"There will always be footballers to find," said Jack Hixon, who has been finding them in the North-east for nearly half a century. "The Centres of Excellence that are everywhere now have their place and the monitoring they provide is useful. But there are still players out there, late developers in some way or another, lads who have been looked at once and got turned down. The essence of the job, of turning up at matches and looking and then trying to sort out the imponderables, won't disappear."
Hixon should know what he is talking about. He was the man who first spotted Alan Shearer for Southampton, whose talent-spotter he was for 20 years. More recently, in a brief spell at Sunderland, he turned up the much-vaunted teenage striker Michael Bridges, now being carefully nurtured by the manager, Peter Reid.
But Hixon, 75, seems as proud of the men who were to be no more than journeymen professionals, "men whose inherent honesty and application make them an asset to any side". Of those he recommended who are still playing he mentioned Tommy Widdrington, now with Grimsby, and Stephen Davies, of Luton.
The old scout is not alone in seeing the enduring virtues of his trade. Liam Brady, recently appointed youth director at Arsenal, has already employed more scouts, mainly in London and Ireland. The network of some 35 men still includes one Bill Darby, now in his seventies, and the fellow who first realised the merits of youthful players such as Niall Quinn, Frank Stapleton and ...Liam Brady.
"We've got somebody with him now," said Brady, "but he still knows what's needed in a young player. Ireland is a very important area for this club as is London."
One of Brady's primary tasks comes not in the spotting of players but in assessing his scouts' recommendations. The idea is not necessarily to spot future first-team players but to balance those qualities which will lead to apprenticeships. It is not usual, for instance, to say to a scout: "Show us your capped players."
Brady said: "This is a long-term job for the club. If four or five of the first team in five years' time have been scouted by my staff and come through the centre of excellence, then that's success."
The thinking is similar at Liverpool and Rangers, where Dalglish is likely to accept a super-scouting role. At Anfield, Frank Skelly, youth co-ordinator and assistant to Steve Heighway at the Melwood Training Ground centre of excellence, has been scouting for 21 years and and can bask in the glory of having realised the potential of Dominic Matteo.
Paradoxically, he used Matteo's discovery to illustrate how scouting is merely the initial part of the job. There were three others in the same Birkdale United team as Matteo, at least one of whom might have been a more complete player. But untimely injuries and illness halted their progress at crucial times.
"The chances of the older player coming through have lessened," said Skelly. "But it can still happen. John Aldridge was one and you never stop thinking there'll be others. What you can never do is spot a 10-year- old and say that he will make it. But you can look for the necessary qualities. Tabs we call it here [and it's on the Liverpool notepaper to prove it] for technique, attitude, balance and speed."
Jack Hixon is trawling the North-east on behalf of Ipswich these days, still watching at least two matches on a Saturday. This means he rarely gets to watch his brightest and best discovery playing for Newcastle, the team he has supported all his life but for which he has never scouted. They asked him once; he turned them down.
"It's still wonderfully rewarding but I'd be lying if I said there weren't cold days and moderate players when you wonder if it's worth it. But if I can see Michael Bridges continue his progress and eventually appear for England with Alan as his forward partner, well then I'll be happy."Reuse content