|Wales' manager Gary Speed gestures during their Euro 2012 Group G qualifying soccer match against Montenegro in Cardiff, Wales September 2, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Staples
London - There have been cheerier days in the old parish of sport which is supposed to take us away from the harder edge of real life. Indeed, through a week of soccer at every level here in England and Wales there has been one dominating theme.
It has been the mourning of 42-year-old Gary Speed, the head coach of the Wales national team and a former player of great distinction.
Even after allowing that some famous, hugely rewarded professional sportsmen might lead lives of desperation in varying degrees of quiet, it still seemed inconceivable that Speed could possibly have been one of them.
This, certainly, was the most shocking aspect of the news that he had been found hanged, apparently by his own hand, at his mansion home last Sunday morning. Also not so easy to understand has been some of the public reaction. Minutes of silence at the football grounds have invariably given way to bursts of applause, sustained clapping.
No doubt this reflects deep respect for an extremely impressive career -- in all his time as a notably undemonstrative member of his celebrated trade, Gary Speed seldom, if ever, gave a hint of vulnerability -- but it also creates a strange disconnection with the meaning of quite what happened. Indeed, if a minute's silence, devoted perhaps to thoughts on the pain and confusion that can grip even the most successful lives, had ever been more appropriate it is hard to imagine.
Speed was the rare animal in the football jungle. He cut his own path, lived by his own values.
In a hard and volatile business, he conducted himself with a superb and easy professionalism. If there were pressures and disillusionment and the classic fear that one serious injury might ruin his way of life, he wore such worries lightly.
Out on the field, where he played for more than 20 years with great and consistent success for Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton, a brief Indian summer with Sheffield United, and as a young and sure-footed manager of brilliant potential, Speed's public face was invariably composed and agreeable.
If football was indeed hard and often precipitous, it didn't offer anything he couldn't handle.
That, anyway, was the overpowering conviction of each old teammate and opponent and friend stepping forward to speak of the man who never seemed to lose his balance, who appeared to have made an unswerving pact with himself that he would always take the best of football, something he had been devoted to since boyhood, and live with the rest.
He had done it so conspicuously, unerringly well right to the moment the police made their bleak and stunning announcement.
One friend, who heard the news via a radio announcement of the minute's silence before last Sunday's Premier League game between Swansea City and Aston Villa, said, "That this should happen is just unthinkable because of everyone you knew, in any walk of life, in any situation, you would have to say he would have been the last one you might have thought could have done something like this.
"When you saw him on the television he was the same guy you saw watching his boys play schoolboy football and talking with other parents. There was nothing starry about Gary. In that way big-time football didn't seem to have touched him."
Yet many good judges within the game believed that he might well have been on the point of making a significant impact as a manager. In his first year in charge of Wales, for whom he had played 85 times in midfield with a fine balance of tough physicality and skill, the perennial also-rans of international football were showing clear signs of moving back towards the level they last enjoyed more than 50 years ago when great players like John Charles and Ivor Allchurch inspired a notable impact on the 1958 World Cup finals.
Thumbscrews would not have induced Speed to make such claims but he did admit to excitement over the possibilities created by his young captain, Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal and the Tottenham superstar Gareth Bale.
The challenges of the football field could not, of course, have been more remote as relatives and friends moved to comfort Speed's wife Louise and his two sons, Tommy and Ed.
Welsh football and the wider game had lost a man of high and, apparently, uncomplicated promise. A smaller circle had been robbed of another kind of certainty. Yet, somewhat eerily, the clapping only increased in volume.