Experienced Wanderer glad to be still at the centre of things
Interview/Gary Speed: Michael Walker meets the 36-year-old Welsh dynamo who remains a pivotal player for Sam Allardyce's Bolton and still relishes the challenge of taking on the likes of Manchester United today
Seventeen full and fruitful seasons on and Gary Speed just keeps on running. Now 36, he is a pivotal player at Bolton Wanderers and this afternoon will direct them at Old Trafford. It is the match of the day, second versus seventh, and game 808 of Speed's career. If Bolton were to win they would be seven points behind Manchester United with two games in hand. Then they play Liverpool at home on Monday.
These are historic days for Bolton. Last season's sixth place was their highest finish for 45 years and they qualified for Europe for the first time. The achievement coincided with Speed's arrival from Newcastle for £750,000. He played all 38 Premiership matches and has missed only one this season.
"I feel sharp during games," Speed said. "It's just before and after . . ."
A rueful smile followed but Speed's enthusiasm is unchanged. "Oh, yeah, God, Old Trafford is still boyhood-dream stuff. I first played there when I was 17, for Leeds reserves. I scored. I haven't scored there since."
Such self-deprecation as well as ability and formidable consistency make men like Speed a manager's favourite. His current boss Sam Allardyce said recently that Speed should be cut open and examined to see what keeps him going. Speed returns the admiration and said Allardyce is the foundation stone in Bolton's rise. Sometimes we need to step back and recall that when Bolton stayed in the Premiership in 2002 it was the first time since 1979 that they had consecutive seasons in the top flight.
"This is a club that came up from the lower divisions, struggled at first to establish itself in the Premier League because of a lack of resources and the difficulty of attracting players," Speed said. "But it has gradually built its way up, got a fantastic manager, fantastic staff, got a fantastic work ethic throughout the club. It has got Bolton to a position where they are respected, sometimes feared. Now we have qualified for Europe. I am sure there are teams like Villarreal in Spain who would appreciate what Bolton have done."
The appreciation should extend to more established clubs, here and abroad. Marseille should not take Bolton lightly in the last 32 of the Uefa Cup, for example. Speed is full of praise for the method at Bolton and more than once said their ascent had nothing to do with fortune.
"The first thing was to get a fantastic manager," said Speed, "and the second was to get fantastic staff around him. The staff make a massive difference day to day; Bolton don't have the money of Manchester United, Chelsea or Newcastle. What they have to do is work to get the best from what you've got. If, for example, that means reducing injuries, then that's what you do. We have one player injured in the squad at the minute. He's nearly back fit. That is not luck.
"Obviously you get impact injuries and suspensions, but the reason we don't get the injuries is because of the backroom staff and the players' application. We do what we are told. We do lots of recovery work after games, lots of weights. I'm giving away secrets here.
"You need the players to buy into it; if the players do it half-heartedly then it isn't going to work. I think a lot of other clubs could learn from here, though I know a lot do the same. But we have to because, I repeat, we don't have the money."
Bolton's record transfer is the £3.5 million paid to Wimbledon for Dean Holdsworth in 1997. The policy the club have pursued has been based on wages for players of the distinction of Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo and Jay-Jay Okocha. Hidetoshi Nakata is the latest in that budget glamour line, an approach, says Speed, contrasting with Allardyce's "old school" image.
"Sam's very experienced - he knows what's what. The biggest thing with Sam, I think, is that he knows how to get results, on and off the park. Arsenal at home last year, this year, Liverpool last year: people don't expect us to win those games and it still surprises them when we do.
"Yet the manager does not place as much on those games - he leaves them to us. It's more the Portsmouths, West Broms, Fulhams, with all due respect, that mean the most to Sam. They're the games that keep us in the Premier League, and with the history of Bolton the results against those teams are more important than against the Manchester Uniteds.
"Sam's portrayed sometimes as old school, but he's open to ideas. He'll try anything to get that extra one per cent out of a player. And if he gets one per cent here, one per cent there, then it adds up. It's a very grown-up way to be - Pilates, stretching, yoga, none of that is outlandish but it works. It's boring, but for someone like me it works. A lot of people still disregard something like yoga. I would have as a young player. I would have been too busy playing golf or something."
Speed's young days were in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at Leeds, where he won the league title in 1992. His debut came as a teenager in May 1989 against Oldham. Wayne Rooney was three at the time, and no one had heard of Jean-Marc Bosman.
That experience gives Speed a rare perspective on the state of the game and the much discussed topic of competitiveness in the Premiership post-Abramovich. Like Alex Ferguson, Speed said the onus was on the rest to catch Chelsea, not moan about them.
"What Chelsea do is not a secret: they keep clean sheets, that's it. We try and do the same. As long as it's 0-0 or 1-0 you've got a chance, whether you're playing Chelsea or someone else. They beat Wigan 1-0, Manchester City 1-0. The only team Chelsea have obliterated is us. We went 1-0 up then had a bad 30 minutes, no, a bad 10 minutes. That was it. They scored four in 10 minutes. You have to give them credit. Frank Lampard played 160 games on the trot. John Terry never misses a game. That's not luck.
"As for the standard, it's totally different. The players I was with at Leeds were great but the overall team standard now is far, far greater. How a team plays is much more advanced and technical than then. The likes of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty, John Lukic, I think they would adapt. I've had to adapt, and they were better players than I was, so they could certainly adapt to today. As far as the team is concerned, I am not sure."
If the Leeds of yesterday had to, though, they could start by studying the Bolton Wanderers of today.