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Back in the spring of 2011, as Gary Speed was beginning the process of revolutionising the Welsh national setup, he called his squad together before a match against England. One of his demands as the newly-installed Wales manager was for every player to sing the national anthem, whether they spoke Welsh or not, and in that meeting he told them he had found a way to help them learn the words.
Speed’s grand plan, it turned out, was to recruit Courtenay Hamilton, a classical singer who also happened to be the reigning Miss Wales. Hamilton was performing the anthem before the England game at the weekend and, in the days leading up to the fixture, she was asked by the Football Association of Wales to provide a group singing lesson for the senior squad.
Armed with the lyrics on sheets of paper (the Welsh version and the phonetic version), the Wales players inevitably enjoyed the occasion. It was a good laugh, as one might expect, and Speed evidently wanted the players to have fun with it. But it was also serious: Speed was not joking when he asked them to read up on the words, nor was he willing to compromise on his request that they sing it properly before matches.
“We had to go back to our rooms and learn it,” remembers former midfielder Andrew Crofts. “He implemented it straight away and we would have sessions singing it. It was a bit of a statement: ‘you are playing for Wales, and you are going to sing the Welsh anthem’. I loved it. That unity, that connection with staff, players and fans, it definitely had an impact. It had a powerful effect on the group.”
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In the wider development of Welsh international football, and the considerable strides this small nation has taken over the past 10 years, it cannot be claimed that the renewed focus on the anthem was a major turning point in itself. And yet it is these details that help to paint a full picture of the dramatic shift in attitude and culture that Speed was able to set in motion before his sudden death in November 2011.
Talk to anyone who was involved in the Wales national team at the time, including the players who are currently preparing for Saturday’s knockout tie against Denmark, and they will name Speed as the man who started the process that has taken Wales to this point: in their second consecutive Euros, and their second consecutive knockout stages.
“In terms of the professionalism and the changes that needed to be made, Gary came in and absolutely did that behind the scenes,” says former midfielder Owain Tudur Jones. “A modern take on everything was much needed, with the way football had changed and the professionalism that was in club football.
“Gary made sure the players were sampling a similar atmosphere and standards that they did at their clubs. The changes were enormous and we are still seeing the benefits of that now.”
Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Chris Gunter and Wayne Hennessey were among the players who experienced these shifts during Speed’s all-too-brief tenure. All of them were crucial members of the team that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016, and all of them are part of Rob Page’s squad now. “Gary put a lot of this in place,” said Ramsey ahead of Euro 2016. “He got us all believing that we could achieve something special.”
Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016
Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.
Following his appointment as Wales manager in December 2010, replacing John Toshack, Speed told his players that the national side would be run differently under his watch. Almost overnight, Wales embraced the latest developments in sports science and physical training, completely modernising their approach on and off the field.
Speed, who had made 85 appearances for his country, wanted each of his players to feel the same passion for international football that had run through him. “You have to create an environment where doing everything at 100 per cent should be a given,” says Raymond Verheijen, Speed’s former assistant. “Before Gary took over, the culture was the opposite.
“It was never clear who would show up, because the players thought they had no chance and they would lose. When they had the slightest of niggles, they just withdrew. We already had a small core of players, and that was even smaller because players did not show up.”
It did not take long for Speed to implement his new methods and show his players that representing Wales was a serious business. The singing sessions were a minor part of it, helping to transform the mood and impose the same standards they would expect at club level. “The players thought something special was going on,” says Verheijen. “They were being taken seriously at last.”
Despite having only four months of managerial experience when he took the job, Speed was helped by the reputation he had forged as a player for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton. “He would walk into a room and he did not have to say anything,” says Jones. “All eyes would be drawn to him. He had that aura.”
On the pitch, the upturn in results under Speed was the clearest sign that his methods were working. In 2011, Wales won the most points of any nation in the Fifa world rankings, climbing into the top 50 for the first time since 2003. “There was a real togetherness,” says Crofts. “He had a knack of implementing things that got the buy-in of the players. The way he man-managed people, individually and collectively, was inspiring.”
Speed managed Wales from 2010 until his death in 2011
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Almost a decade later, the pain of Speed’s decision to take his own life, at the age of 42, has not subsided for those who knew him. It is clear, though, that there is some small comfort to be taken from the success that he helped to create.
The 2016 side was Chris Coleman’s team, and this year’s setup is led by Rob Page, but the foundations for their progress were unquestionably laid by Speed, whose changes helped to maximise the considerable talent in this generation of Welsh players.
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“Gary is responsible for starting the process,” says Verheijen. “The people after Gary deserve credit for keeping that process on track and not letting it be derailed by the traumatic experience of his death.
“After not qualifying for the World Cup in 2018, the question was whether Euro 2016 was a fluke. Was it temporary or structural? This summer, you have the answer to that. Firstly by qualifying for the tournament. Secondly, by finishing second in the group. That shows something more structural is going on with Wales.”
When the anthem begins to play in Amsterdam on Saturday, there will not be a Wales fan in the ground. Nonetheless, the players will give it their all. It will be a small moment on a huge occasion for the country, and the sound of their voices will trigger memories of the man whose work allowed these Welsh dreams to be fulfilled.