Robbie Savage regains sense of pride under Nigel Clough

13 February 2009 06:14
Derby County v Manchester UnitedKick-off: Sun Feb 15, 4.30pm; Pride Park, DerbyTV: ITV1, ITV HD, Setanta Sports 2Radio: BBC Radio 5 Live

Savage, in short, thought the game was up. After a month's loan at Brighton towards the end of last year, he returned to Derby without any proper boots, sadly believing his stud-wearing days were a thing of the past.

Nigel Clough, however, had other ideas. After seeing the Welshman work hard in training, Jewell's successor was sufficiently impressed to recall the 34-year-old for the Carling Cup semi-final with Manchester United, forcing Savage to borrow some boots off a team-mate.

And with United, the club where he started, returning for the FA Cup fifth-round tie on Sunday, Savage could not be happier with life just now. Back to his old self, the loudest voice at the training ground, barely a minute passed without laughter when we chatted this week.

"It's a new lease of life," he beams. "After what I've been through here, I play every game now like it's my last. The manager who bought me decided he didn't fancy me. It was his opinion. As simple as that. A bit like Robbie Keane going to Liverpool."

But for someone so bubbly who feeds off the banter, I suggest the long months in exile must have been torture.

"Yeah, it was horrendous," he confirms. "The lowest point was when I was training up on the top pitch with the kids. Sometimes it was just with the fitness coach –me and him. That was the lowest of the low.

"Then you get in the car, go home and you're arguing with your wife and snapping at the kids. My two boys mean the world to me so that was horrible. So I was going out shopping on a Saturday afternoon and people asking, 'Who do you play for now?' "

In many ways, that kind of inquiry would have hurt Savage most, because, let's face it, the lad with the flowing blond hair and taste for a tackle has never been the sort to hide from the limelight.

Yet it is easy from the outside to get the wrong idea. While opposing teams and fans might have loved to hate this Lamborghini lover down the years for the often reckless way he put himself about, Savage could seldom be accused of not trying his best.

On top of that, he has never fallen into the trap of taking himself too seriously, nor tried to claim he was blessed with great skill. Savage knows what he is, a wholehearted battler who understood the demands of the top flight. It rankles a bit, therefore, to be denied much credit.

"I've played 350 Premier League games," he says with pride. "Apart from my first season at Leicester when it took me about 10 games to get in the team, I've been a starter for every one of those seasons and gone on to average about 30 games.

" It's not as if my managers were mugs. I've played under Martin O'Neill and Peter Taylor at Leicester, Steve Bruce at Birmingham, my idol Mark Hughes at Blackburn and now Nigel, who I think has got a great future as a manager."

Yet Savage's own future was thrown into doubt the day Sir Alex Ferguson decided that the busy teenager playing up front in United's 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning side was never going to compare with some of his team-mates, namely David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.

Savage thinks back to the harrowing day Ferguson broke the news.

"I jumped into my little Ford Fiesta in tears and drove back to Wrexham. I couldn't face telling my parents so I phoned my mate, Jamie, and we went for a game of snooker. On the way, I've hit a car head on and Jamie's gone into the back of me."

Both ended up in hospital, with Savage unable to feel his arm.

"Mum and dad came to see me and that's when I tell 'em, with my arm up in a sling, that Man United had released me."

You can imagine the heartache of a dream crushed, even though Ferguson had been kind enough to suggest the youngster would get his chance somewhere down the line. It was not just kindness, though.

"If you'd have said to me when I was lying in that hospital bed that I'd go on to play 11 seasons in the Premier League, go for £8 million worth of transfers, win nearly 40 caps for Wales – well, I'd have never believed you. The thing I'm most pleased about is that there were plenty of better players than me in that United youth team. Of course there were. Even some who got released were probably better than me. So to have the career I've had, it's just really satisfying.

"I don't want this to come out wrong but for someone who hasn't played for a massive club, there's probably no one more famous than me, is there? The coverage I've had in newspapers and everything has been incredible. You'd expect that notoriety with someone playing for a big club, but I haven't done that.

"I remember Mark Hughes saying something to me once when he was Wales manager. He said the one thing everyone wants to do in football is make a mark and be remembered. He said I'd done that. He said I'd certainly be remembered."

You cannot really argue with that. And do you know what? Some of those memories should actually concern an admirable dedication to the game Savage loves.

Robbie's verdict on the United class of 1992

David BeckhamHe used to practice free-kicks against the wall at the Cliff. Bang, bang, bang, all the time. Free-kick after free-kick every day. I never thought he'd become what he has, though – all the fame and that. To us he was just plain Becks.

Ryan GiggsBest ever Premiership player – without question. I went to Welsh Under-15 trials with Giggsy when he was Ryan Wilson. That's how far we go back. We'd always mess about when we were with Wales. Really funny guy with a dry sense of humour.

Paul ScholesWhen he was really small as a kid you could still see his ability. Again, a funny guy. Like Giggsy, very dry. Loves his training, having a laugh and then going home.

Gary NevillePeople say he's steady but, for me, he's the best right-back England have ever had. Steady? He's been brilliant.

Nicky ButtAnother one who's had a great career. A brilliant passer of the ball who just gets on with it. Puts his foot in and rarely gives the ball away. Doesn't say much in public but he's a born winner.

Source: Telegraph