Google+ Blueprint for Football: The Secrets of the Talent Spotters

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Secrets of the Talent Spotters

Each day thousands upon thousands of words are written about football.  A lot of it is fluff; guess work by those who either wrongfully imply they have contacts within the game or else argumentative nothing by people trying to show how clever they are.

There is very little which gives you real insight into how the game works; very little from which you walk away feeling that you’re slightly more capable in discerning what is happening.

The Nowhere Men is one such rarity.  As he journeys into the world of football scouting, talking to an impressive number of people who work in that area, Michael Calvin slowly shows you what goes into scouting a player, bringing down the illusion – for those naïve enough to believe it – that selecting a player to add to a squad is any easy process.

In it – and in this interview – he shows how the best scouts go about forming an opinion on players and why some clubs hold back from signing a player even though there is both the financial ability by the club and talent on the part of the player.

What made you think of writing a book about football scouts?
We live in a world were football is massively over exposed.  We know every last thing that happens in the game, players present a certain image of themselves, clubs work increasingly hard at massaging their image as well.  One area people know very little about is scouting and recruitment. And that's strange because if you look at it scouts are central to the mythology of football.  They are the faceless men who stand on the touchline and spot raw talent.  But no one really knows who they are, were they are, how they operate and why they do what they do.  It is a really disconnected life, a lot of time on the road, eating on the run.  The thing is that they're not really appreciated by the game itself.  That's the one thing that really surprised me in the fifteen months that I spent on the road with these guys.

They were almost disrespected by their game and their clubs, to a degree, and that really did surprise me. 

How long did you spend researching and interviewing people?  And how did you decide who to talk to?
15 months is about what I spent on the road.  

Football is a very big industry but a very small world.  I got the idea through a guy called Jamie Johnson who is Millwall's chief scout.  For a previous book, which is called Family, I spent a year basically embedded at Milwall FC, which is an interesting club; uniquely challenging in many ways but which I found to be really rewarding.  One of the chapters was on the scouting process, dealing with Jamie and a guy called Steve Jones who was there at the time.  

We were talking in the manager’s office after a game and Jamie said "you should do a book about us scouts".  It was interesting because that chapter, in a book that was very well received and was nominated for the sports book of the year, did get a big reaction from the public.  So I said "well, let's have a look". 

In football you use your contacts so I started off with Jamie and Steve and asked "what are their networks like?".  Steve became one of the central characters of The Nowhere Men because over the course of the fifteen months he had seven clubs.  He is someone who I call a mileage man where he doesn't get paid any money but only gets 40p a mile.  

I can vividly remember one night when he was working for Sheffield United.  We did a game at Charlton where he was basically doing opposition report for the next game.  On that night Steve worked for 8 hours, did a 13 page report with about 1,700 words and he had to make sure that it was annotated and computerised.  For all of that he got £4 because he lived close to Charlton and it was just a 10 mile round trip.  That blew my head off, that you could do that much work for that little money.  That's quite a typical story.

The other side was that through Jamie I met his dad Mel.  He was a chief scout at QPR, went as a chief scout at Tottenham under Damien Comolli and helped get Gareth Bale in there which, in hindsight, was a very good piece of business.  And he then moved to Liverpool after a brief spell at Newcastle.  He has been in the game for 27 years and no one had ever asked him his story.  

Mel became a bit like my mentor.  We did a succession of games together and that was really fascinating as he told me what the eternal truth of scouting is.  It was about the second game we did together and it was the England U19s against the Czech Republic. 

Mel was looking at a young goalkeeper that he quite liked for Liverpool who was a young Czech kid who had just moved to Genoa in Italy.  So we started to watch the game and after five minutes Mel said, "look, you're making the mistake of every coach and manager that come to watch a player with me: you're watching the game."  I said "surely, that's what it is all about, watching the game".  He said, "you're like a manager watching the flow of the game, following the ball, looking at the systems...just watch your man."  That really came into focus really well because then it becomes a very intimate and individual process.  We were watching this Czech goalkeeper, the ball was at the other end and you were watching how he communicates with his defence when there was a set piece at the other end, did he maintain his concentration, what was his positioning like.

Basically it became more and more important as time went on.  

Mel and I did a game where we were watching the goalkeeper Jack Butland and Liverpool had been following him for a couple of years. Mel had watched him some nine times in places as far apart as Colombia and Switzerland.  Jack had gone on loan to Cheltenham in League Two, he was playing this Friday night game at Southend and he had a complete and utter nightmare. He was awful, hesitant, didn't come off his line, basically culpable for all four goals in the game.

Watching him intently - I didn't watch any player but him - and that was really fascinating because you got behind his eyes and into his brain.  And that was fascinating because the moment after he had conceded his fourth goal and his defence had pretty much had enough of him, they'd turned their backs to him.  He made a couple of hesitant steps towards the penalty spot and then started to chew the neckband of his shirt.  At that moment I saw the little boy in a man's game.  

It was also interesting to see Mel's reaction because there had been some debate within the club about him.  Quite a few people had gone to watch him and the doubt was about whether he commanded his area enough.  That game probably told me that he didn't.  The bizarre thing was that within four months he was playing for Team GB and within five and a half months he was making his full England debut.

Mel's reaction was very tender "Oh Jack, what have you done!".  On the way home he got a text from Jack's agent asking how it went and he just sent him back a brief text saying "Don't ask". 

Did you find the scouts to be an open group?
They were surprisingly open.  As a journalist and as a writer I'm transparent about what I do and work out of mutual trust and respect.  

The book I did about Milwall helped a lot because there were a number of managers who had read it.  Because I had such access and it was such an authentic picture that people understood what I was about and it was trying to capture a culture and present it in an honest way without shying away from some of the difficulties of the game.  

There was a lot of 'what's Mike like?' but once I got over that they pretty much opened up.  It was in their brain that they had this knowledge and they had this experience and which had been pretty much ignored.  I think that worked in my favour, to be honest.  

Scouts are particular in that they spend their lives together so that it is impossible that friendships don't grow out of it.  Yet they are still rivals.  They had that intimacy but still had that kind of distance.  I found them to be great.  

I really grew to like Mel an awful lot and during the course of the book there was Comolli leaving, followed by Kenny and then Brendan coming in.  At that stage I wondered if he would survive.  He had helped me so much that there was a personal attachment to him.  Thankfully, it has worked out pretty well.  Brendan's people have come in with a slightly different approach - he's brought in some good people in particular Dave Fallows who I think is very, very good - and they've recognised the on-the-road experience of Mel.  

Liverpool now are a very analytical club in terms of Farrow, who is one of the great innovators in the field. He is helped by Michael Edwards and they have an analytical approach.  I think that such a type has to be balanced by the eye of the scout.

In the book, Damian Comolli said "look at the Boston Red Sox."  They have the guru of sabremetrics in Bill James and a very strong sabremetric culture but they've also got a network of 50 scouts.  So I don't think one can exist without the other.  I think that you need both sides and I think it would be a big mistake to underestimate the top of the old school scouts and I would put Mel in that bracket.  I think he's one of the best in his field.  Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  These guys have a role and they should have a future.

I have always been a great believer in trends and what happens in the States usually manifests itself in the culture over here between 5 to 1 years later.  In baseball, teams are hiring engineers to crunch the numbers and they are making great strides in the area of psycho-analysis of players.  They address one of the key weaknesses of the system.

In the book there is a guy called Scott McLachlan, who is the head of international scouts at Chelsea, who made the point perfectly.  I can go out and buy an office printer which I know will get me 50,000 copies, it prints in colour and in three or four years I will probably have to get another one.

Yet when we spend £50 million pounds on a player - and I think he was probably talking about Fernando Torres - we don't know what we've got until he walks through the door.  What motivates him?  Is it money?  Is it glory? Is it his family? Is it his ego?  We don't know.

In any other business, when you've made that massive investment you would have psycho-metric testing but in football you can't do that because the person you want to test is the property of another club.

I think will be happening at youth level.  I know that Tottenham are testing their young players.  I don't know about Liverpool but I really like Frank McParland and I think that he'll be looking at that.  I see that as a big area of growth, this whole idea of due diligence.

I spoke to Mike Rigg who was at Manchester City before moving to QPR with Mark Hughes.  He showed me a 56 page dossier that they had compiled at Alexis Sanchez trying to get the due diligence done.  Mike and Barry Hunter, who is now at Liverpool, basically followed him around for four days.  They posed as fans and asked for his autograph to see what he was like.  They watched what he was like with waiters, whether he was polite.  They watched what he did when he went out with friends, did he take a coffee or a beer?  That kind of stuff which is pretty much off the cuff.  I foresee a time when it will be common to assess a player to that level before you spend the money.  They were doing what they could and, as it happens, he went to Barcelona instead of Manchester City.  

Liverpool is a club, I think, which were quicker off the mark than most over the potential of analytics.  Jury is out on Damien Comolli, I wasn't convinced to be honest.  In the book, Matthew Benham who is the owner of Brentford was asked discretely by Frank McParland to go up and see Damien at Melwood and he wasn't impressed by him.   Damien's certainty that he was right and Matt Benham is someone who has made millions of pounds from a statistical analysis - he is essentially a professional gambler who employs 17 PhD graduates to come up with his algorithms.  He was amazed by Damien's certainty that his model is correct.  Matt said that if you've got a maths or statistics background you would never say that because it is just not viable.

When you talk to scouts you always get stories about who they spotted.  However, is it ever that clear cut? Surely, a number of people look at a player before they are signed?
There has to be a consensus of opinion and it goes up the chain.  The manager or head coach should see a player.  I don't know if that is always the case but they should do.  

The most impressive set-up that I saw was Everton's under David Moyes which is his recruitment room which distils everything about their recruitments process.

There is almost a David Moyes mind-map.  He envisages his starting eleven for this season and the next three seasons.  That gives him an idea of where the gaps will appear and for the strategic recruitment area.  

David was really collegiate.  Although he was old school autocratic manager - he demands ultimate responsibility and wants to carry the can - he does have great trust in the people around him.  He had half a dozen advisors, chief scout, first team coach, assistants, a guy called James Smith who is the head of technical scouting.  They all had an influence in the process.  David had created what he called his MOT test: basically twelve criteria for each position to be fulfilled.  The optimum was something like 50 detailed reports from at least 10 to 12 guys so that you get that consensus emerging.  You and I could go to a game and see the same team but we might interpret it differently.  

For example, there's a guy who goes to the by-line, beats three players, cuts inside and has a shot; and that's all he does during the game.  Now if I'm a glass half-empty kind of person I might say that he didn't do a lot.  You might be the glass half full guy and say, well he didn't have a great game but there was something when he cut in.  So that's the sort of thing they're trying to neutralise. There was a brilliant simplicity in the system David had at Everton.  As I said, it was probably the most brilliant system that I saw.

Do you think that you're a better judge of a player now?
Yes I do, funnily enough.  Without wanting to big myself up, I think I have.  I've been in the game for 30 years watched thousands of games. However, talking to scouts, I think that's where I learned more about players.  If you are an engineer you are a product of your experience and it is the same with football.  You can only get better by experiencing new things.  

This week I got a phonecall from David Pleat earlier this week and he had been to see Tottenham's development team play against MK Dons.  He told me that MK Dons had this kid who was going to be fantastic and, before he could told me who it was, I said 'I bet you're talking about Dele Alli' because I have seen him play.  That was who he was talking about and he said, 'you've become a scout, haven't you?'  I think that's one of the finest compliments I've ever received.

Today there seems to be the belief that we're in a different age but then you see old-time Arsenal talent spotter Terry Murphy talk about looking for intelligent players and you realise that not that much has changed, has it?
I took about four years out of journalism to set up English Institute of Sport and we did some strategic work supporting Olympic sport.  One of the areas that we looked at was whether there is any correlation between the academic intelligence and sporting performance and couldn't find any.  

What players need above all is good coaching.  That is the area where we are lacking.  The scout can source the player but he has to hand him over to the coach.  If the coach doesn't help them progress then is nothing that the scout can do.  I don't think the coaching structure is good enough.  I spent three months in Australia to see how they managed athletes and we are miles behind. 

Finally, why should people read The Nowhere Men?
This is last great unexplored area in football and it will complete people's knowledge of the game. Seeing what they do, how much they work and how little respect they get will help them realise that football has got its values wrong.  Football should be promoting these people because they are central to this process.

The Nowhere Men (kindle edition here) comes with Blueprint for Football's highest recommendation.  Frankly, we see it as a must read.   Michael Calvin can be followed on twitter here.

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