'Do you reckon he's a scout?'

Michael Calvin, The Nowhere Men: The Unknown Story of Football’s True Talent Spotters

Century, 400pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781780891071

reviewed by Joe Kennedy

When I was much younger, my brother and I would occasionally find ourselves kicking a ball around together on a beach, in a park, or down by the river. From time to time, we’d spot someone in the distance who had paused to watch our improvised game. Inevitably, the question was asked: ‘Do you reckon he’s a scout?’ Soon, the figure would turn and walk on, leaving us to our speculations.

The scout had legendary status amongst young football players until relatively recently. He was a staple of Roy of the Rovers comic strips, ghosting into the most risky or cloistered environments to pluck out fledgling virtuosos deserving of elevation to the professional ranks. Occasionally, a scout was a harbinger of misfortune in these stories: their presence could provoke an unexpectedly terrible performance, an injury or a sending-off. Usually, however, they had the status of what Vladimir Propp, the great formalist theorist of folktales, called ‘donors’, characters whose abrupt generosity shifts the narrative gear. Think Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother in a battered Crombie, treading the muddy touchlines of ten thousand park pitches the length of the country.

Michael Calvin’s new book on football scouting, The Nowhere Men, makes clear that the reality of such work is infinitely more complex and difficult than this Platonic image suggests. The title is a giveaway, implying as it does that the scout is a liminal figure who struggles to find secure employment and, by extension, frequently ends up struggling financially. Additionally, the traditional talent spotters, who tend to gravitate towards the role after a playing career, are encountering competition from university-educated mathematicians influenced by Billy Beane’s sabermetrics, a system for player recruitment in baseball which relies exclusively on empirical data to make decisions. Where the traditional scout had trusted their ability to catch a glimpse of the footballing sublime in the way a player cushioned a long ball or freed space with a dummy run, the new breed rely instead on statistics relating to pass completion and tackle rate to establish who to recruit.

Calvin investigates both sides of the fence, spending time with the dogged men of the road and the iPad-armed devotees of Beane. Inevitably, perhaps, it’s the former who provide the more interesting – and, at times, spirit-lifting – study. Historically, scouts have been amongst the lowest-paid employees of football clubs, and, with their profession under threat, their stipend is dropping still further. One of those interviewed is paid at a rate of 40 pence per mile travelled: the author accompanies him to a game at Charlton, which necessitates a round trip of ten miles. For watching the game and spending four hours compiling a detailed report afterwards, he is paid four pounds.

What this makes the reader realise is that, once one disregards the athletes on the field, football around the world is sustained by a giant invisible labour force. In addition to scouts, there are cleaners and canteen workers and, more troublingly, sweatshop workers in Asia who, it has been alleged, produce some of the merchandise clubs sell to fund signings and wages. There’s also a precariat of players, many of whom drift around the globe, making a pittance competing at semi-professional standard or in weak leagues such as those of Iceland and Malta, in the hope of gaining a long-term contract at a club of note. As Calvin points out, the life of the non-elite football player has reverted to the uncertainty of the 1950s, when contracts worked on a year-by-year basis while providing little freedom of movement. We’re reminded that the ‘days when players would consider a trial as being beneath them [are] over […] Contracts [are] short term, and trials open-ended.’ Beyond all of this, there’s the vast number of unwaged contributors to the sport, not least the children and young teenagers who play almost nightly in order to find places in the academy systems of professional clubs.

All of this might lead us to the conclusion that modern football is nothing but a bloated Cthulhu reliant upon the sacrifices of a predominantly exploited workforce, a microcosm of capitalism itself. Nevertheless, The Nowhere Men finds hope in a spirit of the game which, while not exactly resisting commodification in every case, seems to sit at odds with economic imperatives. In their dedication to finding and fostering young players and supporting them through the difficulties that can occur in the transition from frequently difficult home lives to professional careers, Calvin spots something of the ‘authentic voice of football’s conscience’. Shrugging off the lazier readings of Marx’s ‘opiate of the people’ remark, football mirrors religion in offering up a form of truth which is not reducible to money, and there continues to be a side to the game which resists financial rationalisation.

Calvin’s ability to bring this out is one of the book’s foremost strengths. One can sense his discomfort with the ascension of the aggressive systematisers who identify potential acquisitions from the comfort of their offices, and the traditional scouts are held up as an instance of the way in which a better ethic continues to haunt the present of a sport often regarded as irredeemably compromised by greed and corruption. Some might have misgivings about the romantic impulse lurking in this position, but that would, in turn, be to ignore the romance of a career which bases itself on nothing less than the desire to be awed. The new technocrats obsess themselves with the idea that football can somehow be solved numerically; the scouts, by contrast, appear to sense no rational end to their quest, and are always open to surprise.

The Nowhere Men observes on more than one occasion that there is something ‘Dickensian’ about the world of the scouts, but, if Calvin will insist on bringing Victorian fiction into it, the more accurate literary analogy is probably with Joseph Conrad. Lord Jim’s titular character is ‘known as a rolling stone […] notorious […] in the same way as an eccentric character is known to a whole countryside,’ and this shiftless roving across a wide geography is a common feature of Conrad’s writing. Scouting requires a similar kind of agitated mobility, and the half-secret network its practitioners form resembles some kind of occult society which meets in the dusty backrooms and around the inadequately lit pitches that form the hinterland of professional football. Calvin’s book does more than just give an informed picture on scouting: it’s an investigation into what lies behind the televised façade of modern football which turns up material which worries and heartens in equal measure.