Interview: David Speedie, former Chelsea and Liverpool player

Firebrand who played for both of today’s FA Cup finalists still speaking his mind

Firebrand who played for both of today’s FA Cup finalists still speaking his mind

In A world where climbing the greasy pole is recommended and where few people venture to say what they really think, a David Speedie guide to career advancement would probably struggle to become a best seller. Yet it could include a helpful short chapter on the footballer in question’s 12 game-long Liverpool career, with the memo: try not to call the manager a c***. When that manager is Graeme Souness, such restraint is doubly advised.

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Speedie was Kenny Dalglish’s last signing as Liverpool manager in his first spell at the club. “He brought me there then left me in the sh*t,” smiles Speedie now. When he heard the identity of Dalglish’s replacement, he turned to Bruce Grobbelaar, who occupied the peg next to him in the dressing room, and said, rather perceptively: “That’s me, I am history.” The enmity with Souness could be traced all the way back to Speedie’s full Scotland debut, in the 1-0 win over England at Hampden Park in 1985.

“The ball’s been thrown into me, and the full back Viv Anderson has gone straight through the back of me,” recalls Speedie. “Souness was like ‘Give it to me quicker, you should be giving it to me quicker’. I just said ‘Shut it, you muppet’. You don’t want that from one of your team-mates. I was making my debut, with my whole family in the stand, and he is giving me stick. I was only 24 years old. You want to be encouraging people – I got more encouragement from Butch Wilkins, who was playing for England against us.”

By the time Souness arrived at Anfield, Speedie had enjoyed a productive start to his Liverpool career. The move from Coventry City came as a pleasant surprise for someone already in his thirties. At this stage of his career he might have expected to be sent to Coventry, not sent from there to the reigning English champions. He scored on his debut against Manchester United, before adding two more – although it should have been a hat-trick, Jan Molby was credited with a goal which had come off Speedie’s foot last – in his next appearance, which just happened to be the Merseyside derby. But his time there quickly soured under Souness, who Speedie accuses of trying to maim him in training matches: “He did me right the way down my knee and my shin. This, remember, is in training – and he was my manager. I couldn’t get near him to get him back, he was still too good. So I did his mate Phil Boersma [Souness’ assistant] instead.”

And then came the incident on a pre-season tour in Germany, from which Speedie was never likely to recover. “We were in a bar, it was a gruelling two weeks under the new regime, just endless training sessions,” he says. “He [Souness] stopped us going out for a drink. But myself, Gary Gillespie and Ray Houghton went out anyway. We had a few beers and then came back, and they were all down in the hotel nightclub! Souness was at the bar, and I said to him ‘You know something, you are a c***.’ He didn’t say much back. He never gained respect as manager of Liverpool. He was brilliant as a player, I could not say enough about him as a player. But as a manager, no.”

And what about Speedie? Misunderstood perhaps? Underneath it all, really quite sensitive? “Nah, I was a little bollocks”, he says now.

Described on one fans’ forum as “like Craig Bellamy, but slightly more objectionable,” there had been some trepidation at the thought of meeting David Speedie for the first time. A memorable line in a book by Pat Nevin didn’t help ease fears. While it would have been surprising to learn they were fast friends, Nevin describes Speedie’s feelings towards him as going some way beyond mild dislike.

“Psychological abhorrence” is the phrase used by Nevin, who earned derision for clambering on to the team bus in a trench coat while lost in a world of Joy Division. Tricky, then, when they later become room-mates for Scotland, on account of a Scottish Football Association official naturally assuming the Chelsea team-mates would be pals. They met each other again recently, through Speedie’s part-time work as a pundit for the Setanta Sports channel: “Pat said to me ‘You didn’t like me, did you?’ ‘Didn’t like you?’ I replied. ‘I loved you’. ‘But you gave me loads of stick’, he said. I told him ‘If I didn’t like you I wouldn’t have talked to you.’”

Perhaps the most compelling reason for having an exit strategy in place in case the interviewee gets upset by a question is this news snippet from 1999: “Speedie and Gordon Strachan pulled apart after almost coming to blows in a dressing room row after a Scotland fixture”. It might not have been worth reporting had this Scotland game been a high-octane World Cup qualifier. But it was a Scotland Old Boys’ match, a six-a-side one at that. Speedie accused Strachan of not passing to him on purpose.

Yet, just as the location for our meeting is not what I had imagined it would be when I phoned up David Speedie – leaving a message for “Speedo”, as instructed – it turns out the man himself is also not quite what you had in mind. Speedie is welcoming, and clearly well-loved by his friends. He is, though, as gloriously indiscreet as you had hoped would be the case after the long journey to Bray, a dormitory town to Dublin and home, it turns out, to a memorably-named Chinese carry-out restaurant called Soon Fatt.

Speedo is in the bar of the hotel opposite, and has to tear himself away from the guffaws and mickey-taking; the staple end to a day’s golf with a bunch of friends from Yorkshire, where the Glenrothes-born Speedie was raised. His has been a slightly chaotic, itinerant lifestyle that is reflected in a playing CV that as well as boasting successful spells with Chelsea and Liverpool, this evening’s FA Cup finalists, tailed away with stop-offs at the likes of Harrow Borough, Crook Town and Darlington Railway Athletic.

“You’ll get nowt sense out of him,” is one line heard above the jeering, as Speedie prepares to reflect on a career that, remarkably, still hasn’t quite ended, thanks to a casual association with the Dublin amateur club Aungier Celtic, for whom he turns out when he can at the age of 52. So the son of a Rangers-mad father is now finally playing in the hoops, after a chance to move to the Glasgow-based Celtic fell through when he was in his pomp. Speedie in an Old Firm game? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

There is, though, evidence to suggest Speedie was at times unfairly treated on account of his reputation. Type in his name and that of Sunderland’s Gary Bennett on YouTube and you see the former being throttled by the latter, before the Scot is then thrown into the crowd for good measure. Bennett is rightly ordered off, but so too is Speedie. According to Speedie, his son also suffered for the sins of his father. Blessed with a sweet left foot, Speedie junior would go to places like Sheffied United and Leeds on trial, under the prejudiced eye of coaches, scouts and managers who recalled scuffles with his father. “Some of them did not go for him, because of me,” he says. “I used to take him to training. He was a lot better than most of the others, but they never gave him a chance.”

Association with Speedie is guaranteed given that his son shares the same Christian name too. Yet the truth is that David junior could not be more different to his dad. “He is so laid back, you wouldn’t believe he is my son,” says Speedie. “My daughter, Charlotte, is like me, very fiery.”

There was another, possibly more significant reason for this failure to follow his father into professional football; the diagnosis, just last year, of cystic fibrosis. Originally it was thought that David junior’s breathing problems had been due to asthma, something his father also suffers from. Indeed, this struggle for air perhaps accounted for the rashness that was so patently a part of Speedie Senior’s make-up. So often he dived in when the better, more pragmatic course of action would have been to pause and take a long, deep breath.

Alex Ferguson certainly met his match in an asthmatic Yorkshire-reared Scot with a grievance as he prepared to name his World Cup squad, ahead of the finals in Mexico.

“He had told me I was going,” says Speedie, who had enjoyed a prodigious season with Chelsea, one that peaked when he scored the first Wembley hat-trick since Geoff Hurst in the Full Members Cup final win over Manchester City. “He told me I would be one of his strikers. Then he had words with someone, I don’t know who, who said I would cause him problems if I was not playing, which I probably would have done. He phoned Chelsea and asked them to tell me. They told him to get lost, and said ‘Tell him yourself’. They knew what I was like. He told me that he had decided to take Kenny [Dalglish] instead ‘You are similar types of players, and I need his experience’. He asked me to go on stand-by. I said ‘Stand-by? Stick it up your hole’.

Inevitably, Dalglish then pulled out, ostensibly on account of a knee injury but more likely in protest at best friend Alan Hansen’s exclusion. So Speedie, had he bitten his tongue and agreed to be on call, would have gone to the World Cup. The Simpsons had yet to be conceived, but: D’oh!

“If he could put himself in my position, how would he feel?” says Speedie of Ferguson now. “If he was a player who helped Scotland get to the World Cup finals [Speedie started the second play-off against Australia, in Melbourne], and he’s left out at the last minute after being told he was going, how would he feel? It’s water under the bridge. I wish him well.”

And he also now wishes he had been a bit more circumspect when asked by Ferguson whether he would be available, if needed.

In contrast to the one he shared with Souness, Speedie’s relationship with Dalglish was always good. He is delighted to see his old manager back at Wembley, where Liverpool face Chelsea tonight. Surprisingly, Speedie claims to have “no allegiance” to Chelsea, the club where he made his name, memorably linking up with Kerry Dixon. “I have more allegiance to Liverpool because they treated me better in a short space of time than Chelsea did in five years”.

He encountered problems trying to obtain tickets for a Champions League match at Stamford Brige. “And this was before [Roman] Abramovich,” he points out. Speedie still has the ball from the historic hat-trick he scored at Wembley in 1986 and he would have been prepared to hand it to Chelsea had they gone about asking for it in the right way. “They wrote to me after they opened a museum, asking me to donate stuff,” he says. “Abramovich is a billionaire. If they had said we will give you a few bob and it will be there forever for everyone to see, I would have done it. But for them to charge people to look at my history and my success, that’s not on.”

Nevertheless, he will, he says, be genuinely torn at who to support today, when he watches the FA Cup final in the Liberty bar in Dublin, his new base of operations. His journeys back to Scotland are now restricted mostly to funerals, but he remains proud of the ten caps he won, and won’t apologise for the way his international career ended – with a row, as one might have guessed. “I was playing against Chile and one of their players spat in my face, so we ended up having a tete-a-tete,” he explains. “So Andy Roxburgh takes me off at half-time, says it was for my own protection. I took my boots off and threw them at him, and said ‘You can stick your country up your arse. For my own protection? I can look after myself.’”

He adored Jock Stein, however. “For me, when he died my Scotland career died,” he says, although he did win another eight caps after that night in Cardiff, when Speedie’s flick into the hand of David Phillips won Scotland a dramatic late penalty. “You’ll dae fir me laddie”, he says, trying to mimic what Stein said to him after he had made his Scotland debut as an overage player for the Under-21s in Spain. He sounds just like a Yorkshireman should when attempting to put on a Scottish accent. Speedie has lost his Scottish intonation, no surprise, really, since he left Fife at the age of four. His father was a miner, as he was for a spell. “A mini-miner,” he laughs, with reference to his 5ft 7in height. This issue almost prevented him becoming a footballer: “I had trials with Doncaster Rovers, but they said I was too small – mind you, Doncaster said that about Kevin Keegan too.”

“The mining gives you a good grounding,” he adds. “When you go down that big black hole, a mile under ground. If you get the chance to come up for fresh air, you take it.”

When the mine at Glenrothes flooded, the family moved down to Doncaster, in search of work. It’s where Speedie’s five sisters all still live, as well as his daughter and son from his first marriage. But he has moved on, to Ireland, to be with his new partner, Margaret.

It’s gratifying to discover that Speedie is not another washed-up footballer on his uppers. He doesn’t care about missing the Premier League gravy train – his last game in the top league was for Liverpool against Totthenham Hotpsur in May 1991. Playing out of position in midfield he nullified Paul Gascoigne, scored his first goal at the Kop end at Anfield and was nominated man of the match. Not a bad way to say farewell, with Souness having offered him the choice of training with the kids or going elsewhere.

Thereafter began a new life as a striker for hire in what became the Championship, helping Blackburn Rovers (under Dalglish), West Ham and then Leicester City into the land of milk and honey, but never actually experiencing it himself. Asked what he believes he would be worth now, he says: “Seven shillings and six pence”. More like £7.6 million, you reply.

He shrugs. Like the Guinness, he isn’t bitter. “I did OK, I can’t complain,” he says. “I have a good pension. I just missed out property-wise, but other than that I had a good time, earned good money. I have no regrets but I did make a lot of mistakes. I just wish sometimes I had kept my mouth shut.”