Robbie Savage on the founding of Macclesfield FC: “The hardest thing I have ever done
|To concern Robbie Savage: Do Macclesfield FC on BBC iPlayer now, and on BBC One on Saturday November 13 at 11 p.m.|
Robbie Savage has captained four Premier League clubs, played international football for Wales and faces angry fans every week on BBC Radio 5 Live’s 606 show.
But none of that prepared the 47-year-old for what he describes as “the hardest thing I have ever done”.
In a new movie on BBC iPlayer, we go behind the scenes as Savage and his business partner Rob Smethurst build one new football club on the ashes of another in just nine months.
The documentary gives us access to the meeting room, the locker room and the canoe as things go wrong and money escapes, but ultimately a successful team is born.
We recently spoke to Savage about the movie and his experiences at Macclesfield.
“Have I ever seen myself as a co-owner of a football club?” ” he asks. “Probably not. But the opportunity was too good to refuse.”
Club bought out Rightmove: “Idiots buy football clubs, but I’m an idiot”
In September 2020, Macclesfield Town – founded in 1874 – were liquidated in the High Court with debts over £ 500,000.
A month earlier they had been relegated from the English Football League following a chaotic 2019-20 season in which players went on strike because they were not being paid.
This left loyal fans – many of whom are featured in the film – devastated.
Within a month, they had some hope in the form of Smethurst.
In the program, the self-confessed risk-taker describes how he decided to buy the club at a party – after seeing it on the Rightmove real estate website.
“Idiots buy football clubs,” he says. “But I am an idiot.”
Smethurst made his fortune from his car sales company and admits in the film that he doesn’t know much about football.
That’s why one of his first calls was for Savage – to convince him to lend his football knowledge to a suitable title.
The Welshman initially told him buying a football club was “the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever done” – but eventually got his arm twisted.
“I think every day about whether this was a good idea,” Savage tells us with a laugh. “There is another problem every day.
“At the end of the day, though, when the first team comes out and wins, or when you see kids on the pitch smiling, people enjoying the bar or the gym we’ve built… you watch it with pride.”
In addition to building the senior squad, Savage used the club to implement grassroots football through his company, the Savage Foundation.
Nine months to build a team: “What we have accomplished is quite remarkable”
When Smethurst bought the assets of Macclesfield Town, the club had no players, no leagues to play in and – as seen in the film – Moss Lane stadium had fallen into disrepair.
He and his team have had nine months to sort everything out in time for the 2021-22 season.
The difficult journey – including the waterlogged grounds and construction issues – is documented in the film. At one point, Smethurst says the club are losing £ 100,000 a month.
In another scene, as he scrambles to find players, Savage reveals that gym memberships and even free food at the club’s bar are part of his negotiations.
These weren’t the only challenges.
“The club didn’t have a safety certificate to put everyone on the ground when we started – I think we got it on the Thursday before the start of the season,” he said.
“Then you have everything else involved with the club – the steward, the police, making sure the pitch is fit for purpose and finding a team.”
They got there, of course, and renowned Macclesfield FC, led by club legend Danny Whitaker, entered the North West Counties First Division, five steps below the Football League.
The difficulties did not end there, however.
“On the first day of the season, we had two photos in our WhatsApp group of players with positive Covid tests,” Savage said.
Nonetheless, Macclesfield tops the table and is pushing hard for promotion – and Savage believes the facilities they’ve built provide a great experience.
“We have a gymnasium with 335 members, we put the field on 3G, plus we have the academy and Macclesfield Ladies,” he says.
Savage is particularly proud to offer – through his company The Savage Foundation – free grassroots football, and also to have been able to create what he calls a course through the academy.
“What we have accomplished is quite remarkable,” he says.
“A year ago we didn’t have a single player – now you’re talking about 600-700. There are almost 50 young girls in the girls’ academy, which is fantastic to see.”
It has not been without controversy, however, and there has been criticism from local grassroots clubs.
“The local clubs thought we were going to try to pinch all of their top players which is a ridiculous thing to say,” said Savage, adding: “Dialogue is very important.”
Perhaps inevitably, there has also been criticism from fans at other clubs, who believe Macclesfield is trying to find his way out of the league.
We see this play out in the film when Savage shows up for a game against Winsford United and receives a light stick from the locals.
“I’m led to believe that there may be one or two clubs in our league with bigger budgets, but we never talk about it,” said Savage.
“We are outperforming. We like finding young people. We have been quite astute. The average age of the squad is 23. The average age of reservists is 19.
“If we were promoted now our team would probably have one of the lowest budgets around.”
“Would another football manager eliminate pint pots?”
During his playing career, Savage was seen as someone who didn’t mind risking the wrath of opposition fans to win.
So why expect him to behave any differently as a director of football?
“I will always protect the people around me and I take stuff on the chin for others,” he said.
In the movie, we see him running down the sideline to bark instructions at players, calling out his opponents and also producing swear-laden team chats.
Some fans think it just shows his passion, while others think it doesn’t quite suit the role of a football manager. Savage won’t apologize.
“Should a director of football be on the sideline? he asks. “Well, is another director of football cleaning pint pots, finding taxis for the players, picking up people from the station at 11 o’clock in the evening, staying at the phone until 3 am if something is wrong?
“It’s not like being director of football for Manchester United or Liverpool. If it was, I think it would be a lot easier.”
“Owners and players come and go, but the fans stay”
One of the challenges of starting a new club is, of course, getting buy-in from the old club’s fans.
“Owners and players come and go, but the fans stay,” Savage tells us.
In the film, we meet several supporters, including two characters who are on staff at the club – Macclesfield Town communications and oracle manager Bob Trafford and gardener James ‘Jimbo’ Goodwin.
One of Savage’s innovations was running a weekly taping and Q&A with fans on Facebook.
“It’s something I want to do to keep the fans involved,” he says. “I give injury updates and answer as many questions as possible.
“Because of everything that has happened to their club in the past, some fans are worried and skeptical. I think we can be transparent now.”
Savage believes the numbers are already confirming the club’s success – their first league game in the Northwest Counties First Division was sold out – but it’s not a short-term plan.
“You can look at yourself in the mirror and be happy if you know that everything you do is for the good of the community,” Savage said, adding, “I want to leave this club to my children and their children.”