THE same words crop up in discussion about Gary Speed even a decade after his tragic death; to anyone whose life he touched he was a class act.

It seems everyone working around the Reebok Stadium in that golden Premier League spell under Sam Allardyce has a tale to tell about Speedo.

His dressing room Oasis serenades, his willingness to stop for a cup of tea and a chat with anyone from security guard to chairman, his utter dependability on the pitch and in the post-match press room.

Speed only spent three-and-a-half years with Wanderers, and they may not be as nationally recognised as those in which he lifted a league title at Leeds United or set in motion a revolution for Welsh football as manager, but in Bolton he represented a calibre of character that is still admired to this day.

Well into his thirties and already the Premier League’s record appearance maker when Big Sam brought him in from Newcastle United, Speed was seen as an insurance policy in a squad now looking beyond mere survival as their target.

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Bolton paid £750,000 to beat Middlesbrough and Fulham to his signature but despite his credentials, the arrival of Fernando Hierro a week later potentially took the spotlight away on what an important signing the Whites had just made.

Speed played in all 38 games that season; not even Jussi Jaaskelainen managed that. By the end of May, Wanderers had qualified for Europe for the first time in their history.

“He was box-to-box and had an incredible engine,” Kevin Davies told The Bolton News. “Sam used to say: ‘What is he made of?’ His stats were sky high.

“He was into the yoga, was always in the gym and trained like he played.

“That rubs off on you and that was one of the reason we had so much success.

“We had some fantastic players in the squad when he arrived, and he was a brilliant addition.

“He always had time and was happy to pass on his experiences to the younger players. He wasn’t too vocal but when he said something people listened.

“He was very professional but also one of the lads. He liked the banter and the craic at the right time.

“He was good fun to be around. You could sit around and listen to his stories about what he has achieved in his career and they were great.”

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Speed’s time-defying success would continue for another two seasons under Allardyce. His reliability as a penalty taker was summed up best on a memorable September day in 2005 at Manchester City, just days after the squad had returned from their first European trip at Lokomotiv Plovdiv.

City had hit the woodwork five times, with Jaaskelainen performing heroics to keep the ball out of his net. But when a 90th minute penalty was given for a handball by Richard Dunne, there was nobody else Bolton could possibly have wanted.

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Speed’s influence grew to the point where a coaching position was the obvious continuation. When Allardyce left, he was drafted into an unsettled backroom by Sammy Lee, but the midfielder – then 38 – knew that the upheaval had taken its toll on standards.

He had agreed to concentrate on his playing duties for the last year of his contract but when Lee announced that he had stood Speed down from his position, the relationship deteriorated quickly.

The situation served to accelerate Lee’s exit, and though Speed remained under his successor, Gary Megson, he featured more infrequently before moving on to continue his coaching career at Sheffield United.

His last start for Bolton came on December 6, 2007, and was captured in what is one of the most evocative pictures associated with the club in recent years.

Standing in the mouth of a dimly lit concrete tunnel a few paces ahead of Ali Al-Habsi, team captain Speed is flanked by the security officers and armed police as he prepares to lead his team out against Red Star Belgrade. Later that night, Bolton become the first English side ever to win in the Serbian “Marakana” – one of world football’s most inhospitable environments.

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Speed remained a friend to Bolton Wanderers in the years after his playing career finished, keeping regular tabs on Sam Ricketts, who was a regular in his Wales set-up.

I also had the pleasure of bumping into him before a game against Sheffield United in the FA Cup, shortly after he had taken the Wales job.

Greeted like an old friend as we walked from the car park around the infamously windy corner of the stadium to the main reception, he asked how my predecessor Gordon Sharrock was doing and joked about the weather, as is the custom in these parts.

Hand on heart, that feels like it happened last week.

Two years later, I can still vividly recall being sat on the sofa watching Goals on Sunday when the news was broken to a studio which included his former Leeds team-mate Chris Kamara. The blood drained from his face as it did my own, replaced by a numbness of shock.

The sudden change in mood must have registered with my eldest son, then just five years old, because I remember him asking what had happened. Ten years on, we of course know more about the sad detail of Speed’s death, but I doubt anyone can honestly answer “why?”

As with any event of this magnitude in this job, that is when the phone calls began.

I spoke briefly to Wanderers’ chairman, Phil Gartside, who was clearly shaken, and then to his close friend, Kevin Davies, who like me was struggling to get his head around what was truth and what was fiction in that early wave of information.

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The abruptness of it all had left the whole club speechless. And when I went into Euxton – then the club’s training base – the following morning, local press, players, and staff were gathered in front of the TV screen in reception watching Sky Sports News, possibly in the hope that someone would put this into context.

Few of Owen Coyle’s squad had played alongside Speed in a Bolton shirt but most had come across him in a professional capacity.

On the way back into the office I dropped in at the Reebok (as was) to see a book of remembrance that had been opened at the stadium, which was already surrounded by flowers, scarves and shirts from supporters wishing to pay their respects.

There was a minute’s silence at Tottenham a few day’s later, then a poignant ceremony before Wanderers’ next home game against Aston Villa, where wreaths were laid by the two club captains, Davies and Stiliyan Petrov, with Speed’s father, Roger, in attendance.

As a sidenote, I have never forgotten Petrov stopping off after that game in the tunnel to express his sympathies to staff, even some of us in the local press. Another credit to their football club.

Time has moved on. Bolton Wanderers is a different club now. But there are still plenty of people around the stadium who will, like me, have a moment of reflection today to remember Speedo, and what he brought to the club.

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