Belfast Telegraph

Savage is not averse to verse if rhyme cuts down crime

Poetry readings and helping in hospitals are two ways Premier League players help out in their community, writes Ian Herbert

There are some who would say that poetry and Robbie Savage don't always go together and they most certainly include Graham Poll, whose recent graphic re-telling of a story involving the Welshman and the referee's toilet at Leicester suggested that, at times, he lacks the finesse of the rhyming couplet.

It was for this reason that the sight of Savage limbering up for a public poetry recital, with large book of modern verse in hand, took the breath of all who observed it in Blackburn this week.

Poetry and football are not mutually exclusive: Sven Goran Eriksson is a fan of Tibetan verse and Adrian Mutu always raved about Mihail Eminescu, a 19th century Romanian Romantic, but Savage delivering verse after training? That was different.

He even seemed a little unsettled and momentarily lost for words as he prepared to deliver from the hardback entitled "Rovers Reads", but when he spotted an irresistible reference to Wales in one of several verses picked out for him, he seized the chance. "I actually played for them once," he told his audience gleefully, concealing the grasp of metaphor which was in strong supply when the midfielder asserted, last weekend, that "there's more chance of me flying Concorde to the moon blindfolded than there is of [John Toshack] taking Wales to the South African World Cup."

And then Savage was off, settling himself down to deliver an appropriately entitled piece called "90-minute scrapper" about a player who promises: "I will hassle and I will hussle, I will take the knocks and bear 'em, I'm a goalscorer's confusion, No one passes me." And more of the same, much like Savage in midfield on any given day of the season. "I'm a knee and ankle biter, no one passes me." Not from the pen of Savage, it should be said, but he certainly knew how to deliver it. "Good isn't it?" he said, with a hopeful nod at the audience.

They were never likely to demur. The 12 faces in front of him were pupils from the Longshaw Junior school in central Blackburn, at the club's training ground to hear poems from six of Mark Hughes' players. The recitals were filmed for a DVD to be distributed throughout local schools as part of the Premier League's Creating Chances programme. "It's more nerve-wracking than playing but if it means we can inspire some reading and learning then it's worth it," said Savage, who was followed by reserve keeper Jason Brown and Ryan Nelson. Longshaw's headteacher Pam Barnes says it's more valuable to her than Savage could imagine. "It really can help make the difference between children having the will to try to read and giving up," she says. "It's especially influential with the boys."

Savage is one of many players and managers who have found themselves in improbable new roles this week. Creating Chances – a concerted response to the feeling among Premier League clubs that the community work their players did was going unrecognised despite contributing an estimated £122m a season to local economies – has seen Eriksson mingling at a monthly over-50s social event where old time dancing is usually the main attraction, George Boateng officiating at an Apprentice-style event in Middlesbrough and Dietmar Hamann serving up soup at a drop-in centre in Manchester. And rarely has the experience been quite as intense as for Owen Hargreaves, who walked the chemotherapy wards of the Christie cancer hospital in Manchester, remembering his grandfather, a fanatical England supporter whose life was claimed by cancer before he had the chance to see his grandson pull on an England shirt.

Blackburn have been planning player poetry since winning a Premier League innovation award with their plans for the DVD. When it came to the crunch, it was left to Matt Derbyshire to recite first – with "Striker", about everything he'd like to think he's about and some things he's not – a "shining, shooting, shin-spinning, celebrating, pausing, pouting, breakdancing... striker."

Then came Savage. But it was left to Morten Gamst Pedersen to put in a performance which demonstrated he can even match Savage's experience on these occasions. Pedersen and several other Norwegian players formed a band called the Players and went to the top of the Scandinavian charts two summers ago with a charity single, "This is for Real", which was designed to deter young boys from crime. So poetry he could more than handle. "It's performing on a different kind of stage and it's a bit intimidating," he said. "Some people can stand and talk in front of lots of people but it would be different for them if they're playing football."


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