What is it like to be a first-team scout for a professional football club?
In an area of the industry that is constantly evolving and where data analysis is increasingly driving the way that players are identified, football clubs still value having boots on the ground and a trained eye in the stands.
To get the inside track, The Athletic travelled to Aldershot, Brugge, Gent and Southampton to watch four matches with three vastly-experienced talent spotters.
Along the way, we learned the dos and don’ts of the trade – if you’re indecisive in any way, this really isn’t the profession for you – and received a mild ticking-off for watching a game too closely rather than concentrating on a player.
Just remember: say what you see, not what you’re told.
As rain patters against the windscreen, and the conversation turns to the importance of scouts gathering information by listening, Brian McDermott glances over his shoulder from the passenger seat and tells a story.
“Remember Kevin Doyle?” he says, referring to the former Republic of Ireland international who played for Reading and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League. “I’ll tell you how we got Kevin Doyle at Reading. I spoke to Barry Simmonds, who was at Cardiff (scouting) at the time. Barry is a good scout. We were just talking and I said, ‘Who’s the best player in Ireland?’ He said, ‘Kevin Doyle.’
“I didn’t say anything. He was trying to get him to Cardiff but they didn’t do it, they didn’t listen to what he was saying. I registered it and I went to watch him. We knew the manager at Cork, who was Pat Dolan, (the academy manager) Eamonn’s brother.
“I scouted Kevin twice, Nick Hammond (Reading’s director of football) scouted him once. Steve Coppell (the manager) went twice and we signed him. Sometimes, when you ask a question, someone gives you information and you end up getting a top player.”
McDermott looks across at Nick Baggott, who is driving. “What’s that got to do with scouting?” the former Reading and Leeds manager asks, rhetorically. “That’s all part of it. That’s why I talked to Nick before about contacts. We might speak to someone today who could give us information that could make a difference. It’s really important to listen to what’s going on.”
It is a damp and cold Saturday afternoon in early January, and the three of us are making our way to the EBB Stadium in Hampshire, where Aldershot Town host Notts County in the National League – the fifth tier of English football.
Baggott is a digital marketing expert and runs his own business. He is also a part-time scout for Reading, where he took up a role with the first team a few months ago, after previously being tasked with finding academy players. His work is much more specific now.
“With the academy you’re just thinking, ‘Is the player good enough to play?’” he says. “You’re not thinking, ‘Does he fit the style that the under-16 manager wants to play?’ Whereas with the first team, I’m thinking, ‘What does Paul Ince (the manager) need? What sort of player does he like?’”
McDermott, who has been working as a football consultant for the last couple of years, is mentoring Baggott. As well as managing in the Premier League and the Championship, McDermott was previously chief scout at Reading. He also had two spells working for Arsenal as a senior international scout. Finding players is, as he puts it, “an absolute passion”.
Baggott parks about half a mile from the ground on a side street. It is more than two hours to kick-off and, with the weather so miserable, we decide to stay in the car for a while.
McDermott holds up his phone. To prepare for the game, he has typed out the expected line-ups and the likely formation of both teams, watched clips on Wyscout (the online database which uploads videos of games played across the planet, among other things) and logged the age of every player.
“The (Notts County) centre-forward is 25 and he’s scoring every week,” McDermott says. “Can he come and play in the Championship next season? I’ve seen him on Wyscout. Who knows? He’s scoring goals for fun, so you’ve got to take notice of that. That’s why the scouts will be here today. There’s a goalkeeper (for Aldershot) who is 21 and on loan from Fulham. The rest of them, the average age is between 25 and 34. So, for someone like me, who will scout 17, 18-year-olds, there’s nothing here.”
Baggott shows his paperwork. “I’ve done exactly the same – ages, and the three stars are the younger guys that might be interesting. Notts County have got a lot of good players. But most of those players are too old.”
“That’s the profile of the National League,” McDermott adds.
As the weather finally breaks, we make our way to the ground, collect our tickets and take our seats in the main stand.
“We know who you’re all here watching,” says one elderly Aldershot supporter.
Reading are currently under a transfer embargo which means they are only able to sign players via free transfers or loans. But the hope is that they will be trading as normal in the summer. Targets need to be identified long before then, and in this day and age can easily be watched prior to setting foot in a ground.
“You don’t go to a game having never seen a player,” McDermott adds.
Wyscout is a valuable tool in that respect and used more and more in the post-COVID world – a legacy of clubs realising during lockdown that they could scout more efficiently when life returned to normal.
Video scouting has its limitations, though. “When you watch Wyscout, you can never tell physically what players are like,” McDermott adds. “Sometimes when they come out (onto the pitch), you say, ‘I hope that’s him’. So it’s never the same (as being at a game). That’s why you’ve got to mix the two together.”
It’s approaching 3pm and the floodlights are on already. There are slate grey skies overhead as Aldershot fans take their seats in front of us, onions spilling out of their hot dogs. Half a dozen children are waving flags on the pitch and struggling to hold onto them in the wind and rain.
“It’s not all watching Messi,” says Baggott, smiling.
“It never is,” McDermott adds matter-of-factly.
The teams are out and McDermott has a first chance to see Macaulay Langstaff, the Notts County striker and National League top scorer, up close. “There you go, straight away he’s bigger than I thought,” he says.
Our eyes rarely stray away from Langstaff during the first half – the way he runs, the positions he takes up in and out of possession, his body language, his work rate, how he communicates with his team-mates, not to mention what he does or doesn’t do with the ball.
McDermott talks a lot about the importance of “feel” when scouting live – something you don’t get, he says, when watching on a screen.
It’s half-time and Notts County lead 1-0. Langstaff has been busy and played a part in the goal.
“A lot of people talk themselves out of it (when scouting a player),” McDermott adds. “What doesn’t he do? Tell me what he can do.”
I wonder at what point a scout tries to speak to people close to a player, to find out more about their life off the field and also whether a move might be feasible. In fact, is that even a scout’s role?
“That’s 100 per cent my role,” McDermott replies. “I don’t go to a manager until I’ve got everything. I know what the family look like, I know what the agent looks like, I know his thought process – would the player come to the club, what sort of deal it would be. And when I’ve done all of that I’d go to the manager and say, ‘I’m absolutely certain on this. We need to do this.’ I want my scout to be absolutely sure in his own mind.”
McDermott sighs. “What you’ll hear is a lot of stories from scouts who have missed out on players. Well, you’re not doing your job right. I went to watch Erling Haaland when I was at Arsenal, when he was playing for Norway Under-19s. I watched him once and thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
McDermott puts Haaland’s name into his phone and finds the notes that he made at the time (he always writes a line or two about players on his mobile during a game for his own reference).
“22 July 2018. Haaland: puts his body in. Makes good runs. Great shape/size. Loads of potential. At the money nailed on.”
“If I’m doing a report for Arsenal, it doesn’t look like that,” McDermott explains. “I’m talking about ‘recommendations’, ‘strengths and weaknesses’. I don’t do War and Peace but I go through all the stuff. But this is just for me, I want to make sure that I don’t miss out on anyone.
“I watched Haaland three times. I met his dad Alfie and got on really well – he’d been at Leeds, I’d been the manager of Leeds. But we were never getting Erling Haaland. He was never coming to Arsenal. His journey was planned. They knew he was going to go to (Red Bull) Salzburg, then to (Borussia) Dortmund, and then he was going to take his pick. And that’s what happened.”
Notts County end up adding two further goals in the second half, running out 3-0 winners. Langstaff is not on the scoresheet and fades a little.
“The first half I thought he was very bright,” McDermott says, as we drift out of the ground. “The second half he looked tired. I thought his work rate was good and clever without the ball. He didn’t let them pass forward. He’s bigger than I thought he was and his record speaks for itself. Can he play in the Championship? Of course he can.”
Baggott now needs to come to his own conclusions on what he has seen. “When Brian and I spoke a few weeks ago, Brian said I need to tighten up my verdicts, be a bit more decisive – a definite yes or a definite no,” he says.
McDermott nods. “That’s all I ever wanted from my scout as a manager. There were times when I saw 200 names on a list about who we were going to sign. I’m thinking – and excuse my language – ‘What the f***?’. Seriously, what are you supposed to do with that? I wasn’t scouting, I was a manager and I couldn’t get to games.”
The concourse below the main stand at the Jan Breydel Stadium is starting to get busy. Club Brugge are hosting Anderlecht, the first of two Belgian Pro League games that Ty Gooden is watching on a Sunday afternoon when the temperature is close to freezing.
A former professional footballer with Swindon Town and Gillingham, Gooden now scouts for Monaco. He covers Belgium, the Netherlands, northern France and England for the Ligue 1 club, having previously scouted for Arsenal for a decade.
Monaco’s style of play, together with the resale market they target – the Premier League in particular – shapes their recruitment strategy. They are looking for dynamic, athletic players and, ideally, teenagers that have not long broken into the first team. Unsurprisingly, they are also not alone in that respect.
“Everybody is looking for the young players who are going to kick on, that could be anything from £5 million–£15 million,” Gooden says. “That market is ultra-competitive now. It means you have to make a decision a bit earlier than you would want to. If you don’t go early enough, a club a bit smaller than you will take the gamble because they have to. Or you wait six months and the price will double.”
To illustrate his point, Gooden highlights one of the players on the team sheet today. Bjorn Meijer, Brugge’s powerful 19-year-old left-back, was signed from FC Groningen for €6million in the summer. There was a school of thought that Meijer would benefit from another season of first-team football in the Netherlands to see how he developed – but Brugge rolled the dice.
These days data plays a big part in helping clubs to identify potential transfer targets, certainly at the start of the process, and some scouts are more comfortable with that than others.
“I like data, I’m embracing it. But it’s got to be used in the right context and work together with the eye,” Gooden says. “We do a little bit of both (at Monaco). Mainly it’s visual scouting. We get given players through the data to look at ourselves on video initially, and then we’ll go out if it looks promising. We work with each other, and the info they (the analysts) give us will sometimes lead us to a really interesting player.”
At the same time, Gooden has his eyes open to other possibilities. For example, he tells a story about watching a game recently where he was drawn to the exceptional ability of a No 6 who did not “quite fit the profile for the way we play.” So, he made a note in his report that if that style ever changed, the player would be worth signing.
Brugge have started brightly against Anderlecht. Gooden predicted they would have some joy on their right flank through the pace of Tajon Buchanan, the 23-year-old Canadian who shone at the World Cup, and he is spot-on. The winger, who was linked with Inter Milan earlier this month, should open the scoring but he drags his shot wide of the far post.
“That’s his weak point,” Gooden says, alluding to Buchanan’s finishing. “If he gets that right, his price will go through the roof.”
Hans Vanaken, who was a target for West Ham in the summer and is playing as a No 10, shows some nice touches for Brugge. “A lot of people are put off because he isn’t that quick,” Gooden says.
It turns out that it doesn’t take much for people to put a line through a player’s name. “You’d be amazed by the importance of first impressions with scouting,” Gooden says. “Managers will be sizing players up in the warm-up and almost ruling them out because of how they move.”
Indeed, it is easy to sit in a stand and be critical of players, picking faults with aspects of their game while conveniently ignoring what is happening closer to home.
“An important thing is to watch your own team carefully,” Gooden says, referring to a bit of advice that he was given when he first started scouting in 2006. “We can watch this game today and say, ‘He can’t do this and he can’t do that.’ But watch your own team and see how many you would sign if they were playing for someone else.”
With a little more than 10 minutes remaining and Brugge leading 1-0, we dash back to the car and make our way to the home of Gent, who are due to kick off against Kortrijk in less than an hour.
The journey to the ground provides a chance to ask Gooden about his time working for Arsenal, including the players that got away. “One frustrating one was (Kingsley) Coman,” he says. “I flagged it early and we got him in the building a few times. We actually watched the Arsenal-Newcastle 7-3 game (with him) in 2012. Everything was perfect. I looked after him in London for three nights over Christmas. There was no reason not to sign him. But for some reason Arsenal found a way not to.”
Gooden shrugs. “I’m philosophical – you can’t sign every player. We’re all good at saying the ones we told them to sign and they didn’t and they’ve come good. We don’t like so much saying the ones that have failed or we didn’t quite see at the time – we’ve all got plenty of those.”
That said, it was Gooden who found William Saliba for Arsenal and that hasn’t turned out too badly. “I saw him first for France youth team. It was just one of those moments when you see a player as a scout and you just know – you don’t get it that often. But I thought, ‘Wow, we might need to sign this lad.’
“He was playing for Saint-Etienne youth team and France Under-17s at the time. But he quickly got in and around the first team at Saint-Etienne. I’d made up my mind by then. I just said, ‘I’d sign him.’ So Peter Clark, head of UK scouting, went to watch him and came back and said, ‘Yep, there’s nothing like him in the UK.’ I think Franny (Francis Cagigao, head of international scouting) then went and that was it, it all happened quite quickly.
“The thing that put people off about him (Saliba) was that he looked a little bit heavy. Now, because he’s a bit taller and leaner, he looks very smooth and elegant. I remember a mate at another Premier League club went to watch him and said, ‘I wouldn’t sign him. Doesn’t look like he can move his feet.’ I was like, ‘Hmmm. I imagine (Virgil) van Dijk was probably exactly the same at that age.’”
We arrive at Gent’s stadium with seconds to spare and take our seats just in time to see Hugo Cuypers score the first of his two goals for the home team.
Gooden is here to look at a player he has watched before, prompting a conversation about how many times scouts should see a potential target before making a decision on them.
“You can watch players too much,” he says. “After a while you’ll only find negatives. I would like to watch someone two or three times and say (to the club), ‘Go and watch this lad.’”
And what happens after that? “If I said that to the club after this weekend, by next weekend it will be done (the player will be watched again),” Gooden explains. “It will be Drissa (Diallo, Monaco’s chief scout) or Laurence (Stewart, the technical director) watching, then if that gets a favourable opinion, Mitch (Paul Mitchell, the sporting director) will be out quickly. But in the meantime they’ll be looking at video, data and doing all the other background work – speaking to players and managers that have played with the player and coached him. So that dossier will be building up.”
With the clock ticking down, we have seen enough in Gent. Gooden will now make his way back home to Essex, via the Eurotunnel at Calais, after covering 11 games in 10 days across two countries.
Getting paid to watch football every day would be a dream job for many people, but the world of scouting can be a singular one. It certainly remains dominated by men, although that is slowly changing.
There are a few female scouts now working in the higher echelons of the game. At Norwich, Mariela Nisotaki is one of the trailblazers: she was appointed as a first-team scout at Carrow Road in 2017 following spells as a performance analyst at Swansea and in Greece. After helping to identify and recruit Emiliano Buendia, eventually sold by Norwich to Aston Villa for up to £38million, she has been promoted to head of emerging talent.
What has not changed is that scouts have to be prepared to spend long hours on the road.
“It can be lonely but I quite like my own company,” Gooden says, smiling. “My wife calls me a boring, miserable sod. She doesn’t understand how I can sit in a packed restaurant and do ‘table for one’. My other love is fishing, which can be a very solitary sport, so maybe that is me.
“With scouting, you’ve got to be prepared to travel, work very unsociable hours – I’ve worked every weekend for most of my life, being a football player from the age of 16 and now I’m 50 – and you’ve got the weather to contend with as well. Yesterday (at two youth games) it was three, four hours standing in pissing down rain in 40mph winds. But we love what we do and we’re lucky to be working in football.”
Rownhams Services, just off the M27, on the outskirts of Southampton, 10am.
“Is it still on?” Mel Johnson asks, offering a warm handshake before pulling up a chair in the coffee shop.
Southampton Under-21s vs Everton Under-21s is due to kick off at midday but the match is in doubt because of the overnight frost. The evening before, Johnson was 15 minutes away from Dagenham & Redbridge when their fixture was postponed. With that in mind, he could be forgiven for looking frustrated and tired, yet nothing could be further from the truth.
“I love scouting. I love watching football, I like the networking of the job, I like people and I’m still cracking on, (aged) 72-plus,” he says with a big smile on his face.
Johnson is a full-time scout for Queens Park Rangers. He has been working in the industry since the 1980s, going back to the days when he sent his hand-written scouting reports via fax and also “put a copy in the post to cover myself”. A phone call with the manager would often follow.
Scouting has changed considerably since then and Johnson has had to adapt too. “It excites me to go to football. It doesn’t excite me to watch players on a screen. So I’ve had to buy into that,” he says.
“But Wyscout is also a very helpful tool. If an agent calls me today and gives me a player and I don’t know him, I can go straight into that system and watch some games. Also, sometimes if I’ve been to see a player on a Saturday, for my Monday report I might look at his clips, just to make sure that I got it right at the game.”
At Tottenham Hotspur, where Johnson was chief scout before later joining Liverpool, he recommended a 16-year-old Gareth Bale to Damien Comolli, the club’s sporting director at the time. Yet Johnson is just as proud of the fact that he discovered Lee Cook playing non-League football for Aylesbury United. Cook went on to play for Watford and QPR.
In the world of scouting, satisfaction comes from finding players, not looking at your payslip. “It’s not a money job. It’s a football job. And you have to love football to be in it,” Johnson adds.
“In all my years, I’ve never been on a bonus, never had extra money for signing a player. But it hasn’t demotivated me at all. I remember when I was at a club that won promotion, the physio said, ‘Did you get your X, Y, Y?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Oh, I had it in my contract.’ I said, ‘I didn’t even think about it.’
“It didn’t bother me. You’ve got to love the game. You can’t be thinking about money all the time, or your days off or, ‘I don’t want to go there.’”
Johnson was down to cover five matches for QPR in the last six days. His itinerary is drawn up by the club and data plays a significant role in the players that he’s asked to watch.
“While I’m there I might also pick up other players,” he explains. “We’re now talking at 10.15am and our game is at 12 o’clock, and there might be a 16-year-old I don’t know who does really well and he’s not on my list. I would then do a report on him so that there’s something on the system going forward.”
The good news is that the game is going ahead at Southampton’s Staplewood training ground. The bad news is that kick-off is delayed, initially only by half an hour but then by a further 75 minutes.
At least we have plenty of time to go through the team sheet, which can be an eclectic mix at under-21 level, including everything from schoolboys to senior professionals. That said, Johnson knows Southampton well.
“Thierry Small is an interesting boy, he’s 18. He started at Everton and then Southampton paid money for him at 16. He’s been to Port Vale on loan. (Jake) Vokins has come through the system, he’s now 22 and has been injured.
“Obviously a lot of the younger ones played in the FA Youth Cup at Aston Villa last night, like Dom Bollard who normally plays in these games – he’s a striker and a lot of people talk about him. There’s also a 15-year-old on the bench (for Southampton) today, it will be interesting to see him if he comes on.”
With the usual under-21s pitch still frozen in places, the game eventually takes place where Southampton’s first team normally train.
A group of around a dozen scouts from a diverse range of clubs, including Manchester United and Newport County, are escorted around the perimeter of the pitch, along with a few agents, and told to stand behind one of the corner flags.
It is a strange experience watching professional footballers at pitch level without a crowd. The view is poor, apart from when the ball is at our end of the pitch, when you get to hear as well as see everything. “What a f***ing header!” screams one of the Southampton players after Leon Pambou, their towering 18-year-old centre-back, scores from a set piece.
The dynamic between scouts is interesting. Some keep themselves to themselves – one tells a story about recently introducing himself to another scout at a match, offering to swap numbers and being told, ‘I don’t swap numbers with scouts’.
Generally, though, scouts get on well with each other. Before the game, a few talk about the pros and cons of Brighton’s position-specific scouting model (one scout is tasked with finding centre-backs, another has the job of finding centre-forwards and so on), rather than covering a region or a country.
During the game, Johnson occasionally chats to Bob Rickwood, the Wycombe Wanderers chief scout, without either of them saying anything about who they are here to watch. It feels like an unwritten rule that you don’t ask that question.
The two of them know the industry well.
“Say what you see…” Johnson says.
“… and not what you’re told,” Rickwood adds.
Although Johnson has been asked to look at a number of players for QPR, he has his eye on one in particular. “This is the advantage of being here – we can watch every second of him,” he adds. “See where the ball is now? You wouldn’t see him on Wyscout.”
Moments later I’m scolded for criticising a goalkeeper for playing a short, straight, telegraphed pass that ends with possession being lost on the edge of the penalty area. “You’re watching as a coach. Watch the player!” Johnson says.
Under-21 football is hard to gauge. The tempo of the game feels slow, arguably not helped by the absence of spectators (Everton later posted the attendance on their website as 34). Indeed, it is easy to imagine a player shining in this football but finding the intensity of a Championship game too much.
I show Johnson a video of an under-21 player at another Premier League club and who has been flagged up on social media as an exciting talent. Johnson knows the player well and watched him recently. “He’s a lovely footballer. He’d catch the eye. But I couldn’t sign him,” Johnson says. “He needs space and he needs time.”
It doesn’t take long in Johnson’s company to realise that he is definitive in his verdicts on players. “There’s this word called ‘monitor’ and it’s the ‘get out of jail’ card for the scout that can’t make up his mind and wants to keep his job,” he says. “So if there’s ‘sign the player’, ‘starting XI’, whatever boxes you have to tick – various clubs use different boxes – if you constantly tick that ‘monitor’ one, you shouldn’t be in the game. It’s yes or no.
“When I’ve been chief scout before, no way would I have a scout that writes ‘monitor’. What are you saying, ‘Sign him or don’t sign him? Is he going to get us promotion or the sack?’”
Johnson’s tone softens as he considers the reality of putting your neck on the line. “You should be getting more right than wrong, but we’re always going to get players wrong,” he adds.
With the game into the last 20 minutes, Johnson cranes his neck and looks along the line of people watching. “There’s nothing for you here, John,” he says to the Manchester United scout. “You may as well go home now.”
I like the look of Southampton’s No 10. Only 16 years old, he is calm and composed on the ball, dribbles freely and has a lovely left foot. His name is Sam Amo-Ameyaw and, with the help of Google, I discover that Southampton signed him from Tottenham in August.
One to monitor, perhaps.
(Top photo, left to right: Mariela Nisotaki, Mel Johnson and Ty Gooden; design by Samuel Richardson)
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