By Rob Stewart
Jonathan Woodgate has paid a moving tribute to his tragic former Newcastle United team-mate Gary Speed and insisted the best way the Magpies can show their respect is by producing a winning performance against Chelsea on Saturday.
Woodgate grew up idolising Speed at Leeds before playing alongside the Welshman at Newcastle and as their old club prepared to pay their respects ahead of the Premier League clash with Chelsea on Saturday, the Stoke City defender hailed him as the “best professional” he had encountered.
“It will be very emotional at all his former clubs which says it all because the fans respected him as much as the players and that speaks volumes,” Woodgate told Goal.com.
“I know that Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield United, Everton and Bolton fans will make sure that he is remembered this weekend but the best thing that the players can do as a tribute is make sure that they perform like he would – really wholeheartedly – and do their best to win their games. He should inspire them."
Woodgate was coming through the ranks at Leeds when Speed was starring for the Yorkshire club where gained he hero status thanks to his role as Howard Wilkinson’s side won the League Championship in 1992.
“When I was a schoolboy at Leeds and we used to watch the first team when he was there at Elland Road and I always thought he was brilliant and he will go down in history as one of their greats,” Woodgate added.
“We used to think the world of him. He was a whole-hearted player who could absolutely everything. He was good in defence, he was good going forward, he was amazing in the air, he could pass the ball around and he had an eye for goal.
“Gary won the league at Leeds so he was and always be a legend at Elland Road. That midfield of Speed, [Gary] McAllister, [Gordon] Strachan and [David] Batty was awesome. He was just a superb player.”
It was when Woodgate left Leeds for Newcastle in 2003 that Speed became a colleague.
“I was with him at Newcastle and it was great to play alongside him. I felt privileged. I reckon that along with Alan Shearer he was the first name on the team sheet for Sir Bobby Robson,” Woodgate said.
“Speedo really helped me settle in Newcastle which was great because I looked up to him. We had a really good side under Sir Bobby. We had the likes of Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer but Speedo and Alan were definitely the leaders of the team. The young lads used to really look up to them.
“He was the best professional I ever worked with. The way he went about his work was unbelievable. He was first at everything. He was first in at the training ground and always worked hard. He set a great example. He always did the right things. He was a legend.
“He was great on the training ground and out on the field but when it came to the dressing room banter he was always in there laughing and joking. He was a proper, proper top, top man.”
Former England defender Woodgate is still coming to terms with the death at the age of Wales manager Speed who was found hanged at his Cheshire home last Sunday.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw on Sky Sports News. Words could not describe how I felt. I was absolutely gobsmacked. It was so unreal. I was completely devastated,” Woodgate continued.
“You could talk to him about anything. He was just a really nice man. He was really lovely fella. For him to go at such a young age is just too hard to take. It is just horrible and I really feel for all his family.
“What he did at Wales in a short period of time was unbelievable so they are bound to be terribly upset. It is just a travesty.”