Laptops, Lionel Messi and attention to detail

An image flashes on the screen.

It’s a team of kids from a while in the early 90’s, 10 kids in red t-shirts with something resembling mix and match shorts. It is not the healthiest setting, with a tin hut visible in the corner of the picture. Two coaches tower over the row and look seriously. The square is a dirt track, pocket of the strange grass stump.

On the Zoom call, the voice of Dean Whitehouse – an experienced coach with Manchester United Academy – cuts through. He has a question for all of us: “So if you were a scout, which of these 10 players would you be most interested in?”

The check is meant to challenge your preconceptions. One person selects the boy in the front row with a wide smile: “He looks like he’s having fun – a good mentality.”

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Others choose the boy who stands twice as tall as the others, and justifies reasoning that he presents himself with the confidence of someone who knows he can dominate the game.

My eyes were attracted to the boy next to him with his shirt hanging from his shoulders. He’s smaller than the others and I wanted to know why he was there. He must have something to rub on with boys who are much older than him, right?

After a pause, the twist is revealed. “It is Lionel Messi“, Whitehouse tells those of us who chose the boy with the shy smile.

Welcome to Scouting 101. This introductory exercise is part of a course run by the Professional Football Scouts Association (PFSA), which trains the next generation of talent spotters to transform a discipline that remains the beating heart of football.

Behind the glow of Sky Sports’ yellow ticker and Premier League million-pound budgets in January, the discipline is undergoing a quiet revolution, partly caused by the pandemic.

Once preserved by the ingenious “silent army” of men and women who roamed the grounds in all kinds of weather every night of the week to see players, a new generation of computer experts is using technology to uncover hidden gems from around the globe. Video platforms such as Wyscout, Hudl and Instat – which allow clubs to pull games from around the globe and teams of scouts to analyze them with precision – were already integrated into recruitment, but Covid pandemic quickly followed the trend.

A still image from PFSA’s course on how to become a football scout

“The pandemic has been a terrible time for everyone, but people have had to qualify,” says Kevin Braybrook, himself a very experienced scout and one of the main tutors on the course I attended.

“We have not been able to come into play, so we have had to find alternative ways to do it, and I think it has had the consequence of opening up to scouting for a whole new set of people.

“I think some of the older school scouts have come out of the game in the last few years as the clubs have looked at their budgets and some of the limitations they face. Most modern clubs like that people watching games live, but it’s also about data, watching games on video and on their PC and being able to do it that way.

“An older generation has been eyes that go to games, which is great and absolutely crucial, but the clubs want more – they want more objective knowledge and work outside computers and be familiar with data. It has opened doors for people, they would not have had access to 18 months ago. ”

The PFSA’s course, open to all to sit on, is at the forefront of the democratization of the discipline.

Over the course of four days, I was joined by participants from Greece, Spain and Ireland who were eager to gain a foothold in the sport. There is a schoolteacher, an IT staff member, a couple of part-time coaches and a slew of students still in college. We are men and women of different ages, places and backgrounds and none of us have played the game at a particularly high level.

But the raw enthusiasm for the game is clearly there. And when we are all given the task of analyzing a Champions League match, the reports coming back from the group are astonishingly polished.

“I think it’s really exciting. The world of football can be really isolated at times – the same people get the same jobs, “said Braybrook.

“In our course, you have people who come from business, the world of education or other disciplines, where they have a fantastic set of competencies that give them a unique perspective. You see it in the game now – at the top level, people move into things like metrics and data, and some clubs get a real benefit from it.

“It sounds fun to say it, but things like Football Manager and the way the media is now – people have a huge knowledge of players, and analytics are at a much higher level. And I think people know that it is a route open to them.

“It’s very difficult to get in as a coach without a background in football or having played the game, but scouting is different. It makes it a lot more inclusive and it’s healthy.

A scout report provided by PFSA

“If we can open that path into the game for good people, then who can argue for it?”

The course is not easy. I take the level 2 talent ID course and it requires a very different mindset than watching matches on the terraces. There are times when it is clear that I am aware of the wrong things and you need to retrain your eyes.

From a brief dive into the world of recruitment, you can see why good scouts are so valued. We may all have access to the same footage, but choosing a good player requires a forensic eye for detail.

The course concludes with a final assignment: designing and writing a detailed report on a Champions League game that could be submitted to a professional club. And after the tutors have assessed them, you then join the PFSA’s network, which allows you to scout live matches and perform video analysis for clubs in the National League, lower league level or in the WSL or Women’s Championship, where budgets have been stretched by pandemic.

It’s a way into the game that was not available a few years ago.

“These are clubs that may not have the finances or infrastructure to pay for scouts to go out to fight, so they use our raw resource of newly trained scouts who gain the experience and to build their networks,” says Braybrook.

PFSA makes sure that the reports are up to scratch, but it is up to the individual to build their own network and experience bank. And lots have gone on to earn full-time contracts with clubs on the back of these tasks.

Not everyone is a fan of the way the discipline moves. I have talked to some experienced scouts who feel that going away from having their eyes fixed on players is devastating to the game.

They say laptop banks cannot replace the “feeling” that comes from knocking tens of thousands of hours on plots up and down the country where they talk to coaches, other scouts and fans.

Graham Carr, Newcastle’s former scout, once told me that the taxi ride to the ground was a crucial part of his scouting experience as he wanted to tap the driver for his thoughts on whatever player he was looking at. And then little things, like his facial expression when he did not get a pass or even his attitude in the warm-up, would go on to create a picture of what he was like.

That was why Newcastle fell so long over Aleksander Mitrovic: a nagging doubt about his mentality is nurtured by watching him play live.

Braybrook, who is himself from that world, does not disagree with that assessment. “Going to the fight is still the gold standard.

“The subjective feeling of seeing a player is still central to it. Seeing them in different scenarios, different weather, having to face challenges – you can never beat that.

“But this is a complement to that. I’ve done it before and you could come to a match, do all that, and then the player might not play, or he’s out of the game at the break, or he has received a late injury.All that effort is in a way wasted.

“What we’re looking at now is probably a world where you create a list of the best options in a position that managers want, based on measurements or data or video, and then the final job is to get your eyes open for him. or her.So you also need that skill.

“We really encourage that, and therefore the role of the network at the end of it is very important. Work with us, gain knowledge about courses and then go to games and build your craft. ”

The locks open. Last month Tottenham announced a senior scouting role that leverages new markets for young players that are exclusively video-based. It told an industry source I to expect more of these roles to emerge in the coming months.

For the team of newly qualified scouts ready to enter the game, this feels like a brave new world.

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