Savage words may break as many bones as his kicks

It's time for an assault on the ears following a career spent getting up opponents' noses.
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The Independent Online

Robbie Savage will make his debut on the pundits' sofa on Match of the Day 2 during the coming season, a distant cry from the television show on which he might have ended up but for the advent of Nigel Clough as manager of Derby County early this year.

Savage, who turns 35 in October and intends to combine his burgeoning media career with a role as senior professional at Pride Park, had fallen so far from favour under Paul Jewell's stewardship that his return from a loan spell at Brighton prompted a drastic suggestion from Derby's chairman, Adam Pearson.

"Adam said, 'Why not ring Ant and Dec and see if you can get on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!'," Savage recalled. "I realised he was jesting and we burst out laughing. I'm scared of spiders anyway. Yet it summed up how bad things were. The Derby lads reckoned I was 'in Siberia'. I was made to train with the Academy kids and told my legs had gone. I thought I was finished."

Clough's arrival from Burton Albion brought the waspish midfielder in from the cold. The son of Old Big 'Ead Brian gave everyone a clean slate. After assessing Savage on the practice pitch, he swiftly restored him to a side that showed an instant upturn in results and

performances in the Championship. "I'd never been part of a squad with such low morale," Savage said of Jewell's reign. "There was fear in the lads' eyes, even at home. The gaffer [Clough] brought back the self-belief and teamwork. He made it fun again.

"Not many people could have come from non-League to a club relegated from the Premier League with a record low points total and put his stamp on things so quickly. I worked under Martin O'Neill, who people say is influenced by Brian Clough. But Martin is his own man and so is Nigel Clough. Like his father, it's all about honesty; he tells it like it is."

The latter phrase encapsulates Savage's approach to his duties as a summariser. With his trademark peroxide locks poking out from beneath a flat cap, he cut a dash behind the microphone last season, when Radio 5 Live used him at eight games. "I thought it was easy," he said, matter-of-factly rather than boastfully. "The bottom line is that I can talk football all day and hold my own with anybody. I watch every league, at home and abroad. It's what I'm comfortable with."

Alan Hansen confessed that he "despised" pundits until he became one, and Savage observed: "Some of them do talk nonsense." He may have had in mind Leighton James, a fellow former Wales player who also played for Derby. When Savage rang his radio show to answer criticism of himself, James patronisingly told him that "one day, when you've got command of the English language, you'll perhaps become a pundit".

Encouraged by the BBC, who despatched one of their sports staff to his Cheshire home to iron out any on-air weaknesses, Savage is keen to project his personality, to represent the "regular pro" and avoid being "robot-like". "I was saying 'Brad' when I should have said 'Friedel'. It was too pally and the listeners wouldn't always have known who I was on about. 5 Live picked up on that, and they're getting me to find the right balance between being funny and acting the clown."

Savage's radio cameos have displayed a refreshing reluctance to toe the line. "I was doing one match on the day of a grand prix and heard on my headphones that Jenson Button had won it. I said, 'Oh no, I was taping that'. Roddy Forsyth came on air, asking how I could work on 5 Live and hope to avoid the result. I told him straight: 'I tell you what I won't be taping and that's Falkirk v Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup semi-final'."

On another occasion, when he was congratulated on Derby staying up, he reciprocated by wishing the commentator's team well in the play-offs. "I outed him as a fan of this club, which was naïve of me," he said, not noticeably contrite. "And at Aston Villa v Hull I made the classic gaffe, saying 'Villa won't score if they play until midnight'. They scored straigh taway."

Savage, who cites David "Bumble" Lloyd, Geoffrey Boycott and snooker's Willie Thorne as opinionated pundits he admires, is confident he can bring something distinctive to his new sideline. "The majority of summarisers played 15, even 20 years ago. I haven't won the European Cup like Alan Hansen or Mark Lawrenson, but I played in the Premier League a year ago. Mind you, if I'd been analysing myself then, I'd have said, 'Savage is horrendous. He's finished'.

"I've also been fortunate that most of my managers have been good talkers. I've listened to Alex Ferguson, Dario Gradi, Martin O'Neill, Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes and now Nigel Clough. If I haven't learned anything from them, I may as well quit now."

Perhaps surprisingly, given the surfer-boy swagger that gets up opponents' noses, he admitted he is "not ready" to savage his peers on Saturday's Match of the Day. "I've no God-given right to go straight in there. If the BBC say 'Go down and watch Torquay on a Tuesday night', I'll do it. I've always been prepared to do the donkey work. I did it for Tugay at Blackburn and [Christophe] Dugarry at Birmingham. The only way I know to get to the top is by grafting."

Playing remains Savage's passion and priority, and he believes Derby are equipped to press for a top-10 place in "a very tough league". "My aim on a personal level is to play well and be a positive influence. Then who knows, I might get another year when my contract ends next summer." And his ambition as a broadcaster? "What I want," he said, grinning mischievously, "is to do a game with Alan Green."

Life and times

Name: Robert William Savage.

Born: 18 October 1974, Wrexham, Wales.

Height: 6ft 1in.

Position: Midfielder.

Club career: Manchester United 1991-94 – FA Youth Cup winner 1992; Crewe Alexandra 1994-97 (77 games, 10 goals); Leicester City 1997-2002 (172, 8) – League Cup winner 2000; Birmingham City 2002-05 (82, 11); Blackburn Rovers 2005-08 (76, 1); Derby County 2008-current (38, 1); Brighton & Hove Albion (loan) 2008 (6, 0).

International career: 39 caps for Wales, 1995-2005, 2 goals.

And another thing: Holds Premier League record for most yellow cards, 89; but has only been sent off twice (only once in the League).

Kicking up a stink: Charged with misconduct by the FA for using a referee's toilet before a game.