Broomfield's detective work sweeps O'Leary to the top

Aston Villa's chief scout has a record as long as your arm - if only in spotting talent. <i>Phil Shaw</i> meets the former policeman
Click to follow

From Venice to Villa Park, across two millenniums, the story of how David O'Leary and Ian Broomfield got their man makes even the Mounties appear lacking in perseverance.

From Venice to Villa Park, across two millenniums, the story of how David O'Leary and Ian Broomfield got their man makes even the Mounties appear lacking in perseverance.

The policing analogy is not lost on Broomfield, O'Leary's chief scout at Aston Villa, as he recalls the pair's pursuit of Martin Laursen, the Denmark captain. During more than a decade of detective work in the CID, Broomfield, a 53-year-old Bristolian, helped bring many criminals to justice.

Laursen, who misses today's visit of Chelsea due to what could prove to be a long-term knee injury, cost £3m from Milan before heading off to Euro 2004. Broomfield's file on him opened five years earlier. Newly installed as head of O'Leary's scouting operation at Leeds United, he had travelled to watch a player in a game between Venezia and Verona.

The scene he paints is redolent of a Cornetto advert. "Afterwards, I was waiting for the motorboat to Venice airport when David rang to ask how our target had played. I said: 'He's not for us. But I have seen the new Gordon McQueen-cum-Jim Holton'."

The comparison with the two Scotland stoppers struck a chord with O'Leary, no mean centre-half himself, so Broomfield continued his surveillance. "David saw him and so did Roy Aitken [then Leeds' reserve coach and now O'Leary's deputy]. We all liked him. But the chairman, Peter Ridsdale, wanted to see for himself before approving a bid. So one Sunday we made the trek to Reggina in southern Italy.

"To our horror, we couldn't spot Martin when the teams ran out. Then he limped to the dug-out with a big bandage around an ankle. He'd been injured in the warm-up! We hoped to nick him for £2m max. A month later he cost Parma £7m. But we kept tabs on him and now we've got him."

The concept of "nicking" people may stem from the years Broomfield spent tracking down wanted villains rather than would-be Villans. Yet football had felt his collar long before he joined the law.

After joining Bristol City as a teenaged striker he was selected to train with the England youth squad. "Charlie George was my room-mate," he says in what sounds like the title of a warts-and-all autobiography. "And I ruptured my Achilles tendon. Completely ripped it."

His career became stop-start, then went into reverse. At 26, after stints at Stockport and in South Africa, he decided life as a lower-division journeyman may not pay the bills for a family with two young children.

Re-routing to police work, Broomfield progressed to the Serious Crime and Murder Squads. He worked on 30 killings but his most high-profile case - which led, coincidentally, to his being seconded to Birmingham from Manchester - was the abduction of a Midlands estate agent called Stephanie Slater.

"It turned out she was being kept in a box in the Nottingham area. The voice of the kidnapper was played on television and his wife identified him, a guy called Michael Samms. He'd also killed a Leeds prostitute, a young girl named Julie Dart."

A chance meeting on holiday with Nicky Holmes, a former Southampton captain, led to his combining the "day" job with scouting for the south-coast club. Certain skills overlapped: attention to detail, checking on the lifestyle of a suspect or a signing, and networking contacts.

The link with Leeds had its origins in an offer from the then manager, Howard Wilkinson, to assess future opponents. Broomfield went full-time under George Graham, followed him to Tottenham and then returned to work for O'Leary.

At Villa, O'Leary does not have the resources to buy what Broomfield terms "top-dollar players", such as Ridsdale sanctioned at Leeds with shocking consequences. They certainly cannot compete with Chelsea since Roman Abramovich began throwing his money around.

But last season, O'Leary and Broomfield's first at Villa, the side rose from 16th to sixth, proving the Irishman was no mere "spending manager". "As far as David was aware, the cash was there to spend [at Leeds]," asserts Broomfield. "He didn't know it was all geared to reaching the Champions' League. People talk about what we spent but they forget the value of the squad before the market crashed. We turned down £20m for Mark Viduka and they got £30m for Rio Ferdinand.

"The players we brought in at Villa last season - Thomas Sorensen, Gavin McCann and Nolberto Solano - didn't cost massive amounts, but they all came off. We added Martin Laursen, Carlton Cole [from Chelsea], Vaclav Drobny [Strasbourg] and Mathieu Berson [Nantes] this summer, but also let lots of players go. We're still short of numbers, and you never stop looking for that extra quality to help you attack the big boys.

"We try to find players who are bronze or silver and turn them into silver and gold. We did it at Leeds with Olivier Dacourt, Michael Bridges and Eirik Bakke. But it's becoming harder to find players in this country. For a similar price to someone from the lower divisions you can take the best of the Dutch, Czech or French Under-21s.

"The crucial thing is not so much what you bring into a club. It's what you keep out. Villa have probably spent £50m in recent years on players they got nothing back on: Stan Collymore, Bosko Balaban, John Fashanu and so on."

The fans have tended to vent their frustration on the veteran chairman, Doug Ellis. Now that they can sense the club advancing again, will O'Leary be able to satisfy expectations? "The competition's very intense," says Broomfield, with Villa again in sixth place. "Even before you get to the big three there's Newcastle and Liverpool.

"I also look at the money Tottenham have splashed out this past year and at what Middlesbrough and Birmingham have spent. They haven't cost big fees, but the wages for people like Viduka and [Muzzy] Izzet will run into millions."

Villa, explains Broomfield, intend to invest prudently and develop home-grown talent. He talks, as if discussing undercover surveillance in his former job, of "proceeding quietly". It would never do for rouble-rich Chelsea and some will say it represents a departure for O'Leary - though the patient stalking of Laursen flies in the face of lazy stereotypes.