Scouting for Goals

Posted by Phil Mison

Dimitar Berbatov has found a home at FulhamGettyImagesAre Fulham looking to add further to their attacking stocks?

Football in the access all areas digital world of today is light years away from the game I grew up with as a boy – a world of bubble-gum cards, scrapbooks, annuals, rosettes and autograph hunting.

Globalisation and big money means the game has undergone a revolution in the twenty years since the Premier League came into being. The Victorian game of the hackney carriage is the high-speed train of today. But there remains one function of football that is resistant to change - and in terms of building successful sides, it is the game’s most vital component: Recruitment.

Forget all the advancements in data capture, media technology and medicine you’ve ever read. Tear up those bogus diplomas in ‘sports science’ for goodness sake - it’s just twenty-two athletes chasing a ball around. Up in the dark recesses of some draughty, tumbledown lower division stand sits the man who seeks anonymity and prefers to maintain a low profile. If he’s really unlucky, or extremely keen, he may even be huddled along the touchline, wrapped up against the elements, trying to blend in with the bawling mums and dads. He is a football scout.

Somewhere along the line the nature of his calling requires him to be joined by a second male, also zippered to the neck in down-filled jacket, but wearing better shoes and boasting a bigger watch. The conversation goes something like this. “Whaddya think?” “Hmm, he’s got something…” Euripides it is not. That is about the sum of the dialogue. The young talent under scrutiny is yet to achieve manhood. He may be many years away from a professional contract. But out on that windswept winter pitch in front of three men and a dog somebody has to take a subjective view and make a decision. It’s a massive crap shoot - and it’s mostly down to luck.

Now you may say that’s an antediluvian view and modern managers take a different approach. When football’s bright shiny apple was plucked from the tree with the formation of the PL all manner of serpents wriggled free. We know them today as ‘football agents.’ Ten years ago I was routinely being rung up for my opinion on players or requests for videos through my TV connections - this for agents to gather material then passed on to clubs. No mention ever of any payment for services rendered.

The better managers quickly realised video testimonials were pretty worthless, and they didn’t have the time to watch them anyway. You run the rule over a player’s worth by seeing him yourself and trusting in the judgement of your staff. The only manager I heard say he signed a player without ever having seen him play was Steve Kean at Blackburn, and look what happened to him.

It is certainly the trickiest task any manager faces. All too rarely does a teenage talent emerge where the universal gasp of admiration goes round the circuit like wildfire, and every big club in the game gets on the scent. Maradona would be a prime example, Thierry Henry another, and Ronaldo at 17, where Bobby Robson and his PSV chief scout begged the Dutch board to invest the £4 million in his signature - with Robbo staking his reputation on promising the board they would triple their money in selling him on (which they did).

So what consequently happens? For all its sophistication, sophistry and systems, analysis managers do what people do in every line of business. They invest in their mates, they prefer people they know. With Sanchez it was the Ulstermen Hughes, Healy and Baird. Roy went scouting in Scandinavia, Hughes had all his Welsh mates on board (as did Coleman before him) and now Martin recruits in the Bundesliga, Holland or old pal Berbatov.

Does this not strike you as both bizarre and conservative in the modern game? It’s far from being unique to Fulham. One reason I dwelt on this topic is we have all been tossing out wishlists for who we might like to see added to the ranks in January. Regular poster Bestachnych had some interesting points that really set me thinking. I have no idea who scouts for Fulham and what territories are being covered. Scouts are football’s Hollywood scriptwriters. There would be a void without their input but nobody gives them any respect and they sit below the salt on lousy pay.

Does it, however, not strike you as odd that, to the best of my knowledge (and please pull me up on this if I am wrong) Fulham have not signed a single player from the Iberian peninsula since Boa Morte? I do not recall one Spanish outfield signing (Salcido does not count) in our Premier League history in an era when Spanish clubs at both club and country level have dominated the game. It’s not a financial issue either. We do not expect to rival the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea for big names from La Liga, but Martinez has mined talent there for both Swansea and Wigan successfully, and even QPR have attracted a top player in Granero.

Our squad somehow seems to have by-passed the Latin influence over time. Heaven knows enough great players from Spain, Portugal and Italy have graced other clubs in England, just it seems, not Fulham. We had plenty of Latin elan under Jean. I don’t know who Jol fancies bringing over in January, but can’t we cast our net a little wider – it may just be the missing ingredient we lack?

We have a bucketload of Nordic grit and Germanic application, would it be too much to ask for a few brushstrokes of Latin artistry as well?



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