Gary Speed: Leeds' and Newcastle's Long-Serving Welsh Wizard

By Charlie Stewart

Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush, Gareth Bale - the English top flight has enjoyed its fair share of Welsh superstars. One that often goes under the radar, however, is former Leeds United star Gary Speed.

A manager's dream, Speed was lauded for his leadership, professionalism, and versatility, as well as his ability to register goals and assists. Powerful in the air and good on both feet, the Welshman was a constant threat over an 18-year stay in the top flight.

Speed spent his youth career in Leeds' academy, and signed his first professional contract with the Yorkshire club on June 13th 1988, aged 18. Almost a year later, he made his career debut in a 0-0 draw at home to Oldham Athletic.

Gary Speed earned his reputation at Leeds
Gary Speed earned his reputation at Leeds / Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The Welshman became a more prominent figure in Howard Wilkinson's side in the next campaign. Appearing 25 times, Speed helped Leeds to the Second Division title on goal difference. His goals against Bradford City and Brighton and Hove Albion picked up crucial points in the promotion race.

The goal against Bradford was the first of his career, turning home from close range after a long throw-in. Shortly afterwards, he made his debut for the Welsh national team in a friendly against Costa Rica.

His top flight debut couldn't have gone much better. On the opening day of the season at Goodison Park, Speed capitalised on a spillage from Neville Southall to poke into the bottom corner and make it 2-0 to the visitors. He later assisted a third as Leeds ran out 3-2 winners.

The result set Wilkinson's men on their way to an impressive fourth place finish. Only English forward Lee Chapman ended the season with more goals than Speed in all competitions for the Yorkshire side, but it was the next term which would arguably be the peak of his career.

Leeds United win the First Division title
Leeds United win the First Division title / Getty Images/Getty Images

The Welshman made 41 appearances as Leeds United won the 1991/92 First Division title - finishing four points clear of Manchester United in second. Speed himself netted seven times in the league, and ten in all competitions. In the game that sealed the trophy, he recorded a rather fortuitous assist for Rod Wallace to equalise just before half time at Bramall Lane - a game that Leeds would later win 3-2.

That Leeds dressing room featured some big names. From captain Gordon Strachan, to Soccer Saturday legend Chris Kamara, to a certain Eric Cantona. Manager Wilkinson selected Speed as his player of the year.

The 1992 Charity Shield - Speed's final trophy
The 1992 Charity Shield - Speed's final trophy / Getty Images/Getty Images

The inaugural Premier League season saw Leeds drop all the way down to 17th place, just two points above the relegation zone. Nonetheless, Speed upheld his standards, being named in the PFA Team of the Year.

The following two seasons saw Leeds somewhat recover from the previous campaign, finishing in fifth place on both occasions. During this period, Speed got his first international goal in a Euro 1996 qualifier against Moldova on his 27th appearance for the Dragons.

His final year at Elland Road was an underwhelming one. Leeds finished in 13th, with Speed netting only two goals in 29 league appearances - his lowest tally since his debut. However, he did net three times in Leeds' run to the League Cup final.

In the summer of 1996, Speed was sold to Everton, his boyhood club, for a fee of £3.5m. The Welshman made an instant impact at Goodison Park when he netted on his debut after a knock-down from Duncan Ferguson. Three months later, Speed bagged the only hat-trick of his career in a 7-1 rout over Southampton.

Gary Speed during his time at Everton
Gary Speed during his time at Everton / Getty Images/Getty Images

Speed finished the season as Everton's joint-top scorer with 11 goals in all competitions, and was voted as the club's Player of the Year. However, his success on Merseyside was short-lived. Despite being named as captain by boss Howard Kendall, he was sold to Newcastle United six months later after his relationship with the manager turned sour.

His career at St. James' Park took a while to get going, but it wasn't long before the fans took a liking to him. In his first half-season in black and white, Speed scored two goals in 17 appearances, including the second in a 3-1 FA Cup quarter-final victory over Barnsley. Newcastle would later reach the FA Cup final, which they lost 2-0 to Arsenal. A few months later, he got the opportunity to captain the Wales national team for the first time on his 46th cap.

The next season was near-identical for the Magpies. They finished 13th for the second year in a row, and once again lost 2-0 in the FA Cup final, this time to Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. Speed himself netted five goals over the course of the season.

After two successive 11th-placed campaigns, Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle side managed to make a return to European football, finishing in the top five for three seasons in a row. The 2003/04 season saw the Magpies reach the UEFA Cup semi-finals, with Speed scoring the decisive goal against PSV Eindhoven in the previous round - heading home from Laurent Robert's corner to make it 3-2 on aggregate.

That ended up being Speed's final goal for Newcastle, as he transferred to Bolton Wanderers later that summer. He left St. James' Park a hero, scoring 40 times in 285 outings.

His absence was noticeable. Speed's departure, coupled with the decline of Alan Shearer, resulted in the Geordies dropping from fifth to 14th. Meanwhile, Bolton climbed from eighth to sixth, securing a place in the UEFA Cup.

In his three full seasons at the Reebok, Speed helped the Trotters to three top-eight finishes, while also becoming the first player to 500 appearances in the Premier League. His 80th and final Premier League goal came against Reading in August 2007.

Speed spent the final years of his playing career in the Championship with Sheffield United. Despite playing his final game in November 2008, he didn't officially retire until 2010, although he had already begun to move into a coaching role.

After his retirement, Speed had brief, but successful, spells in charge of Sheffield United and the Welsh national team, before his untimely death in 2011.

As a player, Speed racked up 614 top flight appearances, scoring 95 times, as well as earning the joint-fifth most caps for Wales.