Debut ghostwriter relishes her Savage start

Robbie Savage has been one of football’s pantomime villains ever since Martin O’Neill identified him as the man to add snap and bite to his Leicester midfield in the late 1990s.

Instantly recognisable for his mop of wild blond hair, he has been cherished by his own fans but despised almost everywhere else, largely due to his inherent ability to wind up opponents. In short, he has been a tabloid football writer’s dream.

It is only appropriate that his autobiography -- out next week -- has been ghosted by a red-top reporter who has been there to record virtually every controversy along the way, from bust-ups with managers and theatrics on the field to the dire consequences of using the referee’s toilet without permission.

Janine Self has been tracking Savage’s progress since The Sun assigned her to international duty with Wales in 1998 and has witnessed most other episodes in his colourful career on her day-to-day beat in the Midlands.   She has unavoidably written critical things about him and, by her own admission, the two have “had words” on occasions.

But their relationship has become one of mutual respect, which was underlined when Savage’s plans for a life story gathered momentum last year and he insisted that Janine should write it on his behalf.

Savage!: The Robbie Savage Autobiography is published by Mainsteam on August 5th and Janine, who had not taken on a ghosting project before, has told The Sports Bookshelf how the book came about and what she learned in writing it.

“I was talking to him about a story for the paper, I think in about February or March last year,” she said, “and he answered one question, as footballers do sometimes, by saying ‘I’ll keep that for my book’.

“I asked if he was doing a book and he said he would like to.  But he did not have a publisher in mind and though his agent at the time said he knew a literary agent who might set something up, nothing happened and the idea went on the back burner.

“When Mainstream eventually took it on it all came about literally through word of mouth.

“Robbie’s solicitors, Blacks, had a sports arm, headed up by Stephen Lownsbrough.  He knew someone at Mainstream, they got chatting and he said he had a footballer who wanted to write a book.  Great Northern Books had said they might be interested but when no agreement was reached Mainstream stepped in.  We met over lunch in Leeds and it went from there.

“I was grateful to Robbie because publishers of football biographies often take on a project with a writer in mind but Robbie said that I was to do it, that we came as a team.”

The task of turning the Derby player's memories and opinions into words on a page began in earnest only last January, obliging Janine to adopt a disciplined regime of early starts and late finishes so that she could meet an April deadline for the manuscript and keep on top of the football news in her day job.

“I spoke to a number of journalists who had ghosted books for players.  Henry Winter, who has written books with Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard, was massively helpful, as was David Harrison, who had worked with Michael Owen and Alan Shearer.

“I worked out that I would need between 20 and 30 hours of taped interviews to produce the 100,000 words they had asked me to write.

“So I knew what was required in that respect. What I did underestimate was how much pre-research I needed to do.

“Sometimes, for example, he couldn’t remember what the score had been in one game or another so I needed to make sure I could correct any errors.  To do that I would research a whole season before meeting him so that I could prompt him as required.

“I also did not realise it is down to the author to source the pictures and to deal with such things as copyright issues.

“But Robbie was always exceedingly helpful. More often than not we would meet at his house, I’d set the tape running and we would just start to chat.

“It helped that I had followed his career.  The early family stuff obviously had to come from him alone but I was able to contribute to the football side because every controversial story he had been involved in I’d covered myself for The Sun.”

Those controversies had landed Savage with some negative headlines at times and the revisiting of them might have led to some awkward moments in the conversation, perhaps, had he known his interviewer less well.

“I had written critical things about him myself in the past and we have had words on occasions,“ she said.  “But he thinks I have been fair.  And most of the controversy he has caused himself.

“It helped that there was an occasion at Leicester, after Martin O’Neill threatened to fine him over something that appeared in the paper, that I went to see Martin to explain that Robbie had been misquoted.  It convinced Robbie that I could be trusted and saved him quite a bit of money too!”

The writing-up process inevitably made the biggest demands on Janine’s stamina.  She is well used to working under deadline pressure but the task still looked daunting at times.

“The deadline from the publishers was the end of April,” she said.  “I set my own deadline of the end of March, giving me an extra month so that Robbie, his solicitor and his management could see the book and I could make any changes.

“I didn’t transcribe all the tapes because he would go off at tangents.  So I took notes as well, with the tape as a back-up if I wanted to check the detail of something. The order was for 100,000 words and I ended up with 100,000 words of notes alone.  If I had transcribed the tapes I would have had 300,000!

“You start to panic, thinking you’re never going to get it finished, and I still had to do my job for The Sun, who had given me permission to do the book, so long as it was in my own time.

“They would not have been happy if I had not been available to work so I would get up at 5am and work on the writing up until 8.30 on days when I was on duty for the paper, and from 5am until midnight on days off.

“But I met my own deadline as planned and delivered the manuscript to Robbie at Derby’s training ground. He read it all in one day and was extremely professional about it, marking everything that needed amendment or correction.”

Now that it the end result is about to be released to the wider world, Janine feels a sense of fulfilment at completing the job and believes, too, that her subject is pleased with the way he is portrayed.

“He has been very complimentary about it. He thinks it captures the person he is.  He is grateful, too, that there is not that much swearing and he has apologised to his mother for what there is.

“I’ve tried to tell the story in an easy-to-read, tabloid newspaper style, writing a tabloidy type of intro at the start of every chapter. Because the football fans who have followed his career will have done so through the tabloids.”

There is no shortage of tasty tales, from the extraordinary initiation ceremonies he went through as a trainee in the Beckham generation at Manchester United, through the League Cup final against Tottenham in 1999, in which his antics effectively led to opponent Justin Edinburgh being sent off, to his falling-out with managers Steve Bruce at Birmingham and Paul Jewell at Derby, and ‘Jobbiegate‘, as was dubbed the bizarre story of using referee Graham Poll’s facilities without permission after he was caught short.

He pulls few punches, although Janine says Savage “did not want to be seen as setting out just to have a go at people and be nasty.

“He did not want to just go out and hammer people but there are people he clearly doesn’t like.”

Despite the long hours,  Janine has found her debut in print a rewarding experience and it has whetted her appetite for more.

“I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.  I quite like locking myself away in my study and getting on with something.

“I’d love to do another one although I suspect with Robbie as a first subject I may have been spoilt.”

Click here to buy Savage!: The Robbie Savage Autobiography (Mainstream).

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