Savage's conversion

Stephen Brenkley talks to a young Welsh player seeking his own space this week
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In the scramble to deliver the epitaphs on Ian Rush's international career, Rob Savage attracted less than passing attention. This was understandable because Rush, the most potent striker of his generation, has scored 28 goals in 73 matches for Wales, and Savage, who plies his trade in the English Second Division, has made only three fleeting appearances for his country.

But last week after Rush declined to join the Wales squad for Saturday's World Cup qualifying match against San Marino, the name of Savage was the last on manager Bobby Gould's list. It was hardly a straight exchange but Savage's inclusion could still mark the beginning of a long international journey.

"I've been made really welcome," Savage said. "I was in the line-up at the start in the friendly against Leyton Orient and I think it might have been the team that the manager was thinking of next match. But we got beat 2-1 and I think I was probably trying too hard to prove myself."

If that was so, it was surely natural. Savage, a forward who is being converted to a midfield player, is aware that when he joins the Welsh squad he has usually just done duty for Crewe Alexandra. Others have been strutting their stuff for somewhat more exalted club sides.

"In a way it's harder in the Second Division, where people are after you," Savage said. "When you get the ball they're on you straightaway. There's no time to think, and it's pretty rough as well. Even in training for Wales you notice the change. You've got space, a bit of time on the ball. The other thing is that if we have a drink I don't have to buy a round. A lot of the lads are earning about 10 times more than me so they let me keep my money in my pocket."

At least Savage, a perky 21-year-old with an undiluted North Walean accent, is more prepared for the transition (in a playing - not a money - sense, that is) because he plays for Crewe. Under Dario Gradi's loving guidance they have been, for years, among the most pleasant, least-hurried of all lower-division sides.

Not that he is likely to have to bridge any gulf against San Marino. Unimpressed by their skills ("not Second Division"), he played nine minutes in the 5-0 win in Serravalle in June, and estimates that Wales will score six this time in Cardiff. He is already assessing the importance of acquiring a point against Holland in October - "If we do, I think we will qualify" - and worrying about regaining his place at Crewe after missing two games through absence with Wales. Savage started there as schoolboy, recommended by a pal in his home town of Wrexham, but he is not a complete stranger to the big time.

After a couple of formative years under Gradi's care, he was asked to join Manchester United. He played in the same youth team as Ryan Giggs, and for two years his room-mate was Keith Gillespie. In his final season he was restricted by injury to four reserve-team games and was a little hurt to be released. Gradi signed him.

"He's obviously been good for me and he's given a me a new role this year," Savage said. "I'm playing in front of the back four, to give us a bit more resilience at the back. It suits me because I've been in midfield for Wales and had one of my best games there in an Under-21 match."

No direct replacement for Rush then. But like Rush, who began his career at Chester, Savage has started at a small club. It may be the making of him. He is happy enough at Crewe but he will not be content there for an entire career.

Although eager to admit he is still a small-town boy who lives at home, he has a yearning for London. "I've been to Wembley but I've never seen anything else there," he said. "One day I'd love to play for a London club."

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