“Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” The words of Johan Cruyff. That’s the sort of trailblazing, fearless thinking that helped push Leicester City to the summit of the 2015-16 English Premier League table. The way they shirked their underdog potential, turned nearly-men into champions and usurped the entrenched elite from one match to the next was nothing short of revolutionary.
Of course, their dramatic, “dilly-ding dilly-dong” title-winning season is a well-known tale by now, but for many people it’s still hard to come to terms with the fact that little Leicester City managed to win out against all the enormous odds.
For some, it’s still a hazy memory that will never make much sense, a bit like the way most of our unconscious dreams become more and more indecipherable with every waking minute. That a team could overcome their billing as relegation fodder to outdo the bigger, money-laden clubs around them remains a tricky enigma to unravel – but it did happen, and the Foxes have new adventures to get to grips with in Europe.
Fans of the reigning champions will hope that even though they have woken up to the harsh reality of what it’s like to defend a crown of such magnitude and importance, they will have learned an awful lot from the whole experience; laying a foundation to foster more success is just as important as cherishing the ones they already have.
That’s where their network of dedicated scouts can come in. Everyone is aware that Steve Walsh was the Leicester scouting genius who uncovered Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté just as much as they know so many of the other amazing stories of nobodies being discovered.
The romantic tale of how Bob Bishop discovered a precocious George Best in 1961 or of how Carles Rexach took a shine to Lionel Messi like a diamond in the rough before he ever could have imagined the diminutive Argentine would win five Ballon d’Ors are occasions when the hard work of these talent spotters came to bear the juiciest and most appetizing of fruits, for everyone who loves football.
Andy Palmer might not be an instantly recognisable name for the everyman, but his behind-the-scenes work at Leicester has led to him becoming one of the most indispensable scouts currently running the rule over burgeoning players up and down the country. On the lookout for future stars with the club since 2007 to help fuel a sustainable future for the English top-flight champions, he is now at the forefront of the challenge of maintaining the prosperity currently bubbling at the King Power Stadium.
These Football Times recently caught up with the Premier League club’s talent scout to chat about his personal approach, what needs to be done on a wider scale to nurture the role of scouting in the modern game and plenty more. In truth, it’s a job whose purpose and definition can sometimes get lost in all the myth and legend – when one strips it back, what exactly does Palmer do on a day-to-day level, then?
“Naturally, I would be scouting on a daily basis, working in schools and also at the weekends attending youth games and also scouting around the country where and when matches would be taking place. Also, part of my role as a scout is to chaperone the players into the ground, particularly those that don’t have transport,” he says.
It means Palmer has to scour the country, working a lot at under-8 and under-10 levels as well as keeping tabs on the older age groups. He has worked a great deal at other levels as well, including up as far as under-15s. He has seen football from all angles, and that means a great deal for a club like Leicester – he knows what he wants to see in kids from very young; what’s normal, accepted, what raises an eyebrow and what pre-empts potential brilliance.
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Not everyone can stumble on the golden boy of a generation every day, but Palmer has a pretty impressive record of spotting talented individuals during his time scouting at a variety of clubs, including a promising player who netted a hat-trick on his Leicester debut. “I scouted Curtis Thompson at Notts County and Joe Dodoo who is currently at Rangers in the Scottish Premier League,” he tells me.
“Gerry McDonough, who I had at my Leicester City development centre in Nottingham that I scouted and who played for me at the Notts Schools FA, is now at Nottingham Forest and a friend. I helped guide them at the younger ages and have continued to converse with them, mentoring them along the way, offering advice.”
Dodoo netted three times against Bury back in 2015 and also rattled the net against West Ham United in the Capital One Cup during his time under Italian maestro Claudio Ranieri and could have stayed with the club. As for Thompson, he has carved out a solid Football League career for himself since being singled out by Palmer.
In a market which is steadily more saturated by the presence of exorbitant amounts of money, it can become increasingly difficult for young stars to shine and make their mark.
Nowadays, the big silverware-chasing teams want ready-made professionals to come in and make their mark from the get-go, but it’s not so easy for fledgling footballers to do that in reality. It’s a tough battle to win, and the reality of it is that they often fall foul of impatience – whether it’s from the stands, the boardroom or the dugout – amid the hunt for immediate impact and instant results.
There’s also the danger that looking for talent at a young age can be misleading, something Palmer has been well aware of in his time as a scout. However, when I ask him how difficult it is to spot the right type of player, his answer catches me off guard in a refreshing way. “I’m not sure it’s difficult to spot talent as there are lots of talented boys. It’s just finding that one that stands out amongst the crowd.
“I don’t believe in trying to find talent at the younger age groups as the development age is around 13. Before that age group, children are trying to find their way in life. There have been kids that have been brilliant before that age group, then they get to 13 and they drop off, find other things in life to influence them and turn to other hobbies to find their niche in life.
“You will also find that with some kids, they don’t have as much ability before that age group, and they suddenly grow, get stronger, get more confidence and start to enjoy football more and flourish.”
It’s a hectic position for anybody to fulfil and while doing it perfectly can lead to unearthing some extraordinary talents that can change the face of world football forever, it remains a startlingly undervalued one, as Palmer tells me. “I believe the role of a scout has always been important. I believe scouts are one of if not the most important people in football. It’s a pity that scouts are paid too little and not enough acclaim is attached to the scouting role as it is so important.
“It’s the number one reason why so many players exist and why football is such a massive sport. Not enough is done for scouts and, really, scouts should be lauded and applauded and paid a lot more.”
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Chatting to him about how its significance seems to be underestimated these days, although Palmer is clearly annoyed with the climate, it’s not out of selfishness. Sure, an increased appreciation would sit well with him and others of his ilk, but I get the sense that he is genuinely concerned for the state and health of the game.
Putting effort into nourishing the grassroots and pouring more money into making sure the scouts are better looked after, financially and practically, would only see more youth products make it, thus ensuring the innocence and purity of the game remains intact – maximising one’s resources has never been more crucial in today’s game than it is now.
As he says himself, it is what acts as the driving force behind so many young footballers entering the game, it helps keep the flame of its popularity ablaze and it ensures that a certain, albeit flawed, system is in place to funnel talent towards pro level.
For Palmer, scouting is not just a means to sourcing next-level players or of being the one who gets to the starlets first – it can be a framework to help young people fulfil their potential, but there is one major thing every wannabe footballer needs to have above all: belief.
“Yes, my motto is ‘Believe and You Will Achieve’, in fact that is a phrase that I have linked to my beliefs in life. I think that anyone, footballer or not, has to have that in them – to believe that they can do anything; anything is possible. If you look at people who are disabled who are able to achieve great things, look at the Paralympians, they travel the world, they overcome so much to progress through life.
“As a mentor, a parent, teacher, scout, I help by giving [the players] that ‘Believe and You Will Achieve’ thought process. I carried the Olympic torch in 2012, and that was a major achievement for myself, and also I was asked if I wanted to be nominated for an MBE – those things gave me great pleasure and really helped me to believe in myself even more.”
But is there anything else he looks out for as a headhunter for one of today’s best English clubs? “For me, scouting is a big part of my life. I enjoy doing it and believe in it.
“I don’t think there is any one sign really when looking at players – are they balanced; do they have an edge; can they stand out when others are not pulling their weight; are they skilful and can they use the ball well?”
It does not always work out for all the youngsters who set their sights on making it to the big time and of living their dreams – in fact, only a low percentage actually carve out careers as a result – but Palmer is certainly doing his best to approach his job with a heightened sense of just how difficult it is for these aspiring footballers. He cultivates a self-belief in them, encourages them to fight for it and befriends them along the journey.
Considering how detached and cold the business model gripping football is today, it is inspiring that there are scouts like him out there who work very hard to create a more meaningful approach.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90