Dons buoyed by scouts

Simon O'Hagan studies Wimbledon's enduring capacity for unearthing rich talent
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The Independent Online
WITH the help of electronic tagging, you could follow them each week as they fan out across the country. Many would like to do so. Where do they go? What are they looking for? How do they know when they've found it?

Scouting is one of football's great hidden arts. Every club does it, but some need to do it more than others. At Wimbledon, scouting and success go hand in hand.

"I'd say it was one of the key elements here," Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon manager, said last week. "It's that important to us. Our judgement is that you don't have to buy Stan Collymore for pounds 8m. You could have bought him for pounds 100,000. He was there for the taking. That's the way I look at it. My job is to try to find players at that price."

As Wimbledon get stuck into their 10th consecutive season in the top division - a record bettered by only eight other Premiership clubs - there are still those who insist on writing them off, perhaps more in hope than expectation. It can't last, they say. But it has. The gang are cussed as much as crazy, defiant in all things, not least disproving the theory that spending is the only way to get on.

At the richest clubs, the purchase of a Bergkamp or a Ginola, a Cole or a Collymore, is not just about improving the strength of the squad. It's financial muscle-flexing, a signal to the outside world that "we're one of the big boys". It keeps the club's profile high. It sells shirts and season tickets. It's showbiz. Wimbledon are not interested in any of that. They can't afford to be.

The 11 names on the right stand as a monument to Wimbledon's unsurpassed ability to sift the game's river-bed and come up with gold. For every Warren Barton and John Scales, hundreds more players are scrutinised. And in his three and a half years in charge, Kinnear has shown himself the equal of any of his predecessors when it comes to trekking off to a lower-division ground on a wet Tuesday night in November and checking out that 18-year-old striker who's supposed to be a bit tasty.

Of the present squad, Efan Ekoku stands out as the most expensive player Wimbledon have ever bought, although the pounds 920,000 they paid Norwich for him just under a year ago would be considered loose change at many clubs. Much more typical are Alan Reeves (pounds 250,000 from Rochdale), Kenny Cunningham (pounds 500,000 from Millwall), Jon Goodman (pounds 500,000 from Millwall), Alan Kimble (pounds 170,000 from Cambridge United), Marcus Gayle (pounds 200,000 from Brentford) and Andy Clarke (pounds 150,000 from Barnet). What would Dean Holdsworth, who cost pounds 720,000 when he went to Wimbledon from Brentford in 1992, go for now? pounds 4m? pounds 5m? pounds 6m?

Then there is the Norwegian international Oyvind Leonhardsen, bought from Rosenborg for pounds 500,000. Scouting may be a secretive business, and like most clubs Wimbledon keep their operations to themselves, but Leonhardsen's talent was there for all to see when he scored for Norway during the infamous defeat of England in the World Cup qualifier in Oslo in 1993.

"As far as I remember he was one of only about two players not playing outside Norway," Kinnear recalled. "I was amazed by that. So I dived in quickly, and he's been a revelation for us. Wonderful player. He's another one who would fetch millions."

Not many players present themselves as obviously as that. Kinnear says he keeps a list of 200 he wants looked at - divided into left-backs, right- backs and so on - and is updating it all the time. Some evenings there might be as many as six or seven people watching players on Wimbledon's behalf - Kinnear, his assistant Terry Burton, the 74-year-old chief scout Ron Suart, who is a former manager of Blackburn Rovers and Chelsea, and three or four part-time advisers. Sam Hammam, the club's owner and managing director, is so wrapped up in Wimbledon's fortunes that he will often accompany Kinnear on scouting missions himself.

It's a laborious process, but the rewards are there - financially from the club's point of view, and in terms of job satisfaction for all those involved. "I'd been tracking Kenny Cunningham for two years," Kinnear said. "It's always nice when you pull off something like that. He's a tremendous player and is going to be even better."

Scouting is not the only source of talent. Wimbledon have a youth development scheme which has yielded numerous first-team players, notably two England under-21 internationals in Neil Ardley and Peter Fear.

But how does Kinnear know if a player will suit this uniquely driven club? "I look for a lot of things. But character is vital. I take him out to lunch, get to know him. Will he work? Will he give all he's got? He must have the right attitude. I'd want to be able to trust him with my life." Anyone out there ready to meet the challenge?