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Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011

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Tragic loss: The Football Association of Wales announced the death of national team manager Gary Speed on Sunday. Speed was 42. AP PHOTO

Players, teams pay tribute as Wales manager Speed dies at 42


LONDON — The flags at Leeds' Elland Road stadium were lowered Sunday in honor of one of the key players from the club's last title-winning side.

Elsewhere, one Premier League crowd honored Gary Speed with a minute's silence and another opted for an impromptu minute's applause following the news that a man renowned for his longevity as a player — and burgeoning promise as a manager — had died aged 42.

The youngest member of Leeds' 1991-92 title-winning midfield and the first player to reach 500 Premier League appearances, Speed was renowned as a dedicated professional and had just coached his native Wales to three straight wins.

Friends and colleagues practically lined up to pay tribute to Speed, who was found dead at his home Sunday.

"He lived his life the way he played football, without blemish," said Joe Royle, who signed him for Everton in 1996. "He was a good guy. I've never ever heard anyone say a bad word or make a snide remark about him. It was just 'Speedo is terrific.'

"I rated him so highly as a man and as a person."

A minute's silence was observed before the Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield. But when they were asked to observe a minute's silence, the fans at the game between Welsh side Swansea and Aston Villa instead broke into spontaneous sustained applause and chanted "There's Only One Gary Speed."

Villa goalkeeper Shay Given was in tears thinking of his former Newcastle teammate, while Wales striker Craig Bellamy was so upset he was left out of Liverpool's squad entirely.

Wales internationals Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor, Joe Allen and James Collins started for either Villa or Swansea, with emotions running so high that Villa manager Alex McLeish said he would not have protested if the game had been called off.

Wales midfielder Joe Ledley wrote on Twitter: "So saddened by the loss of a great guy, manager and footballer. It was a pleasure to work under him. My thoughts are with his family."

With Speed having played 85 times for Wales — a tally beaten only by goalkeeper Neville Southall — and racking up 535 Premier League appearances, a recurring theme of the tributes paid was his dedication. Speed maintained his body in peak condition even past the age when most of his peers had dropped down the divisions or retired.

Speed's Premier League appearance record has since been overtaken by goalkeeper David James and Manchester United stalwart Ryan Giggs, who played alongside Speed for Wales.

"I am totally devastated," Giggs said. "Gary Speed was one of the nicest men in football and someone I am honored to call a teammate and friend. Words cannot begin to describe how sad I feel at hearing this awful news. It goes without saying my thoughts are with his family at this tremendously sad time."

Former Wales striker Dean Saunders, who shared a room with Speed when the pair were called up for internationals, said Speed would do sit-ups and press-ups before going to bed every night. Another Wales teammate, Mark Bowen, said Speed was one of the first players in British soccer to properly tailor his diet to maximize his performances.

Former England midfielder Royle said that helped persuade him to sign Speed at Everton, the club Speed had supported as a boy.

"He always came in looking a million dollars and there was never any indication that he wasn't ready to train," Royle said. "He played with a smile on his face and he was one of the best players I was fortunate enough to manage and handle and I still can't believe it."

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