Savage reveals real football man behind pantomime villain act

The player opposing fans love to boo tells Richard Rae that in his final season he still enjoys the game – despite recent depression
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The Independent Football

When Robert William Savage leads out Derby County at Leeds United today at the start of what he accepts is probably his farewell season as a player, it seems fair to say Elland Road is unlikely to greet him with a round of affectionate applause.

Having spent his career happily winding up opponents, players and fans alike, Savage knows the abuse will be sustained and vituperative. That's a shame, he suggests, though not for the reasons that might be expected.

"I think in a way I might be the last of a kind of player which they can understand, maybe even identify with a little, if you like," said Savage. "This day and age, I think it's got so hard to for a young English player to come out of a youth team and break into the Premier League. I think now with the rules as they are it's hard to even go out on loan.

"I'm glad I've had my time when I have. I honestly don't know if I'd like to be a young, up-and-coming player at a Premier League club now.

"I say that because I think you have to be extra special now, I think you have to have something completely different now to break through at that level."

There are some - many, perhaps - who will say that is no bad thing, and that the game will be better without players like Robbie Savage. In fact, however, there has always been a lot more to Savage's game than the chasing and the wild and occasionally mistimed tackles with which he is automatically associated. The legs may not allow him to cover as much ground as he used to, but under the management of Nigel Clough, Savage has become the man who makes Derby tick, intelligently organising and knitting play together in central midfield, and offering a real threat from free-kicks.

If that has surprised those who automatically characterise him as an essentially negative player, as well as an intensely irritating one, they may be further surprised by the contents of his autobiography, published this week. It was characteristic of Savage that he should launch it dressed in a outfit that demanded ridicule, but then, flanked by his mother and father, explain movingly why he chose to publish now, rather than when he finally moves full-time into the broadcasting career that seems to be waiting for him.

"I was going to do the book at the end of next year, but unfortunately Dad has contracted Pick's disease, which is in the Alzheimer's group, and to put it bluntly, I wanted him to read about me while he can remember who I am," said Savage.

"And while I've cheated and lied at times in my career, I haven't in the book. I've proved a lot of people wrong – people say I'm over-rated, and a wrong'un, but I'm not."

The book has its standard episodes - the cars, confrontations, drinking sessions, a chapter which starts with the sentence "I must have seen every adult movie every made" – but there are also moments of natural insight, as well as painful self-analysis.

Most particularly, perhaps, of the period shortly after Paul Jewell brought him to Derby in 2008, and Savage admits he was so depressed he considered self-harming.

"Talking about the depression, the bad times at Derby, that was the hardest thing to talk about, because people don't believe it," he acknowledged. "They think how can you be depressed earning big money, with a lovely family and lifestyle, but I was - my state of mind was like you'd never believe, I didn't have the will to do anything.

"I was finished, I was a wreck, and I nearly lost my wife. It was horrendous, honestly, and in a way it was my own fault because I was not the player Paul Jewell thought he'd bought. It wasn't his fault that I wasn't the player he'd seen for Blackburn against Wigan tearing round the pitch making tackles. I couldn't reproduce what he thought he'd bought."

Clough, however, saw something in Savage others did not, the ability to play in a role that many would have thought beyond him. In many respects, Savage acknowledges, this has become the most fulfilled time of his footballing life, which is why he has chosen to play for at least one more season – though he will also be anchoring the BBC's flagship football phone-in show, 606.

Even those who actively dislike him must be pleased about that, if only on the grounds that anyone would be better than the appalling Alan Green, but Savage has a natural, if slightly risky, talent for repartee which could make the programme required listening.

As he demonstrated with his Mum, the formidable Valerie.

"I get my hypochondria from her," he told Derby fans queuing for a signed copy.

"No you don't," she retorted.

"And my argumentative side," her grinning son instantly responded.

'Savage! The autobiography of Robbie Savage' is published by Mainstream Publishing at £17.99.