In the run-up to the 2008 European Championships, two young Englishmen were turning out for their non-league sides in the Northern and Isthmian Leagues respectively, as the England team were contemplating watching the Euros from the sidelines.
Fast-forward eight years, to last week’s international friendly between England and Holland at Wembley and we now find those two players, Chris Smalling and Jamie Vardy, are now lining-up together in their national team’s starting eleven, with both players likely to be part of England’s Euro 2016 squad later on this year.
Smalling and Vardy are the latest in a line of players, which include Ian Wright, Stuart Pearce and Nigel Martyn, who have progressed from non-league football into the national team, which from a player recruitment perspective highlights the importance of monitoring the non-leagues by English league clubs, at all levels, with the objective of unearthing players possessing the potential of making the step-up.
In fact during the most recent transfer window, we saw a number of non-league players being recruited by clubs in the Premier League and Football League. Some, such as Ebrima Adams and Shilow Tracey, who moved from Dartford and Ebbsfleet to Norwich and Tottenham respectively, have gone into their new club’s development squads, however there were also examples of transfers where players have gone straight into the first-team set-up.
These include Callum Chettle and Aaron Williams, who went from Nuneaton in the sixth tier of English football to Peterborough United in League One, where the latter has already featured in seven matches and scored two goals.
These moves, along with several others in January, suggest that there are players out there in the Conference divisions and lower down the pyramid who are on the radar of league clubs, but from a practical scouting level, how challenging is it for a league club to monitor the wide breadth of non-league football?
For example, can a club afford to have scouts on the ground at this level, or does worth-of-mouth from personal contacts play a much bigger role in the initial identification?
In addition, given there isn’t as much data and video available on players playing at these levels compared with those in the Football League, does this mean that non-league scouting processes remain, in many ways, exactly the same as they were 20 years ago? Indeed, does the non-league newspaper remain one of the key sources of information for scouting departments?
To try to get an idea of how different clubs go about scouting at these levels, we have assembled a panel of experts to discuss the subject of non-league scouting for the latest edition of the Scout7 podcast.
Our panel is made up of Wigan Athletic’s Head of Football Operations Matt Jackson, who themselves signed Danny Whitehead from Conference side Macclesfield Town in January; Fleetwood Town’s Technical Director Gretar Steinsson, a club with a strong track record of recruiting players from the lower reaches of the non-league pyramid; and the experienced scout Mel Johnson, who has helped many teams sign non-league players in the past, notably Lee Cook, whom he recommended to Watford as a 17 year old when he was playing for Aylesbury United.
Our Podcast panel (left to right): Matt Jackson, Mel Johnson and Gretar Steinsson
As well as comparing the different approaches adopted by clubs, based on their resources, personnel and immediate requirements, they also discuss the competition between clubs when a prospect emerges and crucially, the importance of retaining information on players who have been scouted by the club in the past, at all levels.
This is because some of those players shining in the non-leagues now may have previously been attached and subsequently released by academies at league clubs, so having this information will provide additional context to their current reports, based on whether or not a player was a late-developer or if there are any potential risks based on the circumstances of their initial release.
This all makes for a fascinating listen, so I hope you enjoy listening to their thoughts and opinions.
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