How coronavirus has left football’s scouting industry on the brink

Talent spotters are gravely undervalued in the billion-pound transfer business. With the spread of Covid-19, they now fear a loss of work and their identity

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 23 March 2020 10:23
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“Most of them are never seen by the people inside the club and are usually an expense form that gets signed off,” Simon Wilson, Stockport County’s director of football, tells The Independent about the game’s talent spotters.

Those words remind of author Michael Calvin’s assertion that “scouts are everywhere yet nowhere, faceless and nameless.”

Last summer, clubs in Europe’s top five leagues completed 1,932 transfer deals to the tune of approximately £5.3bn, but those responsible for the early stages of identifying targets are underpaid and undervalued.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic wrecked the football calendar, they’re further in the shadows and in fear of losing more than just work.

“It’s an unnerving time for them,” says Wilson, who also served as head of performance analysis at Southampton and director of football services for the City Football Group. “For a scout, travelling to watch games is their life, it’s a huge part of their identity and how they show their value to football clubs. Not being able to contribute will leave them feeling lost.

“There is also a real sense of community with scouts. They’ll see each other at games and socialise regardless of which club they work for. That might seem weird to fans, but it’s a normal sense of camaraderie.

“Most scouts would do a minimum of around three games a week so that’s a big chunk of their lives gone with all the travelling included. It’s a huge void that they’d now need to fill.”

Despite the billions traded between clubs in the transfer market, head-spinning sums do not trickle down to scouts. It’s quite the opposite.

“Many will work on the basis of clubs covering their travel and expenses,” Justin Goodchild, a player recruitment specialist whose CV includes work for England and Stoke City, explains to The Independent. “Others may get a set price per game, some will be on a monthly retainer and only a few would be operating on a regular income contract – either part-time or full-time.

“Being a scout isn’t really as salubrious as some may think. We get to be involved in something that we all clearly love, but there’s a lot people don’t see.

“The biggest concern now is a fear of being out of work. I think if you took a bird’s eye view of all of the scouts around the UK alone, you’ll see a majority that are unable to operate due to coronavirus. They will be in dire straits until the pandemic is contained and games resume. The fallout will come from lower leagues initially, but it will hit Premier League scouts too.”

It is the traditional bracket of talent spotters that will be most under threat, those who have spent decades mastering the art of analysing a player’s flaws, potential ceiling and character in parks, training sessions and stadiums.

“It’s a really difficult scenario for the golden generation,” Kevin Braybrook, head tutor of the Professional Football Scouts Association, notes to The Independent. “They have vast experience and knowledge in making their assessments from watching live games, but that skill has been removed from the equation in the current circumstance.

“Modern scouts with a more analytical background and who have developed a broader insight through Wyscout, InStat and Hudl are in a better position.

“We have been trying to engage people online through a matrix of technical scouting courses that we have available. We’re encouraging scouts to upskill while they have time.”

Jadon Sancho dribbles past Mason Mount in the FA Youth Cup final in 2017

Wilson and Goodchild both agree that video analysis will be pivotal as recruitment teams adjust to the reality of not being able to do matchday assessments. That, however, does not diminish the importance of live scouting.

“It’s a small part of the job in signing a player, but it builds the base of research needed to cross-compare a position across leagues or a target against other individuals,” Wilson says. “The value of live scouting is that you get a greater feel for everything. You get much better context and faster than you do through video. You can understand the pressure of the atmosphere, whether it’s a tight game or more open and how quick the tempo actually is.

“If a player has had a volley of verbal abuse from an opponent for example, you can spend extended time mapping out what his reaction was and how it affected his game. The details around attitude and character are harder to pick up off video. With that off the table now, the bigger and better-structured clubs would have software licenses for their scouts so they can watch video to refine analysis, review their findings and trawl for info that may have been missed.”

Goodchild echoes that “a scout’s main value will now be analysing previous performances by video” and that the suspension of action may provide a chance to “look at markets previously ignored.” He hopes that clubs will work on fine-tuning and enhancing their recruitment processes.

“For a long time, a lot of football recruitment has been behind the times,” Goodchild says. “It functions, but rarely ever ahead of the curve. It’s a unique opportunity to evaluate recruitment groups, build a succession plan, expand depth charts and operations. It may also be a chance for clubs to think outside the box.”

While teams, especially at the top end, will cope with adjusting their transfer methodology in the months ahead, scouts are nowhere near as secure.

“Payment measures vary and only the financially stable clubs will retain their staff, potentially moving a few that are capable to video analysis,” Goodchild says. “I know only a few have committed to paying their staff. It’s extremely worrying for all scouts at the moment and a lot are looking over their shoulder. At grassroots or academy level, income has ultimately come to a total standstill along with the season.”

Braybrook has spoken to several anxious scouts. “There are a lot fearing for their jobs and those who keep them will still have the uncertainty of when they can actually return to it,” he says.

“Football is only a part of life, but if you work in this industry, it is a very significant part so it’s understandable that it’s a difficult and concerning time.”

The Professional Football Scouts Association have discounted their online courses to help remain productive during isolation. Check them out here.

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