Every young English footballer’s journey to the top ranks of the elite professional game has to start somewhere – and in many cases it will begin at schoolboy level when their performances in junior games merit the attention of scouts working for different Club Academies across the country.
It is hard to think of many recruitment operations in sport that are as competitive as the ones adopted in English football at grass-roots level. After the Netherlands and Belgium, England is the most densely populated major country in Europe in terms of inhabitants per square mile and in the major cities there are several clubs all competing with each other to recruit the brightest young talent into their Academy.
For example in London there are thirteen different clubs operating across the Premier League and Football League, which means that the likes of Dagenham & Redbridge and Leyton Orient will be going head-to-head each year with neighbouring West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal in trying to pick up players at various different age levels.
To make things even more competitive, the introduction of the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) has seen the 90 minute rule being abolished, which was in place to stop clubs signing players under the age of 18 who were living further than 90 minutes away from the training ground. So in theory clubs in the North West can now potentially recruit the best prospects from the South East, if they felt it workable, and vice versa.
So bearing all this in mind, when it comes to setting-up your scouting operation, as a club where do you decide to focus your resources? Is it more important to bring players in at a younger age and integrate them into the club’s in-house player development programme? Or do you devote more of your budget to older players who may potentially, based on fulfilling their potential, be only a year or two away from being on the fringes of the club’s first team?
When it comes to assembling your scouts, what are the key attributes that a scout has to have in order to scout at the various age levels? Then as the players get older, how does the role of the scout evolve?
You also have to take into account that in contrast to senior level, where scouting departments can benefit from a wide array of tools and information to aid recruitment, at local schoolboy level this infrastructure is all stripped away. Does this place a greater emphasis on the knowledge, contacts and ability of your individual scouts to identify the best prospects in your area to beat your competitors to them? If so, is the recruitment of scouts just as important as the recruitment of players?
Outside of the scouting operation, are there any other recruitment strands that influence decisions, such as players sending in their CV to the club, or an outstanding performance by an opposing player in one of the club’s own games? What is the role of the agent in the recruitment process? Technically a player cannot have an agent until they are 16, but do they still have an influence with transfers involving younger players?
To try and attain answers to a number of these key questions, we have assembled a team of experts to discuss the subject of Academy recruitment in the latest episode of the Scout7 Podcast. Our panel includes the former Director of Youth at the Premier League, Dave Richardson, who was first involved in professional youth development at Middlesbrough in the 1960s, before spending over 20 years in various roles around youth football in two spells at Aston Villa, with a period at Leicester City sandwiched in-between. During his time at the Premier League he also oversaw the establishment of the Academy system alongside Howard Wilkinson, which makes him ideally placed to comment on how recruitment has evolved in the English game.
Dave is joined by the Academy Manager at Birmingham City Kristjaan Speakman, who during his eight years at the club has seen several Academy products graduate to the club’s first team, including seven who appeared in the Championship last season. The panel is completed by Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Head of Recruitment Stuart Webber, who is tasked with identifying players who can follow Carl Ikeme, Danny Batth and Jack Price in progressing from the Academy and becoming key members of the Wolves First Team.
Stuart was also previously Head of Youth at Wrexham, as well as being Director of Recruitment at the Liverpool Academy, so he has a wide range of experience at different levels of the football pyramid in implementing the most relevant recruitment strategy based upon a club’s budget and circumstances.
Left to right: Stuart Webber, Dave Richardson, Kristjaan Speakman
In addition to offering an insight into the best recruitment practices, during the Podcast we also have an opportunity to get their perspectives on how EPPP is affecting player movement between clubs. Now that each Academy has been categorised from Level 1 (the top grading) to Level 4 (the lowest), standard tariffs of compensation have been put in place, which means that every player at every level has a standard price on their head if a club is interested in recruiting them.
Historically if two clubs could not agree compensation on a player, the matter would go to tribunal where a club could be granted substantial compensation, but now as this has been standardised, how has it affected the market?
Alongside this change, clubs are now able to openly scout youth team matches. Will this result in all the best players from all over the country playing at the big Premier League clubs, or will players and parents still look at the likes of Birmingham and Wolves and see these clubs as offering a greater route towards the first team? Their insight is very interesting.
Finally, later on in the episode we also speak to one of AC Milan’s Academy scouts, Alessandro Acri, who talks about the importance of international recruitment at youth level. As we have seen since the onset of Bosman, clubs across Europe have been scouring the continent looking for the best prospects over the age of 16 and based on his own experiences, he is ideally placed to put into perspective the sheer scale and scope of the modern club’s global Academy operation.
When you consider it has not even been 50 years since Celtic’s Lisbon Lions won the European Cup with 15 of their 16 players coming from within 10 miles of Glasgow, recruitment in football has evolved an awful long way in a relatively short space of time.