. And he had the respect of all of English football." He was referring here to the outpouring of grief and respect that came in the wake of Speed's death. England's version of the moment of silence is the moment of applause -- 60 seconds of sustained clapping -- and this tribute was carried out in every stadium by fans of every major club in the country.
"That's what football can do," Watkins added. "Bring people together. That's what we're trying to do."
Speed is gone now, and as gutted as The Barry Horns are, they have to believe that the momentum he started -- and that they incidentally helped to fuel -- will continue. They have no choice; to think otherwise is just too painful.
"I just want [the team] to go [to the World Cup] once before I die," Watkins said. "Once." His bandmates concurred. "I have this theory that you should never have goals in life that you can't control," Redd said. "The only exception to that is that I want to see Wales in a major final."
By the time Costa Rica and Wales took the pitch for the Gary Speed Memorial Match on Feb. 29, it hardly mattered who would win or lose. (Costa Rica, by the way, was chosen because it was the opponent in Speed's first match as Wales coach.) Fans and dignitaries had watched and taken part in nearly two hours of honors and festivities, including concerts, speeches and a highlight reel of Speed's career introduced by stirring words from the public address announcer: "We have been privileged as spectators and friends to watch the professionalism with which Gary conducted his career. Gary will never be far from our memories."
For the national anthem, the Canton stand -- the one where The Barry Horns have been permanently installed -- rose and held up cards that spelled "GARY" and then broke into the fan anthem "There's Only One Gary Speed" before the crowd was asked to observe the honorary minute of applause. The sound of clapping drowned out every sound and went well past 60 seconds, getting louder and louder until the clapping stopped and the entire stadium began to chant "Speed-o! Speed-o!" Anyone who didn't have chills was dead inside.
It was almost anticlimactic when the whistle blew and both teams realized they actually had to play the game. Wales looked numb -- who could blame them? -- while Costa Rica played like a side that was afraid to win. ... Who could blame them, either?
But the sides settled in and played a spirited, if sloppy, game. For much of the first half, Wales looked dangerous, connecting sharp passes and building attacks from the back -- exactly the style of play Speed had made his team's hallmark. "We're capable of that all the time now," a local radio guy next to me said when I commented on how crisp one particular sequence was. "It's such a marked improvement from 12 months ago."
In the seventh minute, Costa Rica scored with its first real chance of the game. You got the sense that everyone was surprised, including the Costa Ricans, and despite some chances, Wales couldn't equalize. It would be the game's only goal.
Afterward, Speed's replacement greeted the media in a small interview room under the stands. In many ways, Chris Coleman is reminiscent of Speed. He's young (almost exactly Speed's age, now 42), handsome and also a former player for both Wales and several Premier League teams. While Speed had the far more illustrious playing career, Coleman is considerably more experienced as a manager, having served stints with Fulham and Real Sociedad. Like Speed, he always dreamed of leading Wales, but to inherit the job under these circumstances was hardly the way he imagined it happening.
"It wasn't about us tonight, was it?" he told a room packed with reporters. "It was about Speeds" -- for reasons unclear, Coleman pronounces his name as a plural. "We all know why we're playing this game. The reason is because Gary Speeds isn't here, and we all miss him."
A local reporter raised his hand and asked a question in the form of a statement. "You saw the crowd reaction -- the legends that came out. There's no doubt what he meant to this country."
"Well, 85 caps he got," Coleman replied. "It's an incredible record really. But it's not just that. All the guys who turned out, that wasn't just because of what he was as a footballer." The manager was being careful with his words, clearly laboring to keep his composure. "People outside are selling memorial scarves for Gary Speed. I still can't catch my breath about that. It's not right." He fiddled with his water glass.
"It was an incredibly tough night for me. Same for the players. But I feel selfish saying that. What about Speed's wife and his mum and dad and his boys? They're just normal, good people, and something happened to them that should never have happened, and they're having to live with that unfortunately. I'm always mindful of saying how bad it is for us because we have to think of them."
Coleman said that after the game, Speed's oldest son, Ed, who is 14 and a promising soccer player in his own right, had come into the locker room to address the players, all distraught over their failure to produce a win in Gary's honor. "He comes into the dressing room and gives a speech anyone would be proud of -- not a tear in his eye."
Coleman seemed ready to leave it at that, but a reporter asked the thing that we were all wondering. What had Ed said to the team?
"He just said, 'Look, my dad always said to me --" Coleman stopped. His eyes had begun to moisten, and he wiped at them, then slowly, deliberately, filled a glass with water and drank it. At least a minute transpired before he felt ready to continue. "He said this: 'My dad always said to me, 'If you do the best, it's enough. I think you lot did your best tonight, so that's enough." Coleman shook his head. "What do you say to that, when a 14-year-old boy who just lost his dad speaks like that to a bunch of professional footballers? That's bravery, isn't it?"
Here's the reality: We'll never know why Gary Speed chose to do what he did. Whether he was secretly gay, or was hiding a pile of gambling debts, or suffered from depression that he kept buried -- all utterly unsubstantiated rumors whispered about on in the Internet -- or just got drunk, fought with his wife and made a rash and terrible decision (the likely answer, as far as most everyone is concerned), this Welsh soccer icon is gone and leaves behind him two paths for Wales. The team, and country, will either cohere and get stronger with Speed's memory as its totem, or the center doesn't hold and things fall apart all over again.
They're at least saying the right things. "He changed the way we play and the whole mentality of our game," said Gareth Bale, the all-world Tottenham winger who will be the one to lead this team wherever it goes. "It's a massive loss -- but we will try to carry on the best we can in his honor."
Coleman said that his goal was the same as Speed's -- to return Wales to glory and, more specifically, to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. "We can't stand still and say we've come this far," he said. "We have to keep progressing and improving. That's how we have to look at it. We have done well, but we've not come close to qualifying for some time, so we got to get ourselves in the position. So that means driving on. I said to the players yesterday, 'I'm not going to do everything exactly the same as Gary.' I'm not Gary Speed."
The team's fans have no choice but to accept that and rally behind Coleman. The alternative, after all, is a return to misery, and optimism is a lot more fun than its opposite. "You're not relentlessly positive as a Wales fan," said Matt Redd of The Barry Horns. "I believe it isn't just about Gary. Not to take anything away from him -- I'd give anything to have him back. But Chris Coleman is who we have to believe in now. Gary was symbolic, definitely. We'll never really know what he was capable of. That's the tragedy from the football side. Unfortunately for Coleman, he's in a tough spot. If he gets us to Brazil, they'll say that was Gary Speed. But we're all going to get behind him."
"The legacy that he's put in place in Welsh football is going to be continued by Cookie," said Carl Robinson. "There was a thing said at the [memorial] game: Wales is going to try to qualify, obviously, for the nation, but also for Gary. That's what he wanted. I don't think there's a better show of respect than to qualify in honor of Gary."
"Part of Gary's legacy is who we've got now," Redd told me. "It's time to move on, really. We're all incredibly grateful as fans for what he gave us."
Josh Dean is a magazine writer in New York City. He was one of the founding editors of PLAY, the New York Times Sports Magazine and is a former deputy editor of Men's Journal. He's a correspondent for Outside, and a regular contributor to GQ, Rolling Stone and Inc., among many other magazines. His first book, SHOW DOG, was published by HarperCollins in February of 2012.