Fifteeen years ago this week, on 9th August 1997, Leicester fans had their first glimpse of Robbie Savage, when he made his debut as a substitute in Leicester’s first game of the season against Aston Villa. This was the first of over 200 appearances for the City in the Premiership, Cup competitions (including two Wembley Finals) and Europe.
As a youngster, playing as a striker, Robbie had been a member of the Manchester Youth team which reached two FA Youth finals in the early 1990s. Team mates included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes , Nicky Butt and Gary Neville. Devastated to be released from Old Trafford, Robbie went to Crewe. The first time I personally saw him play was in a game for Crewe at Gresty Road against Notts County when he was playing alongside a young Neil Lennon in the mid 1990s.
When O’Neill signed Savage in July 1997, the Welshman had recently been embroiled in a dispute with Crewe who had therefore dropped him from their Wembley Play-Off Final against Brentford. The previous season Leicester had finished ninth in their first season back in the Premier League and had won the League Cup to gain entry into Europe. His £650000 transfer to Filbert Street was a good career move for Robbie.
His place in the Foxes side was by no means guaranteed, even though Leicester had the smallest squad in the Premier League and even though, soon after his arrival at Filbert Street side, fellow midfielder Scott Taylor ruptured his kneecap tendons at the training ground, ruling him out for the whole season and effectively ending his career.
Savage’s pre-season had been a good one. He had been used in various positions including right wing-back. His surging runs from midfield and his powerful shooting had been notable features.
Robbie was aware that he was going to have to fight for his place. In an interview in the lead-up to the Villa game, it was clear that he was sweating on being in the side. “I hope to get as many opportunities as possible. That should get me amongst the goals because I started off as a striker and my instinct is to get forward. To be honest I’ll just be happy enough to be in the side any time it is read out because midfield competition is very high. I’ve slotted in very well and got to know the lads quite well but I’m definitely not taking a place in the starting line-up for granted.”
Adding to Savage’s uncertainty was Martin O’Neill’s habit of waiting until an hour before kick off before announcing his side. When the team was announced for the Villa game there was no place in it either for Savage or for the summer’s other signing, Graham Fenton who were both on the bench. The local press felt that having two million pounds worth of talent on the bench (Steve Claridge, suffering from a sun allergy, was also a substitute) was a sign of the Club’s progress.
Savage eventually made his Leicester City debut when he came on as an 83rd minute substitute for Stuart Campbell fifteen years ago this week. By that time, Ian Marshall had scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the 36th minute against a Brian Little’s Villa side which contained several past and future Leicester players such as Mark Draper, Stan Collymore, Julian Joachim, Simon Grayson and Riccardo Scimeca. Leicester’s Emile Heskey was Man of the Match.
As the season progressed, Robbie became an established first teamer, as a right wing-back and as a midfielder. In the seasons which followed, despite his tendency to become embroiled in controversies on the pitch, often as a result of his winding up opposition fans and players, he was a crucial part of the successful Martin O’Neill teams of the late 1990s and was Player of the Year in Peter Taylor’s first season. In his final season he was even the Club’s poster boy during the unsuccessful fight against relegation. His impact on the club was considerable and it all started fifteen years ago this week.