Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a player limited in stature who battled – and triumphed – against fate and the elements.
There are certain words that leave the taste of chalky-cheese in the mouth when spoken in the same sentence as a player. Mesut Ozil and industrious is one such example; Romelu Lukaku and diet another. Perhaps the most incongruous pairing of all would be to combine Robbie Savage and genius.
Because he’s clearly not a genius; not now as a purposely outspoken pundit who is proven wrong more times than he is proven right, nor was he especially brilliant as a player; socks down, poodle-mane flopping about; walloping around Premier League pitches like an enthusiastic competition winner.
You may think then that his inclusion in this series – a series intending to celebrate the very best ballers the top flight has offered up these past couple of decades beyond the very obvious names – is a scraping of a barrel. At the very least it is meant ironically, no?
It is neither. It’s sincere.
Here’s Albert Einstein on the qualification for something he knew a fair bit about: “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.” Here’s what the artist JMW Turner had to say on the matter: “I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.” Here’s Henry Ford, a man who shaped the world in which we live in today: “Genius is seldom recognised for what it is: a great capacity for hard work.”
These esteemed chaps appear to be in full agreement that the fluke of possessing prized DNA is nothing to honest graft and the application of it and this latter quality is where Savage was, well, savage.
The Wrexham-born midfielder famously came through the ranks at Manchester United with a peer-group that went on to have a cinematic release lauding their achievements in the game.
David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt – the Class of ’92. And though he was offered a professional contract he never made the grade at Old Trafford, a bitter pill that was surely even harder to swallow when he soon after saw his mates establish themselves as household names and bona fide superstars.
So Savage dropped down four divisions, to Crewe, and began his own journey, one that involved re-imagining himself as a box-to-box scrapper and excelling in the lower leagues until Leicester swooped in 1997.
Given the opportunity to prove himself at an elite level Savage rabidly tore into the challenge and never let go. He played in the Premier League – for four different clubs – across twelve consecutive seasons. He made 346 appearances, more than Paul Ince and Patrick Vieira. He made himself a household name despite fate probably having other plans.
It could be said that Savage was a dirty player. In fact many people have said that and have said it often. In reality he was only sent off twice in his long career. In reality he was combative and gnarly and flippin’ horrible to play against as he battled against the elements.
It could also be argued that he was limited in ability compared to those he contested every ball with. This, to an extent is incontestable. Yet it is a perception viewed askew. It is a perception grounded in pure snobbery. That Savage established himself among company who found it all so easy and natural whereas he did not; and established himself for thirteen years, is surely something to be praised, not belittled.
It is March 3rd 2004 and Birmingham are hosting Middlesbrough at St Andrews. The Blues are a goal to the good and we are mid-way through the second half.
A free-kick to the home side right on the edge of the box has Boro concerned. Their wall consists of seven players, all conjoined by arms, but they are powerless to stop a Savage rocket that fizzes through a slight gap and thunders down off the crossbar. It is an exceptional, unstoppable combination of force and technique. It is one of the finest short-range set-pieces you will ever see.
It was a moment of genius that came through what natural ability Savage did have, but it was earned through all those years of endless hard work.