Hearts sporting director Joe Savage on relationship with Robbie Neilson, full-time hunger and what excites him about Tynecastle challenge

Straight away it was clear Hearts have recruited an enthusiastic, personable, knowledgeable and willing sporting director.
New Hearts sporting director Joe Savage. Picture: Heart of Midlothian FCNew Hearts sporting director Joe Savage. Picture: Heart of Midlothian FC
New Hearts sporting director Joe Savage. Picture: Heart of Midlothian FC

Even via Zoom Joe Savage’s passion percolates as he nears the end of his first week in the job at Tynecastle.

Everything from his time as an “average footballer” – as he put it – to signing players to returning north to the Hearts job was discussed with an energy and emotion that suggests he is already enjoying his time at the club and eager for more.

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With it being January, focus is on the transfer window and possible recruits to the squad, but the addition of Savage represents a vital appointment for Hearts as he becomes the second to fill such a role during the Ann Budge era, albeit with the sporting director title rather than the director of football one used for Craig Levein.

It represents a key milestone in Savage’s career to date having worked his way up behind the scenes at Hamilton Accies under Alex Neil before following him to Norwich City then Preston North End.

At just 36, he holds an influential position at one of the biggest clubs in Scotland, a far cry from his playing days in the lower leagues with the likes of Stenhousemuir and East Stirlingshire.

Desire, hunger, motivation

"Probably in my head, I thought I was better than I was,” he admitted.

Robbie Neilson wants a new striker in the transfer window. Picture: SNSRobbie Neilson wants a new striker in the transfer window. Picture: SNS
Robbie Neilson wants a new striker in the transfer window. Picture: SNS
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"I had been an academy player at Motherwell and went to Stenhousemuir. I was kind of passed about the Scottish game – here, there and everywhere. But I’d always wanted to go into that football side.

"The motivation for me was that I didn’t have the football career that I felt I should have and wanted. It gave me that hunger and desire to make sure that I got into full-time football. That was one of the dreams or goals that I set myself. If you can’t be a full-time footballer, get into full-time football in another capacity.

"I’ve always loved scouting. I’ve always loved the recruitment side of things and it just developed from there. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity at Hamilton Accies under Alex Neil and Frankie McAvoy, who I have just left at Preston North End.”

Transition to sporting director and the role

At Accies, Savage was director of recruitment and analysis before becoming chief scout at Norwich. The role he left at Preston was head of recruitment to become Hearts sporting director.

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The Tynecastle position is all-encompassing and much more than simply identifying and recruiting players.

But it is one Savage has been preparing for. He is currently undertaking a level 5 technical director course with the Football Association in England and had already sounded out Rangers’ Ross Wilson and Norwich's Stuart Webber who are both sporting directors before the Hearts job was on his radar.

He said: “My history has been head of recruitment at Preston, chief scout at Norwich and head of recruitment at Hamilton. I’m hoping I can develop further into the role and show I’m not just about recruitment, I have a bigger skill set than that.

“It will be broad, I am going to be involved in a lot of things and that’s what I wanted. I wanted that responsibility.

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“I am going to be involved in the academy, I am going to be involved in the women’s side, recruitment, analysis and with the medical and performance departments.

“So it is going to be broad, but that’s what excites me, trying to help and get my teeth into that and show what I can do and hopefully push the club forward.”

How the Neilson relationship will work

In some circles, the role of sporting director – or director of football – is treated with suspicion, even outright disdain. During Levein’s time at the club there were always questions, more often than not without any foundation about how the relationship worked.

However, in Neilson, Hearts have a manager who has openly professed his desire to work with a sporting director and reap the benefits of such a relationship.

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"I had followed Robbie’s career path because I’m always interested in the Scottish managers that go down to England,”Savage said.

"I’ve seen that he has always been open to this sporting director position and always wants someone there to help, that’s all I’m there to do.

"I’m not going to tell Robbie what to do, I’m there to help him. I’m there to provide what he asks for and hopefully provide the right things that he feels, ‘yeah, Joe is trying his best for me’.

"I’ll try my hardest to make sure I get what Robbie wants. I’ll try and provide him with everything he needs.

"He is an experienced man and knows what he is doing.”

‘This is unbelievable’

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While the short-term focus is on recruiting a new striker, with players identified, longer term it is on making Hearts a force in the upper echelons of the Premiership, competing in Europe and for trophies.

Savage said: “I’m Scottish so I know how big a club Hearts are, I have been around the game long enough to know the history of the club, the fanbase, the tradition.

“Everything is there for this club to go again.

“They were relegated, harshly in my opinion. If Covid-19 hadn’t happened, they wouldn’t have been relegated, it’s that simple.

“It’s only when you see it you realise how big it is, how professional and organised it is.

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"The infrastructure is great. The stadium is magnificent, the city of Edinburgh is beautiful, the training facilities are great. You’ve got a management staff that have won the league before. They know what they’re doing.

"I looked at the full package and felt ‘wow, this is unbelievable, are you sure you want to hire me?” When they wanted to take me, I thought OK, we could really do something here.

"I’m five days into the job so I’m not the finished article. We haven’t achieved anything. But I look at this as an unbelievable opportunity at a great club. Let’s see how we do.”