'Have passport will travel' is scouts' new motto

PREMIERSHIP COUNTDOWN: Foreign fields are providing clubs with yet more fresh talent. Ken Jones reports
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The Independent Online
As portrayed famously in cartoons, the football scout occupied working space approximately the size of a broom cupboard, favoured a briar pipe to go with an avuncular air and knew more about the rail system than any train spotter.

The spin to a global market in football has altered things enormously. These days scouts employed by leading clubs in the Premiership are as likely to find themselves in Africa as Aberdeen. "They have to know their way around the world," said the Leeds United manager, Howard Wilkinson, "be familiar with airline timetables, even how to hire a helicopter."

Wilkinson recalls the chief scout of Brighton coming in each Monday to scour the weekend sports editions of provincial newspapers for information that might lead to a promising player. "There were plenty like him," Wilkinson added. "They spent hours on the telephone and in draughty railway compartments."

Wilkinson was on holiday last year when the Leeds chief scout, Geoff Sleight, called him from Africa with news of two excellent prospects. Sleight, whose playing career took him to Australia and South Africa before he returned to manage in non-League football, was following up a tip Wilkinson had received from an old friend. "Geoff's report was favourable and he also suggested we try for another player from the same club," Wilkinson said. "He reckoned we could get both for around pounds 500,000, so I told him to alert our managing director and take things from there." The result was that Leeds signed Lucas Radebe and Phil Masinga who had come under Bobby Robson's scrutiny at Porto.

The crazy transfer spiral that sent spending in the close season to more than pounds 60m has forced British clubs to look further and further afield and gamble on adaption. "It's easy to make mistakes but how else can a majority live with a few who can afford the fees now being asked," Wilkinson added.

Despite restrictions imposed by the game's governing bodies, and to the understandable concern of the Professional Footballers' Association, it is likely that more and more foreign players will be recruited by the Premiership. "In the past there have been successes and failures," Wilkinson said, "and of course you can say the same about British players who have been transferred abroad. A dearth of talent makes us look elsewhere, to an international network of discovery."

Wilkinson's programme notes for Leeds United's first home match of the season contain fears that the current transfer trend could have disastrous consequences for the game in this country. "There is a real danger that people will get sucked in to the point where all of a sudden the bottom falls out of it. It could happen," he said. "Clubs in Germany and Italy have already realised there is no future in spending money few of them can afford."

As the search becomes more international, managers find themselves studying videos of matches from abroad broadcast by satellite television. Wilkinson first saw Anthony Yeboah, a Ghanaian international he signed from Eintracht Frankfurt last season, when Eurosport began showing matches from the Bundesliga in Germany. "He'd been sold to Frankfurt by a club in the German Second Division, who apparently picked him up on the cheap," Wilkinson said. "When Frankfurt made him available last season, I'd seen enough to make an offer. That's the obvious way of doing things. A much better way would be to employ the old scouting methods internationally."

That thought gathered momentum in Wilkinson's mind recently when Leeds played Bayer Leverkusen. Through direct association with the Bayer corporation, Leverkusen benefit from an unofficial international scouting network. Leeds came up against an outstanding Ghanaian full-back and two players from Bahia in the north west of Brazil who were signed on the recommendation of a Bayer employee. "Until we'd played that match, I'd never heard of them," Wilkinson admitted.

Tottenham Hotspur caused a stir in 1978 when they brought Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa over from Argentina. Many have followed. More are sure to come. "Given the present circumstances it's inevitable," Wilkinson said.

As an example of how this could further affect the development of players in the United Kingdom, not one goalkeeper in the Premiership is eligible by age for the England Under-21 team. As a manager puts it, the cost of losing status is so great that rather than run the risk of an inexperienced goalkeeper, however talented, clubs look abroad.