Marcus Rashford has been one of the few bright spots for Manchester United in a generally gloomy season. The 18-year-old’s impressive transition to the first team was crowned in spectacular fashion when he scored two goals on his debut against Midtjylland in the Europa League and then repeated the trick three days later in his first start in the Premier League against Arsenal. To cap all of this, he became the youngest ever scorer in a Premier League Manchester derby by calmly slotting in the only goal against City at the Etihad last month and then followed that up by scoring winners against West Ham in the FA Cup and Aston Villa in the league.
Rashford has put many of Louis van Gaal’s expensive signings in the shade. Van Gaal has spent in excess of £250m since taking over in 2014 but hardly any of those incoming players has made as positive an impact as Rashford, who did not cost him a penny. There is a bitter irony about Rashford’s accomplished emergence into the limelight as he came through the ranks at Old Trafford, having joined the club at the age of nine from the Didsbury-based club, Fletcher Moss Rangers.
Fletcher Moss have built an enviable reputation for finding footballers from the Manchester area, having also produced Wes Brown, Danny Welbeck, Ravel Morrison, Tyler Blackett and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. While Manchester United have picked up a lot of their best players, it is not an exclusive arrangement. Indeed, Rashford was originally due to go to Manchester City (who worried that he was too small) before United stepped in.
The Scouts responsible for detecting Rashford’s potential so early should be lauded but, like so many of their ilk, Ron Jamieson and Dave Horrocks are not exactly household names. Jamieson, a lorry driver who is also chairman of Fletcher Moss, and Horrocks, an academy coach for one of United’s development centres, are just a couple of the 80 or so scouts who work in the North West area for Derek Langley, the head of academy recruitment at United since 2000.
Over those 16 years Langley has overseen a healthy pipeline of players and is quick to acknowledge that the invaluable work of his network of scouts – most of whom are part-time – does not receive due recognition. “Nobody gives a damn about the scouts even though they are the only people who regularly identify the talent and bring those players to the attention of the clubs,” Langley says. He maintains that scouts play a pivotal role at the very earliest stages of a footballer’s development and it is a role that nobody else can fulfil.
The fact that Rashford was picked up when so young highlights one of the finer skills of an excellent scout. The art of selecting a future star from a group of kids who are as young as five or six years old is a rare ability and one that demands a studied approach. Scouts who operate at this very youthful end of the spectrum look for what Langley calls “basic co-ordination units, such as balance and agility and whether they have got any pace – added to this, there is the confidence factor, which makes a huge difference.”
Langley uses the example of David Dunn – who joined Blackburn as a trainee in 1997 and is currently coaching their academy. “It was immediately apparent that he knew he was a better player than anyone else around him,” says Langley. “And so it proved. In a similar way, Rashford also exuded confidence at a very early age and was destined for success.”
Dave Hobson, another experienced member of the Manchester United scouting network, says players need a degree of flexibility to reach the very highest level. “Most players will have a series of different coaches throughout their formative years at a club. At United the coaches change pretty much every year and so the young players have to prove themselves time and again, in being able to adapt to each and every one to ensure they progress.”
There has never been a more pressing demand for good scouts who can unearth talent for a fraction of the cost of the giddy heights transfer fees have reached. Clubs that can gather all the necessary information on the best prospects available through their network of scouts can save themselves millions of pounds every year. So, logically, every club, regardless of size and budget, should be investing a healthy proportion of their recruitment budget into a scouting system that has the potential to pay dividends many times over.
However, the reality is that the clubs’ expenditure on scouts has hardly increased over the last decade while the money flowing into the English game, and the Premier League in particular, has rocketed up via the ever-increasing television deals. So why is there such a disconnect between theory and practice?
Football scouts are pretty much taken for granted, as highlighted by Michael Calvin’s award-winning, appositely titled book The Nowhere Men. This is a largely anonymous job, which receives very little recognition and correspondingly low levels of remuneration. The majority are part-time and a high proportion are volunteers. One of the very few high-profile scouts owes much of his broader public awareness to the fact that his son is a well-known television personality. Graham Carr’s star has also fallen somewhat as Newcastle have struggled this season and the recent influx of players has not exactly gelled into a powerful unit.
So generally unloved and unnoticed, thousands of scouts work throughout the country and a few years ago Langley decided to do something to redress the balance. “I challenged the scouts themselves to set up their own representative body, after all there was the PFA for players and the LMA for managers, so why not scouts?” Hobson and fellow Manchester United scout Purves Ali met this challenge when they co-founded the Professional Football Scouts Association in 2014. “It is such an important role and one that requires diligence, integrity and a great deal of research,” says Ali. “So we just felt that this group needed some from of representation.”
There is a surprisingly wide range of specialist scouting roles and, as Ali explains, the PFSA wanted to be exhaustive. “From those that operate at different age brackets to academy scouts, non-league, tactical and even opposition specialists. We just wanted to marry all these different types of scout together.”
Since 2014 they have set up a series of educational courses, from the online introductory level one to the more advanced NCFE-accredited level two – talent identification in football – and level three, which focuses on player, team and match analysis. As the only representative body for football scouts throughout the world, the PFSA have attracted people from around the world to take their courses. With visits to USA, Singapore and Dubai planned for the coming months, the PFSA is intent on spreading the word and gaining global recognition.
According to Ali, one of the few managers who really appreciated the work scouts do was Alex Ferguson: “He used to address the scouts once or twice a year, over a bottle of wine, and told them how important they were to the club. He really made us feel like part of the family.” Maybe Van Gaal should follow Ferguson’s lead and pay some much-needed attention to a group of people who provide an invaluable service with the minimum of fuss and can unearth gems such as Rashford for next to nothing.