Monday, 26 October 2015

Talent ID - Scouting with a metal detector

Jamie Vardy non league to Premier League top scorer
So it seems that the can of worms opened at Fifa has turned into a hidden cave of worms. So, whilst our own FA makes clear its disassociation from the deep deceit for personal gain, I wanted to pose them questions about TalentID. I’m certain that as they promote honesty, integrity and transparency the key people there will welcome the concept that we should continue to review and take care of our own house first and do what’s good for football.
They have a new Talent ID department delivering courses to professionalise recruitment of players. Like most things delivered by the FA, some we will agree with, some we won’t. Introducing overlapping coaching courses like Youth Modules for example could be deemed overkill by a sceptic but actually, having been on them I have found them to be excellent and would highly recommend coaches of any qualifications complete them. It’s good to always think, consider, and reconsider how you do things. I’ve now seem some of the results of the new Talent ID filter into my inbox. Again, a lot of it is really well structured and important. As pro clubs they are all now talking DNA and key features or pillars that players must display in order to be ‘scouted’. However, all the documents, PowerPoint, flipcharts aside, I think there are bigger and much more important issues to address when it comes to ‘Talent ID’
1.       Has England lost out on potential talent that was released from Academies for reasons other than their football ability?
2.       Our football culture has changed to include great facilities in hard up areas, but a pay to play situation which rules out heaps of children that can’t afford to take part.
The hottest player in the country today is Jamie Vardy. Yet another player that has come back into the game via non-league. Something I truly admire. In fact many players in the football league have come via that route. Some could argue development is more real post 16 when games become more realistic than the 21’s governed by the Premier League. There has been all sorts written over the last few days about clubs interested in Vardy but I couldn’t help tracing back his pathways. Surely Sheffield Wednesday must be kicking themselves. Surely someone in that club made a huge mistake. Had they not made that mistake that great club could now be sitting on a winning lottery ticket as QPR found when Sterling moved from Liverpool to Man City. So why did a club, who spent years of investment and effort let that lottery ticket blow out of the window? Mistakes happen, sometimes we get it wrong and I’ve seen high profile people very humbled when proven wrong, but with no malice either side. It was just an opinion and one that got away. That happens. But was this the case with Vardy?  I genuinely don’t know the exact ins and outs but I was left scratching my head, how? Really? A future England player, Premier League top scorer? Really? That player was let go? Considering some players I see get signed, surely this lad should have been locked tightly under contract at Sheffield Wednesday. So, as Talent ID I really want to know, how and why was this player allowed to drift out of the game. Yes, he’s done the unthinkable but let’s be honest, the vast majority don’t. They are destroyed and in some cases out of the game at all levels forever. Ok, so, most will be the right decision, but are their more Jamie Vardys?
To repeat, I DONT KNOW what happened to Jamie Vardy at Sheffield Wednesday. It could be a very genuine mistake in judgment. But it's his recent rise to the top that alerted me to the problem and I think it makes it worth investigating.
Iv’e seen players signed and released from clubs for what I believe to be the wrong reasons. This can be to hit performance targets. This can be to achieve a perceived success in recruitment for signing quotas. To show a success story to EPPP inspectors & club owners. But perhaps the most alarming question asked by many people in football is. Are players getting released and new ones signed to assist in scouts and middle management achieving bonus commissions? Many of the recruitment team will be on individual bonus schemes and also the middle and senior management. So there is an incentive to move players on and bring new ones in. This may seem cynical. Many good scouts out there and management of academies have been rewarded financially on success. Most of this is rightly earned as they are mostly underpaid and this justifies the miles put in. The problem is, like money does it can also bring out the worst in people. I believe there are now people going into clubs on a short term strategy to take as much money out as possible. Like all money grabbing leaches they turn in into drug hungry self-centred blinkered crusaders that will trample over everyone in their path for a pound note. If that means getting rid of players regardless of ability so be it. That includes any staff that might be on to them or challenge the strategy. The reality is it benefits no one other than a short term financial gain for the scout/staff. The player going out could be a Jamie Vardy and the player coming in might not be at that level giving up on alternative education and career. But people move jobs before anything is highlighted taking with them their bonus payments. This has to stop. Actually club owners put their trust in people but they need to dig down to look for this phenomenon and fix it. It’s costing them money.
Together with our new ‘play to pay’ culture I detailed here I fear that we can be missing out on talent who come from difficult backgrounds. These players who can’t afford to join clubs due to travel and subs. The FA have introduced all these wonderful new 3G pitches but in many cases they remain locked and empty at low peak times. Primarily these have been funded by outside organisations that promote inclusion in sport so these should be made available to local communities in a subsidised way.
There would be many things you could introduce as an academy manager but I think changes and influences need to come from above that. Here is my short manifesto that I would truly believe would produce better players, would protect football clubs better and would protect young players better.
Non contracts and reduced hours at Foundation phase
Recently I have heard of 6 year olds getting tapped up by clubs. This has got to stop. Young children should be enjoying playing football in the park without restriction. I think the value of school football, participation in multi sports and grass roots football out way the benefits of too much structured coaching under 10 years old. From the ages 8-11 I believe players should not be contracted and restricted in other activities. If asking for non-contracts is not achievable then we should look to change the hours of pro club contact and actively embrace the player taking part with grass roots clubs, school football and other sports. It was reported recently that a player has a 1 in 200 chance of making the first team. So surely it’s a moral crime to deny them other sporting opportunities at such a young age? Of course we can still find ways of recruiting them and securing them for clubs which could remain more structured from 12 years.
FREE non pro club development centres – FA Governed
Football has become a pay to play culture. The FA committed to installing hundreds of 3G pitches around the country as part of improving football. I welcome that. But the problem is, none of them are free. Simply opening the gates could result in damage but there is a solution which benefits everyone. Most of all England. Academy football is free, or is it? Driving to training four times a week and a long distance game on Sunday. It’s not free, so I suspect that some parents simply cannot afford to take the child to academies. Grass roots football receives no funding so a club has no choice to raise funds through sponsorship and parents. Some parents cannot afford this. So the new 3G pitch is rammed in the week in the evening where clubs can use subs to pay the bill. However, near me the two new ones are empty at weekends in the mornings. I would suggest that the FA book these and work with schools PE departments and grass roots managers to identify talent. Perhaps those that don’t play for a club at all. Those children can then come to that 3G free of charge for regular coaching and playing. Some clubs have their own development centres but many charge considerable amounts for that privilege. This free access would give us the ability to identify talent from within communities that are tough and deprived. My guess is that every year at least one player at every age group will be identified as at academy level but has been missed. They can then be routed to appropriate local academies as and when the time is right. I’m certain that the clubs would want to scout this centre anyway and if the player is good enough they will ‘find a way’ to get round financial restrictions. Maybe a bursary could be set aside to help the individual.
Review Elite Player Performance Plan
Clubs should have recruitment and release committee members. No one person, including the academy manager should have the autonomy to sign or release a player themselves. If it was my club I would want to see at least six signatures on a document from heads of departments. That includes:
The academy manager
The head of recruitment
The head of coaching
The head of relevant phase
The lead coach for that age
Sports science/medical department
(Possibly a first team coach depending on scale of club. Or 21s coach)
Equally, I would want to see a similar document on file with the six votes that agree the player should be released. This would be the result of a ‘release meeting’ where each players attributes and potential is discussed. Then the vote and recorded. Only then can the Academy Manager have the casting vote if required. After all, the club has been forking out £3-4k+ a year to develop this child. We also took him out of school. His parents have spent £100 a week driving him to training. He’s sacrificed all his other activities he used to take part in and is too tired to even do his homework or falling asleep in class (I heard this happen). The least we can do is take his release seriously? Of course it’s a necessary evil. Breaking a child’s heart is something I don’t take part in with ease. Some players just don’t develop and actually it’s for their own good long term. We can’t be 100% certain that we are right but let’s carefully consider everything before it’s another investment down the drain of the club and potential loss of essential future income. As well as a heartbroken child that didn’t need it.
I would also look into hours and pressure put on the child and parents. This should be age appropriate and if children come in during the day I would want to huge commitment by the staff to make this valuable. Also any child behind at school should not be able to come in on day release. Of course it’s not relevant to level 1 academies who provide the education.
EPPP follows the education format. This includes setting out learning objectives and outcomes. As well as this 6 week reporting and player meetings. Many parents want more information, so in that respect it’s good. But the problem I have is this. I don’t know a player yet that has been either recruited or released based on what has been written on the PMA systems. There is now all this data logged but it’s largely subjective and therefore how valuable is it? Do you really think the first team manager is going to ask to read what the U14’s coach thought of him before putting him in the first team? So, its work for works sake. Actually it applies more pressure to young players who know every mistake is logged against them and the coaches are spending hours upon hours on laptops instead of the grass. So this needs to be reviewed. I also wonder if all parents are entitled to full copies of this data under the Data Protection Act which includes access to information held about you.
New Bonus/Pay rules for Scouts
Short term bonus for scouts and bosses can’t work for the club or the player. I’m totally against it. Getting a bonus for a player signing at the academy should be disbanded. Pay the scout and pay expenses, yes. Give them performance targets, yes. But remove this bonus. Also the bonus for an academy player signing as a a scholar or first year pro. These achievements may seem huge to the player and parents at the time but they still have not reached the ultimate goal. A bonus should only come into place when the player has appeared twenty times in the first team, out on loan or sold to another club. That really proves the player had a chance and if you’re a proper scout that cares about players that is surely all you want to see? You will be happy to play the long game. I would also have a contract agreement meaning if staff get moved on, the scout will still receive the bonus. This would make individuals with the autonomy to ‘play the game’ and manipulate the system for personal gain change their strategy. Hopefully then we would find that the only players in the system are ones there on merit and merit alone. Who would disagree with that?
So for those recruiting lower down this seems like a long way away, 5 years plus before you could gain recognition. Well, yes, that’s true. But it’s for the good of the game. You get your match fee, you get your miles and we will look at the performance levels. You will be educated about what the club needs. But I’m not going to let you cash out early on an achievement, that actually, is not an achievement at all and puts the club at financial risk and can be harmful to vulnerable players.
The vast majority of people in football are good souls who care about the game and the lives they affect. That includes within the FA. Actually includes the current department set up. Those will be reading this nodding their heads. Others however with be boiling. Reading through each line to look for something liable. Maybe its fear of exposure? Maybe you have your own hidden cave? Those will be the ones checking their shoulders. But you see, what goes around comes around, just like we have seen at Fifa. Too many people in this country accept the words “that’s football”. If we truly want the game cleared up then it starts with honesty and openness. The prize for that integrity is that we might even improve our national team through better selection mixed with better development and pathways.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Exclusive Football

It’s fantastic to see the growing volume of 3G pitches appearing in what the FA describe as urban areas. This is all part of Greg Dykes England Commission where he has committed to increasing the amount of artificial pitches by 130% to more than 500 by 2020.

This is commendable and to improve facilities can only be a good thing for everybody, or is it?

Travelling around its delightful to see these pitches rammed with players taking advantage of the surface that allows them to play all year round in relative safety. But these children will mostly be those that play for grass roots clubs for which they pay subs and others that are training with professional football clubs development centres, paying for the privilege. I work in many schools and listen to the children. On countless occasions I have heard youngsters tell me that they do not play for a club because mum or dad can’t afford it. Yet I see such great talent which makes that a heart-breaking situation. So where do these children play and will they ever be granted on opportunity? Schools already do tremendous work in engaging youngsters in sport as part of the governments primary sport premium. But mostly this encourages increased participation in many alternative activities, which is great. But it’s not football specific. So these children’s best hope is the school team but I don’t think this is enough for them to develop adequately and be seen.

Most great footballers have come from difficult or working class backgrounds and actually in the UK I fear more and more people are edging towards to the poverty line and many beneath it. So clothes, food, water and heating are a much greater priority for their children than football. So are we doing enough to help these children that fall into this bracket and should we? Why should some people pay for something and others not?

Culture of Football

Limbury, Luton. No Sport
The culture of football in England is changing. I think the reason that many play football has changed. Where we can play football has changed. To me it seems that for many, the reason for playing is simply to be a professional footballer and their are far too many players that are perceived to be in an elite bracket. With that come’s disappointment and rejection and the reality that for most it doesn’t happen. Parents living that dream through the children add to the pressure and ultimately the failure to cope with the rejection. Many teenagers then completely give the game up for good and I find that so sad. We played football for the love of the game regardless of the level it was. Where we play football has changed. I don’t think our parks are cared for as they should be and even our local field is now been giving up for a coronation meadow. It’s already been rotavated and now even walking on it feels like you could sprain your ankle. The cynic in me suspects this is more to do with economics and cut backs. A meadow will cost much less to maintain than a sports field. Playing in the street is no longer accepted and any local piece of green gets a ‘no ball games’ sign.

If you join a club then no doubt you will get to train on a nice surface. But you will need to contribute which of course is fair, kit is not free. You could go to a pro clubs development centre which around where I live you would pay for. Or you are lucky to sign schoolboy forms for a pro club and be coached and train for free. But is it free? Training four times a week and clocking up miles on the motorway? It’s not free.

New facility at 1.30pm on a Saturday recently
With this in mind it’s great to see these wonderful new facilities. Luton has two really difficult tough areas. Lewsey Farm and Marsh Farm. Both now boast wonderful new pitches. There is a big sign outside saying Football Foundation and Lottery funded, so clearly not paid for using commercial funds. Yet they are treated as commercial enterprises by the people that operate them. Of course revenue is vital but to me they are benefiting from the increased income but didn’t make the initial investment. The result of this is harsh reality. Saturday, lovely October day with sunshine. 1.30 pm, this was the pitch in Marsh Farm, Luton. Padlocked and empty. The next day, Sunday morning I drove past the other new 3G in Lewsey Farm at 11am. It was padlocked and empty. Of course during the week from 6pm they are packed with paying customers from clubs and teams but weekend’s with nobody is a criminal waste. If they simply opened the gate I’m sure the management would fear risk of theft and vandalism. But to me that is lazy and lacks any sort of commitment to engage empathetically with its local community. There will be so many children looking down on that pitch from the surrounding houses and high rise flats probably kicking a ball around the living room that could not afford to go and play for the local club. It could also be that he or she is the next Messi, Ronaldo, Pele, Maradona or Marta. If these organisations have benefitted from supporting funds surely there is something they can do to help engage these people. That ultimately benefits the community and also could benefit the England team in the future. Is this not the master plan of Greg Dyke? So for football to be great in this country again we must not discriminate against someone based on class and money. It has to be all inclusive. I think that’s a good reason to offer assistance for those not able to afford football.

Lets ask the top 100 players ever from England if they had to pay to participate in the game?

I would suggest that there should be partnership agreements with the local schools. If you get funding support for a pitch it’s a crucial must criteria. Children can register with the school for free access at times like I have seen which clearly don’t sell anyway. This could be used as a behaviour carrot for the school. That way they know who is on the pitch and have the ability to deal with any issues. I guess the other objection could be supervision based on crazy health & safety, insurance rules. Well, if that’s the case, supervise it. There are hundreds of coaches desperate for work and experience. Pay them. The FA is not short of funds I’m certain of that. 4 hours a week, 2 hours on Saturday and 2 on Sunday won’t send them into liquidation.

I have also said before that I believe the FA centrally should run their own ‘Elite Centre’s’. Independent from the professional clubs. In the style of development centres, a stepping stone between grass roots and professional academies where they can experience quality coaching and experience whilst playing for their registered clubs. But it should be selective and FREE.

I guess growing up in a council estate a stone’s throw from one of these 3G pitches is what makes me passionate about OPPORTUNTIY. Living in poverty or dysfunctional families doesn’t automatically mean children will follow the same path. It doesn’t mean they will be criminals and can’t achieve great things in their life. Football is such an important aspect of this enabling them to give their thoughts and worries a break. I believe we should empower them to change the cycle. Sport can do that. Let’s please let these children have a chance to live a dream and if not, at least enjoy football.


Typically over all the years of football, the best players have arrived on the scene having come from challenging backgrounds. Does that create more hunger and intrinsic desire to change your family’s life? But equally players are around that have very stable backgrounds. So, the point is, we just don’t know from what community and what background the next great player will be hiding. But for sure we certainly need to ensure we look under every stone and give everybody equal opportunity. If we create a pay to play culture this could eliminate so many people so we have to find a way.