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Football fades into the background

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I was going to sit down and write a review of what was a largely dour, but ultimately successful trip to Bolton for Everton on Saturday.

The 2-0 win was our second victory on the bounce and lifted us up to the dizzy heights of eighth. I was feeling optimistic on Saturday night.

But that was all blown away when I heard the news of Gary Speed’s untimely death on Sunday morning.

I won’t pretend I knew him and I never even met him, but as with all players who pull on the royal blue shirt you feel a connection – even more so when that player also shares a lifelong love for the blues.

Any person who takes their own life is a tragedy, but at such a young age, with a wife and family and seemingly all to live for, it is beyond comprehension.

There already has been a plethora of tributes and write-ups across the media – a further reflection of just how popular he was and what a tragedy it is that he still felt as if he had no-one to turn to – And therefore I don’t feel I have the words to possibly sum him up better than those who already have - though I and bloggers from his other former clubs have had a go here for the Telegraph.

What I can do though I write my memories of Speed as a player and his all too brief Everton career between 1996-1998.

I remember there being genuine excitement in the summer of 1996 when Speed signed for his boyhood club for £3.5million from Leeds. Manager Joe Royle had led Everton to the FA Cup and sixth place in the previous two seasons and the Toffees were even considered dark horses for the title come August.

His debut was against big-spending Newcastle United, who had Alan Shearer in their line-up for the first time since his then record £15million move from Blackburn.

He was put in the shade though by his opposite number Duncan Ferguson, who was a menace, winning the penalty that David Unsworth converted before heading down Graham Stuart’s cross to Speed, who slid the ball beyond Shaka Hislop for a debut goal.

Royle’s front six of Nick Barmby, Speed, Joe Parkinson, Andrei Kanchelskis, Stuart and Ferguson were up there with the best in the division. Speed revelled in his central role and began to add goals to match his general, driving, spirited play. It all clicked the day we played Southampton at Goodison, Speed getting his first career hat-trick in a 7-1 demolition, one of the most memorable games I have attended, made more so following Sunday’s tragic events.

He cemented himself in the Everton history books with an 81st minute equaliser in the Anfield Merseyside derby and by Christmas the club was nicely placed in sixth.

But in true Everton style, things collapsed rapidly. The squad, as talented as it was, was also paper thin and a raft of injuries took their toll in the second half of the season and the club slumped down into the lower reaches of the table.

By March Joe Royle had resigned following a disagreement with Peter Johnson over transfers. Defender Dave Watson took the reins to guide the club to safety – with Speed grabbing the only goal in a vital win over Spurs that all but guaranteed our place in the top flight.

By the time Speed led out the team the following August though the club had dipped even further. Howard Kendall had arrived for the third time – a desperate last minute choice if there ever was one – and the club, saddled with debts, were bottom by November.

A mini revival in January eased relegation fears but in the midst of that Speed was sold off to Newcastle. At the time we were told that Speed had refused to play in a game at West Ham and the club had little choice to sell him to Newcastle for £5.5million. Back then, as a gullible 15-year-old, I took the club’s bait – this was a time before online fan forums remember.

As time progressed it became clear that all was not right with Speed’s departure, indeed there were a number of unsavoury things that seemingly went on in the background during that season.

Speed signed a confidentiality agreement when he left, knowing that it would mean he would be portrayed as the villain in the eyes of the Everton fans, all to protect the reputation of the club. This Newcastle blog has since revealed the alleged real reasons behind his move to the north-east, with the ironic thing being that the club’s reputation was already being dragged through the mud anyway.

It is no surprise that he went on to have a long and successful playing career, with Evertonians wondering what might have been. His re-birth as a manager, although beginning on shaky ground, had begun to take off in recent months and it had crossed my mind that he may be a contender for the top job at Goodison in a few years, it certainly would have given him the chance to make up for the time lost during his playing career.

But sadly, tragically, we will never get to see that outcome. It remains a mystery as to why he felt like he had to commit such a terrible act and I won’t pretend I understand or know anything about such subjects.

Instead all I can do is join the rest of the footballing world in passing condolences onto his family and hope that whatever demons or fears he had in those final hours, he can now rest in peace.