Turkey, pints and a game of pool in the local pub

High esteem: Gary Speed was admired by fans across the globe
High esteem: Gary Speed was admired by fans across the globe
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MANY players command the respect of supporters at the clubs where they played.

Very few, however, are held in high esteem by followers of teams they never represented.

Gary Speed, who sadly died last weekend, was one of those rare individuals whose achievements are recognised and respected by all.

Which, in the often brutal and always tribal world of professional sport, speaks volumes about both his dedication and, perhaps more pertinently, character.

He was a player who, by his own admission, was not the most naturally gifted of the Premier League era.

But few have worked harder to make the most of their ability than Gary, which perhaps explains his popularity in Wales, England and beyond.

Hopefully the outpouring of emotion and grief provoked by Sunday’s news has provided some modicum of comfort for those family and friends mourning his loss.

There are thousands of folk better placed or qualified to speak about Gary’s career than I. Hundreds who knew him better will inevitably feel his passing with a deeper sense of grief, and doubtless he enjoyed their company much more than mine.

He was liked and respected not only within a game he graced for well over two decades but also among those of us who are fortunate enough to earn a living covering it.

One of the benefits of this job, however, is that it provides opportunities to meet and sometimes mingle with people you would otherwise be forced to admire from afar.

So, inevitably, it was always a pleasure to discover Gary’s views on subjects ranging from team selection to the art of tackling. Never once did he give the impression that, just because I had never ‘played the game’ as the old saying goes, my own opinions were not valid.

Gary was not the only nice guy in the business. Contrary to what many folk would have you believe, there are plenty. Unfortunately, as in any walk of life, there are also some you’d rather not be stuck in a lift with. Gary did not fall into that category.

Perhaps my best - certainly most revealing - anecdote is an afternoon and evening spent in the company of Gary and many of his counterparts with links to the region nearly 12 months ago.

A colleague on a rival newspaper has already penned an eloquent resume of the 2010 Christmas lunch for managers and journalists.

But, from a personal perspective at least, I feel it is worth revisiting this pens-down, dictaphones-locked-in drawers affair which has become a popular fixture on the festive calendar.

After stuffing ourselves with turkey at Bramall Lane, we ventured out for some liquid refreshment and a spot of killer pool in The Railway pub opposite.

Not the most luxurious establishment in Sheffield but one where Gary, John Sheridan and others relaxed, chatted with locals and generally seemed at home.

That was the moment when it really dawned on me that he wasn’t a ‘footballer’. Gary was just a normal bloke who happened to be hugely talented at both coaching and playing it.