Savage return

SOMETIMES, what you don’t say is just as important as what you do. In Birmingham City’s 84-page match programme for today’s game against Derby, Robbie Savage’s name appeared twice: once in the away team pen pics section, once on the squad list at the back.

The three-page feature on players that turned out for Birmingham and Derby studiously ignored the footballer it is impossible to ignore, instead picking out Dave Langan, Colin Todd and Gary Rowett.

Savage’s departure from Birmingham in January 2005 still rankles at St Andrew’s. He had only just signed a new contract when he told the club that he needed a move away to be nearer his parents in North Wales, citing a family illness. He then moved to Blackburn.

He probably didn’t help himself after that by claiming that a part of him was glad when Birmingham were relegated in 2006, having earlier snubbed chairman David Gold’s attempts to make up their differences when the midfielder returned to St Andrew’s with Blackburn.

Gold this week said he would try once again to patch things up with Savage, but there was still a sting in the tail with the Birmingham chairman’s comments.

“I think our fans will greet him with a mixture of boos and ironic cheers as although he was a great servant to the club, people still remember his departure and find it a bit distasteful,” Gold said.

“That will always stay with Robbie I think because he said he wanted to move nearer his parents and then moved further away.”

I can’t help but think there’s been a geographical misunderstanding here. Gold might have had a point if Savage had gone to live in Blackburn when he moved there. But he didn’t. He moved to Prestbury, in Cheshire, which is only about an hour’s drive from North East Wales.

Savage still lives there now, even after moving to Derby in the January transfer window. It’s almost as if Gold had expected the player to move to Wrexham when he left St Andrew’s.

Gold, though, had more important things to think about than Savage’s return today.

“I don’t want to put pressure on the players or the manager, but we are all under pressure,” Gold wrote in his programme notes, not putting anyone under any pressure. “The fans are under pressure and the board is under pressure, and there is no hiding from the fact that today is a must-win game. This is our cup final.”

With all that pressure, perhaps Gold might have been advised to take some advice from another former Birmingham and Derby player featured in the programme: Jonathan Hunt, now retired and billed as the UK’s only Equine Hanna Somatics practitioner. (From what I can gather, it’s a therapy-based method of reducing muscle stress.)

Maybe Hunt’s expertise would have helped Birmingham left-back Franck Queudrue, who fell victim to the curse of the matchday programme. He was featured on the front cover, and the interview with him inside began with the sentence: “Franck Queudrue is currently enjoying his longest run in the Blues team since his summer switch from Fulham, but the Frenchman insists he is taking nothing for granted.”

Sure enough, Queudrue missed today’s game with a hamstring strain.

The last time I visited St Andrew’s was seven years ago, and the one thing that really irritated me then was Birmingham’s insistence on playing a pre-recorded chant of “Who are ya?” over the public address system whenever the away team made a substitution.

I’m afraid to say that they’re still doing it. On the one hand, it’s ungracious. On the other, it’s actually quite insulting to their own supporters, who I’m sure are perfectly capable of barracking the opposition without being told to.

As if to prove the point, Savage was roundly booed by the Birmingham fans when his name was read out over the public address system, and again every time he touched the ball during the match: with the exception of one wild shot into the crowd, which drew the biggest cheer of the first half.

Derby, who were taken over by an American group this week, signed eight players during the transfer window, and are starting to look like a side who might have a chance of winning promotion from the Championship next season.

Centre-back Alan Stubbs, signed on an 18-month contract from Everton in midweek, had a terrific game today, and may just turn out to be Paul Jewell’s best signing for Derby. Goalkeeper Roy Carroll looked competent enough considering he has played one competitive first-team game in the last year – and that was a Scottish League Cup tie for Rangers against East Fife. Carroll had one hairy moment, when he almost palmed a James McFadden free kick into his own net, but was otherwise assured.

Birmingham, like Derby, like most of their rivals at the wrong end of the Premier League, spent much of the January window dealing as if there was no tomorrow. They even tried to sign Georgios Samaras, for goodness sake.

Were it not for the fact that their strikers look as if they couldn’t hit a skyscraper at close range with a fly swatter, they would be nowhere near relegation trouble. As it was, they created enough chances to have won three matches, and ended up failing to win just the one.

Sebastian Larsson did give Birmingham the lead midway through the second half, nodding down a left-wing cross from David Murphy – one of their transfer window signings – before prodding the dropping ball past Carroll. Derby, for once, were caught out at the back, still reorganising having lost centre-back Darren Moore to a hamstring strain less than two minutes earlier.

I assumed that would be that. I had seen Derby capitulate to Wigan at Pride Park in a pathetic performance three weeks ago, during which they managed a grand total of one shot on target. But there’s a bit more fight about them now. Perhaps Jewell’s weekly insistence that they are already relegated has had an Equine Hanna Somatics-style effect on his team.

They certainly went for it in the closing stages, and were duly rewarded when Argentinian striker Emanuel Villa headed in Dean Leacock’s right-wing cross with two minutes to go. Birmingham 1 Derby 1. Last laugh to Savage.

To make it an even more painful Saturday night for Birmingham’s fans, their team dropped into the relegation zone because Wigan – now led by their former manager Steve Bruce – beat West Ham. Ouch.

Jewell was in a jokey mood in the post-match press conference. After all Derby have gone two games unbeaten now; their longest run of the season.

It’s taken them to nine points. They’ve now passed the all-time English league record for the lowest number of points in a season, which stands at eight, was set by Loughborough Town in 1900 and was equalled by Doncaster five years later. The target now is to pass the Premier League’s record low of 15, set by Sunderland in 2006.

“I’ve still got more points on my driving licence, though,” Jewell said. “I’m not joking either.”

Birmingham manager Alex McLeish seemed, well, more stressed, and stepped right into the elephant trap left for him by Gold’s programme notes.

Asked if it was a must-win game, McLeish replied: “If the league table was decided today, then I would agree with him. But it wasn’t decided today, therefore I don’t agree with him.

“There are plenty of points to play for and as far as I’m aware, the league is normally decided in May.”

Cue a series of questions asking, in polite terms, if maybe he thought his chairman was talking nonsense. I couldn’t help but feel it was the last thing McLeish needed.

And Savage? Well, for all the pre-match publicity he attracted, I didn’t think he was in the game that much.


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