Gary Speed’s managerial career, considering it is less than six months old, has already taken plenty of twists and turns. It began when he was thrust into the breach at English Championship side Sheffield United following the sacking of their previous manager three games into this season, and took a major development when he was approached by Wales last month.
Having made 85 appearances for his national team – more than any other Welsh outfield player – the chance to become manager was impossible to resist, and Speed is currently preparing for his first match in charge on 8 February. That game will see his side face off against the Republic of Ireland in the opening game of the Nations Cup, which also includes Scotland and Northern Ireland.
With a tricky, and no doubt emotionally charged, UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against England to follow, Speed has plenty of tough challenges to negoiate in the early part of his reign. But as the former midfielder told FIFA.com, he has high hopes for his emerging side.
FIFA.com: How did it feel to get the call to manage your national side?
Gary Speed: I was very excited obviously. I had a job at Sheffield United which I was very keen to carry on and do well at, but once the call came I found it very difficult to turn down. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I’m determined to grab my chance with both hands and do as well as I can.
Was it difficult to part company with Sheffield United, considering you had only just taken the job on?
Absolutely. It’s obviously come at the wrong time as I would have liked to stay on there and make my mark with them. But as I’ve said, once the opportunity had come along and both parties had agreed compensation, it was something I couldn’t turn down.
How are you finding the new challenges of international management?
Very good. I’ve spent a lot of time in the office getting ready for the first game, getting my staff sorted and making sure everything is in place for when the side gets together ahead of the game against Republic of Ireland. One of the best parts of the job is being able to go out and watch games, so I’ve been busy seeing plenty of games, monitoring the players. I’ve been really enjoying that side of things.
What’s your assessment of Wales' current quality and potential?
The quality there is very strong. I’ve got to pick 23 or 24 players for the first Nations Cup game and it’s going to be hard to do that because there are at least 29 to 30 players who will be knocking on my door looking for a place in the squad. So in that respect it’s good for me.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I’m determined to grab my chance with both hands and do as well as I can.
Was it a blow to have Craig Bellamy step down as captain so early into your tenure?
He won’t be available for some games and I think that was a major factor in him stepping down, but ultimately it was the sensible thing to do. Craig more than anyone knows his body, his own mind and what he wants, but if we can get the best out of Craig in the games that really matter, that’s the main thing. In regards to a new captain, I think we will play it by ear for the time being and we will look to have a permanent captain in place in time to face England. There’s no rush.
There’s a lot of potential in your squad, with the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Wayne Hennessey amongst others. Where can that take you?
I think the squad is of an age where potentially they could be together for the next ten years, so it’s important we get the players mentioned on the pitch more often than not. That will obviously create a team spirit and get the crowd behind us. That’s why I think the England game will be so important as it’s a new start and if we do get any sort of result it will show the fans that we are on our way back up, and with players like Bale and Ramsey in the team we’ll only have a better chance of doing so.
How big is the upcoming England game in regards to EURO 2012 qualification and the fact it’s against another local rival?
I think even if we win all our games we wouldn’t be guaranteed qualification, so I think we need to take the game on its merits. It’s England at home so it’s a massive game and I think everyone’s looking forward to it. With us losing the first three games I think the pressure is off us somewhat and more on to them, which we can hopefully take advantage of.
Your first four games are against your nearest geographical rivals. Do you think this will be a help or a hindrance?
I think it will be a help because we aren't going to have much time with the players before these matches and because of the nature of them it should allow us to plan more for future games against teams less well known to us, so in that respect I think it’s a good thing. Obviously we’ll be getting to know each other over the next four games and hopefully we’ll go into the qualifying matches in September hitting the ground running having had time to plan for them in a bit more detail.
Is the anticipation growing for the opening Nations Cup game against the Republic of Ireland?
Yes, I’m really excited now. I’ve done a lot of work in the last few weeks so I’m looking forward to getting the lads together, flying over to Ireland and hopefully putting on a good show.
What are your views on the tournament? Do you think it’s a positive thing for all the teams involved?
Yeah I think so. I think it’s a lot better than normal friendlies, certainly. We’re playing against teams we know, it’ll be contested to a high level, it’ll be competitive and against good teams who want to perform. So in that respect it’s perfect.
What are your hopes for the Nations Cup and EURO 2012 qualification?
Obviously we are going to go out to win the Nations Cup, that’s why we are in it. We’re going to go and give it our best shot and hopefully get some good results. EURO 2012 has got off to a bad start in the group but all we can do is try and get as many points as we can from the next five games and, if we don’t qualify, hopefully get into a higher pot for qualification in 2016. Plus, with there being 24 teams in the tournament it gives us an even better chance of qualifying. There’s certainly a lot of motivation for us to play well in the remaining games.
Do you see qualifying for 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ as a possibility?
Definitely. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination but that is certainly our aim. Not only that we want to be challenging at a higher level. I’m not saying we’re going to qualify for every tournament, I want to qualify for at least one, but beyond that we want to consistently compete and we’re looking to put the structure of players together to allow us to do that.