Thursday, 09 February 2012 15:40


Footballers are people too. I know, as statements of the bleeding obvious go, that's right up there with "Fernando Torres wasn't great value at £50 million", isn't it?
















Except that maybe for some people it's not so obvious. Because of the pedestal upon which we have so precariously placed the global superstars that light up the Premier League and the Champions League, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that these men breathe the same air, go to the same supermarkets and watch the same TV shows as the rest of us. And they have down days. Days when nothing goes right and they think the world is against them. Just like us. Maybe for different reasons but no less depressing for that.

We assume that because they get paid huge sums of money, live in magnificent houses and marry beautiful women, that they wake up every morning and thank God for their gifts and good fortune. No doubt some do but many others don't. And we shouldn't be critical of them for that. It's human nature to take success for granted.

But while failure to be able to swim in a sea of gratitude is one human failing for most of us need a life jacket, there is a smaller, but by no means insignificant, number for whom just getting out of bed in the morning is a struggle.

And they are everywhere. They are your work colleague, they are your neighbour and they are your favourite footballer. You might not know it. They might not even know it but the black dog is there, barking at every intruder that dares to cross its path.

There have been a lot of high profile sportsmen who have recently admitted to struggling with mental health issues from Stan Collymore to Dean Windass to rugby player Alan Quinlan. They probably all have very different stories to tell but the result is the same. Dark hours, black days, no apparent hope.

Sometimes the dearth of hope manifests itself in the unavoidable impulse to end it all. And occasionally, that is exactly the result. The question that has been rattling around in my head since the coroner, Nicholas Rheinberg, reached the odd narrative verdict in his inquest is why, Gary Speed, why?

You may be certain that his sons, wife, family and friends have asked themselves that same question so many times since last November that those three letters have ceased to even have a meaning anymore.

But the coroner has a duty to look behind the emotion, the tears and get to the bottom of a mystery that Agatha Christie would struggle to dream up. An opportunity to get into the mind of a high profile footballer who, it appears, went from a happy-go-lucky "family man" to a statistic in four days has been lost and may never be recovered.

I'm relying purely on newspaper reports and was not at the inquest so what follows is assumptions based on my belief that if any further evidence of any significance had emerged at the inquest, it would have been reported by the myriad reporters who did attend.

Let's just examine what we know. Gary Speed was universally liked man with two children whom he adored and a wife with whom he had had ups and downs but seemed to be committed to continuing the marriage and "their journey" as he called it. He was the very successful manager of his country's national team and seemed to be financially stable. In other words, outwardly, at least, he painted a picture of a person who had everything to live for.

Except that he appears to have felt rather differently judging by his actions on the morning of the 27 November when he hanged himself in his garage. At the inquest, the story begins only four days earlier when it appears that Speed sent a text to his wife saying he was thinking of ending his life.

Let's stop right there. A text? Out of the blue? A previously mentally well man suddenly feels the need to send his wife a text of egregious import. Just like that. What does she do? Well, we don't know. No one seems to have asked her. We do know that he appears to send a further text saying he has got over this sudden need to kill himself and is now looking forward to life.

Did his wife question this? Did she phone him, talk to him, ask him where this sudden impulse came from? Was this the first time that he expressed suicidal ideation? Did he say it again between then and his death? We have no idea. She may well have done all of these things but if so, would it not have been hugely important to the outcome of the inquest? Again, I'm making assumptions but if these questions were asked, the answers were not reported and if they weren't, why not? They are obvious queries and the absence of those answers opens a glaring chasm in the evidence through which the verdict appears to have fallen.

The questions don't end there though. The next we hear of his mood is three days later, just before his suicide. We are told he went a dinner party and was in high spirits. He then apparently went home with his wife, was in good form in the taxi but seems to have had an argument with her as they get home. She says it was about "something and nothing".

Surely this is a crucial piece of the jigsaw. Did the coroner probe as to what the argument was about? She must have some recollection of the subject matter. As it was the last time she spoke to her husband, she had to have replayed this conversation in her mind over and over again.

The decision to go for a drive after this argument, especially as she had been drinking, is particularly bizarre. She says it was to clear her head but they lived in a big house, why would you need to go for a drive at that hour of the night after a few drinks? Why did she sleep in the car? Once more, no one seems to have asked these questions and we get no further insight into either person's state of mind.

After blocking the door initially to stop her leaving, it appears as though Speed went to bed and didn't answer her subsequent phone calls though strangely she didn't ring the doorbell at any stage.

So what would have caused him to go from a successful dinner party, where everyone says he appeared normal, to hanging himself in his garage, no more than six hours later?

I'm not for a second suggesting that anything untoward went on or that anyone else bears any responsibility for this horrific tragedy but I suspect there is more to this story than meets the eye. There may well be journalists who know more than they are letting on but, perhaps wary of the eagle eye of Leveson, they are wisely keeping their counsel. We have all heard the specious internet rumours but without a shred of evidence to back them up, it would be a new low for some of the tabloids to bring them into the public domain.

What is strange though is that the questioning of Louise Speed was not more robust. She was understandably deeply upset and it's likely that the coroner did not want to intrude any more into her private life than was necessary. But we are talking about a person's life here. The purpose of an inquest is to establish the cause of death.

This wasn't done. The risible suggestion that it may have been accidental because he might have fallen asleep with a noose around his neck is so far short of reality as to not require further comment.

This was a chance for us to look into the mind of a retired professional footballer and ask where did it all go wrong? Why was life not worth living? We may not have got an answer but at least we would have tried.

In the meantime, the mental health of the footballer must be at the forefront of education and post retirement programmes for all football organisations and players' associations. In England the PFA have made great strides and here, news of a campaign the PFAI is backing, will be announced in the next few days.

We would be deluded to believe that there aren't mental health problems in Irish football and it's vital that we do everything we can to avoid similar disaster here.

It's likely that no one could have stopped Speed from taking such drastic action but if more of an effort was made to find out why rather than rush through an inquest without stopping to asking the hard questions, we might able to save another footballer from making such a terminal decision.

To quote Shankly, football isn't a matter of life and death. At least it shouldn't be.

Stuart Gilhooly is the solicitor for the PFAI and can be followed on Twitter @PFAISolicitor
He is the Magazines Ireland Journalist of the Year 2011