Robbie Savage is bewildered. The aptly named footballer, who has cultivated a career as the game's most hated man, is in danger of becoming loved.
Savage, still playing in the Championship for Derby at 37, is a legendary midfield irritant – the little kicks when the ref isn't looking, the backchat, the diving, the what-me-ref expressions of innocence, the Armani tattoo, the blond highlights and matching Lamborghini.
And now he stands absurdly close to the threshold of national treasuredom. He has become an admired football pundit on BBC Radio Five's 606, and the man who has spent most of his career playing for clubs such as Leicester City and Blackburn in front of roughly 20,000 fans has grown a Twitter following of 74,000. This week when he quit Twitter for a few hours, after a spat over having his views misrepresented in the Daily Star, there was a mini outcry.
Savage says it's all very strange. He knew where he stood when he was despised. "I've always liked the abuse on the football field. It inspires me, makes me feel better, I thrive on it." So why the turnaround? "Everybody sees the person on the football field and has a perception of him, but in the media or on Twitter it's just me being myself. I'm an honest, hard-working guy who likes a laugh."
Does he realise why he's so disliked on the pitch? "Yeah. Some of the things I've done, like getting Justin Edinburgh sent off in the cup final by going down, I'm embarrassed – I cringe when I see all that." It was 1999 and he was playing for Leicester City in the League Cup final against Spurs – Edinburgh raised a hand after a classic Robbie tackle, there was minimal contact, but Savage went down like a sack of spuds. "Given my time over again, that's what I'd change. I think in my latter years at Derby I've changed people's opinions by the way I've played. I've done things wrong, but that's the way it is. I'm Robbie Savage."
This week's Twitter row was over what Savage had said about the wages of top footballers – he defended them, saying all top sportsmen get paid loads, but it's footballers who get singled out. And the Daily Star reported that. Fair enough, Savage says, but what the paper didn't report was what he had said about other professions. "They manipulated what I said to make me look like a money-grabbing, egotistic footballer. What they didn't put in was my tweets saying doctors and nurses and people who save lives should be on a lot more than footballers."
He says he might have overreacted, but he was upset. "People say I'm attention seeking by coming off the Twitter, but that's not the case. If I wanted to attention seek I could drive my Lamborghini to the Trafford Centre in my underpants."
As a commentator or tweeter, he still tends to go in with both feet. In fact, the very things that made him unpopular as a footballer have made him popular as a pundit. He recently had a vicious tweet-off with former cricketer Darren Gough, telling him he knew nothing about football. He also sticks the boot into the great and not so good. This week, in passing, he mentioned that he had lived next to Sir Alex Ferguson when he played for Blackburn, and the Manchester United manager had ignored him throughout – particularly cruel as Savage had been a United trainee released by Ferguson. "He did blank me," he says. "Every time I saw him. It was not nice, I'll be honest. At the end of the day, everybody's a human being and everybody's got feelings. He's the second best manager that's ever been – for me Brian Clough is the best – but because you've won trophies and been at the top of your profession so long, does that mean you have to ignore people? I don't think so."
Does he think Ferguson was right to let him go? "Yes. I wasn't good enough."
Meanwhile Twitter has been the catalyst for a budding relationship with United's Rio Ferdinand. Savage admits it's an unlikely romance. "We've been sending direct messages to each other. We didn't like each other before this. I got him sent off once and we had a little fight in the tunnel. But Twitter's brought us together as friends. His banter is hilarious and mine is too. It's showing that footballers are normal people who are in touch with the fans." Much of the banter is about hair, houses and motors.
The doorbell goes. "Must have took 'em half an hour to walk up the drive," Savage says, and excuses himself. "Here you are mate. Top man, thanks mate... That was the gardener. Bringing me my mail."
Did Ferdinand used to think he was a bit of a knobhead? "I think he probably did, yes. Like most people if I'm being honest. That's fair criticism. But Twitter and the radio show people that I'm actually all right. Off the pitch you couldn't meet a nicer bloke."
While Savage accepts he has been a limited footballer, he thinks people like the fact that he has made the most of himself. "I'm an overachiever, which I'd rather be than an underachiever." Over the years, he says, he has been smarter than he has been given credit for. And, he stresses, he's not just talking about his eight GCSEs. Take his disciplinary record. While he had the record number of yellow cards in the premiership, he only received the one red. How did he wangle that? "It's a talent. You've got to know where the line is. I was booked 90 odd times, but only sent off once, and that was for handball believe it or not. People might say 'Oh he's thick and this', but how can I be thick when I've been booked that many times and only sent off once? I've been very intelligent."
What will he be remembered for as a footballer? "I think the teams I've played for will say they're glad they had me on their team and the fans of the teams I played against would think Robbie Savage is a W-A-N-K-E-R..." He spells out the offending word because he doesn't like swearing. "... But at his peak we would have had him on our team."
And how would he like to be remembered as a pundit? "Hopefully the best. I was never going to be the best player in the world – maybe top 100 in Britain at my peak. On the radio and TV, I reckon I can go all the way."
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.