"The very first thing I look for in a football player is his first
touch and close control. With some boys, their second touch is a tackle!
Good players have their heads up, receive the ball and are looking to
make the next pass straight away. It’s down to natural ability.
It’s great if a player has a few tricks up his sleeve, but it
depends how he’s using them. I had Joe Cole playing for me a few
years ago and he stood out a mile, but some players want to do three
tricks before they even get the ball. By doing that they slow the game
down, and allow the opposition defence to get back in position. I might
see a kid doing keepy-uppies in the park, with all the tricks in the
book, but I’d never invite him for a trial on the back of that.
In that case, I’d ask the boy whether he played for a football
club, and if he says “yes”, I’d arrange to go and
have a look at him.
You can only judge a player by what he does on the football field,
but it’s getting harder. With less football being played at schools,
and a whole range of other distractions like computer games, there is
a real shortage of naturally skilful players. A lot of the games I watch
are much of a muchness. It’s a real bonus if a player stands out.
After technique the next most important thing is pace. Defenders, strikers
and even goalkeepers need it – young players have to be athletes
nowadays. When I’m on a scouting mission, I am specifically looking
for a quick change of pace, a burst of speed that will beat a player,
or change a game in an instant. I remember going to watch Jimmy Davis,
our lad who tragically died last year while on loan to Watford. He was
11 years old and only about three foot tall, but he was so quick –
just like Billy Whizz! I watched him take a corner and although he was
small he effortlessly stroked the ball into the middle of the goal area
and this was on a full-size pitch. He had pace and technique, and that’s
all I needed to see.
Young boys can lose some of their pace as they grow, but often we’ll
take a gamble –at that age, size and strength are less important.
At Untied, we do tests to see how big a growing lad is going to be.
Size is important, especially with goalkeepers
The next thing I look at is what a player does when he hasn’t
got the ball. I’m looking for the boy with his head up, who’s
moving into space to get the ball, making runs that give his team-mate
options or draw his opponents out of position. I’m also looking
for players who, when they’ve passed the ball, move quickly to
get it back. If you look at players like Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt,
from the moment they step onto the pitch they work hard. They never
On top of movement, there’s awareness. Some players instinctively
know where to play the ball, and where their team-mates are or should
be. I’m looking for the player who plays the first time pass without
always taking a touch. That’s awareness. I’m also looking
for the striker who doesn’t have to look up to find out where
the goalie is, because his instincts tell him whether to chip or place
Now, if you’ve seen pace, technique and movement, the final piece
of the jigsaw is temperament. Will they be able to handle playing in
front of 75,000 people at Old Trafford? I’m looking for boys who
are in control as well as ones who don’t mind getting wet and
muddy! Ones who’ll be clattered and won’t make a meal of
it if they aren’t injured. Ones who encourage their team-mates,
and drive them on.
The ones that don’t work off the ball are difficult to consider.
They might make a good pass, but they’ll think “that’ll
do, that’s my bit done.” We call this ball watching, some
players find it difficult to change this. I want to see a will to win
and a desire. I like to see that Roy Keane look in a boy’s eyes.
That’s a good indication he’s got the right attitude and
a chance of making it. It’s not just about being good enough,
you’ve got to have the hunger and desire to take away you all
Temperament is tricky one for a scout. Ideally you don’t want
a boy who loses it on the pitch, but plenty of temperamental players
have made great footballers. If he’s got the ability, you have
to go with your gut feeling – after all, he could be another Eric
So, you might have sat through a thousand games before you find a boy
who’s got all that, but the hard work is only the beginning. You
don’t really know what you’ve got on your hands until you’ve
brought him into the club for a trail and got him playing with boys
of a similar standard. At United, we sign our first boys into the academy
at nine, although we continue to scout all levels of football for the
ones who may have slipped through the net. Scouting is not an exact
science. You can never be sure whether a player will be good enough
to play for United in a few years time, or that you’ve got a future
Christiano Ronaldo or Paul Scholes on your hands. But when a player
you spotted out on a freezing cold pitch in the middle of nowhere runs
out of the Old Trafford tunnel in a United shirt, now that’s a
great feeling. It makes all those hours of standing in the freezing
cold worthwhile. That’s what gives the scout a real sense of achievement,
something to be proud of."