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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

‘I want to leave this club to my kids and their kids’

ART GALLERY

Watch Robbie Savage: Making Macclesfield FC on BBC iPlayer now, and on BBC One on Saturday, 13 November at 11pm

Robbie Savage captained four Premier League clubs, played international football for Wales and has to deal with irate 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’ve ever done”.

In a new film on BBC iPlayer, we go behind the scenes as Savage and business partner Rob Smethurst build a new football club from the ashes of another in just nine months.

The documentary gives us access to the boardroom, the dressing room and the dugout as things go wrong and money leaks out but, eventually, a successful team is born.

We spoke to Savage recently about the film, and his experiences at Macclesfield.

“Did I ever see myself as a part-owner of a football club?” he asks. “Probably not. But the opportunity was too good to turn down.”

A club bought off Rightmove: ‘Idiots buy football clubs, but I am an idiot’

In September 2020, Macclesfield Town – founded in 1874 – were wound up in the High Court with debts of more than £500,000.

A month earlier they had been relegated from the English Football League following a chaotic 2019-20 season during which players went on strike because they weren’t being paid.

It left loyal fans – several of whom feature in the film – devastated.

Within a month, they had some hope in the form of Smethurst.

In the programme, the self-confessed risk-taker describes how he decided to buy the club while on a night out – after seeing it on property website Rightmove.

“Idiots buy football clubs,” he says. “But I am an idiot.”

Robbie and Rob – the two men in charge at Moss Lane

Smethurst made his fortune through his car sales company and admits in the film he doesn’t know much about football.

That’s why one of his earliest calls was to Savage – to convince him to lend his footballing knowledge in a proper capacity.

The Welshman initially told him buying a football club was “the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever done” – but eventually had his arm twisted.

“I reflect every day on whether it was a good idea,” Savage tells us with a laugh. “There’s another problem every single day.

“Ultimately, though, when the first team go out and win, or when you see kids on the pitch smiling, people enjoying the bar or the gym that we’ve built…you look at it with pride.”

As well as building the senior team, Savage has used the club to implement grassroots football through his company, the Savage Foundation.

Nine months to build a team: ‘What we’ve achieved is quite remarkable’

When Smethurst bought the assets of Macclesfield Town, the club had no players, no league to play in and – as we see in the film – the Moss Lane stadium had fallen into disrepair.

He and his team had nine months to fix it all in time for the 2021-22 season.

The difficult journey – including waterlogged pitches and construction problems – 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 gym memberships and even free food in the club bar have been part his negotiations.

They were not the only challenges.

“The club didn’t have a safety certificate to get everyone in the ground when we started – I think we got that on the Thursday before the start of the season,” he says.

“Then you’ve got everything else involved with the club – stewarding, police, making sure the ground’s fit for purpose, and finding a team.”

They got there, of course, and the rebranded Macclesfield FC, managed by club legend Danny Whitaker, entered the North West Counties Premier Division – five rungs below the Football League.

Robbie Savage and Rob Smethurst in the Macclesfield FC dressing room.
They’re laughing now, but it’s not all been fun and games.

The difficulties didn’t end there, though.

“On the first day of the season, we had two pictures in our WhatsApp group from players with positive Covid tests,” Savage says.

Nevertheless, Macclesfield are top of the table and making a strong push for promotion – and Savage believes the facilities they have built offer a great experience.

“We’ve got a gymnasium with 335 members, we put the pitch down in 3G, plus we’ve got the academy and Macclesfield Ladies,” he says.

Savage is particularly proud of offering – through his company The Savage Foundation – free grassroots football, and also to have been able to create what he calls a pathway through the academy.

“What we’ve achieved is quite remarkable,” he says.

“A year ago, we didn’t have a single player – now you’re talking 600-700. There are nearly 50 young girls in the girls’ academy, which is fantastic to see.”

It has not been without controversy, though, and there has been criticism from local grassroots clubs.

“Local clubs thought we were going to try and pinch all their best players, which is a ludicrous thing to say,” says Savage, adding: “Dialogue is very important.”

Perhaps inevitably, there has also been some criticism from fans of other clubs, who think Macclesfield are trying to buy their way out of the league.

We see this play out in the film when Savage turns up for a match against Winsford United and is given some mild stick by the locals.

“I’m led to believe that there may be one or two clubs in our league with bigger budgets, but that’s never spoken about,” says Savage.

“We’re overachieving. We like finding youngsters. We’ve been quite astute. The average age of the squad is 23. The average age of the reserves is 19.

“If we got promoted now, our squad would probably have one of the lowest budgets at that level.”

‘Would any other director of football be clearing pint pots away?’

During his playing career, Savage was seen as someone who didn’t mind risking the ire of opposition fans in order to win.

So why would we expect him to behave any differently as a director of football?

“I’ll always protect the people around me and I take stuff on the chin for others,” he said.

Robbie Savage in Macclesfield FC dugout.
Robbie Savage says he’s a different kind of director of football.

In the film we see him running down the touchline to bark instructions to players, calling out opponents, and also producing some expletive-laden team-talks.

Some fans believe it just shows his passion, while others think it’s not quite befitting the role of a director of football. Savage will not apologise.

“Should a director of football be on the touchline?” he asks. “Well, would any other director of football be clearing pint pots away, getting taxis for players, picking people up from the station at 11pm at night, sat on the phone until 3am if something’s gone wrong?

“It’s not like being a director of football at Manchester United or Liverpool. If that were the case, I think it would be far easier.”

‘Owners and players come and go, but the fans remain’

One of the challenges in setting up a new club is, of course, getting buy-in from fans of the old club.

“Owners and players come and go, but the fans remain,” Savage tells us.

In the film we meet several supporters, including two characters who are on the club staff – head of communications and Macclesfield Town oracle Bob Trafford, and groundsman James ‘Jimbo’ Goodwin.

One of Savage’s innovations has been to host a weekly check-in and Q&A with fans on Facebook.

“That’s something I want to do to keep fans involved,” he says. “I give updates on injuries and answer as many questions as I can.

“Because of everything that’s happened to their club in the past, some of the fans are worried and sceptical. I think we can be transparent now.”

Savage thinks numbers already bear out the club’s success – their first league game in the North West Counties Premier Division was a sell-out – but this is no short-term project.

“You can look at yourself in the mirror and be happy if you know that everything you’re doing is for the good of the community,” Savage says, adding, “I want to leave this club to my kids and their kids.”

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