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'Mick McCarthy drove me to the ground to sign the contract. It was surreal sitting in his Mercedes'

Ex-Ireland and Milwall midfielder Dave Savage revisits his career in football, which included five senior international caps — all earned in the summer of 1996.

Savage during Ireland's 2-2 draw with Mexico in 1996.
Savage during Ireland's 2-2 draw with Mexico in 1996.

IT’S MAY 1996.

Richie Kavanagh’s seven-week run at number one in the Irish singles charts –with the iconically bad ‘Aon Focal Eile’ — has just been ended by a song about being an Irish Manchester United fan.

On the international stage, Eimear Quinn’s rendition of haunting ballad ‘The Voice’ sees Ireland clock up yet another Eurovision title. Their seventh in total, a record which somehow still stands today. 

Having left his first managerial job at Millwall to be appointed as Jack Charlton’s successor in February, 38-year-old Mick McCarthy names his squad for a series of end-of-season friendlies.

The camp includes a trip to the United States and a return to the Giants Stadium, where the Boys in Green had claimed one of the nation’s great victories over a star-studded Italian side at the most recent World Cup. 

But this team is at the beginning of a transitional period, and needs an injection of youth to replace many of the household names who were responsible for the golden era of Irish football.  

Dubliner Dave Savage has been called up to the senior set-up for the very first time after impressing with the U21s, and is hopeful of making his debut against Portugal at Lansdowne Road. 

Over an 18-day period that summer, he would earn all five of his Ireland caps…   

Mick US Mick McCarthy taking a training session in America.

Savage began his football education in Clondalkin but the family’s move to Ballyfermot meant famous schoolboy club Cherry Orchard was now on his doorstep. 

However, competition for places at The Orchard was fierce, with talented kids coming from all over Leinster to join in the hope of being spotted by scouts, and things “didn’t really work out there”. 

Dave left to join local side Bromley in order to play alongside his friends, and ironically, it was there that he caught the attention of his first League of Ireland club. 

Kilkenny City manager Joe McGrath signed the midfielder at 17, and he had a solid six months in the First Division before getting a call from Brighton & Hove Albion.

The decision to join the Seagulls was an easy one given they had a strong Irish contingent including Paul McCarthy, Roy Keane’s old Rockmount team-mate who sadly passed away at the age of 45 in 2017, Derek McGrath (son of Kilkenny boss Joe), Alan McCann and Greg O’Dowd. 

soccer-fa-cup-4th-round-replay-brighton-hove-albion-v-liverpool-goldstone-ground Brighton's Paul McCarthy heads the ball during an FA Cup fourth round replay with Liverpool in January 1991. Source: PA

However, while it may have felt like a “home away from home” initially, Savage admits having difficulties adjusting to the culture at the club.  

“Brighton was a bit of an eye-opener,” he tells The42. If I was speaking to any kids now, I’d tell them it’s probably the most difficult aspect. You’re still only a child and you’re not fully developed. You’re leaving your mates and entering an environment where you’re viewed as a bit of an outsider as you’re coming to take somebody’s place.

“There’s a lot of baggage as you’re thinking ‘Am I good enough to be here?’. There’s self doubt there and it’s a difficult jump to make. I don’t think kids realise that when you’re playing with your mates and fantasising about being a footballer. Then you arrive there and think ‘Wow, this isn’t what I was expecting’.

“It was a different environment then. The senior pros were very coarse and there were a lot of rules and regulations. You couldn’t come into the first team dressing room without knocking at the door. You didn’t address them when you were cleaning up.

It was the old school way before the PFA changed a lot of it. That side of it was difficult to take. I remember ringing home a few times saying ‘I don’t know whether I can do this or if it’s for me’. My dad told me ‘If this is what you want to do, it’s going to be like this everywhere’.”

Dave decided to stick it out and even started to enjoy the experience as he got to grips with things. However, years of financial troubles finally caught up on the club in 1992 and they were forced to let several players go. After two years — one as an apprentice and one as a professional — Savage was heading home. 

“I was surplus to requirements like a lot of players,” he explains. “A load of us got released so I came back and told myself I’d make a decent go of it in the League of Ireland, as there was still okay money to be earned. That’s what I had set my mind on, if I’m being honest.”

The 19-year-old signed for Longford Town and it was there that he met Dermot Keely, a man who would provide him with a much greater understanding of the game. 

Dermot Keely Dermot Keely managed Savage at Longford Town. Source: INPHO

“Dermot was brilliant for me,” Savage says. “He was the first senior manager figure that I had, who explained men’s football to me in relation to the different aspects of the game. I picked up so much from Dermot, which was a massive step in my development.

“It made me a much better player. I wasn’t ready to play when I was leaving Brighton but I was by the time I joined Millwall, hence why I basically went straight into their first team. I don’t think I would have been had I not played under Dermot.”

As he mentions, Savage was handed a second crack at English football in 1994. A successful trial at Raith Rovers saw the Scottish club offer a contract but he wasn’t sold — “They’re based in Kirkcaldy on the coast. It was summer time but it was freezing. No disrespect to the place but I didn’t see myself there”.

In the meantime, Millwall came in and, after playing a reserve game against QPR, Savage was pulled to one side by manager Mick McCarthy, who wanted to sign him. 

“Mick was great with me,” he recalls, clearly starry-eyed at the time. “For a lot of Irish kids my age, that team from ’88 and ’90 was revered with Mick as the captain. He was very hands on, I remember being in his car when he drove me to the ground to sign the contract. It was surreal sitting in his Merc’.

“I was delighted with the move. Millwall had Kenny Cunningham, Tony McCarthy, Mark Kennedy and Jon Goodman, so there was a big Irish set-up.

“After the first experience with Brighton, this was going to be a lot easier in terms of adjusting to being away.”

soccer-pre-season-friendly-millwall Mick McCarthy managing Millwall. Source: EMPICS Sport

Savage was involved in the pre-season games, including friendlies against Shelbourne and Dundalk in Ireland, and made his competitive debut at The New Den against Derby County in August.  

Millwall had lost out to the Rams in the First Division (Championship) play-off semi-final the previous May, but atoned here by recording a 4-1 win. 

“Although I was better prepared, it was still ‘pinch yourself’ time,” he says. “Six months prior to that, I had been playing at Abbeycarton in front of 200 or 300 people. 

“I was thinking ‘I’m doing well to be here’ whereas a lot of the lads who pushed on like Mark [Kennedy] and Kenny [Cunningham] were looking at it like ‘This is good, but there’s another level I need to go to’.

If I’d had a different mindset it might have given me a better chance to kick on again, but that’s all looking back in hindsight.”

That first season saw Savage get plenty of game time as the Lions caused a couple of FA Cup upsets — beating Premier League sides Arsenal at Highbury and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after taking both to replays. 

The fourth-round tie away to Chelsea brings back warm memories as he scored in the 1-1 draw before dispatching the first penalty to send his side on their way to a 5-4 shootout win. 

Source: ELMSWOOD48/YouTube

A 12th-place finish in the league was seen as an underachievement for a group of players that included the likes of Kasey Keller, Alex Rae and Ben Thatcher. However, a good start to the following campaign meant they headed to St Andrew’s in top spot to face second-placed Birmingham City, managed by Barry Fry, in November 1995. 

There were ugly scenes between fans throughout the game, with Millwall fans reported to have ripped up seats and Birmingham supporters allegedly threw objects in their direction. 

When Steve Castle headed home the opener for the home team on 24 minutes, a number of Blues fans invaded the pitch to celebrate and Savage, a substitute that day, was struck.  

I was warming up in the corner when the fans just came piling on and one of them clumped me as they went past,” he remembers. “It was before they had CCTV everywhere, and there was a big hoo-ha about it. I remember the return game and they had to put a police cordon around Barry Fry. There was a bit of bad blood.”

Millwall’s team bus was also smashed up on their way out of the ground, which their manager reacted to in typical Mick fashion. “I’m not making an official complaint – that’s not my style, but it shows that there are morons everywhere,” McCarthy told The Independent. “I wish people would realise that.”

soccer-coca-cola-cup-nottingham-forest-v-millwall Playing with Millwall in 1994. Source: EMPICS Sport

After a long, drawn-out saga, McCarthy resigned from his position to take up the Ireland role in February 1996. Millwall had slipped to ninth place, five points off promotion and 14 clear of the relegation zone, but went into freefall under new manager Jimmy Nicholl, who Savage knew from his brief time with Raith Rovers. 

“Mick is the best man manager I’ve ever played under, he was amazing. It’s very difficult to keep a squad of players happy when lads are out of the team but he managed to do it with our group by being very honest with everyone. Lads that didn’t agree with not being in the team wouldn’t be acidic towards him.

I’ll be forever grateful to him for giving me a second go in England. He was a big loss because he’s a fantastic manager but I don’t think anyone envisaged how it would go. There were possibly decent managers that could have come in and galvanise the group, but we I can’t remember winning too many games.

“We had lost key players as Millwall was a selling club — Ben Thatcher, Mark [Kennedy] was providing and scoring goals, Jon Goodman was our centre forward and Kenny [Cunningham] was a fantastic player for us too.”

A  0-0 draw with Ipswich Town on the final day of the season saw Millwall drop into the bottom three for the first time all season — with Portsmouth safe thanks to a superior goal difference — and suffer relegation to the third tier. 

It would be five years before they came back up thanks to a raft of talented young players coming through such as Tim Cahill, Steven Reid, Paul Ifil, Richie Sadlier and Lucas Neill. 

Mark Kennedy Ireland's Mark Kennedy was a friend and team-mate at Millwall, but left for Liverpool in March 1995. Source: INPHO

The arrival of good news from the FAI would offer Savage a welcome distraction from the heartache of Millwall’s relegation that summer. Having missed out on McCarthy’s first two matches in charge of the Republic of Ireland, he received a call-up to the senior squad in May. 

“I thought I’d get an opportunity,” he says. “It was the end of Jack’s tenure and a lot of the older players decided that it was the end of the line. There was going to be a chance for the younger crop to come through.”

The next generation would get a chance to impress in a six-game series that began in Dublin against Portugal and Croatia, before a meeting with the Dutch in Rotterdam. Then it was on to America for the final three matches where the US, Mexico and Bolivia would provide the opposition. 

Named on the bench for the first fixture, Savage was introduced midway through the second half to replace Gareth Farrelly and make his bow against the likes of Victor Baia, Fernando Couto, Joao Pinto and Jorge Cadete. 

I’d been to Lansdowne and Dalymount to watch Ireland play, so for a Dublin lad it was pretty amazing,” he tells. “You’re trying to take everything. I came on and it was like ‘Wow’. You’ve got to try and prove you belong there and not just be running around looking at these players.

“They had a pretty good team and won 1-0 on the night [thanks to a 90th-minute Antonio Folha winner].”

Three days later, it was the Croatians who visited. Real Madrid striker Davor Suker and Milan midfielder Zvonimir Boban struck for the away side, but Keith O’Neill and Niall Quinn were on hand to earn Ireland a 2-2 draw. 

Savage came on for an 18-minute cameo in place of Alan McLoughlin and still has a vivid picture of a late chance.  

“Mark Kennedy whipped in a really flat cross. I’ve timed my run into the box and as it left me head I thought ‘That’s a goal’. It rifled straight and hit the keeper. I think that would have been to make it 3-2 and I sometimes wonder what would have happened. It’s one of those sliding door moments.

“I also remember Boban playing a blind half-volley to the other side of the pitch and I was just thinking ‘How has he done that? That’s class’. They had a really strong side and were going to the Euros.”

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Savage Ireland Savage in action for Ireland during the US Cup. Source: INPHO

Rooming with former club mate Kennedy, he didn’t feature in the defeat to the Netherlands and was a late substitute as Ireland lost 2-1 in Foxboro. What stands out from that occasion is a team night out in Boston. 

“They took us to bar they had been to at the ’94 World Cup,” Savage says. “I remember it was in a rough area like something from a gangster film, and there’s this really obscure pub you would never think of going to. I was expecting to see white chalk lines on the floor!

“Anyway, the guy opens up and starts letting the lads go behind the bar to pull pints and help themselves. There was a great atmosphere and we had a couple of good nights out there, as you did most of the time with the Ireland set-up.”

After relocating to New Jersey, he was then handed a first start for Ireland in a heated encounter with Mexico at the Giants Stadium. Savage made up a four-man midfield alongside with McLoughlin, O’Neill and Alan Moore, while Kennedy played just of lone striker David Connolly. 

After Luis Garcia’s opener, Ireland equalised through Connolly and took the lead early in the second half thanks to an own goal from Duilio Davino. A second yellow card for Liam Daish earned him an early bath, but all hell broke lose as substitute Niall Quinn reacted to the Mexican players calling for a red card. 

After some scuffles, Quinn and McCarthy were both sent off and Garcia subsequently scored a penalty to level terms in a 2-2 draw.  

“Daishy was shown red and it all kicked off,” says Savage. 

Source: PeteTop Carton/YouTube

The tour ended on a high as Savage retain his starting place and helped Ireland to a 3-0 win over Bolivia  at the same venue. O’Neill bagged a brace with Ian Harte adding the third. 

“I remember the Giants Stadium was roasting. Bolivia is obviously so many thousand feet above sea level but we ran them off the park. It was a really energetic performance from a young Irish team and we got some good headlines back home.

“I was really happy with my performances in the senior team. I couldn’t have done much more.”

McCarthy Quinn Mick McCarthy restrains substitute Niall Quinn during the Mexico game. Source: INPHO

When the 1998 World Cup qualification campaign came around that August, there was no call for Savage. While he feels he acquitted himself well in a green jersey, he fully understands that there were more deserving candidates ahead of him in the pecking order. 

A £100,000 transfer to Northampton town in ’98 wouldn’t have helped his cause either as he was now plying his trade in Division Two (League One). 

“It was always going to be difficult for Mick to pick a player playing in League One when we had the likes of Matty Holland, Mark Kinsella, Graham Kavanagh were operating at a higher level,” he accepts. ” We had a pretty strong midfield and it would have taken a couple of injuries to force my way in.

“I totally understood and it was going to be up to me to either get a move from Northampton or get promoted with them. Neither transpired but I’ve no real complaints.

It was always an honour to be in the squads and travel. Even the training sessions with the likes of Roy Keane, Gary Kelly… you always pick things up from professionals like them. You’d go back to your club with a little bit more zest and enthusiasm.”

He travelled with the squad to Romania in April ’97 and didn’t make the bench, and there was a home game against Liechtenstein a few weeks later too but Savage’s last involvement in the international set-up was a B international against a League of Ireland XI. 

“I never had an issue or a falling out or anything like that. I’ll always be indebted to Mick. It was a very proud experience to play in the games I did play in,” he adds. 

“Obviously, I’d have liked for it to be more and I would’ve loved to play at a major tournament, but there were players playing better and at a high level. That’s the pinnacle of my career. To represent your country is just a different vibe.” 

soccer-worthington-cup-second-round-charlton-athletic-v-oxford-united In action for Oxford United against Charlton Athletic in 2002. Source: EMPICS Sport

While it may have been the end of his days with the international fold, Savage went on to enjoy three years at Northampton Town, which he described as “a cracking little place”, and even settled there permanently with his wife and two children. 

There were also spells at Oxford United, Bristol Rovers, Rusden & Diamonds, Brackley Town and Oxford City before he hung up the boots in 2010. Although he still attends matches as a fan and does some radio work in Northampton, the 46-year-old has made a clean break from football and these days works for a building suppliers.

“It’s probably not what you envisaged doing 15 years ago, but it’s Monday to Friday 9-5, I get back to have my tea in the evenings with the family and play my golf on the weekends.

“It’s in a yard and there’s good banter with the lads. I enjoy it, it’s the closest thing to a changing room you’ll get.”

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Ben Blake

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