Last week Joe Savage sat at a conference listening to individuals in prominent roles at Newcastle United, Brentford and Norwich City. The Heart of Midlothian sporting director sought further insight from the trio who hold similar positions to him. But it wasn't insight on big money moves, overseeing an academy or anything to do with analytics or medical departments.

Savage, who was appointed to his role in Gorgie at the end of 2020, wanted to get a better understanding of how these three figures deal with pressure. Sporting directors, technical directors, directors of football are now judged and scrutinised in a similar manner to managers such is the importance of their position at clubs and the false notion that they unearth and then sign players, even foisting them on the head coach.

"I wanted that responsibility," he told Hearts Standard. "It’s the reason I left Alex Neil. I didn’t want to just be seen as Alex’s guy who is always with him, goes everywhere with him. I wanted people to see I could do this job on merit myself. I wanted the opportunity to go and be a sporting director. I did the Level 5 technical director course with the English FA. I had been working at it for a number of years. I had an idea of what I wanted to do. But nothing prepares you for it until you walk into these sorts of jobs. The first-team, the women’s team, the academy and within that you’ve got recruitment, performance, medical, analysis that all reports to you.

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"The one thing that frustrates me about the job is people judge me on signings. They think I sign the players. I don’t know how many times I have to say, I don’t sign the players. I give the management team the options of players. We present players to them and if Steven doesn’t want them we don’t sign them. He has to be happy. He has to say ‘yes, he’s the one for me, that’s the one I will take’. After he has done his own due diligence, his own work, his own character references, he has spoken to his coaches, all these things fit into that.

"I go and listen to other sporting directors and they don’t tell you, they don’t want to show vulnerability, they don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of how difficult the role is. They worry someone might sack them, they worry someone might think ‘you shouldn’t be saying that’. That’s not me."

Hearts Standard:

Savage was really keen to scratch below the surface. He posed a question to Dan Ashworth of Newcastle United, Stuart Webber of Norwich City and Phil Giles of Brentford.

"I went there wanting to hear some insights, hear some things they struggled with," he said. "Even before they got the money Newcastle were a big club, great fan base, very demanding fan base. How do you cope with that? He didn’t answer. Stuart to be fair is always very open and very honest. Stuart had a lot of criticism the last few years, a lot of abuse. Stuart helped deliver two of the best teams the Championship has ever seen. He spoke about how he’d never been in the city centre because of the abuse he gets, people shouting in front of his son."

It was a pertinent question. The pressure has intensified at Hearts this year. It's pressure he enjoys and thrives under. As a scout he remembers coming to Tynecastle Park and seeing the "great crowd". Like many, it was not until he was part of the club until he got a better appreciation of the "brilliant fan base" and its passion and intensity. But there have been numerous times where that has crossed the line to nothing more than outright personal abuse, as can so often happen in football.

Savage recounted incidents this season where fans have made derogatory comments regarding his hair, weight, appearance or where he's from. It wasn't all that long ago that he could do no wrong. A key figure behind the success of the club's return to the Scottish Premiership and subsequent third place finish which brought about European group stage football. But now? At a recent event he attended with head coach Steven Naismith he overheard a fan refer to them as "weegie bastards" and remark that they "talk shite". 

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That was just one such incident. There has been abuse at games, criticism for dancing on tables - "I’m a non-alcoholic and stepped down off a chair" - during the club's European trip to face PAOK Salonika. There has been abuse over signings and a claim that he is a "bad egg". It would be easy to brush it under the carpet, part and parcel of being involved in football. But Savage is keen to open up about the impact such remarks have on him and ask the question why, in football circles, is it okay to dish out such abuse so easily?

Why should it be part and parcel or come with the territory of the job?

It is an important and relevant question at a time when there is continued encouragement to be open and discuss mental health issues, both amongst men and in sport.

"I’m not on social media but I hear it, I see it, I know it’s there," he said. "I know there is a pressure on me. One of the fans made sure to tell me there is a thread on [Jambos] Kickback about me, whether I should stay or I should go. I’m thinking that is really interesting because these are the pressures of the job people don’t tell you.

"Everyone says to you ‘don’t read it’. But it is not happening to you when they say don’t read it or don’t listen to it. You can’t help it, it is there.

"I’m quite comfortable showing this vulnerability. I think people need to hear this job is not all rosy, it’s not me going home, sitting with my feet up and lighting a cigar saying ‘what a day I’ve had today’. Decisions you need to make everyday are hard. You’ve got things with budgets, things with salary increases, bonuses, people wanting this, agents wanting to move their players. You are saying not for that money and that agent is falling out with you. You’ve to deal with so much every single day and at times you feel you are a glorified head of recruitment because you get judged on signing players but that’s not the role. That’s all I ever get when I’m out.

"We played Ross County a few weeks ago. Me and [chief executive] Andrew McKinaly are walking out after the game. We had won 1-0 so there were a few fans banging on the window giving it ‘well done, well done’. There was one guy who had a minibus, opened up his window and shouts out ‘Savage you baldy prick, signings have been shite. Only joking, only joking’.

Hearts Standard:

"He’s trying to have a bit of banter but he’s calling me a baldy prick. Clearly I am follically challenged but it's still not nice when people say it to you and want to tell you to your face. I’m trying to lose weight now because I’m being called fat that much. I don’t want to be fat, I want to be in good shape. I know you can smile, laugh and joke about it but I want to break that mould of people saying that about you and thinking it is fine to say that about you. Football seems to be an industry where on social media fans can say whatever they want about you. It’s not nice.

"I’m not on social media because it is a dangerous thing. For the 99 positive comments you’ll see the one negative and it will stay with you. Someone screenshotted something a couple of weeks ago and sent it to me that a fan had apparently said Savage needs to go because he is a bad egg. Straight away I’m thinking ‘how am I a bad egg, what have I done to upset anyone?’ You start to think ‘where is that coming from, what are people saying’. It’s easy for people to turn round and say to ignore it but it’s not you getting it. 

"You see the stuff about all the people who talk about the mental health problems. It is a big thing out there in football. Go back on that person’s social media timeline and they have probably slaughtered some player three days ago but they are then reposting [about mental health]. It is so fake. It drives me insane."

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Savage was keen to stress that everyone deserves a platform to have an opinion where they can express disagreement or criticism but to separate it from abuse. 

"Some people might read this and say Savage needs to toughen up, people don’t mean it, it’s just an opinion of one person but that opinion can hurt you," he said. "Fans are absolutely entitled to their opinion but when it borders onto that personal abuse someone needs to call it out. You can’t call me that, you can’t say that, it’s not nice, it’s not fair. Some people will just never listen, some people will go about their business and it makes them feel better abusing you then fair play."

Time and again, Savage returned to his desire to succeed at Hearts, noting the work that goes on every single day to improve the facilities, the players, coaches, the academy, to be "the best we can be" and how he believes "we are close to achieving something special here".

"I enjoy the role of delivering," he said. "I’m not just this big mighty sporting director that makes all the decisions, I collaborate with everyone and give them their place but ultimately when it comes to the football department the final decision rests with me, I get that. I will take that responsibility. I enjoy it and enjoy the challenges the job brings. No two days are the same, you’ve got something different to deal with everyday, that keeps you on your toes."

He added: "Hopefully I leave when I can say ‘we won that, that was brilliant, we succeeded in a mission to build it back up to a point where it is in a great position’. That’s the dream."