STEVEN Taylor claimed he was “the best professional in football”. Mark Hughes said he was “a privilege to work alongside and call a friend.” Alan Shearer described him as “a magnificent person who lit up every room he walked into”.

The world of football can be a petty, tribal environment at times, but when it comes to assessing the life of Gary Speed, who died yesterday at the age of 42, there is a rare unanimity.

Not just a magnificent footballer who won a league title with Leeds United, made more than 280 appearances for Newcastle United, won 85 caps for Wales and was awarded an MBE for his services to the game last year, Speed was a humble, friendly and down-to-earth character who never allowed the trappings of his fame to change him.

Speak to anyone who came into contact with him during his time in the North-East, and the story will be the same. Always courteous, considerate and magnificent company, Speed was as disarming off the pitch as he was effective on it.

The news of his unexpected death yesterday morning came as a massive surprise, perhaps reflecting his desire to shun the limelight away from the field of play. Even his closest friends appeared unaware of the issues he was wrestling with in his private life.

He leaves a host of memories from his time as a thrusting central midfielder in a Sir Bobby Robson-led Newcastle side that briefly threatened to take Europe by storm, and will be sadly missed in the region. Few players in the last two decades have made such a lasting impression.

BORN in Flintshire in 1969, Speed began his career as a youth player with Leeds United. He made his professional debut at the age of 19 and immediately established himself in the Yorkshire club's first team under the watchful eye of future Sunderland boss Howard Wilkinson.

He played a key role as Leeds won promotion to the First Division in the 1989-90 season and was also extremely influential as they went on to claim the top-flight title two seasons later.

Playing alongside Gordon Strachan, David Batty and Gary McAllister, Speed was part of a Leeds midfield that is widely acknowledged to have been one of the best in the club's illustrious history.

“The players I worked with represented all colours of the rainbow in terms of character, but in Gary's case he was a star in the true sense,” said Wilkinson. “For him – at 42 – to leave us is such a tragic loss. He had a life of success to look forward to I'm sure.

“He was a terrific player – not as gifted as some but he made the most of everything he had. I'm still struggling to get my head around what's happened.”

Speed left Leeds in a £3.5m move to Everton, and ironically scored on his Merseyside debut against Newcastle. He spent two years at Goodison Park, where he was installed as club captain, but headed to Tyneside for £5.5m in January 1998.

SIGNED by Kenny Dalglish, Speed helped Newcastle through difficult seasons under both the Scotsman and his successor, Ruud Gullit, before playing a key role in the Robson years that saw the Magpies establish themselves as part of the Champions League elite.

He played in the unsuccessful FA Cup finals of 1998 and 99, as well as the Wembley FA Cup semi-final in 2000.

But it was his performances under Robson that really cemented his place in Newcastle folklore as he combined with Alan Shearer and Shay Given to form the bedrock of a squad that finished in the top five in three successive seasons, twice qualifying for the Champions League.

In terms of playing style, he was the ideal central midfielder, positionally excellent, strong and measured in the tackle, hugely energetic between penalty areas and perfect at timing his attacking runs into the box.

He scored 40 goals for the Magpies, the majority of which came as a result of his aerial prowess. Always a threat from set-pieces, Speed might not have been the tallest player, but he was adept at positioning himself to out-jump defenders who boasted a height advantage.

Robson appointed him club captain, and he led by example from the off, never giving less than his all but always remembering his responsibilities to both his club and his sport.

“When I was coaching at Newcastle with Sir Bobby, Gary was as perfect a professional as you could ever wish to work with,” said Magpies assistant John Carver, who was also Robson's number two. “He was 100 per cent committed, dedicated to his profession and, above all, a wonderful colleague and friend.

“I am devastated by the news and I can only offer his family the most sincere of condolences at this tragic time. Gary was an exceptional person and a very dear friend. Football has lost a truly great man.”

SPEED left Newcastle in controversial circumstances in July 2004, joining Bolton for £750,000. Robson, who always referred to the midfielder as one of his “blue chip players” was pressured into selling against his wishes, believing that even at the age of 34, he still had plenty to offer.

Speed spent four seasons at the Reebok Stadium, becoming the first player to make 500 Premier League appearances when he turned out against West Ham in December 2006.

He joined Sheffield United in the Championship in 2008, and was eventually forced into retirement with a chronic back injury two years later.

By that time, he had become an active fundraiser for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, completing the 2010 London Marathon in honour of his former mentor.

He assumed a coaching role at Bramall Lane, and was appointed Sheffield United manager after Kevin Blackwell was dismissed at the start of last season.

However, just three months into the job, he was linked with the vacant position in charge of Wales, and was appointed as John Toshack's successor last December.

He took over a Welsh side ranked 117th in the world, and his first competitive game in charge of his country was a 2-0 defeat to England in March. However, he went on to lead Wales to notable victories over Montenegro, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Norway, results that created an air of optimism ahead of the next round of World Cup qualifiers.

He was found hanged in his home in Chester in the early hours of yesterday morning and leaves a wife and two children.

“I am totally devastated,” said Speed's international team-mate, Ryan Giggs. “Gary was one of the nicest men in football and someone I am honoured to call a team-mate and friend. It goes without saying my thoughts are with his family at this tremendously sad time.”