Joe Savage is a man passionate about history but it is the future that he plans to change.
For the uninitiated, Savage is sporting director at Hearts and has presided over the surprising transformation of the Edinburgh club which sees him sit third in the Scottish Premier League with a Scottish Cup final ahead and European football already insured.
Breaking the grip of “old business” is the goal and their current trajectory suggests they are at least on the right track. It’s certainly a far cry from the fan protests that tore through the club a year ago amid demands from chairman Ann Budge to resign.
Sporting director Joe Savage presided over Hearts’ surprising transformation
For that, Savage is quick to praise manager Robbie Neilson.
“The manager has done brilliantly,” says Savage, 37. “When we were promoted from the Championship last summer he decided to change his formation and tactics to have a bigger impact on the Premiership and to suit the players we were bringing.
“He wanted young, hungry players and told them he would provide a platform for them to show their talents in a good league with the challenge of facing Rangers and Celtic.
“There is pressure to win here, the fans demand it and Robbie knows that better than anyone who has played here as well.” He wants players who can thrive on that expectation and so far they have achieved that.
Neilson’s enthusiasm for the fight obviously rubbed off when they entered talks to sign Australian Olympics star Cammy Devlin last summer.
Robbie Neilson led Hearts from the Championship to third in the Scottish Premier League
“We were on Zoom,” Savage says, “and Robbie had talked about what we were doing and then asked Cammy how he likes to play and Cammy was like, ‘Oh, I love punching people!’ I don’t mind to mix it up, I’m here to earn it.’ Robbie was like ‘he’ll do for me’.
“It wasn’t so much about the aggression, it was that engagement; once he crosses that white line, he will go to war for his team.
Savage is struggling to contain his fervor for the task and it’s easy to see how, in tandem with Neilson, he’s managed to attract young players not just from Australia but also from Premier League sides like Everton, Liverpool and Brighton.
They convinced Beni Baningime to join Everton saying he would help them win the league, he replied ‘don’t worry I have a point to prove’.
Ben Woodburn was lured from the Liverpool bench by the prospect of playing in front of 20,000 at Tynecastle in derby games, as well as being live on TV against Rangers and Celtic while Brighton’s Alex Cochrane signed after Savage and Neilson took him to lunch overlooking the majestic Edinburgh Castle, ‘When he left we knew we had it…who can resist a castle?’. In effect.
Beni Baningime has been an important player in the heart of midfield for Neilson’s side
The attraction is certainly not lost on Savage, an avowed history buff.
After all, he is a man once so delighted to see Scotland’s crown jewels that he was prevented by his wife Yvonne from taking a photo in the Royal Palace for fear they would be expelled. Perhaps there is an analogy to be found in the fact that the sporting director of Hearts wants to unearth some gems in Edinburgh.
“I like a castle,” he laughs. “I would live in one with half a chance although I don’t think Yvonne would be too happy. I love the thought of what has happened before in these places with kings, queens, armies and little secret passageways.
“I’m currently immersed in WWII, how Winston Churchill laid out his plans, how 1940 was a pivotal year. I love listening to The Rest Is History podcast. Did you know King Arthur didn’t exist? I find that fascinating.
Within minutes, he regales the stories of Hearts players who volunteered for action in World War I, the first British team to be called up en masse. Of the 16 who enlisted, seven were killed in action. A memorial outside the city’s Haymarket station marks their bravery.
Savage left his role as head of player recruitment for Preston to join Hearts in 2021
It is normal that the club’s past plays a role in attracting players of the future. Savage readily admits that potential signings receive a DVD that showcases Hearts’ rich history as part of the recruiting process.
His passion is clear, but it’s not just his ability to absorb information, past or present, that landed Savage in his current role.
After launching his scouting career after playing for Hamilton Academical, Savage made a name for himself with recruitment roles at Norwich City as they secured promotion to the Premier League and then Preston North End which flirted with the play-offs .
There he established a network of contacts and relationships with clubs and agents from which Hearts now benefits.
“Working with small budgets, scouting the lower leagues for gems that can be bought for less than £1m, all of that was very helpful to me and it was time to take the next step.
Alex Cochrane, Stephen Kingsley and Nathaniel Atkinson celebrate against Hibernian
“So when I came here I was able to leverage those relationships at clubs like Liverpool and Everton, for example, to bring players here. The Premier League is often the present, young players don’t always have the chance, that’s where we try to intervene.
“I’m not perfect, I’m still learning but I chose this role because I thought I could be good at it and I stand by that decision.
“I think I’m a good listener and I hope I’m a good communicator. It’s important to delegate so staff can showcase their skills. They don’t want me to tell them how to do their job, they want me to trust them.
Hearts are in the Scottish Cup final and have already secured a place in Europe next year
“I would never impose a player on Robbie for example, but it’s not just about recruitment, although that’s what some people will judge me on. Europa League qualification could net us £3m but there are so many other facets of the club to budget for, whether it’s data analysis, the academy or the women’s team .
“We want to make sure everyone is coming together in the same direction. You’re not going to have it all, but the belief and the intention are there.
“We want to see the club get back to where they belong, split the Old Firm into trophies and win things ourselves.”
With a 19-point lead over fourth-placed Dundee United and facing Rangers in the Cup final on May 21, the day before Savage’s 38th birthday, it’s obvious Hearts are thriving again.