A picture flashes up on the screen.
It’s a team of kids from some time in the early 90s, 10 kids in red ringer t-shirts with what look like mix and match shorts. It’s not the most salubrious of settings, with a tin roof hut visible in the corner of the photo. Two coaches tower over the line-up, looking on seriously. The pitch is a dirt track, pockmarked by the odd tuft of grass.
On the Zoom call, the voice of Dean Whitehouse – an experienced coach with Manchester United’s academy – cuts through. He has a question for us all: “So if you were a scout, which of these 10 players would you be most interested in?”
The check is intended to challenge your preconceptions. One person picks out the lad on the front row with a wide smile: “He looks like he’s enjoying himself – a good mentality.”
Others choose the boy who stands twice as tall as the others reasoning, fairly, that he is presenting himself with the confidence of someone who knows he can dominate the game.
My eyes were drawn to the boy next to him with his shirt hanging off his shoulders. He’s smaller than the others and I wanted to know why he was there. Surely he must have something to be rubbing shoulders with boys much older than him?
After a pause, the twist is revealed. “That’s Lionel Messi,” Whitehouse tells those of us who picked the boy with the shy smile.
Welcome to Scouting 101. This introductory exercise is part of a course run by the Professional Football Scouts Associtation (PFSA) training the next generation of talent spotters who are set to transform a discipline that remains football’s beating heart.
Behind the glare of Sky Sports’ yellow ticker and the Premier League’s million pound budgets this January, the discipline is undergoing a quiet revolution partly brought about by the pandemic.
Once the preserve of the brilliant “quiet army” of men and women who trekked around grounds in all weathers on every night of the week to watch players, a new generation of data experts are utilising technology to unearth hidden gems from across the globe. Video platforms like Wyscout, Hudl and Instat – which allow clubs to pull games from all over the globe and teams of scouts to analyse them with precision – were already being integrated into recruitment but the Covid pandemic fast-tracked the trend.
“The pandemic has been a terrible time for everyone but people have had to upskill,” says Kevin Braybrook, himself a highly-experienced scout and one of the lead tutors on the course I sat.
“We’ve not been able to get to games so we’ve had to find alternative ways to do it and I think that has had the consequence of opening up scouting to a whole new set of people.
“I think some of the older school scouts have come out of the game in the last couple of years as clubs have looked at their budgets and some of the constraints they face. Most modern clubs like people to watch 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 have been eyes that go to games which is great and absolutely crucial but clubs want more – they want more objective knowledge and working off computers and being comfortable with data. It’s opened doors for people they wouldn’t have had access to 18 months ago.”
The PFSA’s course, open to anyone to sit on, is at the forefront of the democratisation of the discipline.
Over four days I was joined by attendees from Greece, Spain and Ireland keen to gain a foothold in the sport. There’s a school teacher, an IT worker, a few part-time coaches and a smattering of students still studying in college. We’re men and women from 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 set a task to analyse a Champions League game, the reports that come back from the group are astoundingly polished.
“I think it’s really exciting. The world of football can be really insular at times – the same people get the same jobs,” Braybrook said.
“On our course you have people coming from the world of business, the world of education or other disciplines where they have a fantastic set of skills that give them a unique perspective. You see it in the game now – at the top level people are moving into things like metrics and data and some clubs are getting a real edge from it.
“It sounds funny to say it but things like Football Manager and the way the media is now – people have a tremendous knowledge of players and analysis is at a much higher level. And I think people know this is a route that is open to them.
“It’s very difficult to get into coaching without a background in football or having played the game but scouting is different. It’s making it much more inclusive and it’s healthy.
“If we can open up that route into the game for good people, who can argue with that?”
The course is not easy. I sit the level 2 talent ID course and it requires a very different mindset to watching matches on the terraces. There are times when it is clear that I’m paying attention to the wrong things and you need to re-train your eyes.
From a brief dip into the recruitment world, you can see why good scouts are so prized. We might all have access to the same footage but picking a good player requires a forensic eye for detail.
The course ends with a final task: design and write up a detailed report of a Champions League game that could be submitted to a professional club. And after the tutors have assessed those, you then join the PFSA’s network which offers chances to scout live matches and carry out video analysis for clubs at National League, lower league level or in the WSL or Women’s Championship where budgets have been stretched by the pandemic.
It’s a route into the game that wasn’t available a few years ago.
“These are clubs maybe without the finances or infrastructure to pay for scouts to go out to matches, so they are using our raw resource of newly-trained scouts, who get the experience and to build up their network,” Braybrook says.
The PFSA make sure the reports are up to scratch but it is up to the individuals to build their own network and experience bank. And plenty have gone on to earn full-time contracts with clubs off the back of those assignments.
Not everyone is a fan of the way the discipline is moving. i has spoken to some experienced scouts who feel the move away from having your eyes on players is detrimental to the game.
They say banks of laptops can’t replace the “feel” that comes from banking tens of thousands of hours at grounds up and down the country, speaking to coaches, fellow scouts and fans.
Graham Carr, Newcastle’s former scout, once told me that the taxi journey to the ground was a crucial part of his scouting experience as he’d tap the driver for his thoughts on whichever player he was looking at. And then little things, like his facial expression when he didn’t receive a pass or even his attitude in the warm up, would all go towards building a picture of what he was like.
It was why Newcastle dallied for so long over Aleksander Mitrovic: a nagging doubt about his mentality nursed from watching him play live.
Braybrook, who is from that world himself, does not disagree with that assessment. “Going to the game is still the gold standard.
“The subjective feel of watching a player is still central to it. Seeing them in different scenarios, different weather, having to cope with challenges – you can never beat that.
“But this is in addition to it. I’ve done it before and you could get to a game, make all that effort and then the player might not be playing or he gets subbed off at half-time or he’s suffered a late injury. All that effort is sort of wasted.
“Probably what we’re looking at now is a world where you create a list of the top options in a position the managers wants based on metrics or data or video and then getting eyes on him or her is the final job. So you need that skill as well.
“We really encourage that and that’s why the role of the network at the end of it is very important. Work with us, get the knowledge of courses and then go to games and build your craft.”
The floodgates are opening. Last month Tottenham advertised a senior scouting role tapping into new markets for young players that is solely video-based. An industry source told i to expect more of those roles to emerge in the coming months.
For the clutch of newly-qualified scouts ready to enter the game, this feels like a brave new world.