Saturday 7th May 2011 marked the end of an era in football as Robbie Savage called time on a playing career that has spanned 18 years, six clubs and 670 appearances for club and country.
Love him or hate him (and there’s rarely an in-between), football’s Mr Marmite, as Savage readily refers to himself, has had an undoubted influence on the game. Freely admitting he is not the most skilful player to have graced the top divisions, Savage nevertheless has been a hugely important and influential part of every team he has played in.
From his early days as a trainee in the Manchester United set-up where he played as a striker alongside the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, winning the Youth Cup in 1992, to his final game for Derby County away at Reading last weekend, Savage’s passion and enthusiasm for the game has been the hallmark of his success. Others may have had more ability, but few will have matched his exuberance and work ethic.
An impressive 11 years in the top flight is testament to Savage’s longevity. A better player than he has often been given credit for, his approach to the game and refusal to let opponents rest on the ball, has resulted in many uncomfortable matches for the opposition, a perfect example being the recent tie against Queens Park Rangers, where Savage successfully marked one of the Championship’s best players of the season, Adel Taarabt, out of the game, a feat not matched by many this season. There is a suggestion then, that Savage may be calling it quits too soon, but the 36-year-old insists the timing is right and he wants to go out on a high.
It has not all been plain sailing for Robbie Savage though. Once dubbed the most hated player in the Premiership, the Welshman has ruffled feathers wherever he has played. He thrived on riling both opponents and opposition fans and has certainly been no stranger to controversy, whether it be for using the referee’s toilet before a game during his time at Leicester, or upsetting Birmingham City fans by leaving the club to join Blackburn Rovers and also celebrating enthusiastically after scoring a goal at St Andrews in 2006, the year the team was relegated from the Premier League.
Equally charismatic both on and off the pitch, Savage has never been one to shy away from the spotlight. Part of his charm comes from the fact that he has never taken himself too seriously. He revels in the criticism (or banter as he would refer to it) about his flamboyant love of cars, his fake tan and his flowing locks and yet, by his own admission, he feels that this role he created for himself as a ‘pantomime villain’ effectively cost him a move to a “really big club”. Nevertheless, he is happy with his career and achievements.
Tenacious in the tackle and not always displaying the greatest finesse, Savage’s success was centered on buzzing round the opposition like an annoying fly. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was certainly effective. Away fans loved to hate him, but he was adored in equal measure by home fans wherever he played, from his early days at Crewe Alexandra to Leicester City, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers and Derby County, and this was reflected in numerous ‘Player of the Season’ awards.
Inevitably, Savage’s style of play meant he frequently caught the attention of referees. Whilst boasting an impressive 346 Premiership appearances, placing him in the top 50 players, he also became the league’s 3rd most booked player, picking up a total of 89 yellow cards. He also held the unenviable record of accumulating the most bookings in one season with 14 yellows, although he found himself in prestigious company alongside his hero Mark Hughes, Olivier Dacourt and Paul Ince; all players with a fierce reputation for tough-tackling.
Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Savage received only two red cards in his entire career, the first when playing for Wales against Northern Ireland, where he was dismissed for a skirmish with Michael Hughes in 2004, and the second for two bookable offences while playing for Blackburn against Middlesbrough in 2006.
As Savage looks back over his career, the one regret he may have is that his international chances were curtailed too soon. Partly of his own making due to a very public fallout with the then manager John Toshack, Savage retired from international football in September 2005, with 39 caps under his belt. Omitted from Toshack’s squad, the midfielder believed his future chances would be limited and openly spoke of his disapproval of the former Liverpool striker’s management style as well as engaging in a public radio spat with former Welsh international Leighton James over the issue.
It was a sour end to Savage’s Wales career. As a player who had thrived under the management and style of play of Mark Hughes and who was part of a successful Wales side who in an 18-month period recorded wins over Italy and Germany and attracted crowds of over 70,000 to the Millennium Stadium, Savage undoubtedly had more to offer to the national side and remains a fiercely proud Welshman.
But a new era beckons. Savage was offered the chance to join Vancouver Whitecaps back in January, but has instead opted to pursue his burgeoning media career. As a prolific user of Twitter, ‘Sav’, as he is affectionately known, has further increased his profile, accruing over 275, 000 followers. He regularly presents the 606 phone-in on Radio Five Live and is an engaging pundit for ESPN and the BBC. He looks set to take the media by storm, with the same verve and commitment he put into his playing career, already scooping an award for Rising Star at tonight’s Sony Radio Awards.
But Savage was always going to sign off from his playing days in typical style. Receiving a rapturous reception at the Madejski stadium on Saturday from both sets of supporters, the midfielder stripped to his vest and underpants, offering his shirt, shorts and boots to the crowd.
He may not have had the most glittering of careers and has certainly courted plenty of controversy over the years, but Robbie Savage has been one of the game’s greatest characters. His infectious enthusiasm means there is a rarely a dull moment when he’s around and the game will certainly be a blander place without him.