Advertisement
the clown prince

The Cult: Robbie Savage

As a player and a pundit, Robbie Savage has always made himself difficult to ignore. Thus, we have relented to the Welshman's demands for attention and inducted him into The Cult.

by Sean Cole
Sep 20 2016, 2:08pm

Illustration by Dan Evans

As a player and a pundit, Robbie Savage has always made himself difficult to ignore. Thus, we have relented to the Welshman's demands for attention and inducted him into The Cult.

Cult Grade: The Clown Prince

Virtually anyone with even a passing interest in football will have something to say about Robbie Savage. Very few will be complimentary, with the majority featuring a few choice insults. The most common view is that the Welshman is wilfully obnoxious and unduly opinionated. Both of these charges are hard to deny, and are an inevitable by-product of Savage's seemingly insatiable desire to be noticed and commented upon, no matter how negatively. That said, something has been lost along the way.

Now a regular on TV, radio and Twitter, excitedly holding forth about issues of no real importance, it's important to remember that there was a time before he became quite so all encompassing. Savage the footballer has now been obscured by Savage the pundit and mid-range member of the celebrity circuit. There is, however, a common thread of shameless self-promotion running through his playing and media careers: in both he has traded on modest talents, bountiful enthusiasm, and bulletproof confidence.

READ MORE: The Cult – Fabrizio Ravanelli

As a contemporary of Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, and David Beckham in the Manchester United youth team, Savage was something of a poor relation to the much-vaunted 'class of '92'. He was good, but not quite good enough, being exposed early on to the cut-throat nature of elite football. Released a couple of years after winning the FA Youth Cup, without making a first-team appearance for United, he joined third-tier Crewe Alexandra and set about reinventing himself as a combative central midfielder.

While many sink without a trace, Savage obstinately floated back to the top. You can write your own jokes about what this makes him comparable with.

Point of Entry: Impossible to Ignore

Success at Crewe, where he achieved promotion to the second-tier via the play-offs, earned Savage a move to Premier League side Leicester City. It was here that he came to wider public attention, quickly developing into the pantomime villain that opposition supporters loved to hate. Mass irritant and ultimate wind-up merchant, he was involved in numerous controversies. Accusations of diving, foul play and underhand tactics abounded.

From being fined £10,000 for 'improper conduct' after shitting in Graham Poll's toilet ahead of a game at Filbert Street, to being knocked out by the flailing arm of Matt Messias as he awarded a decision, Savage had several high-profile run-ins with refs. He picked up 89 yellow cards, at one time a Premier League record, but was only once sent off. All shirt tugs, tactical fouls and snide provocation, Savage gestured towards being a hardman without any of the iron-willed, kneecap-shattering menace the position demands.

Amid the histrionics and shit-talking, it's easy to forget that Savage scored the occasional belter.

Instead, with his long blond hair, countless indiscretions and pratfalls, he cultivated a reputation as the Premier League's clown prince. In doing so, he earned a level of fame that far outweighed his merits as a footballer, yet simultaneously masked what a capable player he could actually be. Whereas most people do their best to fit in, Savage was desperate to stand out; in an ultra-masculine world, he became a weirdly foppish sideshow.

READ MORE: The Cult – Juninho

With just one League Cup to his name, there's a lack of material achievement to justify the sound and fury that surrounded him. Widely mocked and reviled, he embodied some of the Premier League's worst, yet most compelling, traits – its bad taste, theatricality and conspicuous consumption. For Savage, the normal inhibitory factors of shame and self-awareness simply don't apply.

With 1.7 million Twitter followers, a couple of books, a regular spot on BT Sport and BBC Radio 5 Live and a column in The Mirror, Savage remains difficult to ignore. As well as delivering forthright, if not especially insightful, commentary on football matters, he's also found time to shill for Aldi, John Smith's and William Hill. Each role plays on the faintly ridiculous caricature he's become. Even though the jokes are ostensibly at Savage's expense, he's still the one laughing hardest.

The Moment: Birmingham City vs Aston Villa, 2002-03

It could all have turned out quite differently. Following relegation with Leicester, Savage was somewhat damaged goods, unsure where to head next. Staying in the same Cardiff hotel as the Birmingham City squad ahead of their play-off final against Norwich, he jokingly told then Blues manager Steve Bruce that he would join the club if they went up. After a victory on penalties at the Millennium Stadium, Savage became the Midlands side's first signing of the Premier League era within a couple of weeks.

Birmingham City had been away from the top tier of English football for 16 years, overshadowed by Aston Villa and getting by on gallows humour. In many ways they were a perfect match – unfashionable upstarts with a point to prove, out to upset the established order and show that they belonged. Savage became the focal point of the team, setting the tone for Bruce's group of game but limited players.

READ MORE: The Cult – Alan Shearer

Although the season began with a rude awakening away to reigning champions Arsenal, the Blues gradually found their feet ahead of the long-awaited meeting with Villa at St. Andrew's – a first chance to exact revenge for years of taunts. Savage and Aliou Cisse grafted away furiously in midfield, snapping at ankles and forcing errors. The Welshman's heavy touch set up Clinton Morrison for the first, Villa 'keeper Peter Enckelman obliged with the second, and Geoff Horsfield added gloss to the scoreline with the third. Pitch invasions ensued; a generation's worth of demons were exorcised.

The return fixture was equally frenetic, and the outcome swung on two dismissals. Savage tempted Dion Dublin into a rash challenge and then a headbutt, with Birmingham exploiting their numerical advantage to good effect. After going two goals up through Stan Lazaridis and Horsfield, Joey Gudjonsson saw red for a two-footed lunge. Doing the double over Villa was the undoubted highlight of an impressive campaign, as the relegation favourites finished in 13th place.

Over the next two years Savage showed that he was a far better footballer than many gave him credit for, becoming more assertive in possession and demonstrating impressive technique from set-pieces and penalties. A competitive edge still defined his game and he was at his best when rising to the big occasion. The Blues were undefeated against Villa in the five games he played, Savage more than most seeming to thrive on the hostility he experienced.

The club's love affair with Savage ended prematurely when he engineered a move to Blackburn Rovers. The methods he used – encouraging Sky Sports to film him turning up on a day off to give the impression that he'd been made to train on his own; claiming he needed to move to be closer to his family in Wrexham, which was actually further away – left a sour taste. Neither club nor player were quite the same after the split.

Closing Statements

"That was the thing that hurt most – the laughs in the room because someone's having a dig at me. It's fine, not a problem. But 'no career'? Look, I'm not making this about me, but I played 350 Premier League games. Yes, I was technically not great. Yes, I didn't win trophies. But every training session and every game I gave my utmost so I think I can have an opinion." Savage responding to John Terry's claims that he had 'no career' and played 'at a really bad level'.

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."––Oscar Wilde