Second coming of the Savage

Robbie Savage is a new man with a new plan. Derby’s tempestuous midfielder tells Phil Shaw that he is indebted to Nigel Clough for rescuing his career, and why the goal is to become a TV pundit rather than Wales coach
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The Independent Football

Contrary to the song Derby County supporters never thought they would sing, there's more than one Robbie Savage. Pantomime villain and durable professional. Arrogant and sensitive. Opinionated and reflective. One minute baring his soul, the next sending himself up.

Barely a year ago the former Wales midfielder was persona non-starter at Pride Park. Now he is captain of Nigel Clough's side, who contest an FA Cup fifth-round home tie with Savage's former club Birmingham City today, and building a reputation in the media. In the various facets of what he brands "the overall package", the constant is an unadulterated love of football.

"That's what people don't realise," he says, the straight face morphing into a huge grin. "They just see the hair and the teeth and the tan and the big house and the model wife and the car and the Dolce & Gabbana clothes and the houses all over the world."

Savage is warming to a theme that is simultaneously self-aggrandising, self-ridiculing and deadly serious. "What they don't see is that when I go home, after a dip in the pool or looking over my golf course, is that I watch the likes of ESPN. Spanish, German football, everything. Since 1990, any league, any football in the world, I watch it all the time. My knowledge of the game is up there with the best and that's why I want to stay in it."

Would the Match of the Day 2 pundit and Radio 5 Live summariser like to be the next Alan Hansen? "Yes, I would. What he's done is unbelievable, but not everyone's won European Cups. I can speak for the majority of footballers. I've been an average Premier League player, or a Championship player, so I know what they're going through."

Before Clough's appointment early last year Savage was not even average. Out of form and out of favour, the man who believes he was one of the best players in Birmingham's history returned from a loan at Brighton to find an offer of a trial in Lebanon awaiting him. "I said recently, 'This time last year I was in Beirut.' Michael Tonge laughed but I said, 'No, I really was!'"

Five days in the Middle East and it was back to the East Midlands. "I was finished. I wasn't myself. It was really hard work and everything was against me," he says. But the departure of Paul Jewell, who Savage admits he "let down" after being given "an unbelievable contract for someone my age", kick-started the revival in his fortunes.

Enter the son of Old Big 'Ead. On day one, what Savage terms a "poor team", bereft of confidence, were subjected to an interesting piece of psychology. "Nigel got us all out in the freezing car park, even the injured ones, which is old school. They're usually in the warm with a nice cup of tea. He's like his father and [Savage's former Leicester manager] Martin O'Neill. He doesn't want people in the comfort zone. He did save my career, but that is down to me as well because if I'd performed like I did for Paul Jewell I wouldn't have started under Nigel Clough."

Clough, he says, has allowed him "to be me". His commanding display in the midweek Championship match, when Derby routed Newcastle 3-0, was a throwback to high-flying days with Leicester, Birmingham and Blackburn. There was a booking after a "reckless" lunge for which he accepts he should have been sent off, yet also a slide-rule pass that led to the first goal. The game won, he went on what was almost a stadium tour, waving to the crowd and exhorting team-mates before finally acknowledging his substitution.

"I'm 35 and I've missed one game all season, through suspension. I can play Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday with no problems because of the way I've lived my life. I've never had much pace, but my stats now show I'm covering more distance than I did at Blackburn. I think I'm having my best spell since I left Birmingham [in 2005]."

Pride Park has certainly come round to him with an enthusiasm that seemed improbable when he played in the side ignominiously relegated from the Premier League two years ago. "Getting booed by my own fans was horrendous; the depths of despair. When I had a broken leg at Blackburn I had to go to see a psychologist. That was bad but I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. Here, I honestly thought there was no way back.

"The psychologist told me I was one of the best-ever Birmingham players. And I was. I think if you asked [former owners] David Sullivan or David Gold they would say I was probably the second or third best player at the club. [Christophe] Dugarry made a huge impact, so much so that he did well to come second to me in the player of the year that season.

"We had a great team spirit at Birmingham and a great manager in Steve Bruce. I had everything there and I was idolised. I'm not joking when I say I think I made a great impact on the club, but I wish it had ended better. I probably didn't appreciate what I had. You get offered the earth to stay; chauffeur-driven cars, every Monday off. But it was just the attraction of [former Wales manager] Mark Hughes at Blackburn. Brucey told me, 'In years to come, you might realise what you had here.' He was right. It was something special."

Savage agreed a new contract with Derby last autumn, involving a reduction in his Premier League salary but giving him an extra 12 months. "The way I'm playing I think I've got another two years in me. I joke with the goalkeeping coach, Martin Taylor, that this time last year I'd have taken a couple of grand to stay. The chairman said, 'Stay another year with a pay cut.' In four years' time I'll be on £400 a week and still here!"

When he does retire, the plan is to develop his broadcasting work. What about management? He is, after all, taking his coaching badges. "I've seen the pressures. If you're successful it's great. But I'm bit insecure. I'm a terrible worrier. Whether I could handle all the expectations of all the players, the whole club, I don't know."

And if the choice was running his national team or inheriting Hansen's mantle? "Hansen. Anyone can manage Wales. That's been proved," he says, alluding to his feud with John Toshack.

But he is not ready to swap the flying studs for the comfy sofa yet, especially with Derby three wins from Wembley. "I'm in the realm of lasts. Last week's goal [at Sheffield United] might be my last goal; I've got four in five years. This may be my last FA Cup fifth round. And it might be the last time I play against Birmingham."

This being Robbie Savage, he is actually relishing the anticipated abuse from the visiting hordes. "Five and a half thousand Bluenoses. I can't wait." What if they are nice to him? "They won't be. But I fancy us, I really do."

Derby County v Birmingham City

Today 3pm. TV: Highlights ITV 1 11pm. Tickets: Available (0871 472 1884).

Derby manager Nigel Clough is expected to name an unchanged team from the starting XI that beat Newcastle 3-0 last Wednesday. The Rams, who have lost just one of their last seven games, are seeking to reach the last eight for the first time in 11 seasons.

Birmingham could also be unchanged for this afternoon's match at Pride Park. Striker Christian Benitez has recovered from an ankle injury, though manager Alex McLeish may prefer in-form Kevin Phillips to partner Cameron Jerome. David Murphy and Teemu Tainio have resumed training after knee problems but will not be considered.

Leading scorers: Derby Hulse, 8. Birmingham Bowyer, 6.

Last FA Cup meeting: Derby 2 Birmingham City 1, 1978 fourth round.

Blond moments Robbie's antics

*Sav the scarfer

Waves a black-and-white scarf in front of the delighted Derby fans after the Rams came from two goals down to beat arch-rivals Nottingham Forest 3-2 at the City Ground in the FA Cup last year.

*Creating a stink

Fined £10,000 by the Football Association for barging into referee Graham Poll's dressing room and using the toilet before Leicester's home game with Aston Villa in 2002.

*Teddy Bear's picnic

Smeared chocolate on Dennis Wise's face when his team-mate presented him with a teddy impaled on a sex toy at Leicester's Christmas party in 2001.