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Listen: The extraordinary radio row between Robbie Savage and Leighton James

22 Apr 2024 5 minute read
Robbie Savage (Credit: BBC) / Leighton James (Credit: Eat Sleep Media)

It’s the radio row that has gone down in the annals of broadcasting history.

When Robbie Savage rang into a Welsh radio station to air his views about retiring from playing for Wales he came up against formidable opposition – in the shape of forthright radio pundit Leighton James.

Sparks flew and then some.

It all stemmed from Savage’s retirement from international football in September 2005, saying he wished to concentrate on his club career.

However, many people believe the reason he quit was due to a spat with Wales manager John Toshack, who told the fiery midfielder that he had excluded him from the squad for the national side’s forthcoming qualifiers.

In the intervening months debate raged over whether Savage should have been included or whether Toshack, who had seen several leading players retire, had made the correct call.

On 6 March 2006, the former Birmingham, Leicester and Blackburn midfielder appeared on Welsh radio station Real Radio, where he took part in a debate with no nonsense pundit James over his exclusion from the Wales squad.

The verbal boxing match between James – the mercurial former Swansea winger whose tongue was has sharp as his feet and Savage – the always colourful, combative and controversial midfielder, remains one of the most entertaining, astonishing and fiery exchanges you will ever hear on a radio station.

In a blistering encounter Savage insisted he would get down on his hands and knees before John Toshack to win back his Wales place.

But the colourful Blackburn midfielder claimed such an act of penance would not earn him a recall during a schoolboy exchange of insults with Toshack’s friend, and the late great James on live radio.

The pundit, who won 54 caps for his country, accused the 31-year-old of “throwing his toys out of the pram” and told him to apologise personally to Toshack.

And Savage, who phoned the show to take on James, claimed he would. “I am prepared to get on my knees to John Toshack to play for my country again,” he said.

“I am prepared to do whatever I can to play for my country again. When he told me I wasn’t in, I was heartbroken. I looked a fool. Since then I have done everything I can to reverse that except getting on my hands and knees. I want to get back in desperately.”

But James pointed out Savage had not said sorry personally to Toshack.

Savage replied: “How can a modern-day manager in this day and age not have a mobile phone?

James: “Why should he? You want to get hold of John Toshack?” Savage: “I have tried.”

James: “Why can’t you get a number off (Blackburn team-mate and Wales ace) Craig Bellamy? It is not rocket science.”

Savage: “What number? What number? I have called the Welsh FA and I cannot get hold of the man. I know for a fact that as long as John Toshack is manager of the Welsh team, I will never play again.

“I know that when John Toshack is not the Wales manager that the next manager will pick me if I am still playing at the highest level. Fact.”

James: “So you are 31. So you will still be playing when you are 36?” Savage replied: “I don’t believe John Toshack will be manager for five years.”

When Savage was asked if he had written to Toshack, he spluttered: “Written to him? Do you think I am in school?”

He added: “How can a man who walked from the Wales job years ago after four days then get the job? It bemuses me.”

Savage then turned and questioned James’ right to criticise him. “You weren’t a bad player but you weren’t the greatest player in the world,” he snapped. “You were a technical player but you weren’t the best tackler. And if I played against you nowadays, dear oh dear.”

But James hit back with his own jibe, saying: “You wouldn’t catch me son.”

And after Savage stumbled over his words again, James landed his own low blow: “One day, when you have got a command of the English language Robbie you will perhaps become a pundit.”

The irony of all this of course is that Savage never did play for Wales again – but he did become a celebrated radio pundit and host of BBC Radio Five Live’s 606 football phone-in.

Around a decade ago, Leighton James, who sadly died recently aged 71, spoke to Four Four Two magazine about the infamous radio run-in where he admitted he actually admired Savage.

“The on-air row I had with Robbie Savage got quite heated, but we’ve moved on now,” he said. “In fact, I have a lot of respect for Robbie because he’s a bit like me – not frightened to say what he thinks. There are players out there who wouldn’t have had the bottle to come live on air and fight their corner.

“But debate and constructive criticism is what makes good radio.”

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