Joe Savage on making most of Hearts opportunity, difficulty of signing players and importance of scouting

Hearts sporting director Joe Savage admitted the move to Tynecastle “fell into place” as he targets developing different areas of the club.
Hearts sporting director Joe Savage. Picture: SNSHearts sporting director Joe Savage. Picture: SNS
Hearts sporting director Joe Savage. Picture: SNS

The 47-year-old doesn’t just want to be known for his recruitment acumen.

Savage joined the club at the start of the year after a number of years in England, first as chief scout at Norwich City before moving to Preston North End where he was head of players recruitment and scouting.

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The move back north, having previously worked for Hamilton Accies, arrived at a perfect time, Savage revealing lockdown was difficult for him and his family in England.

Now the focus is on improving different areas of the club, including the academy and women's side.

‘Just felt right’

"The opportunity came to speak to Hearts," he told From the Finney Podcast. “I felt ‘yeah, I want to speak to them and see what their plans are’. I spoke to them a couple of times and just felt it was right. We felt it was the right time.

“I hadn’t planned for it, it just fell into place. I’m just so lucky a club like Hearts chose me to be their sporting director. It is a big job, there was loads of interest in it. Thankfully the club trusted me with the responsibility.

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“It’s the role I wanted to see how I could do. I’m not the finished article by any stretch of the imagination.

"Talks cheap for me, it’s all about accountability. I wanted to see if I could do the role. I’m loving being involved with the academy, the women’s side. It’s been a breath of fresh air for me.

“I don’t want to just sign players, players, players constantly. I want to develop players. I want them to come through the academy. I want to have a real say on the women’s side.

"At the moment we have got three really strong teams in Glasgow City, Celtic and Rangers. But below that, Hibs and Spartans are decent, but we’ve got a chance to really build something here and that excites me.

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"Trying to be involved in that and if I can help in any way. It’s marginal gains, that extra one per cent.”

Difficulty of signing players

Savage will, of course, still play a significant role in helping Robbie Neilson improve the first-team through the transfer market.

Talks have already begun with targets and a new recruitment analyst will be in place in June.

The former Stenhousemuir player, who was key in helping Preston stay competitive at the top end of the Championship, expressed the difficulties clubs face when trying to recruit and how it is far from simple getting deals over the line.

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“It’s not easy to sign players," he said. “Identifying them is the easy part. But trying to get the deal done is the hardest part.

"You can’t factor in what other clubs are going to do, what other clubs are going to pay, what the player wants to do, what the agent wants. You don’t know until you start negotiations. Sometimes you won’t realise until it is too late you are not getting the player. And other times you can realise quite quickly and move on.

“What pleased me about our recruitment at Preston was the amount of times that we’d identify a player the so-called bigger clubs would come and take off us when we were close to getting deals done. They would come in and swoop down and offer more money. You’re clearly doing something right, but it was really difficult to sign players.

Savage added: “One of the things I don’t like doing is having a target list. I don’t like having a No.1, No.2, No.3, No.4, No.5 because I could make five calls in the next half hour and I’m down to No.6 because No.1 wants too much money, No.2 has just got injured, No.3 wife’s doesn’t want to come, No.4 has just signed a new contract and No.5 has just went elsewhere.

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“I never want to turn round and say who is your top five. You try to sign the best player available working within the parameters set by the club, the budget, the transfer fees, the salaries, what you can afford to pay.”

Data and live scouting

Savage's route to becoming a savvy transfer operator started at Hamilton Accies after his playing career came to an end.

Having an eye for a player is a fine balance between being self-taught and having an “instinct”.

While all clubs make use of data and analytics to help aid their scouting, Savage still appreciates the importance of getting to games and watching players in the flesh.

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"I’ve always been a student of the game, I’ve always enjoyed watching players,” he said.

"I’ve always probably said I’ve got an instinct for what I feel is a good player. Everybody’s opinion is different.

"I’ve always watched the opposition and tried to work out their weaknesses, tried to work out how they attack, what’s their strengths but also how can you exploit their weaknesses.

"Stats are facts. You read into them what you want. We were developing even further when I was at North End, the data and statistics, and I firmly believe in it. But I also believe in live scouting. You have to live scout.

"The data can’t pick up the character, it can’t pick up the attitude, it can’t pick up the reaction off the ball which are obviously vital components of a football player.”