Shay Given: I”ve got Euro 2012 to look forward to, but I have to be there for Speedo”s family…
It is a short sentence but it comes with a long, sad sigh. “You”ve got to keep living,” says Shay Given.
Often quotations look different when transferred to black and white and for the past month since the death of his great friend Gary Speed, Given has wrestled with words, what to say, how to say it and whether to speak at all. But he has witnessed the power of them, too.
Close friends: Given (left) with wife Jane and Louise and Gary Speed in May
That you”ve got to keep living sounds simple; bereavement, grief, they make it complicated. But this is how Given feels and it is a feeling he has transmitted to Speed”s family, in particular to Speed”s two sons, Eddie, 14 and Tommy, 13.
Given has not spoken publicly about his friendship with Speed and will not do so again. He is conscious of bringing anguish to Louise Speed and her family but he would like to say something just once. He slips between the present and past tenses when using Speed”s name.
“The last thing I want to do is cause upset,” Given begins. “I want to say something and I”ve been asked a lot about it. I want to remember Gary, speak of him as a friend. I don”t want to repeat the other great tributes that people have paid. But they”re true. Gary was a natural. I am proud to call him a friend.
“I”ll do it this once. I won”t go on.”
Raw emotion: Given is supported by Dunne and Collins and weeps as the Liberty Stadium fans applaud his friend
The memory of Given in tears at Swansea on the day of Speed”s death in November is one of the most troubling images of the sporting year. Alan Shearer had relayed the terrible news a couple of hours before kick-off. Craig Bellamy had called when Given was in the Liberty Stadium.
Aston Villa colleagues and fans had already started to show the care for which Given is hugely grateful. Villa thought the game would be postponed. Given”s head, as he says, was all over the place.
“We were told to keep getting ready but that it was going to be called off,” he explains. “But then it was definitely on. So you”re up and down. I was trying to get my head around it and I was all right in the warm-up.
“But then there was the minute”s silence, or the applause it turned into, and the man on the microphone started speaking about Gary. Dunney (Richard Dunne) and James Collins had their arms around me just keeping me up.
“I was just trying … But you can”t help how you”re feeling … Just devastating … It sunk in then.
“But then we had a game to play. I had to try to keep my eyes clear. Maybe I”d have been better heaving in my hotel room.
“It”s tough. It”s shock. The tears just come. You can”t keep it in.
“When Alan had called, he was kind of shaken as he spoke. I was shaking as I heard. It”s disbelief. Are you sure this is true
“But Gary”s best friend, John Ratcliffe, had called and it was true. This was about 20 minutes before the team meeting. I had to tell the gaffer (Alex McLeish) and he was shaken once he heard. I don”t know what he said at the meeting, I was in a daze.”
Newcastle United pals: Speed and Given
The sense of shock remains. Those distressing pictures of Given will be remembered, but in his mind”s eye is the image of Eddie and Tommy and when he said “You”ve got to keep living”, it was at the end of a furrowed-brow passage about the death of Given”s mother when he was five years old. Agnes Given is never far from his thoughts and is as close as ever since the morning of November 27.
“It”s tough,” Given repeats. “It”s hard for the boys, so hard. I”ll miss Gary but you can”t put into words how much they”ll miss him, how they”re going to cope. I don”t know what to say. You can say, “Everything”s going to be all right”, but they are going to have bad days. There”s no magic wand. Everything”s changed.
“I”ve told the boys about my mother. I lost her when I was five. I know how much it hurts.
“It”s hard even getting the words out.
“There are going to be tough months and years ahead but they need to know there”s support from relatives and friends.
“You just try to help because you never get over things like this; you”ve got to learn to live with it. You never get over losing your Mum at five years of age. It”s something my brothers, sisters and myself have had to live with.
“We have had to get on with our lives as best we can. Obviously we”d love our Mum to be here. It”s not going to change. We”d love Gary to be here, to pick up the phone to him now. It”s not going to be. We”ll always miss him. But you”ve got to learn, you”ve got to keep living.”
Given was at the Speed house the day after his death and, like others, has been around as often as possible and he is especially impressed by Speed”s best friend from childhood John – or “Basher” as all know him.
Given took Tommy, an Arsenal fan, to the Villa game 10 days ago. He was able to because he is injured, the 35-year-old goalkeeper suffering the first hamstring tear of his career against Manchester United the week after Speed”s passing.
“I”ve got to know the two boys a lot better over the past few weeks,” Given says, “and they”re a credit to Gary and Louise. Smashing boys, educated, well-mannered. On the Monday morning I went straight over to Gary”s house to see Louise and the boys. If it was the other way round Speedo would have done that for my family.
“I spent a lot of time with the boys that week. I couldn”t sleep all week, just reliving it. You think it can”t have happened but it actually has. I think the injury probably was due to the fatigue and stress – that”s what they say about those injuries.
“Hindsight says I shouldn”t have played but I know Speedo would have played. You think all those kinds of things as well. I could hardly walk after and it meant I thought I couldn”t carry the coffin.”
That worry eased. Given attended the private funeral and he says nothing other than he heard some words that were “inspirational”.
Devastated: Given needed a towel to wipe away the tears just before kick-off at Swansea
Given joined Newcastle United in August 1997, Speed joined five months later. They hit it off immediately, part of a close group that Sir Bobby Robson would later term his “blue-chip” players. Speed became an active supporter of the Fashion Kicks cancer charity Given established in memory of his mother.
“There were a group of us socialising together, and with our wives,” Given says. “We had time for each other. We”d go on holiday as lads to Portugal and Speedo was always my room-mate. He looked after me. Just basic stuff. Great memories now.
“I didn”t know him personally before Newcastle but I”d played against him. Usually he was the opposition”s captain but he would be quite friendly when you were walking out on to the pitch, asking if you were OK, things like that – that”s a first.
“It just shows you what a man he was. Genuine. He didn”t know me from Adam or Eve.
“Then when he joined Newcastle we were team-mates, but we were more than that. I”ve played with loads of people and you don”t stay in touch.
“But with Speedo, football brought us together but we had a real friendship built up over years and we did stay in touch.
Happier times: Given celebrates after reaching Euro 2012 with the Republic of Ireland
“We”d got on straight away, he”s just that sort of character, very approachable, down to earth, he”s just a normal bloke. He”s like that with everyone.”
The quality of normality is part of the reason for Speed”s popularity, as was seen in the deep and nationwide reaction to his death. As Given says: “Even people who never met Gary were impressed by him.”
The events of November 27 have made Given pause and reflect upon his life and profession. He is more aware than ever that footballers are ordinary people with extraordinary gifts in a sport that provokes global fascination. He refers to “the bubble” that players live in and while that has luxurious material benefits, it is also intense.
“I don”t think of myself as famous but I suppose when you”re in the bubble of football it can seem like you”re not normal. But we are. Speedo was, he treated everyone the same. We don”t look at people as if we are more special than them, we just don”t. We have normal mates. We”re in the football bubble but we didn”t create it.
“With Gary, there”s been some speculation about outside pressures and I don”t think it is irrelevant.
Cruel blow: Given is currently out injured after suffering a hamstring tear
“I”m coming towards the end of my career and it”s a worry what I”m going to do. People go on about footballers” wages – and I don”t have that financial worry – but I didn”t set off in football to make money, I did it because I really love playing football.
“I”ve just had my first Christmas at home for 16 years because I”m injured, and it was great being with the family, but I still missed playing. It”s part of our lives.
“Maybe there should be more awareness of what players do after playing, the gaps. Your professional life stops just like that. Gary was a human being, we”re all human beings. That doesn”t get highlighted but we do have everyday issues.”
An example of that ordinariness came when Given speaks of his and Speed”s last meeting.
“I met Speedo by chance a few weeks ago in Manchester. We hadn”t arranged anything, me and my wife and Gary and Louise, we just met and went for coffee. Looking back, I”m glad I did bump into him. We texted regularly, obviously, but we just sat down and caught up with things. He seemed fine, normal, the Gary Speed we all know.”
Dignified silence: Given is speaking for the first and only time about the tragic death of his close friend
Given is as confused as the rest over the reasons for Gary Speed”s death at 42. But he has no time for internet theories and wants Speed to be allowed to, as the phrase states, rest in peace.
“That”s it. Gary”s gone. Louise and the boys, his sister Lesley, mother and father Carol and Roger, they need our support now. I will be there for them as much as I can.”
The living go on. Had November been different Given would have recalled it as the highlight of 2011, the month the Republic of Ireland reached the European Championship for the first time since 1988. Speed, the rising manager of rising Wales, knew what that meant.
But as it is, on the last day of 2011, Given looks forward to 2012 and says: “I just want to get fit and back playing for Aston Villa. The club have been great to me and I”ve had letters from fans which I really appreciate.
“Obviously then for Ireland we”ve got a huge summer ahead. November was a great month until the news. We”d qualified for the European Championship for the first time in nearly 25 years. But your heart”s breaking.
“You”ve got to look at 2012 with optimism and excitement but I”ve got to be there for Louise and the boys as well. Do what I can. I hope I can help.”
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