Savage back to feisty best for Moscow showdown

Euro 2004 play-offs: Wales midfielder is fit to face Russia after 'the worst four weeks of my life' in the treatment room
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Robbie Savage is a bit like a cab driver. You love his drive and aggression when he is on your side, but hate him at all other times. Just ask his Welsh team-mates, many of whom have complained about his crunching tackles or wild theatrics at some time or another when facing him in the Premiership. Or ask his Birmingham City manager, Steve Bruce, who regularly has to pick himself up after having been savaged by Savage during five-a-sides at training. Most agree Savage can be a handful, some even say he is a pest, and yet no one can dispute that he is the kind of player you would want in your team.

If Savage was all mouth and bad tackles, it is hard to believe that such progressive managers as Martin O'Neill, Mark Hughes and Bruce would pick him at every opportunity. The fact that they did, and still do, says everything about a midfielder who is often misunderstood.

Behind the blond locks and designer outfits is a passionate footballer and a devoted family man. Ask him about his baby boy, and his blue eyes light up. Ask him about the recent injury which very nearly deprived him of the chance to play against Russia in the two-legged Euro 2004 play-off, and his more sombre expression tells you how anxious he was.

"I was worried that I wasn't going to be fit for Wales," he says. "My Achilles problem just kept coming back and coming back. Up until Tuesday of last week I seriously didn't think I was going to make it, but the physio at Brum [Birmingham City] worked miracles on me. I played pain free last Saturday [in the 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers] and, although I picked up a slight hamstring strain on the other leg, the physios say it should be OK for Saturday's first leg in Moscow."

Unlike his two regular midfield partners, Mark Pembridge and Simon Davies, Savage has recovered just in time for the all-important trip to the Russian capital. Not that the healing process has been easy for a man who had never had to deal with serious injuries in the past.

"It's the first time I've ever been injured," the 29-year-old says. "I've only missed four games in four years in club football through injuries. I've never experienced it before and it's probably been the worst four weeks of my life."

Savage, who will win his 30th cap on Saturday, adds: "It's horrible being injured. You're in the treatment room every day, you go home and my wife's life has been a misery for the last four weeks, I'm not the same person. I'm not the bubbly Robbie that everyone sees. I get down like everyone else, its been horrible."

How low did he get? "I fell out with the physio on numerous occasions," Savage recalls. "I had a fight with him one day because I was so frustrated. When you're never injured you don't know what it's like. But this is when you realise how much hard work people who have had cruciate ligaments put in to get back. You can have all the money in the world, you can have big houses, big cars but when you're injured, you realise what playing football's all about. And you'd swap all that just to be fit and playing."

While he hated watching from the stands as his club played the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, Savage says that the most difficult aspect of his slow recovery was having to consider the prospect of missing the Euro 2004 play-off matches. "In the back of my mind, I was thinking that Wales-Russia were the two biggest games I'm ever going to play in. Because I'm not going to play in the Champions' League, and I'm not going to play for Man U or Arsenal, this is my best opportunity to play on the biggest stage."

He adds: "These are two games everyone wants to play in. Mark [Pembridge], who is struggling with a calf strain, will be devastated if he doesn't make it. Every player is the same, these two games for the likes of me and numerous others will be the biggest of our lives."

It will also, on Saturday at least, be the coldest. "It will be freezing in Moscow," he admits, "but I think it is a bonus that the first leg is over there. If we can nick something away from home, then 75,000 people will be in full voice at the Millennium Stadium and I would really fancy our chances. We know that the expectation is running high amongst the Welsh people and, even with the Rugby World Cup being on, the football is all people are talking about at the moment."

They will talk about nothing else for many years to come should this team take Wales to their first major tournament since 1958.