In an interview in late 2003, Gary Speed of Newcastle United and Wales was asked if he could see himself managing his country one day. "If everything in life was perfect, yeah, but it's not," he replied. In the manager's office at the headquarters of the Football Association of Wales, on a smart industrial estate near Cardiff Bay, I remind Speed of those words more than seven years ago. He smiles. "That was pretty profound for me."
Speed succeeded John Toshack as Wales manager a month ago. Does that mean everything in life is now perfect? Another smile. "Well," he says, "it's not really a dream come true, because when you're a boy you don't dream about becoming manager of Wales, you dream of playing for Wales. But there's no way I could have turned it down. It's come a lot earlier than I thought." His ambition, he adds, is to become more successful as a manager than he was a player, and if longevity is the measure of success then he's setting the bar high.
Speed had made more Premier League appearances than anyone until the record was claimed by David James, and he was capped 85 times for Wales, more than any other outfield player. As a left-sided midfielder with a priceless ability to score goals, he played from 1988 to 2009. And at 41, as trim as ever, he still looks as though he could, in that time-honoured football phrase, "do a job". But he says that a back operation has diminished the muscles down his right side.
We'll come back to Speed's plans for Wales, but for now let's contemplate the chances of Everton, and a Dalglish-prepared Liverpool, in today's Merseyside derby. Speed's father and, indeed, his older son are Liverpool fans, but growing up in north Wales his best friend was John Ratcliffe, cousin of the Everton captain Kevin. So Everton it was, and Everton it has remained, even though his own two-year stint at Goodison came to an acrimonious end in 1998.
"There's nothing to say, really," says Speed, when I dredge up the circumstances of his departure, which have long intrigued conspiracy theorists. "I signed a confidentiality clause when I left, and anyway I'm an Evertonian so I would never say bad things. Newcastle came in for me, I wanted to go. I couldn't blame the fans [for booing him when he returned in opposition colours] because they didn't know why I left, but they're great with me now when I go back."
As for the likely outcome of today's derby, Speed has no more idea than the rest of us. "I don't know, though I do know that Kenny's record was always very good in derbies. I love Kenny. He signed me for Newcastle and he's a great fella. Very easy to talk to, very difficult to understand. I want him to do well for Liverpool. But after Sunday."
Today's game is at Anfield, but it was at Goodison that Dalglish, as a player, enjoyed his most emphatic derby victory, a 5-0 romp in November 1982. Speed, then an impressionable 13-year-old, was devastated, and recalls it now only because of a story his compatriot and rival candidate for the Wales job, Ian Rush, told him last week. "Rushy and Rats [Kevin Ratcliffe] were best mates, and Rushy scored all five that day [actually, it was merely four]. Afterwards, Rats had to give Rushy a lift home! And when they came out, Rats got more stick off the Everton fans than Rushy."
Amid our laughter, he adds that he was surprised that Liverpool parted company with Roy Hodgson so soon. "Maybe with Rafa (Benitez) it was time for a change, but traditionally they stand by their managers. Straight away on Sunday (against Manchester United), though, you could see them playing more adventurous football. Kenny always wants to play pass-and-move, quick football. And they'll really want to play for their manager. With that mindset, it's amazing what you can achieve."
He hopes to inspire such loyalty in his own managerial career, and to apply other techniques picked up from the men who managed him. "I learnt a lot tactically from Ruud Gullit. I know he had problems with the other side of things (at Newcastle) but with tactics and positioning he was spot on. And Bobby Robson was the greatest motivator. I showed him my backside once, when he took me off, and when I got home I felt so bad. I rang him and said: 'Look gaffer, I'm really sorry.' And he said: 'Don't worry about it, son, these things happen.' He had such a big heart, it just made you roll your sleeves up." Speed's eyes fill with tears. "I'm getting emotional," he says. I ask whether Robson got his name right. A smile. "At the start he used to call me Sheedy, but that was great because Kevin Sheedy was one of my heroes."
If the great man were still around, he would doubtless be a tremendous source of wisdom for Speed, even with a Euro 2012 qualifier against England coming up in March. He would also have been able to advise on the rhythms of international management after the daily demands [albeit briefly, in Speed's case at Sheffield United] of managing a club. "But I'm not missing the day-to-day stuff," Speed says. "Since I've been here I've been busy putting people in place. And Mark Hughes once told me that this job is the perfect grounding for a manager because it gives you time to think."
All the same, and even though his instalment at the FAW offices fortuitously coincides with the prospect of a renewed Home Internationals competition, the words "perfect grounding" rather suggest that he sees the Wales job as a stepping stone, perhaps to the Premier League? "No, I'm fully focused on Wales, and my ambition is to qualify for an international tournament, which as a player I very nearly did in '93 and '03."
Then as now, I venture, the Wales team has always comprised at most a handful of players who could get into any international side [Ryan Giggs, Gareth Bale], and lesser fry from the lower divisions. "Yeah, but it's a team thing. We've got Bale, (Craig) Bellamy, (Aaron) Ramsey, but we need 23 or 24 players if we're to achieve anything."
Next week, Speed has an appointment with Giggs, not to persuade the old-timer to make a playing comeback for his country but in the hope of bringing him into the coaching set-up. "It will be great for the players, the fans and me, but it will be good for him too. I want him to be part of the progression." And what of two of Welsh football's other senior citizens, Robbie Savage and, in yet another spot of bother with the police this week, Cardiff City's Craig Bellamy? "Craig? I watched him last week and he's far too good for the Championship. And Sav? There's always room for the likes of Robbie Savage. He's a fantastic lad, Welsh through and through."
Speaking of Welshness, it is always hard to associate north Walians such as Speed with intense patriotism because the accent owes more to Merseyside than the Valleys. But he is as passionate a Welshman as Max Boyce, nonetheless. Indeed, he admits, a little embarrassedly, that in his playing days he would make sure that every time he crossed the border from England he would ensure that Tom Jones was on the car stereo singing 'Green, Green Grass of Home'.
Speed made his senior debut for Wales in 1990, alongside such giants as Hughes and Rush, Ratcliffe and Neville Southall. "And Dean Saunders, who always led the mickey-taking." In fact a composite Welsh side from the last 25 years or so would be formidable indeed, but Speed can't play hypotheticals. He hopes his 85-cap record will fall, perhaps to Bale, or Joe Ledley, though in any case he is prouder of captaining his country than anybody else. And what pride there will be if he ever gets to manage his older son, Ed, currently in the under-14s development squad. The younger boy, 12-year-old Tommy, is a boxer, English champion at 40 kilos last year.
"Until they were six and seven, they were both mad keen on Newcastle. Then we moved to Chester, where they got a bit of stick for that. I told them they could change, but would have to support one team through thick and thin, forever, as long as it was Everton. But Ed chose Liverpool. And Tommy chose Arsenal. He said: 'Dad, I like the way they play football.' And I thought, that's a great answer, I can't argue with that."