“You can never have enough heads”, so Worzel Gummidge once said and nothing could be closer to the truth than the roles I currently have at Lewes. Director, co-website editor, co-programme editor and post-match interviewer. But I wouldn’t change them for the world. We all have numerous roles at the board level, all unpaid and all done because we love the club. But this season I have taken on a new role.
In his recent book, the Nowhere Men, author Michael Calvin explores the role that scouts play in modern football. These incredibly poorly paid, dedicated people see hundreds of games a season, often being paid no more than expenses, to try to find the next “Wayne Rooney”. The book, one of the finest I have read in the past year, details Calvin’s interactions with the unseen, unheard of, secret layer of football. The Scouting network. Whether it is trying to spot the next Rooney (Wayne rather than his cousin John) before anyone else, or trying to spot a weaknesses in the way a centre-back reads the game, a scout’s success or failure can often be a margin call, a gamble or even a gut feeling.
Tonight I have joined the Nowhere Men at Carshalton Athletic versus Dulwich Hamlet. Whilst most football fans will be sitting comfortably at home, beer in hand, watching Olympiakos versus Manchester United, I am at The War Memorial Ground , struggling to see what I am writing in the darkness of the main stand, as I compile a scouting report on our forthcoming opponents. With the information fresh in my head I will burn the midnight candle to get my observations onto a formal report before sending off to our management team.
It has come to something when I now get a formal nod of respect from others who tread this lonely path. I made by scouting debut some years ago, but it wasn’t until this season that it become a regular gig. I now look after “Scouting operations” in Kent, London and Essex. Sounds flash, eh? Well it is a self-awarded title but one I am proud of. Essentially whenever I have a spare evening (or a Saturday as has been the case all too often this winter) and one of our opponents are within an hour’s drive I will be there, huddled in my big coat trying to work out if the right back really is right-footed at all and whether the centre-midfielder is really a holding player or simply unfit. With every game you watch, you learn more about the game, more about how players minds work and more about the vulnerabilities and weaknesses each team has. And how desperate we all are at this level to pretend we are really making a difference.
You start to appreciate how to read the game, and the importance of positional play. There was a time, not that long ago, where I thought tactics at this level simply comprised of shouts of “‘ave it”, but I was wrong. However, you need to know what you are looking for. To understand a team you have to watch them 100% of the time. That means not following the play but following the men. When they attack, you need to watch how they push out, what the full backs do and which players avoid the ball (you will be amazed at how many players don’t actually like being given the ball). What happens when they are defending? Who are the communicators in the side? What does the keeper do when he has the ball? Does he kick, roll or throw it out? Without sounding too hideous, you need to train your eyes to look in different directions. Distractions such as looking up the scores elsewhere or talking to Big Deaksy on WhatsApp can make a difference. As Al Pacino said in The Whole Nine Yards, “The difference between winning and losing is so small”. One click at the wrong time and you could have undone your season without knowing it.
Within the first ten minutes you will see how a team is set out to play. Then you will work out who the key men are, who wants the ball (and who doesn’t), whether the wide-men like to cut in or go outside and who can head a ball. They may change their style, approach or formation during the final parts of the game depending on the score, but in general the first thirty minutes are the ones where you must have a couple of pairs of eyes. Half-time is a good time to see what you have written, whether it makes any sense and if you are making a Ryman Premier League side out to be Real Madrid. “Superb dead-ball expert” may be stretching it a bit far when a player actually manages to get a corner past the first man.
The second half is about filling in the blanks. Is the left-sided midfielder really left-footed? Does the keeper stay on his line? What impact does the bench shouting expletives have on the side? Who are the players easily wound up by the opposition? What impact do the subs have?
By the halfway point of the second half you can relax….even perhaps go and get a cup of tea, unless like tonight, the tea bar had shut up shop (so it was a cheeky beer instead). Come the ninetieth minute and I am away – after all what ever happens in injury time – apart from the team you are watching conceding a penalty, getting their keeper sent off, new keeper then saving a penalty but concedes an equaliser from a corner….like last week.
Carshalton Athletic Dulwich Hamlet – The War Memorial Ground – Tuesday 25th February 2014
So what did I learn tonight? I learnt on the way into the ground that a number of Carshalton fans have been banned from the ground without any particular reason and have no right of appeal. I learned that you should always have a pair of gloves on you. I learned that cooking burgers over a flame so that they are crispy on the outside does not mean they are cooked at all on the inside and that the future for Carshalton Athletic in this division looks very bleak indeed. Dulwich eased to a 4-0 win with ease and probably could have scored more. The fact that all four goals were put into the net unchallenged and from relatively close range sums up the ease with which they cut through the home team’s defence. Where do I start in my assessment of Hamlet? Was this an impressive away performance or a poor home one? Probably a combination of the two.
Dulwich’s support kept up a 90 minute beat for their team, turning their attention to the plight of the fans banned from the ground towards the end of the game when victory was secure. Earlier in the season I watched Dulwich play at Thamesmead and wrote my scouting report then. A week later they beat Lewes 4-2 in an enthralling game and the two key players were exactly as I noted. Tonight it was the same two players causing the problems. Good to see my scouting eye was still as keen as ever. Last night the threat came from the midfield trio of Vidal, Oztumer and Clunis who were given far too much room in the centre of the park to cause mischief as was seen when the tricky little Turk cleverly put the ball between the centre-backs, ran around them and was clean through on goal. He could have taken the keeper on but instead squared it to Clunis to tap into an empty net. Ten minutes later Lodge bundled the ball home from close range, embarrassed to celebrate a goal that I think last came off his hip.
Two further goals from Daly ensured Dulwich went back to the top of the league. Even the most ardent Hamlet fan would not have predicted that they would be top of the pie with a quarter of the season to play, although Wealdstone have games in hand. But armed with the inside knowledge, what would now happen at Lewes on Saturday? How prepared would the Rooks be for the Hamlet goal scoring machine with their “fluid five” formation (I made this term up btw)?
The success of my latest role is obviously based on results against those teams who I have scouted. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing but if you fail to prepare, you have to be prepared to fail……