Scout still pulling rabbits out of hats
Man who was instrumental in signing Drogba and Essien is now ensuring nobody slips through the net at Hull
Sunday 10 April 2011
The training session is over and the players are on their way home, but Steve Walsh's day is far from finished. There are scouting reports to analyse and arrange, phone calls to take from agents and DVDs of players to watch. If there were times when assistant managers did little more than bark out the boss's instructions on the practice ground, they have gone the way of terraces and nailed studs.
There is no more crucial cog in the machinery of a modern club than the man responsible for bringing in new players, which is reflected by Hull City's management structure. Nigel Pearson, the manager, has two assistants: Craig Shakespeare is first-team coach, while Walsh is head of recruitment.
If Shakespeare and the goalkeeping coach, Joe Corrigan, are a public face of the backroom staff, nobody, least of all Pearson, undervalues the work of 54-year-old Walsh, who has worked behind the scenes at various clubs since the end of his non-League playing career.
For 30 years, Walsh combined his football with a full-time teaching job, having been head of physical education at three comprehensive schools. He was working part-time for Chelsea, where he had recommended the signing of players like Tore Andre Flo and Gianfranco Zola, when Jose Mourinho asked him to become a full-time senior scout. Walsh worked closely with Mourinho's assistant, Andre Villas Boas, and was instrumental in the signing of key Mourinho recruits such as Didier Drogba and Michael Essien.
Sam Allardyce lured Walsh to Newcastle, where he first linked up with Pearson, before following the latter to Leicester. They signed 32 players in two seasons as the Foxes won League One and reached the Championship play-offs.
Both men, along with Shakespeare, moved on last summer to Hull, where the new management team have turned the club's fortunes around following relegation from the Premier League. The wage bill has been cut in half, putting huge emphasis on Walsh's recruiting skills. Of Hull's 33 registered players, 10 have been signed permanently by the new regime, six are on loan and seven have been loaned out elsewhere.
"Nigel and I often joked about pulling rabbits out of hats when we were at Leicester," Walsh said. "When we got here the situation was so difficult that we talked about someone even pinching our hat, but we played the loan market and we've slowly but surely got our own players in."
Investment by Assem Allam, Hull's new owner, enabled Pearson to splash the cash on Matt Fryatt and Aaron Mclean in January, but the manager remains heavily reliant on Walsh's scouting team, headed by David Mills, the former Middlesbrough striker. The network is not as extensive as, for example, Chelsea's, which costs millions to run, but enables Walsh to build a detailed database of players.
Walsh spends less time on the road these days – he watches all Hull's home games from the stand with a video analyst, Laurence Stewart, feeding observations to the bench – which means the quality of his scouting team is crucial. "You need experienced, quality scouts because you'll only be as good as the information those guys bring in," Walsh said. "You need to invest in your scouting because the more times you see a player lessens any risk when you sign him."
On a noticeboard above Walsh's desk is a schedule showing the matches – 30 or more in a week – his men will be attending. They include non-League matches, Premier League fixtures and internationals. Some are covered to scout Hull's future opponents, others because Walsh is interested in a particular player.
The reports on Championship rivals go into great detail. The scout outlines how teams play, their areas of strength and weakness, how they line up at set-pieces and how they can be beaten. There are individual comments on every player, including a note of the level at which the scout thinks they could play in future, a mark out of 10 and a grading. Players are graded A ("worth signing"), B ("worth keeping a watch on") or C ("not worth considering").
"We ask our scouts to go in without any pre-conceived ideas," Walsh said. "We just want to know what the players did in that match. All the time we're building pictures of players. Our technical analyst will sift through all the reports and tell me about the players who come up consistently as As or Bs. Then we'll start to take more interest in them."
Walsh keeps an eye on all players released on free transfers, in Britain and overseas, and takes a special note of those leaving bigger clubs. "If players are at Premier League clubs they've already gone through a big filter process," he said. "The players the big clubs don't want sometimes have to drop down a level to redevelop."
Lower down the scale, Walsh monitors players' first-team appearances. "If they've only played three times in a season you're suspicious," he said. "If they've played 35 games you know they might be worth looking at."
Walsh admits that some talent still slips through the net, recalling how he watched one match overseas in which he failed to spot the potential of two future Premier League players. "I was working for a Premier League club at the time and I didn't think either of the players were good enough for us," he said. "Yet they've both gone on to have good careers."
The misses, nevertheless, are heavily outweighed by the hits. The depth and quality of Walsh's research is evident in the range of Hull's recruits, from products of the Manchester United academy – James Chester, Cameron Stewart and Corry Evans – to out-of-contract senior professionals like Robert Koren, James Harper and Liam Rosenior, and a Tunisian international formerly with Slavia Prague, Tijani Belaid.
Rosenior, who had left Fulham, shows how it is not always money that talks. "I couldn't believe we got him for nothing," Walsh said. "He came to train with us on the Monday, he played in the reserves on the Wednesday and we offered him a contract on the Thursday. Now he's the best right-back in the Championship."
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