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The Secret Art of Finding a Footballer

14.09.2020 Saul Cuttell

What is the secret to finding talented young players? Is it to cast out a large net and get every available player into the academy structure? Or is it to go fly fishing (with JR Hartley) for the right player? One that may fit the club idea, management and coaching style, a player that could be truly developed into an amazing professional football player of the future; one that could help win the World Cup. All these concepts along with the general idea of talent and how it’s identified is something that truly fascinates me. This is even going as far as the business world, academia, sport and more specifically football. What exactly are scouts looking for?

Well, from my perspective, it seems that some things are universal (i.e. good work ethic, attitude to coaches, management, training, diet and so much more) and then other things that are far more specific to the football world and maybe even club ethos (i.e. height, stature, speed, strength, movement ability and again so much more). There is no holy grail, or one sizes fits all formula, that will indicate if a player will make it to be a professional, but there is a current model used by the FA at the minute. The four-corner model uses physical, psychological and technical / tactical skills to identify players, along with consideration of social factors. Is this the best model to use? Is there anything better? Well now, that is certainly an interesting question. I guess the real thing to do may be to look at other sports and see what models they use. For the time being I had lined up a chat with Mark Dass, a recruitment and talent ID professional working in a category 1 academy/professional team, who has a plethora of qualifications to back this up.

Mark has an MSc in Sport Analytics and Technologies from the prestigious Loughborough University, along with talent identification badges and experience to boot. He also helps as Assistant Manager for MK Dons Women’s team, and has coaching experience too. So, what an opportunity to discuss with this young talented and intelligent man about the football scouting/recruitment process. I asked Mark what does he tend to notice or look for in a talented player, his answer was captivating as he stated ‘’I always look for technical component players, players that have a great movement ability. Players that make it all look effortless. Similarly, I look for players with a sound psychological profile, who can deal with pressure, are good on and off the pitch and most importantly have a desire or hunger to be better’’.

I thought this was very interesting, as talent comes in all forms, but passion or desire seems to be in limited stock. I had read an article on what makes talented athletes (i.e. top 1% in all sports; your gold medal Olympian or World Cup Winners) stick out from the rest and the article stipulated that these unique individuals not only have the raw technical talent, but they also develop coping skills and strategies that help them overcome any obstacle. Obstacles such as bereavement or having to move home, losing a parent to divorce---imagine a young child dealing with such a problem. Then factor in another scenario----a coach or manager telling them to do something! It must seem so easy to them after they have faced such adversity. This to me made a lot of sense, and Mark too. We discussed this for some time--- the idea of passion and desire in players, and whether it can be trained, or if it is intrinsic to us.  I wanted to get on to player care and what clubs do for talented players who they release, because we always hear of the one or two players who got away, so to speak. Players like Jamie Vardy, and how we could bridge that gap of released players and onward player care. Much like what Pitch attempts to do and you can access here!

The player care at different clubs varies based on the standard of team or academy, and so, when I asked Mark ‘what do clubs do for players when they are released and what advice would you give a released player?’ he answered suitably with ‘’clubs do a great deal more these days, like help the players with education or find a club nearby that’s a step or two down’’. There are many clubs out there that do a great job in looking after the players, but also it appears that some players can get missed and even sometimes that they needed to face that problem to develop as a player. But he did go on to say that it would probably help players to be more connected to a club after release, almost as if there was a gradual leaving process, rather than one day you are in and then the next day you are out. The impact of such an event to a young man who has been in an academy from the age of 8 to 18 could be quite a blow to the identity and well-being of the player. The issue of staying connected got me thinking, what can be done? Again, with Pitch I am trying to help with this, albeit with an online system, but also eventually with trials.

But this fascinating conversation with Mark got me thinking--- is there more that even I could do?  Mark did go on to explain that he thinks it’s vitally important to have a back-up plan or some form of contingency, and from his experience not all players do this well. Certainly, the expectation from parents cannot help in this regard, as some parents are so certain that their little boy or girl will make it big and be the next big professional player. Now if this is the real expectation of a parent and they don’t help the child with a backup plan, then the only way forward will need to be some form of parent education. Myself and Mark discussed this for some time, and there are undoubtedly some great clubs out there that do fantastic work with players and parents.

However, all this talk reminded me of the Damian Hughes book The Barcelona Way in which he discussed the culture at different clubs, and how it relates to how a player builds expectations in everyday life. As a result, in the UK it seems evident to me that we often see the star culture model (the biggest and best players like Rooney or Vardy being put on a pedestal) but how often do we celebrate the defender, and the amount of interceptions, the midfielder who has the most assists, or the goal keeper who keeps a clean sheet. These are all important aspects of playing in a team, that are all integrally linked to our culture, and we even view them playing in a team.

My time talking with Mark was drawing to a close, but I still wanted to ask him so much more as the conversation was free flowing. I wanted to discuss with Mark the idea of a trial for released players, that combined the use of physical and psychological testing, This, intrigued Mark and he said he would be interested to hear more. So, because of my captivating conversation with Mark, I decided to start an online survey to get a gauge of what scouts would think to the idea. If you are reading this, and are a scout, or involved in recruitment, please do have a look at the survey here (it only takes 5 minutes). Equally if you are interested and would like to know more about this trial event please do make a scout Pitch profile here too to keep up to date. Finally, I would like to thank Mark for his time and truly valuable insights, as I am sure he will be a big success in all that he does.

For more info on Mark please check out his Twitter @MarkDass_ or his LinkedIn profile for professional connections.