Thanks to technological advances, the world is becoming a much smaller place, giving us access to news and events on the other side of the planet seconds after they occur at the touch of a button. For football fans this is a dream, allowing us to keep abreast of the action from Argentina’s Superliga to MLS; from the Chinese Super League to Australia’s A-League. Through online platforms such as InStat budding analysts are privy to a level of information previous generations could only dream of. The idea of a “hidden gem” is a thing of the past; clubs and aspiring analysts are able to monitor top talent at an earlier stage of their development than ever before.
Statistical analysis of football is here to stay and, now that the wolf is in the door, will only increase in importance. However, when it comes to scouting, the reality is more complex, the bigger picture involving much more than just raw data. Regardless of their lofty media profile or gleaming CV, no manager is infallible when it comes to transfer market blunders. Sir Alex Ferguson may be noted for taking the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Peter Schmeichel to Old Trafford for relatively small sums, yet he also signed Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion. Talent-spotting is far from an exact science.
The numbers only tell half the story, and first-hand observations through the naked eye are still vital when it comes to determining if a player is ready to step up to the mark. The International Professional Scouting Organisation (IPSO) was created five years ago with the explicit aim of teaching the art of professional scouting and showing the day-to-day work of a scout in the cut throat world of professional football.
Colin Chambers, an IPSO director who can list Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic on his CV as previous employers, believes data is vital but also that the intangibles cannot be ignored. “You will always need a scout in the stand because a computer can’t tell you if a player made the right decision with the ball, if a player’s heart is in the game and what their attitude is like,” says Chambers. “The modern scout has to combine statistics with naked-eye intuition to make the correct call on a player. This is not easy but there is a process to minimise mistakes and this is something we cover on our courses.”
One of the unique selling points of IPSO’s courses is that they are designed and delivered by scouts and Heads of Recruitment with Premier League experience, such as Chambers. In essence, vastly experienced people who have been there and have the t-shirt to show for it are attempting to inspire the next generation. Other scouting organisations often deploy coaches who, whilst having a vast wealth of football knowledge, are simply not scouts. The skill sets may have some degree of overlap but are, on the whole, completely different.
IPSO run courses worldwide. In the next three months alone, the international organisation will be present in England, Sweden, Hungary, Portugal, Poland, Bulgaria, and even as far as China. Although football is a universal language, courses are tailored in order to match the host country rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all template. This is especially pertinent in the developing world where agents often double up as scouts and, with all due respect, either don’t know what to look for or are merely overselling their product in order to facilitate a move. “I wish I had £1 for every time an agent told me he had a quality player on his books, one that is like Messi and Ronaldo rolled into one!” says Chambers.
Many IPSO course attendees have gone on to find genuine employment with professional clubs, such as Belgium’s Club Brugge. One graduate works as a first-team scout for Birmingham City, aged just 18. Filipe Oliveira, a Portuguese midfielder once of Chelsea, represents Vidi in Hungary. Jerzy Brzeczek is now the coach of the Polish national team. Tom Karaizman is employed by Hapoel Ramat Gan in Israel. The list of success stories goes on.
Can an ordinary football fan become a scout? Many clubs will look to hire ex-players for these positions, believing that their experience in the game automatically makes them more qualified to spot players. This is often true of managerial appointments also, yet many world class players have failed to translate their brilliance on the football pitch to the dugout. Diego Maradona, perhaps a prime example. Although there is a flip side – Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have excelled in management despite relatively modest playing careers – proves that there is no fool proof formula.
Scouting, therefore, doesn’t have to be the preserve of the former football star. Passion for the game and attention to detail are key and IPSO courses aim to furnish delegates with the know-how to enable them forge a successful career in the scouting realm. “I can run, but could I beat Usain Bolt in a race?” says Chambers. “Most students admit, following the course, that they will never be able to watch a football match in the same way.”
Once delegates have completed the courses it is then up to them to go into the field, but time-served will prove to be key. “The experienced scout is often more cautious because he’s made the mistakes,” says Chambers, who believes it takes 3-5 years to develop into a fully-fledged scout.