Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a talent scout for a Premier League football club? Travelling around the world, having your pick of football matches to watch, using your own knowledge in order to handpick the future stars of world football – looking at it this way, the life of a Premier League scout sounds spectacular. Or do you see it in a different light? Being a Premier League Scout is a tough, high pressured occupation that involves spending a considerable amount of time away from loved ones. The role is often not greatly paid in comparison with the wages of Premier League players and managers and one wrong move – you don’t notice a footballer’s home sickness issue or a player’s unstable family background – and your whole reputation is on the line. Well, Stuart White knows all too well what it is like to be a Premier League scout; he knows full well the highs and lows, the long nights on the road and the camaraderie that being involved within a professional football team involves and now he opens up to IAIN FENTON on how to get started as a scout, what clubs look for in a player, the risks and rewards of life as a scout, the players he has signed, the players he could have signed and how working as a Premier League scout is the best job he could have ever asked for.
Scouting for gold
Stuart White, is a Premier League scout. Having spent 15 years at West Bromwich Albion between 2000 and 2015, two years at Burnley and six months as a member of the England scouting team, Stuart has lived the life of a football scout for many years despite modest beginnings.
“I started when I was around 19-20 and at University in Sheffield. My father was Vice Chairman at Stockport County and I used to go to reserve team games in and around Sheffield. I would then speak to my dad, just mentioning players I thought had done well. He had a very good relationship with County’s then manager, Danny Bergara, who luckily for me also lived in Sheffield and when those players’ names were mentioned, Danny suggested that I attend one or two games with him at the likes of Sheffield United, Rotherham United and Barnsley.
“In 1992, Danny asked if I’d like to scout on a slightly more concerted basis and I started attending senior games on Saturdays. I wasn’t paid and with my dad being on the board, I didn’t even claim expenses as he didn’t think that was appropriate. The first player I recommended to Danny who ended up signing for the club was Jim Gannon – I’d seen him playing for Sheffield United’s reserves against Manchester City and he had played Clive Allen brilliantly – Gannon went on to do really well and is now the club’s manager.”
Although Stuart was earning very little in terms of a wage, he was doing a job that he enjoyed and when Gary Megson was appointed as Stockport manager in 1997, Stuart’s scouting career climbed to greater heights.
“I was only ever part-time at Stockport but my experience was significantly enhanced when Gary Megson came in as manager. My dad mentioned that his son would like to do some scouting for him and I’m sure he was really skeptical about it at first but I had a meeting with Gary, Mike Phelan – the chief scout – Harry McNally and first team coach, Craig Madden, and that was me on my way.”
Stuart ended up following Megson to West Bromwich Albion where he worked under various managers including Roberto Di Matteo, Tony Mowbray and Roy Hodgson (Stuart also spent time working under Hodgson at international level for England as ‘opposition assessment scout’). During this period, Stuart really came to grips with what is was like to be Premier League scout, Stuart’s early years at West Brom also coincided with the Premier League boom in sponsorship and TV money.
West Brom’s golden period
“Being around people with such incredible levels of professionalism and experience was incredible and working for managers such as Roberto Di Matteo, Roy Hodgson and Steve Clarke and their respective members of coaching staff on a daily basis was huge for me. I thought I had a good understanding of the game and of what to look for in players already but I learned a huge amount in a relatively short period of time. I also began to understand more about the business of that particular club and about how important it is to de-risk signings as much as possible. They are all gambles but they have to be watched and researched in terms of their backgrounds, personalities and family situations, especially if they are coming in from overseas. Integrating into a new club and a completely new way of life can be a huge challenge that people don’t necessarily consider.”
Ever since Di Matteo led West Brom to Premier League promotion in 2010, the club have stayed in the top flight and this is in no small part due to the work done by the club’s scouting team.
“The work done by everybody at the club back then has led to it being where it is now. Without that foundation, the club wouldn’t have been in such a strong position as to attract the kind of investment that has seen it jump from looking to sign players that commanded modest fees and wages to being able to bring in outstanding players such as Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans. The likes of Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley, Shane Long, Claudio Yacob – they were all relatively cheap with Shane [Long] I think being a record signing at around £5m (£4.9m?) all-told with add-ons, but they all played huge parts in the club’s success. This should be regarded as a golden period in the history of West Bromwich Albion. Everybody associated with the club over that time should be proud; not least the former Chairman who is a very clever man and did a terrific job in enhancing the club with careful, modest investment at key times. The players have done brilliantly, the backroom staff likewise and in my opinion, the club should be held up as a model for how you can become established in the Premier League.”
Life on the road
However, despite the success of his former club, Stuart is of the belief that the lifestyle of a Premier League scout is not necessarily the lifestyle that the average football fan would expect it to be. They are by no means treated as luxuriously or rewarded as handsomely as the players, nor are they held in the same regard by the fans. To be a scout is to be modest.
“As much as I enjoy it massively and certainly did a fair amount of travelling whilst at WBA, and to a lesser degree, Burnley, it’s not exactly glamorous, that’s a big misconception.
“You often get booked onto early flights to whichever destination; be that outbound or on the return leg of your journey. That typically involves getting up at around 3am-4am, driving to whichever airport, waiting around for your flight and then arriving bleary-eyed at the other end. When going away you always have certain games and/or players to see but you make the most of each trip by looking to take in several other games so you can be away for 3-5 days at a time, taking in a similar number of games. I would typically hire a car and drive from city to city, sometimes attending two games in the same day. That brings a degree of stress as you don’t know the roads or how long it might take to get to your game, you don’t know where to go to park and then on the way back to whichever airport you’re flying home from, you have to find the hire car drop-off point, which depending on what time your flight is, can be closed.
“Yes, it’s fantastic to see so much football and to see how teams typically set up and play in other countries but this idea that it’s a complete jolly is often a mile off. Also, much as I can get by in French and German, the language barrier can be a problem when you’re making your way round or trying to locate your ticket at a stadium you’ve maybe never visited before. For example, in Germany, the ticket collection point at clubs like Mainz, Borussia Dortmund, Nurnberg and Eintracht Frankfurt aren’t at the stadiums, so you’re well advised arriving several hours before kick-off. Once you’ve visited those clubs, you remember the drill but again, it can be awkward.”
If traveling isn’t complicated enough, Stuart then has to make sure he is focused enough to ensure his judgment is constantly at a high level whilst watching the hundreds, if not thousands of football matches that he attends per year. To lessen the risk, at Premier League level, scouting is more of a team game rather than an individual one. This means that the club is not relying on the opinion of one scout alone, rather they’re relying on the opinion of several before they make any real money signings.
“At top level and increasingly at Championship level as well you’re part of a recruitment department. At West Brom, for example, we had Tony Spearing as our Head of European Recruitment, who would be away every weekend and over some midweeks as well. He often saw players he liked and I followed them up, it could work the other way round in the UK as well.”
Is the player worth signing?
Stuart talks us through some of the work that is done by scouts in order to test whether a player that they have found is worth signing or not.
“After the initial contact, we would then watch them online through a tremendous recruitment tool called Wyscout, which enables you to watch full games back or edited clips of the player(s) you are interested in. You would ideally build a profile over time and then decide whether that player is for you before engaging with his club and agent(s) to see whether a deal is possible.
“All players are gambles but the amount of work you put in watching them over a period of time and running all the checks and balances you can, helps to minimise that element of luck and again, hopefully they become de-risked to as large a degree as possible.”
Stuart admits that there are constantly many players on a club’s radar and risk and reward have to be calculated when deciding on whether to buy or loan a player. Also, different clubs require different players; for example Stoke City under Tony Pulis would not require the same type of player as Southampton under Mauricio Pochettino would.
“You have to identify players who fit your club both as footballers and characters/people, who are affordable and who are realistic. A club’s financial situation can sometimes see players you like ruled out automatically but that’s where it’s important to quickly realise the situation and move on to potential targets who are realistic in that respect.
“Each club has to have an identity. A DNA as we always called it at WBA. Burnley’s for example, was very different but what a terrific club and what a fantastic manager and group of staff. The players are very much an extension of that and as a group of people, they are absolutely phenomenal. They deserve every last bit of success they get. But the club basically knows what it is, there’s no pretense, there’s no ‘Big Time Charlie’ attitude, it’s just a very grounded, honest and hard-working club. The players have to buy into that and be part of it too.”
“It’s important to establish whether the deal can be done, whether the player wants to come and whether your manager/head coach is keen. It takes time but the longer the audit trail; which apart from player reports can also include elements such as observations made in the media, discussions you have with agents, conversations with and advice from people who may have worked around the player at previous clubs, the better informed you become and the more a signing is de-risked, which again, is vital when you’re talking about significant levels of investment. You also need to make sure that you get way more right than you get wrong, otherwise, your career can stall as your judgement might be perceived to be less than reliable.”
The diamond in the rough
On the other hand, one player that Stuart confesses to really pushing for has been one of West Brom’s players of the season and has been closely linked to an England call up.
“The one I can go back to and say I really pushed from when I first saw him playing in League Two for Rochdale, is Craig Dawson.
“We had already had a positive initial report from a regional part-time scout when Craig played in a pre-season friendly against Everton, but I was doing a team assessment on Rotherham (vs. Rochdale) ahead of us playing them in the League Cup in 2009 and Craig showed enough on a really awkward pitch where U20s had recently performed, causing all sorts of damage to the surface in one half of the pitch to follow him up. I next saw him at Lincoln towards Christmas where he scored and was outstanding and that was me sold. From there, other scouts were asked to watch him and I urged Dan Ashworth to go and see him as well. I remember Dan not being sure in the first 20 minutes or so of the game he first saw Craig in but as it went on, he became more convinced. We watched him several more times and ended up taking him for around £400k, I think, before immediately loaning him back for a year during which time we monitored his development. He is an absolute gem of a character too, who works incredibly and has improved steadily to become established as a consistent Premier League player. He deserves every success and yes, I’m proud of the part I played in him coming into West Brom.”
The one that got away.
As recently revealed on Planet Football Stuart also recalls a point where West Bromwich Albion could have signed a certain Gabonese international striker – Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.
“I had been to Dijon on a Friday night to watch one player in particular, a centre forward who didn’t impress me at all.
“My ‘bonus game’ before flying home on the Sunday, was Auxerre vs. Saint-Etienne on the Saturday night. Saint-Etienne drew the game 2-2 but Aubameyang and Emmanuel Riviere were tremendous as a pair. I came back raving about Aubameyang, and as luck would have it, his agent called me the following week, probably because he’d got to know that I had been at the game. He was obviously calling many clubs, but the lad was then a Milan player on loan at Saint-Etienne and he was interested in coming to England. The outline deal was explained to me and it was clear that he was going to be affordable so I recommended that we pursued it. On the back of my shout, a few more of our scouts went out to watch him a week or two later and he scored an early goal against Sochaux in a 2-1 defeat but didn’t impress sufficiently on the night, which can happen. He then went back to Saint-Etienne, scored 21 in 45 and was subsequently sold to Borussia Dortmund for 13million euros. He would have been a free loan to us with a 2million euros fee tied into the deal had we taken him.”
Stuart also admits that because of the volatility of the football industry, job security in the scouting world is far from great.
“In terms of stability football is a hugely volatile industry and you can’t ever be assured that your job will be there for you from one week to the next. You hope that in being successful and building a positive reputation, a degree of job security will follow but in truth, it just doesn’t. Situations at clubs can change with, for example, manager’s/head coaches coming and going, likewise technical directors and financial constraints can impact on you as well, leading to clubs deciding to cut staff away.”
For the love of the game.
However, Stuart, who took a substantial pay cut to become a scout at West Brom full time (he owned his own small PR firm beforehand) is adamant that his occupation as a scout is something that he loves and would recommend the job to anyone who wants to become involved within the game of football at a professional level.
“If job security is important to any young adult, I couldn’t recommend it, but if being involved at a professional level in the best game in the world is something you want to do and you aren’t going to become a player or a coach at that level, then yes. I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my scouting/recruitment career to date.”
In other West Brom news, westbromfootball.com recently discussed football as an esport in one of their articles, indicating that football and esports are set to join together in order to create a mutually beneficial partnership – you can read more on esports betting, news and events here.