When Scouting Fails, or the Ojamaa Effect

In the second part of his look at transfers at Town, Alex Cooke looks at the value of planning, avoiding the bad deals and measuring success. To find more on Town’s own scouting structure,  read yesterday’s part 1

Scouting and signing players is more than just finding the best out there. What if a deal falls through? What a big club nicked your recently unearthed hot prospect? What if you’ve just signed Henrik Ojamaa?

In this article, I will try to look at when and how scouting can go wrong at Swindon. This will involve some guess work and I don’t pretend to have any answers, so any opinions are welcome in the Comments section.

Finding the best players

Swindon’s recent signings have shown that potential signings can come from anywhere. Clearly many have been tip-offs from agents and suggestions from the coaching staff. Obviously friends of Lee Power have provided a rich seam, providing the likes of Alex Pritchard, Kevin Stewart and Lawrence Vigouroux, who all played under him at Tottenham.

There are also signings such John Goddard who could fall into pretty much any of these categories, as not only is he friends with Jamie Sendles-White, but with 20 goals in a season he could have been scouted from the database, or the Non-League Paper. At the other end of the spectrum is Ellis Iandolo, who seems to have been picked up for a trial at Town after scoring three times against our under 18 side.

Information can come from almost anywhere, at any club, even unsolicited CVs. And all, to some degree, must be followed up.

The Myth of Unknown Gems

It seems that there are few secrets in football. Very rarely do scouts spot players who no-one else have seen, such is the level of scouting which goes on these days. As Gretar Steinsson, technical director at Fleetwood Town said “I don’t think there is an unknown gem, I think we all know about them.” And he is the man who signed Jamie Vardy from non-league.

It isn’t because scouts and clubs share information willingly, more that is a small world and it is hard to keep a secret when 20 club-coated, notepad-wielders turn up at a tiny ground. One of the most open secrets of recent times was Jordon Ibe, who managed just 275 minutes of football for Wycombe before had the vultures circling and Liverpool swooped. Swindon might also be able to identify these players, but they also have to be realistic and not pursue what can’t be caught.

But sometimes the big clubs don’t make their move. For example, when Jamie Vardy was at Halifax, numerous clubs, including West Brom (and Swindon), already had him watched multiple times. But it was Fleetwood and Steinsson who got him. All of the others were more cautious about taking ‘a risk’, especially with Halifax sensing a bidding war and expected a good fee.

Perhaps this lesson has been learnt of late with bigger clubs are increasingly looking into the lower divisions, often to feed their all-consuming ‘development; sides. In the last transfer window alone, Ebrima Adams and Shilow Tracey, moved from Dartford and Ebbsfleet to Norwich and Tottenham respectively, something that just makes Town’s job even harder.

Finding which players not to sign

This is a forgotten part of the business, but one which is every bit as vital as finding the right talent. Think how much money clubs have wasted on players who don’t ‘fit’, who aren’t right for the team’s style, don’t have the right mentality or are just not good enough. Think of the money that would have been saved if Town had decided to pass on Jason Drysdale or Mark Robinson …

Not signing the wrong players means a scout need to understand what the club want, what the club need and what the club have. That means they aren’t just picking out the best striker in the Conference North but also comparing him to Jermaine Hylton. Is he better than Hylton? Does he suit a passing team? Does the club even need a striker right now? What about next season, or the one after?

These are all examples which show how scouting isn’t just a matter of just sending in reports, but understanding what the chairman, the manager and the teams needs. Creating this contact and consistency will have been one of Power’s aim in having a permanent chief scout in place – the first since Ken Ryder in the first days of Fitton.

The Henrik Ojamaa Effect

Reportedly the names of 700 players available on free transfers were circulated last season, and using traditional scouting this could mean an impossible amount of leg-work. This is where technology, alongside experienced eyes, offers an immense help to every club.

As discussed before database allows such information to be filtered immediately; by position, by age, by wage, by experience. That way all of the say right wingers can be highlighted immediately. Then the list can be trimmed for those with the wrong passport or playing at the wrong standard. Connected to the right software, they can even look at clips or full matches shot from wide-angles to make a quick estimate if they are worth further investigation. There is no need to guess of carefully cut highlights and DVDs anymore.

Some managers and teams such as David Moyes at Everton have taken this almost to extremes but even at Town’s level, having planned is vital. In fact, it might be even more since Town effectively run a squad split between pros who are expected to play every week and a handful of development players who are being given time to make the difficult transition from part-timer to full-time first-teamer.

From the outside, the cases of Henrik Ojamaa and Jeremy Balmy look exactly like moments when Town failed to get their first-choice targets and were left without an alternative option in place – particularly in signing Balmy – someone who had already been rejected. Although, Jamie Sendles-White was offered a more welcome return after an unsuccessful trial, being signed once he had matured a little, and probably dropped his own wage demands.

Without such planning, and forced by a hideous injury list, the club were also forced to use relatively expensive loan signings such as Adam El-Adb or Wes Thomas. While both were a short-term necessity, such expense could have been used more efficiently in recruiting replacements who could have served beyond that week or month. Again, the work Barnsley are doing in scouting three of the best non-league players for each position seems to be an interesting example for others to follow.

It seems that Lee Power in appointing Seamus Brady and Sam Jewell will be keen to avoid this lack of identified, viable targets being repeated in future.

The Yinka Casal Factor

Listening to both scouts and analysts, both are keen to highlight the importance of understanding the context of what you are seeing – ie the league any target is playing in. Chris Anderson, author of The Numbers Game says “Think about the Dutch league for instance. It is a league that is relatively high scoring, so strikers almost inevitably look good, but it doesn’t mean that Dutch strikers are particularly good necessarily. So we have to be very careful making sure that what we see isn’t a function of the quality of the league or the nature of the league or the quality of the team that’s someone’s playing for”.

It seems true for video scouting or ‘traditional’ scouting, conducted either abroad, at youth level or in the non-league. You need to know a league to scout in it, not rely on clips.

Not only do Town have the example of Yinka Casal to fall back on, there was also the first team Paolo Di Canio signed: Alberto Comazzi, Ibrahim Atiku, Mattia Lanzano etc. None of those were remotely good enough for League Two and Town had to start all over again.

The Final Hurdles

Once a player has passed through all these barriers, then the club can invest proper time and money in scouting them. Which will certainly mean someone seeing them in the flesh multiple times, ideally in different situations, locations and game states.

This would also be the point to take run a full statistics check (where possible) and reviewing any video evidence. Both are pretty easily done for anyone at a Premier League Academy where games are broadcast and data collected. Good quality Football League or Conference-level data is harder to come by but footage is easy, again via paid-for software or even YouTube. However, below that level and then it means getting a scout to watch more games. And the more games you watch the longer the process takes, allowing others to also move for the player.

Players from the lower leagues can most likely be brought in for a trial and this is the idea time for the full coaching staff not only assess their ability, but also their suitability. As for any player you need to check their background and motivation, but also how they deal with team-mates or the rigours of training. At least with them in the building you can see how much they ‘want it’. Just don’t be fooled by what other players say…

Then all that needs to be done is to convince the player to join and to ignore any rivals offering greater wages. At Swindon that surely means pointing to the speed of route to the first-team, to League football, to move to the Championship made by the likes of Luongo, Gladwin and the rest…

How do we Measure Success in Scouting?

This is phenomenally tricky. Good players can fail, or succeed, at clubs for all sorts of reasons beyond ability: personality, domestic issues, homesickness, bad management or injury. All of which is so often blamed on a scouting team. At the moment, Leicester’s Steve Walsh is taking much of the credit for the club’s success, Aston Villa’s are being blamed for the team’s shambolic relegation. Few scouts cost that much to replace…

The key is that scouts performance is judged but those inside the club. Scouts, like players have to be given targets and their performance, or their bias, have to be monitored. Some might do well with young players, struggle to see a good defender, or only pick very tall players. Even the best ones can make mistakes, particularly with very young players who are still growing, still maturing.

As fans we naturally focus on the scout who picked the talent after watching them for ten minutes, not the many who didn’t see it before, or the hundreds of players who never make it and the scouts get exactly right.

Going Beyond

If you are interested in scouting and recruitment, some of these sources might be worth a look.

The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin is a highly readable book covering scouting at all levels of the pyramid, and Brandon Ormonde-Otterwill even gets a mention.

The Scout7 podcast goes into a great detail on the processes and demands of scouting, in particular try the editions on non-league and the league recruitment. There are also some other good bits on their website.

Ted Knutson was involved in the stats-led recruitment at Brentford and offers an excellent view on the data side of scouting in his presentation, while Monchi of Sevilla has a phenomenal success rate in recruitment and is certainly worth reading up on.

Add your own or talk about Town’s history of scouting and signing below.

 

9 comments

  • Another great article. Think you are a little harsh on Mark Robinson in lumping him in with the equally over priced but vastly less effective Jason Drysdale

    Like

    • Perhaps. My point was less about Robinson’s qualities – more that making your near record signing for a fullback probably isn’t the best use of resources. Okay it was a bit of a cheap shot for a player I actually quite admired, in a really odd way.

      Like

  • Michael Grainge

    Another awesome article which I’m sure would be an interesting read for all non-town fans also. Thanks again Alex.
    Mike

    Like

    • Cheers, It is a bit of an idealised version of recruitment and one that clearly doesn’t happen that often. Players are so often signed for other reasons – like to please an agent if you sign Falcao. I guess that is why it drives stats guys so mad to see such ineffiecency. Perhaps that is why Wenger hates signing too – he’s got an Economic degree, hasn’ he?

      Liked by 1 person

  • Excellent again, I still don’t know why the club don’t use the Adver comments section as a scouting/recruitment tool? I mean, people on there always seem know exactly what we need – a proven goalscorer, an experienced defender etc…. Solid gold info right there…

    Like

    • We can all learn something from the Adver comments section, mainly the value of eugenics.

      Like

      • It is also worth mentioning how Power has invested in recruitment beyond many previous chairmen. I know the Adver forum wouldn’t like it, but he has.

        Jewel and Brady plus this Lewis chap, seem to indicate far more of a structure than seen since before PDC and his haphazard methods.

        Like

  • It’s not an exact science spotting talent, didn’t we release a 15 year old Theo Walcott! Twelve months later he’s in Southampton’s first team, and the rest is history!

    Like

    • Saints did pay a fee for Walcott, albeit a very small one – but that is with hindsight.

      Youth scouting is a whole, even more complex, business. Then you have to factor in growth and application as well as intellectual development. You even have to know if they kid was born from Sept to Dec and so if they are older in their year category.

      Numerous clubs have let players go at those young ages – and remember Walcott was 12 – only to get it wrong for precisely those reasons – or to see it wrecked through injury, parental divorce, girls, drink…

      Perhaps Theo was showing the same level of game state/tactical awareness he does now but without the physical development that he also has. Imagine him if he had lost his pace in his teenage years? What would he be now, not what he became certainly.

      Like

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