The calls from his brother back home in Wales came in rapid succession at 5 am ET on Sunday morning.
After three missed calls, New York Red Bulls midfielder Carl Robinson finally picked up and received the news that has since left the soccer world in shock and an entire nation in mourning: Wales national team manager Gary Speed was found dead in his home at the age of 42.
“Personally, I’ve just felt numb,” Robinson said of the 36 hours since learning the news. “I haven’t had this feeling since I lost my father over a year ago. It’s the feeling you get when you lose someone who is very close to you.”
Local media back in Wales have been seeking comment from Robinson about his former Wales teammate’s death, but the 35-year-old RBNY veteran has declined in a show of respect to Speed’s family. He chose to speak to MLSsoccer.com because he felt it important that fans on this side of the world realize the man that Speed was.
“One thing stands out to me is the way he conducted himself,” Robinson told MLSsoccer.com on Monday. “He had everything … but he was a normal guy. He was such a down-to-earth guy and any aspiring footballer these days should aim to be like him.”
That’s what Robinson did. He considered Speed a role model when he broke into the Welsh national team back in 1999. Although he played the same position as Speed, who was seven years his senior, he never forgets how the future Wales national team manager took him under his wing.
“He was everything I wanted to be and what I believe a footballer should be with the way he conducted himself on the field and off the field,” Robinson said. “And he never changed and that stood out to me back then when I got to know him and his character. … It’s very sad that we lost someone I admired and respected greatly at such a young age.”
When Robinson finally earned promotion to the English Premier League with Sunderland in 2005, he recalls how Speed went out of his way to track down his phone number to congratulate him and tell him how he was looking forward to playing against him in the EPL.
The two stayed in regular contact and spent a week together last December in the UEFA “A” license coaching course held in Cardiff during the MLS offseason.
“That seems a long, long way away now,” Robinson said. “It’s a huge, huge tragedy and such a shame that his two young boys and his wife have now got to try to get together and rebuild their lives.”
For Speed’s family and those who knew him well, like Robinson, there’s not only grappling with his loss but also the manner in which it happened. Local police confirmed that Speed was found hanging in an apparent suicide in his garage.
“It’s a difficult emotion. It’s not knowing why and that question may never be answered,” Robinson said. “What was going on and why did it come to this? Unless you’re inside that situation, you’ll never know and people will speculate and all sorts of things are being said. I‘d rather hear nothing rather than malicious rumors.
"At the end of the day, no one knows and they’re making assumptions and trying to find out the reason. … I’d prefer nothing is said because they don’t know. If it comes out, it comes out. Even if it doesn’t, pay your respects to him.”
So in an offseason during which Robinson faces a major decision about whether to step into the coaching ranks for New York after an injury-riddled 2011 season, he’ll have to make the trip back home to pay his respects to a man who marked his career and who led Wales to its brightest patch in recent years.
Robinson is hopeful that despite the loss of their leader, his compatriots who wear the national team jersey can build on what Speed left in less than a year at the helm.
“Wales have got some very, very talented young players and they needed belief and Gary installed that belief in them,” Robinson said, pointing to the four straight wins since a Euro 2012 qualifying loss to England at Wembley. “The confidence and belief and enjoyment playing under Gary was evident for all to see.
“The nation is in mourning. That tells you what a whole nation thought of him. It’s too early what impact it will have, but the lads I know will have inner belief inside them and they want to go on now and try to qualify in 2014 partly for Gary. … As a nation, we can pull together and we can try to achieve qualification for Wales but also for Gary.”