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Neil was a professional scout with Celtic for many years and has worked under Neil Lennon and Ronny Deila. He has now taken a role working for the Qatar national team at the Aspire Academy. His role there is to scout for the players who will potentially represent the Qatar team at the World Cup in 2022. He was responsible for bringing in the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Stefan Johansen in terms of signings at Celtic. We thank Neil for his time and valuable insight.
Would you say scouting is more of an art than a science? If so, how does data analytics fit in?
That is the question that causes most debate between the older generation of scouts who learned the trade using a notepad and pen or working from memory and the style of a modern day scout who has a wide range of software programs, iPhone apps and technology to assist. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many modern day scouts who will prefer the pad and pen and some that will work from a mix of options to get the best results, it really depends on preference. The software that is available nowadays can do a lot of the groundwork on a player that previously you may have had to find out via word of mouth, good contacts and making a lot of phone calls.
Data analysis has become such a huge part of modern day football that it now goes hand in hand with the majority of elite football clubs and those who can afford to do it. When a player steps over the line, they are instantly under the microscope and bad performance or lack of effort will be presented in the form of a report the same day. Players are very much aware nowadays that they are being tracked in every movement and I think personally that has had a huge impact on work rate in the initial stage but also in terms of concentration.
How much has data analytics evolved over the years and what future do you see for it?
It’s huge, absolutely huge. I can only see it growing and developing more and more as is the way with technology, something else is always around the corner. I have seen a huge increase in the level of detail in the past couple of years. Prozone cornered the market initially and still to this day are a big hitter but over time other options have started to appear and clubs are now exploring various avenues and being offered the next software option on a weekly basis from various companies.
Analytics are now hugely important to clubs in terms of monitoring their own players, opposition analysis and also being used for scouting purposes. Not to mention reports and presentations for board members complete with shiny graphs and figures all produced at the touch of a button to show the progress, or lack of, that the team is making.
Typically, how many times will you watch a player before drawing a conclusion?
In terms of his style, movement, technique and on the ball ability, you can draw a conclusion of what his main attributes, strengths and weaknesses are in one live viewing but that is just an initial overview. You always have factors to take into account on a player, he may be carrying an injury, may not be entirely fit, may have personal issues, confidence issues. It might be that everything he did on the night went wrong for him, does that mean you rule him out?
There is so much that goes into getting the big picture on a player and at the end of the day, the more information the better, coupled with your own opinion and experience, to finalise your report and recommendation. It really does depend and vary. If a player is within travel distance or a short flight away, you would be hoping to view him more than a few times but this isn’t always a realistic option as he may play in South America and it’s not financially viable to travel to Brazil every week for a month.
Are reports submitted in a standard format, or do different managers have different requirements of their reports?
In my experience, most managers and their staff prefer to come and have a sit-down and ask you for your opinion on a player, face to face. I prefer this option as it also opens up the dialogue into a football conversation which can pose questions that the report may not have covered. I find that you also get a greater feel for what the manager is looking for when you can look them in the eye and see their facial expressions and body language. Numerous times I will have sat down with managers and watched video footage of the player and had an open discussion which I feel not only gives the manager and his staff the opportunity to ask questions but it also allows the scout to ask questions himself to get a much clearer picture of exactly the type of player that is required.
To return to the original question, paper reports are usually done directly by the scout via his own methods. Some clubs will work off pre-prepared templates with areas for the scout to fill in, technical, tactical, strengths, weaknesses, career information, summary and final opinion.
How important is it to have a strong and reliable network, especially in light of advancing technology, and the reducing cost of information?
It is important but also comes with the added danger of agenda. For example, a lot of scouts first point of call when they want some background on a player is to pick up the phone to an agent who they know from the country that the player plays in. This comes with its own problems because you have now provided the agent with information that you require, for whatever reason, details about this player, so in essence you have tipped him off to potential interest. That is where trust is such a huge part of football but at the end of the day, information is money in this business and agents have a job to do as well, so it is a very tricky process.
Some guys will call other scouts in the associated countries but once again, the potential to tip off a rival team to a player of interest also has its own issues. You tend to get a feel for people and know who can and who can’t be relied on but that all comes from experience and networking. You also have the option of asking a player who has either played with the player or currently does but the same with agents and scouts, you run the risk of that information getting out. In short, you create a trusted group of people that you have working experience with and have created trust with.
Normally, what’s the time gap between a player being ‘spotted’ and finally signed?
This can vary greatly. If you spot a player while the transfer window is closed, it may take months before anything can be done on him and during that time, the manager’s requirements or even the manager himself may have changed, as is the nature of football. You would hope that the scouting department isn’t identifying targets during the transfer window itself as that is showing poor preparation and planning and will more than likely end in poor quality rushed signings being made.
If a player is identified and he fits the requirements of the manager, after the scouts have viewed a few times and reports are in the system, the next normal step is usually a viewing by the manager and his assistant for a final decision and then it is over to the money men, usually the chief executive to make the formal approach and bid. If handled correctly, the process can go smoothly enough but there is no way of being able to judge timescales as so many things can get involved in the process along the way.
How important are a player’s mental attributes? And how can you judge it?
In the modern game they are very important in my opinion. With players being fitter, games being played at such a quick pace, the distances being covered by players nowadays, the mental side of the player can sometimes be forgotten about. Take someone like Joey Barton for example, an easy target I know, but this is a player who has shown time after time, season after season, that he is not in total control of his emotions or physical reactions. Is that the type of player you want in your side? I guess that comes down to a combination of the type of player the manager wants and the style of play that the team has. Don’t get me wrong, every league worldwide has a few Joey Bartons. In terms of judging their mental strength and composure, you can usually notice little things, mainly off the ball. I like to watch for a players reaction to being tackled. The majority will bounce up and get on with it but you will find the ones who can’t let it go and will hunt for the right opportunity to get revenge.
These are the types of players that for me you can’t rely on because inevitably they will find their way into the referee’s book. Experienced players will target these types and look to get under their skin at any opportunity. Numerous players over the years have allowed their poor attitudes to hinder their career and haven’t achieved half of what their potential and ability should have allowed them too. On the flipside you have players who can take the tackles, the off the ball comments and still score the winner. Commitment and attitude are easy to spot in the focused players.
Are there some characteristics in a player that cannot be taught and thus, are a requisite for all of them?
Every now and then players appear that just don’t need coaching. They may need work on the tactical requirements and instructions on how to play to the formational shape but they are just natural footballers. They have technique from a young age. Guys like Wayne Rooney and Alexis Sanchez are examples of purely natural footballers who have came direct from playing in the street with a ball from a young age and brought that straight through to the professional game. When Rooney made his debut against Arsenal at 16 he was already developed physically. The on the ball ability just came as part of the parcel. Sanchez was no different, it was in him, those type of players don’t need to be coached on the basics.
It’s very difficult to say that you can find the hunger and drive that some players have and instill that in all players. If a player has come from a poor background, an upbringing in poverty, the chance of him having more drive to succeed and better himself and his family is always high. It’s hard to recreate that drive and hunger in someone from a middle to upper class background who has always known the best football boots and nicest kits growing up, the hunger to succeed is not always going to match.
Do you trust video footage? Or is there no substitute for watching a game live?
For me number one is watching the game live. Video should always be used as a starter point, it allows you to get a look at the player, make custom videos, watch specifics like one on one defending or his aerial ability or whatever it is you’re specifically looking for in that position, but without a doubt, the only way a player should be signed is after viewing live. To give one experience of this, I remember traveling over to Denmark to watch a left back that I had initially identified from video. I spoke with my colleagues, the manager and his assistants, showed them the footage of the player and they all agreed that he looked the part and should be viewed. I knew within 5 minutes of the game starting that he would never play for us.
In his first instance he turned his back on a cross, showing fear of being struck with the ball, and two minutes later he went in for a tackle, pulled out at the last minute while again turning his back and got injured. He played on for the rest of the half trying to avoid any physical contact and distancing himself from the opposition winger who had got rough with him in the first few minutes. He was looking for excuses to get off the pitch and as expected he was subbed at half time. This was a prime example of a player who had the on the ball ability but didn’t have the heart. His career has followed a similar path.
Do scouts specialize in certain positions?
Not usually though some clubs may take this approach it is very rare. Specific scouts may be used in terms of goalkeepers but for the outfield playing positions you would expect anyone working in professional football to be aware of what is required from a player regardless of position.
Is it important to have coaching experience to be able to scout players? Or do ‘armchair experts’ have the same potential in the industry as a professional scout would?
Again this is another tricky topic which causes a lot of arguments within the game from people on both sides. I have worked with some guys who would argue to the end that people with no coaching background know nothing, only for them to be regularly proved wrong after making bold statements.
On the other side you have the guys who have studied the game to an in-depth level and have become obsessive. I think the best balance in scouting is to have someone who takes pride in their work, studies leagues, players and watches as many games as they can both live and on video. I would place myself in the semi-obsessive category in that I need to know every transfer that happens, every manager change, any information about a player character and more. I have spent my scouting career from a young age making sure that I know as much as I possibly can about as many players as I possibly can so that if I am asked for my opinion, I can give it, knowing that I am aware of the player and have an understanding of what he is capable of. Sadly you come across too many people within the game who take the blagging approach and will find excuses to never answer a direct question about a player. From my experience before working within professional football, “armchair experts” talk a lot and talk a lot with sincerity but they are usually way off in terms of actually understanding what’s involved.
It is a role that needs dedication, focus and the willingness to constantly learn and improve your knowledge while also having an understanding of the game at pro level, the tactical and analysis requirements and be willing to immerse yourself so much in your job that you become an expert in your field.
From your experiences in the field, who has been the best player you have ever spotted as part of your assignment?
Tough question because I have seen a lot of players over the years. Now and then you see someone, usually a younger player and think, wow, that kid has the potential to be a serious talent. I remember watching Mateo Kovacic when he was very young at Zagreb and thinking that he had all the tools to go on and play top level. He has gone on to have a great career so far and is still only 21. When I start to think back my memory throws up a load of names that made you really sit up and take note. I keep my own custom databases of players with information on every player I have ever viewed and my reports on them and it’s nice to look back sometimes and see where they ended up, good or bad.
You find in scouting that you can find a player who you feel is the next big thing but that might not be the opinion of colleagues and therefore nothing progresses, this can be a hugely frustrating part of the job and this is where you hope to work with people of a similar ethic to yourself which doesn’t always happen.
In terms of personal success, I was responsible for the identification of Virgil Van Dijk and Stefan Johansen at Celtic, both of whom have had great careers with the club to date. I initially saw Virgil a long time before we signed him but for one reason or another it took a while to view him live. I watched him playing for Groningen away at Vitesse Arnhem and his direct opponent was Wilfried Bony who at the time was the top scorer in Holland and was on fire so it was a great test for him. He showed up as I hoped he would: strong, quick, good in the air and with great distribution. Thankfully after returning he was viewed on my recommendation by the assistant manager and then signed. In my opinion he is an outstanding prospect for the premier league and has the potential to do very well when he does eventually move on from Celtic.
With Stefan Johansen, I knew from very early that he was the exact type of midfielder we needed at the club due to his energy as the first point, he just never stopped running, superbly fit and with the ability to maintain that work rate throughout. He also had ability to play very accurate forward passes which at the time we lacked. Since signing he has gone on to be an integral part of the team and has won the SPL Players’ Player of the Year award in his first full season. Both players have great attitudes and the potential to have very long and successful careers.
Any specific advice for aspiring scouts?
Hard work, constantly learn learn learn, watch as many live games as you possibly can and if you can’t watch them live, watch them on TV. It’s a very small industry and contacts who you know can play a huge part but it is possible to get in front of the decision makers with commitment and passion to your work.
You can follow Neil on Twitter @neilmcg81