Book Review: The Nowhere Men
The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin
Published by Century
They are a mythical breed, not to say a forgotten one in these days where youtube videos are said to inspire signings, but, in an increasingly hybrid and varied form, soccer scouts continue to ply their trade – and yet it’s an aspect of the game that we as punters understand so little of.
Hence, Michael Calvin’s new book The Nowhere Men does a relentlessly fascinating job in lifting the lid on the profession. Sure, the grizzled old pro in a touchline windcheater, pulling into Newport Pagnell service station at 2 in the morning on his way back from Underhill still exists, but so do the Prozone boffin huddled over a computer and the budget airline fanatic.
Calvin deploys the charm evident in a recent piece for The Blizzard that described his abandonment of Watford for Millwall to produce a book that is admirable in a great many ways, but is perhaps most significant for the juiciness of its anecdotes.
These include slightly horrifying broad brush statistics such as the Chelsea Academy’s failure to produce an established first teamer over an eight year period in which £60 million has been disbursed while across the game, two-thirds of those handed a pro contract at 18 are out of football by 21. Further down the pyramid – and by plain contrast – we are told that Notts County’s training ground has no running water, necessitating a 10 mile round trip to change for players each weekday.
Devices pepper the narrative including a three way discussion between scouts including ex-West Ham legend Pat Holland, subsequently chased out of Arsenal by a cabal of hooded 18 year olds who couldn’t put up with his discipline, and a full scouting report on a Colchester United match in which now Ipswich midfielder Anthony Wordsworth’s talent is acknowledged but his application and desire to play at a higher level are given short shrift.
Similarly, we learn Reading striker Pavel Pogrebnyak may have received a £5 million signing on fee, that Nathaniel Chalobah has ‘ Chelsea-itis’, Elliott Lee (son of Rob) has an ass no banjo would struggle to make contact with, Luke Shaw is ‘splay-footed’, Danny Kedwell ‘will always be non-league and could have signed from KFC Wimbledon rather than AFC Wimbledon and that ex-Nottingham Forest kid Patrick Bamford ‘will never play’ in Chelsea’s first team.
The verdicts from these old gents can be damning – and it’s stark to ponder how much they can differ from the view on the terraces, even if they will always be discounted if the man in the hot seat is in disagreement. Hence, Gérard Houllier ignoring scout’s advice to sign Michael Bradley for Aston Villa on the paltry basis of 4 World Cup matches in 2010 and various managers passing on Gary Penrice’s recommendations to go for Laurent Koscielny, Paco Llorente, Javi Martinez and others.
Penrice is a Bristol Rovers legend of course – and the number of former professionals immersed in the scouting game is notable. Many are former managers and players including Steve Gritt, Glenn Roeder, Jaap Stam, George Santos and Alan Harper, working at Liverpool despite his Evertonian roots.
Indeed, Merseyside looms large in the book’s recurring central narrative with the tempestuous events that saw the club transition from the Dalglish to Rodgers era recounted. Pivotal to that of course are the actions of Damien Comolli, a divisive figure perhaps not a million miles away from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader in the movie The Master .
Seymour Hoffman starred in the celluloid adaptation of Moneyball of course and it’s the influence of Michael Lewis’ urtext that forms a cornerstone of Calvin’s exposé. Comolli is seen as an arch proponent of the underlying principles even if their application to football can only ever be partial – how can speed of thought be measured for instance?
One of the major drawbacks of statistical analysis in any pursuit has been the failure until recently to incorporate psychological factors into the analysis – but a section devoted to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow looks about to reverse that and the depth of scrutiny taken before a player is encouraged to put pen to paper is startling.
Everton under David Moyes are revealed to have three serious transfer targets for every position in the team while Brentford’s benefactor and super fan Matthew Benham insists that a player can only be judged worthy enough if he’s been seen in half a century of games. Clubs, therefore, where the scouting network has been allowed to wither such as Neil Warnock-era Queen’s Park Rangers are made to look quite Jurassic.
But the book is a balanced one and it’s stressed that a combination of hard analysis and experienced nous are needed to land the best players, whether they are 12 year olds gambolling on Clapham Common, participants in the Champions League-aping Next Gen series or Valencia forwards catching the eye of the Mansours.
The author does us a great service, therefore, in lifting the lid on the phenomenon but crucially, never losing sight of the human interest. Amid the Wild West leanings of the sport, job security is increasingly a myth, while the cynical exploitation of newer entrants willing to earn free entry to a game without payment is sadly reflected upon. Mel Johnson, a scout at both Liverpool and Tottenham, and reputed discoverer of Gareth Bale is a frequent interviewee across the book for whom the adjective ‘unsung’ might have been coined.