It would be fair to say that Robbie Savage isn’t the most universally popular character within the footballing world. Even he would admit that. He became the epitome of the ‘marmite footballer’, loved by the fans he played for due to the extent of effort and passion he put into his performances, whilst hated by opposition support for his wind-up antics.
Now into a radio and television career with the BBC and ESPN, he continues to split opinions among football fans, with his direct and opinionated style grating for some, whilst enjoyable for others.
Not that it bothers him one bit, as Savage in fact enjoys the varied reactions he gets from people.
“I suppose I’ve been criticised by a lot of the media, but the one thing I’ve done is I’ve always fronted up and that’s the reason I’m happy where I am now.
“I always like to think I was open and honest with the press. It might have upset some fans, but that’s the way I was.”
There were times during his playing career where Savage almost became a pantomime villain, as it became a nationwide pass-time for fans to try and wind him up and get him booked.
But while he is towards the top of all-time Premier League bookings, Savage only ever received two red cards in his entire playing career, with both often agreed to have been harshly dished out.
But Savage has no regrets for the way he went about his game and enjoyed his status with fans up and down the country.
“I think you’ve either got to be a bit special or a bad boy and I guess I was a bad boy in terms of yellow cards and people hating me.
“If you’re OK, there are thousands of people that are OK at football, not many people that are great. Giggs and Scholes are a couple, but others you remember for getting yellow cards and winding up opposition.
“There were times in games I would get yellow cards on purpose just to shut them up!”
Savage grew up in the same youth team as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, as people predicted big things for the side that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992. And the Welshman says he knew there were big futures ahead of both of them, with their experience now key to Manchester United defending their league title.
“You could see from that day that they were the best players in the team and were going to be something special, along with Beckham and the Nevilles.
“I think United have got the experience, the amount of players they’ve got who have won the Premier League. That’s why I think with these guys they’ll win the league.”
Savage never got the opportunity to play under Sir Alex Ferguson, but has some special praise for the man who brought him into the senior game.
Dario Gradi has defined Crewe Alexandra for over 20 years and Savage has never forgotten the impact he had on his career.
“He would include everyone from the reserves to the youth teams, kept all the players close and educate them in the way Crewe played. If you look at myself, Neil Lennon, Danny Murphy, the amount of top flight players he produced, it’s a testament to him, how he could spot players from an early age and worked with them.”
People have often questioned why Gradi never moved on to bigger and better jobs than Crewe, but Savage is insistent that Gradi never wanted to move on, and may not have had the same success in a different environment.
“He was Crewe Alexandra and I think he was happy there. Noticing young players, producing young players was what he loved doing. That’s what he was good at and I don’t think he would have left Crewe for a bigger club.
“People were pressuring him to win things, but if he wasn’t allowed to nurture young players like Crewe did, he wouldn’t have done so.”
Whilst he thinks highly of Gradi, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest as managers he worked under.
Savage effused praise for Martin O’Neill, his boss at Leicester, claiming he was the best he ever worked with.
“He was the best. The best for you when you played well and even when you didn’t play well he’d come put an arm round you and obviously have a go at you sometimes.
“You knew where you stood with him and you can see how he’s done well with every club he’s been at. He’s a rejuvenator and he makes the players believe, no matter how much ability you’ve got.
“Emile Heskey was our biggest talent, but he’d make me feel as special as Emile and that’s what he does.”
In regards to Heskey, Savage believes the amount of criticism he receives in England is unfair, claiming that he would be the perfect strike partner for any forward in the league.
“He was our powerhouse. We used to grow teams around him, he was our best. It’s a credit to Emile, that the amount of stick he takes, he’s got over 500 Premier League games, got 50, 60 odd England caps and he’s a credit to the game. I’m a huge fan of Emile Heskey.
“It’s all unfair criticism. You only have to ask people like Michael Owen, Tony Cottee, probably Darren Bent, people like that. If you asked them who they would want up front with them, they would probably say Emile Heskey, because he would unselfishly serve you.”
Since retiring from the game, Savage has embarked on an impressive media career, working radio and television, and made a surprise appearance on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing show.
He feels that doing Strictly was an important step for him, allowing him to transition between a sporting career and becoming a media personality, tapping into a whole new fan-base.
“Strictly is the one show you do. I remember Roberto Mancini saying after the Manchester Derby, when asked what he would do tonight, he said he was going to go home and watch my mate Robbie Savage on Strictly.
“Rio Ferdinand, Joey Barton, all the people who supported me on Twitter, they absolutely loved it. Strictly was the one thing that changed people’s perspective of me, that’s why I did it and why I can take heart from it.”
Football was rocked in December last year, as Wales boss Gary Speed committed suicide.
As a former international team-mate, Savage says that Speed was the ultimate professional and he felt a tremendous state of loss when news filtered through to him.
“He was the utmost model professional on and off the field. That’s the way he brought his children up. You could see from his funeral, the amount of people there from football players, team-mates or not team-mates lining the streets, he was a truly great man and a great loss, which is why he achieved what he did.
“He was getting Wales back on course, up to 48th in the world. He was a great family man and a great friend and it was so sad what happened.”
Savage’s media career has continued to gather pace and opinion will always be divided on him by fans of the game. But it remains clear that the naysayers will not faze him and they definitely will never change him.
This is what makes Robbie Savage who he is. This is what makes him one of the most fascinating characters in the Premier League era.
Robbie Savage is supporting npower’s new campaign “The Fanpower Stadium”. To claim your seat and win cash prizes for yourself and your team go to www.facebook.com/
Tags: Crewe Alexandra, Dario Gradi, Emile Heskey, Gary Speed, Leicester City, Manchester United, Martin O'Neill, Premier League, Robbie Savage, Sir Alex Ferguson