Louise Speed is sitting on a grey sofa in her beautiful house near Chester. Her four-year-old cockapoo Alfie is at her feet. Outside, just beyond the garden fence, two pheasants compete for territory. It is a beautiful late autumn day.
But for Louise this is always the worst month of the year and this is always the very worst week. It is the anniversary of her husband Gary’s passing.
Gary Speed, the boy-next-door footballer so many people inside and outside the game loved and admired. It has been 10 years now and Louise has found a way to live again, to once again feel happiness and joy.
There will never be answers explaining why Gary — manager of his beloved Wales at the time — took his own life the morning after a night spent with friends in November 2011. But Louise has found a place to lodge the pain and the sheer sense of disbelief that inevitably endures.
Usually at this time of year she disappears. Often to New York where her and Gary’s two sons, Eddie and Tommy, are studying. But always somewhere. This year, though, she has chosen to sit down and talk.
‘I know this weekend is significant for people because it’s the 10th anniversary,’ Louise tells Sportsmail. ‘But it’s not for me. It’s no different to the previous nine years. I always remember Gary on his birthday in September. That’s when I have a drink to him. That’s my day of thought and celebration of Gary.
On the 10th anniversary of Gary Speed’s shocking death, widow Louise (pictured) opens up in her first interview on how she and her two sons are finally finding acceptance
‘But the anniversary is always different. It’s there, it’s looming and I dread it. All of November is a non-event month for me. I just can’t wait for the month to disappear.’
Time spent with Louise Speed is life-affirming. Her story is one of almost unimaginable trauma but also of recovery and discovery. There are some tears during our morning together but also much laughter.
She is 51 now and has rebuilt her life and her sense of self from the dreadful two years that immediately followed Gary’s death.
That was a time when she struggled to get off the sofa and felt smothered by a cloak of universal sympathy. For a long time, alcohol was a crutch she leant on heavily. No longer.
‘I was 41 when it happened and it felt so young to have that label as a widow,’ she says.
Speed, manager of his beloved Wales at the time, tragically took his own life in November 2011
‘It felt very uncomfortable. People were so kind but sometimes it just took one look.
‘I was almost caught in a barbed wire situation where that was all I felt. I was in this pigeon hole of pity and sympathy.
‘It was like being in the worst nightmare possible. There were no answers and no Gary walking through the door again. Nothing was ever going to be right again.
‘I was trudging through life, just functioning. If I could have been anybody else apart from me, for a long time, I would have happily taken it. But we are 10 years on now. It’s a cliche but time is a healer even if it takes years. I have learned that life can be good again, can be great again.
‘I feel different in myself. I still feel many things but not right in front of my face. I know it. I am Gary’s widow and I can say it now. I think of him every single day.
‘It could just be a flashback or I will see something and wonder how he would react to it. Most often now it’s nice thoughts. I have myself back and the boys have all of their mum back. Back then I felt they had lost their dad and only had half a mum.
Louise was 41 when it happened and revealed she ‘felt so young’ to be labelled as a widow
‘It was not fair on them above all. They had lost such a chunk of me as well. But it has come back now. They have me back.’
Louise’s first date with 15-year-old Gary was at the local tennis club in Hawarden, Flintshire, but he forgot to bring his racket. So instead they walked and talked.
‘Lots of the girls fancied him,’ she smiles. ‘He was a good-looking boy. I was probably one of the ones who thought he was “all right”. Playing it cool!
‘He was quite a shy boy but through other people he asked me out. Like you do that at age. By the third person asking me I was like: “OK then I will…”
‘We had a lovely walk and even then he was saying he would like a nice home and be able to fish in his garden. He said he would like to be able to bring up children in a nice place. They were his values even back then and they never ever changed. He was modest and humble. Grounded.
‘When I think of him I think of us as a family. Him with the boys. Holidays. Him practising the guitar. The same chords over and over and me having to listen!
‘The good times I remember are not necessarily the football but family life. The football obviously was his world and his career and he was devoted to it. But I enjoyed Gary at his best when football was not properly involved.’
For 20 years, Louise gave herself to Gary’s career. She moved to Leeds where he won the old Division One title under Howard Wilkinson and they married. She followed him back to the North West to Everton and then to Newcastle. Speed played his later football at Bolton and finally Sheffield United.
Louise and Gary first met in their teens and had a date at their local tennis club in Hawarden
Louise was uncomplaining but hankered after something simpler. In truth she wished for his eventual retirement and the uncomplicated life that would follow. And this is one of the great tragedies of this story, that Speed left her just when life was finally slowing down. It is understandable that she continues to feel utterly robbed of all that time that was to come.
‘Yes that’s for certain,’ she says. ‘We had our first Easter holiday together in March 2011. We went to Egypt and I thought that was the way it would be from then on.
‘He loved the Wales job but it was not so full-on. It meant we could plan and book. I was excited. Gary died later that year.’
In New York, where they live just 20 minutes apart, Eddie and Tommy Speed feel that sense of unfairness too. They were 14 and 13 when they lost their father. Both are now talented footballers and athletes. ‘It hasn’t been easy but we are getting there,’ Tommy tells Sportsmail. ‘It has been hard to move on but I have to.
‘I am proud of Dad. I always watch videos of his goals and matches. But I couldn’t be the man I am today without mum.’
Speed was an enthusiastic and inquisitive traveller. Family holidays would always involve more than the beach. So doubtless he would be proud of how his sons have flown.
Louise moved with Gary (left) to Leeds, where he won the old Division One title under Howard Wilkinson in 1992
They soon married and Louise would give herself to Gary’s career for the next 20 years
‘Every day I think about dad,’ explains Eddie.
‘I do think about his death and the way he left us. But more now about the good times we had. Our one-on-one days, going to watch the football, dressing smart and then a game the next day at somewhere like Wrexham.
‘I know how proud he would be of me and Tommy. How much we have grown. How much we both look like him!
‘A big thing for me, which he would want the most, is the respect and the manners we try to show to the people we meet. Always be polite and smile when you are speaking to someone. That’s what he would be most proud of.
‘It’s the little things that help us carry on and move forward in life.’
Louise followed him back to the north-west to Everton and then to Newcastle (left). Speed played his later football at Bolton (right) and finally Sheffield United
Both boys were at home that ghastly morning their father died. For several years after they would not let Louise sell up and move. For a while she thought of fleeing to America, to San Diego where Speed’s old Newcastle team-mate and friend Warren Barton lives with his wife.
But she stayed, largely for Eddie and Tommy. Somehow she got them through. They got each other through. ‘I was very lonely and it was actually Tommy who triggered me to get past that a little bit,’ Louise explains.
‘I would be laid on the couch every night after 6pm — just staring somewhere and kind of just being there. The boys would be playing somewhere.
‘But it was Tommy who actually went to ask my neighbour Sarah if she would come over and just sit with his mum. And from then I started going round there. It helped.
‘But yes I was lonely. Anyone who loses someone will tell you about that. It’s not having someone there to do nothing with, if that makes sense. If I am honest, I used to think I was OK on my own until I had no choice.
‘Everything came to me all in one hit. The pain, the loneliness, the abandonment, the devastation, the shock, the hurt. It was all about getting through in the early days.
Sons Eddie (right) and Tommy (left), pictured on a family holiday with mum Louise, have very fond memories of their father
‘That was all you could do really. Somehow we managed it, together, and Gary would be so proud. If he was looking at us now I think he would find it all incredible. I wanted the boys to go somewhere and find themselves and they have.
‘They are Eddie and Tommy Speed. That’s it.’
Louise does not know why Gary did it. She tries not to torture herself with questions she cannot answer. But finally she seems ready to forgive him. It has taken the best part of a decade and two periods of grief counselling but it feels as though she is almost there.
‘Have I forgiven Gary?’ Louise says with a deep sigh. ‘I ask myself this often. Can I? Have I? Will I?
‘I don’t know. I have witnessed the hurt he has caused to his family and friends, particularly his boys and his mum and dad and myself. The void he has left within us all. So I don’t know. I just don’t know if I have forgiven him yet or not. But of course I want to.
‘The anger has only just subsided and that is part of it. I was angry with him for a long time but that also kept me strong, if you know what I mean? It’s when I released that anger that I felt a little bit vulnerable.
‘You do have to start feeling real emotions again, though. If you don’t then you don’t move on.’
Speed was not a man who talked about his deepest feelings. Louise admits that he was not the type to admit to weakness. She accepts now that he must have been mentally ill.
Louise walks her four-year-old Cockapoo Alfie near her beautiful home near Chester
While going through a box of possessions a few years ago she came across a letter he had written but never sent to her when he was first at Leeds. In it he admits to suicidal thoughts. He was 17.
‘That letter was never sent,’ she says. ‘That was the first I knew of it. But my conclusion is that to do what Gary did you must be unwell in your mind. He couldn’t talk, didn’t want to talk. He had all the opportunity through people like the League Managers Association.
‘If anybody in football had come to him with problems he would have sent them off in the right direction. But he didn’t do that for himself. So all I can say or presume is that he didn’t want to or couldn’t talk about whatever it was.’
Speed was not a man who talked about his deepest feelings and Louise admits that he was not the type to admit to weakness
Louise has locked the memory of what she found that morning 10 years ago away in the back of her mind.
‘I try not to ever go there,’ she says. ‘If I could have some kind of injection to erase some vision or memory that would be the one. If that could just go away…’
Speed’s formative years in football were the 1980s. He had perfect mentors at Leeds in men such as Gordon Strachan and his manager Howard Wilkinson.
Still, English football could present an unforgiving environment in those days. Naturally, Louise wonders whether the stresses of his profession lay heavily on her husband.
‘If you look back at all the original football cultures, where Gary was brought up, well you know what people say,’ she reflects.
‘I never knew much about football but even I have read about the culture and Gary was in the middle of that.
‘It was macho back then. I am sure none of the guys would have opened up to each other. It was more about being hardcore. It’s sad.
‘Today’s culture seems to have come full circle and that’s wonderful. If anyone has a problem in the changing room now, or any male anywhere, there is no stigma there. Men really must talk.
‘Maybe what happened to Gary started the ball rolling. I feel since then that everything has moved on. I just wish Gary had talked to me or someone. Just someone. There is always a solution to everything.’
The lifting of US travel restrictions mean that the Speed boys can travel home again. When they do, they will be quick to put old footage of their dad on the TV. Louise has never been a football fan but embraces the ritual.
So many people inside and outside the game loved and admired Speed throughout his life
‘I love watching the tackles he used to put in as it makes me laugh,’ says Tommy, studying business at Adelphi University in New York.
‘I like to watch videos of people talking about him, hearing about the ways he affected people’s careers. When he was a manager I did see the way it affected him at home. I saw the pressure he was under. But some of the moments with Wales were brilliant, such good times.’
Speed was never one to display his life on the walls of the house. Louise once framed his Wales caps but he never did anything with it. His collection of shirts remained in a box. The only item he asked to be mounted was the teamsheet from the day he managed Wales against England.
‘It’s because of dad that Tommy and I work so hard every day,’ stresses Eddie, an economics graduate from Boston’s Lowell University. ‘There are many times when I look at the phone and just want to see Dad there. Or I think I will text him.
‘If I am playing a game I want to send him the link and we could speak about it.
‘I feel as though this world is losing great people too often. It doesn’t surprise me to hear people say Dad was one of them.’
The lifting of US travel restrictions mean that the Speed boys can travel home again (Eddie left, Tommy right)
Football and its community have done their bit as the Speed family have found their way through the fog over the last 10 years.
From Newcastle, Alan Shearer, Shay Given, Steve Harper and Craig Bellamy have been particularly generous with time and emotional support. ‘They have been like big brothers,’ says Louise. ‘And of course their wives have been amazing too.’
Nobody can lead a family through, though. Grief is a journey made largely alone. Speed’s mother Carol has said in the past that she does not think she will ever find peace.
So what about Louise?
‘I have thought about this and I think at one time the only time I felt peace was when I was asleep,’ she explains. ‘There were times, if I am honest, when I didn’t want to wake up.
‘Not that I would ever have done anything to harm myself like that but it was just easier to be asleep as it meant I could escape all my thoughts and feelings for a while.
‘Happily that has all gone now. I don’t think the shock will ever go. There is always that. Maybe it’s disbelief. Let’s put it this way. I can find peace but I will always be in disbelief. That’s it. That’s where I am at.’
Understandably private, Louise is now in a new relationship. She has not moved far away but in her head the emotional journey she has made has been long. Scars remain and they are deep. But she feels she can live with them now.
‘I don’t think you move on from something like this as the same person,’ she says. ‘I have become wiser. I am probably more confident than I was.
Speed was never one to display his life on the walls of the house – Louise once framed his Wales caps but he never did anything with it
‘But I tend to wear a body of armour around me the whole time, if I am honest — so that I cannot be hurt again. I know as we go through life different things hit us and I actually think that I deal with things OK now. Nothing fazes me or scares me any more.
‘I don’t know if that body of armour has developed over time or whether I deliberately put it on at some point. All I know is that it is there now and it wasn’t 10 years ago.
‘I just want to protect myself from life. I don’t want to feel or go through anything like that ever again. I hope that makes sense.’
Louise Speed has requested that a donation be made to a mental health charity in return for this interview.
EDDIE SPEED: I know how proud my dad would be of me and Tommy… how much we have grown, and how much we both look like him!
When Dad used to laugh and smile it meant that he was content. When he was with friends and family, you know he was the most relaxed and anything he had on his mind on or off the pitch, wasn’t bothering him.
If it wasn’t a problem to him, it meant no problem to us and the time he did have with us, we can enjoy, especially when he was smiling and laughing.
I was always proud of Dad in everything he did and he used to tell me: ‘Do your best at everything and anything’. He set a great example for Tommy, Mum and myself on and off the pitch.
What Dad achieved as a footballer for club and country throughout his career is something I think about every day and every time I watch football. To play with and against the top players makes us as a family so proud and honoured.
Once he knew he had to retire, his passion was always to give back. He wanted to help progress teams and players, using the experience he had while playing and what he learned from the high-profile managers he played under.
I couldn’t be prouder of my Dad for everything he gave to football, managing and our family
He always had that influential character and personality, therefore management after his playing career was inevitable.
As Dad was so busy on and off the pitch and in and out of the office while managing, life was hard for him to make time to spend time with us, which is what he always wanted.
Dad would never miss the opportunity to take me to footie training and matches at Wrexham F.C and he’d always do the same with Tommy and his boxing and football.
I couldn’t be prouder of him as a footballer, manager and a father because he gave everything to football, managing and us.
Life without a father is always going to be difficult. It’s been hard that someone that gave everything to us is not there. We relied on him for everything and he knew that. Dad took great care of Grandma and Grandad too.
He was the figure that we saw and made us knew everything was going to be alright. To then not have that sense of security and that loving family character anymore, it has made a big impact on all of us over the last 10 years.
There are many times where I just want to look at the phone and see Dad, then I’ll think to myself….’Ah I’m busy right now I’ll text him’.
Or if I’m playing a game in the US, which is where I am based right now, I could send him the link, he could watch it and we’d speak about how I played or what I did good or what I could have done better.
I am also still on the path of following my father in his footsteps. I’m 24 now with not one single professional appearance. If he was here for me, he would do anything in his power in order to get me that opportunity, knowing I’m going to give my 100 per cent effort towards it.
Not having him here does make you have to man up and step up, both for yourself and for our family. Every day I think about Dad, which I feel is so important but it’s not as much about his death and the way he left us.
I do think about that but it’s more about the good times I had with him. Our one-on-one days out to go and watch the football, dressing smart, then a game the next day with Wrexham F.C.
He always had that influential character and personality both as a player and then a manager
I always think about when he played or when he managed and how highly he spoke of players he played with and managed.
I know how proud he would be of me and Tommy, how much we’ve grown maturely and how we both look like him and have similar characteristics to him.
Yes, I think about him every day but that is why we work hard every single day. Whether it’s our school work, work in general, our efforts on and off the pitch and in the gym.
A big thing for me, which he would want most, is to have the respect and the manners to show to people who we meet. Always being polite and always having a smile on your face when you’re speaking to someone, is what he’d be most proud of. It’s the little things that help us carry on and move forward in life.
Mum is our rock. As much as she probably thinks she hasn’t been, she has done so much for me and my brother. Mum was so strong for us, she became the role model.
She makes me think: ‘Right, look how strong mum has been through this’. Her efforts to cope and come through is the reason me and Tommy are walking out of the United States with Bachelor Degrees.
I know how proud he would be of us, how we’ve grown maturely and how we both look like him (Eddie left, Tommy right)
Being able to handle supporting me and Tommy with our school and our sports and to give us that opportunity to carry on after Dad’s passing, we are so proud.
To say someone is a great person whether it’s your father, your friend, your brother or your mother, it’s always great to hear.
I feel like this world is losing good people and to go through everyday life being a great person and treating other people with respect, no matter what they do is so important. It doesn’t surprise me to hear people say that Dad was a great person because he had great values.
Anything that I would do, which was wrong, he’d let me know and ensure I did it the right way next time.
TOMMY SPEED: As a player and manager I’m proud of my Dad for playing two decades at the highest level and managing his country… watching some of the tackles he put in never fails to make me laugh!
I always remember my dad laughing and smiling. Holidays always come to mind, we’d go on the best family holidays. I very rarely, if ever, remember the bad times.
I can remember going on a ride called ‘The Tower of Terror’ at Disneyland with my dad. He was laughing so much at how scared I was and how I didn’t want to admit to it. I was only three at the time.
And family BBQs where my dad would always get his guitar out after a few beers and we’d all have a sing along.
As a player and a manager I’m proud of my dad, playing 20 years at the highest level and then managing his national team.
I always watch videos of his goals and old matches. I love watching his old matches and just seeing some of the tackles he used to put in. It always makes me laugh.
I always remember my dad laughing and smiling – I’m so proud of what he achieved in football
When he was a manager at Sheffield United and then Wales it was different to when he was a player as I could see the pressure that he was under and how it affected him at home. But some of the moments with Wales were brilliant, such good times.
Things have not been easy but we’re getting there, I will always miss my dad. After I went to university in America I felt like it was a huge step forward for me, as it puts a lot of things into perspective.
A vast majority of people are going through similar problems, even friends at home which I didn’t know about. It’s hard to move on but I have to. Great friends and family make moving on and also life much easier, creating new memories.
Watching his old matches back and seeing some of his tackles always makes me laugh
As I got older I just realised how strong of a person my mum is and I’m so proud of her. Not only by what she had to go through but the person she is and the people she’s allowed me and Ed to be, the most positive and loving person in my life.
I couldn’t have been the man I am today and lived such a good life if it wasn’t for my mum.
It always gives me a good feeling when I hear other people speak kind words about my dad, and the different ways he affected people lives and careers, it’s nice to watch interviews of people talking about my dad.