The Paraguayan became close to the former Wales coach during a spell on Tyneside, and admits that news of his passing hit him hard years after his time in the Premier League ended
By Ralph Hannah
Former Newcastle United midfielder Diego Gavilan has spoken of his shock at hearing news of Gary Speed's tragic death, and had high praise for the man who helped him settle in to life at St James' Park.
The first Paraguayan to play in the Premier League sat down exclusively with Goal.com to share his memories about his time at Newcastle under the management of Sir Bobby Robson and playing with greats like Alan Shearer and the late Speed.
Now retired from professional football at the tender age of 32, Gavilan is studying for his coaching exams and currently helps out future stars at a prestigious school in Asuncion, where Goal.com caught up with him.
Relaxed and friendly, the midfielder, who went to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups with Paraguay, can recall perfectly a historic goal for the Magpies against Coventry City over 12 years ago.
"Gary Speed won the header and the ball rebounded to Alan [Shearer], he played a pass into the space in front of me seeing that I had made a run down the right and I picked up the pass, hit it across the goalkeeper and thanks to God it was a goal," he said.
The two players in the build-up to his goal were of course pillars of Newcastle United and Gavilan spoke highly of both.
"Alan was a top professional. He is very humble, very easygoing even though he might have been a God to the fans," explains Gavilan.
"He would talk to everybody, to the young players the staff. He just said to me 'cross me the ball, cross me the ball and cross me the ball,'" says Gavilan with a smile.
The smiles end for a moment when the Guarani midfielder is asked about his former team-mate Speed.
"I was on holiday, I found out on Twitter… it was such a shock," he laments. "I'll never forget that when I was called up to the 2002 World Cup… [Speed] came up to me and said 'Congratulations because you are one of three players to represent us at the World Cup with Shay Given and Kieron Dyer'.
"At that time I wasn’t used that much in the first team and that gesture by him to get up and go out of his way to congratulate me is something I’ll remember. He was an example as a professional, a person and a father."
|"I was on holiday, I found out on Twitter… it was such a shock. He was an example as a professional, a person and a father"
- Diego Gavilan
It was a tough time in the Premier League for El Pampero who says the English game is "very end-to-end, very physical, the person who wins the most 50/50 balls is the most loved in the stadium." A contrast to what he had experienced in Paraguay.
In his first ever start for the club they faced treble-winners Manchester United and as Gavilan raced for a pass over the top he was greeted by a stiff challenge from Jaap Stam.
"[Stam] left his leg out for me and said 'Welcome to the Premier League,'" laughs Gavilan as he recounts that match. "They weren't happy, we won 3-0."
When the Paraguayan was unable to forge a career in the Premier League he returned to his native continent, after a spell on loan to Udinese, and enjoyed plenty of success principally with Internacional and Gremio in Brazil. He won the Gaucho state championship three times with Inter and was narrowly denied a Brazilian championship medal in the controversial 2005 campaign to the Corinthians of Carlos Tevez and Carlos Alberto - which Gavilan still calls "the robbery of Kia [Joorabchian]."
The midfielder was Gaucho champion again with Gremio under current Brazil boss Mano Menezes but also suffered his biggest heartache in the 2007 Copa Libertadores losing in the final to a Juan Roman Riquelme-inspired Boca Juniors just one day after his son was born.
Gavilan finishes the chat on the most positive of notes. He is thankful to football for the friendships he made and to have been able "to live his dream of going to a World Cup, two times."