Ask the scout: Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson is one of the most seasoned and insightful scouts in the British game. Among other positions, he has been chief scout and head of recruitment at Sheffield Wednesday, chief scout at Burnley, head of technical scouting at Swansea City, and head of international scouting at Cardiff City. It’s a true privilege to have him answering questions from smarterscout’s members and followers on social media.

In addition to his vast experience in scouting by eye, Tim has been involved in the use of data since the early days of football analytics. As a result, he’s one of the few scouts who can bridge the three areas of live, video, and technical scouting. And with so many senior roles at big clubs under his belt, Tim is uniquely positioned to discuss how we might use these diverse inputs to make better decisions.

We’ll start with a few questions about the day-to-day work of a top scout.

How many matches do you watch live a month?

This is all dependent on the time of year. With two transfer windows to prepare for, personally a lot of my time prior to the windows opening is about carrying out final due diligence and preparing PowerPoint presentations for senior management. For the UK, I have had five scouts who were regionally based. They would on average take in three live games per week, sometimes more. Added to this they would also carry out live video scouting, so in all they could watch six or eight games a week.

The scouts are the first line in the process. High achievers are monitored working in conjunction with the recruitment analyst. If they continue to perform consistently, a short list is prepared and I will watch them live. The larger the list, the more games I will take in. On average it could be four games a week.

What are working hours like on a weekend? Twelve hours a day? How do you spend the rest of the week?

Again dependent on the time of year and the workload. Yes, sometimes I am virtually flat out. But over the years I have learnt time management is important, and I prioritise. The rest of the week is all about planning, coordinating the scouts, overseeing player reports, dialogue with agents, meetings with the manager/head coach – the list is endless.

How frequently do you happen to attend a game for a player, and someone else catches the eye (and ends up getting the move)?

It happens a lot, not always materialising in a move, but if any player impresses then details are logged.

What are the best scouting reports (in terms of format, length and detail) for both player and team scouting?

Both reports in my opinion should be clear, precise, and cover all relevant points. A best report is open to opinion; the two are entirely different. A player report should cover the following: physical, technical, tactical, mental, level and potential level, and finally summary details.

An opposition report is more comprehensive, detailing starting and finishing line-ups and formation, transition of play both in and out of possession, description and diagrams of all set plays – corners for and against, free kicks, goalkeeper distribution and general style of play, penalties, best headers. Missing players also need to be detailed in order to give a thorough overview. What we try and achieve once collated is to give a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis to present to the manager and his coaching staff. If all these aspects are covered, I would say that’s a comprehensive opposition report.

Now let’s get a broader view of the scouting process – how players are tracked and evaluated within the context of the club’s needs.

How does a scout identify a player, especially from the lower leagues, as a potential target? Do playing styles and managerial input come into play when it comes to creating a shortlist?

A lot of discussion and planning goes into the initial process. We adopt a proactive approach. A meeting will be held with the manager/head coach, who will outline his preferred formation and style of play and what positions he would like to address and strengthen. Positional player profiles are discussed and agreed with financial input. This information is collated, and the scouting/recruitment department – with the help of analytical technology – will search for players who best fit the requested criteria.

A long list is drawn up, and the department will track and monitor target players. Consistent high achievers backed up by the provisional data will be despatched to the Scouts to take in via live scouting. Player reports are generated, and if the scouts’ reports are favourable a short list is initiated. The filtering process continues, and the best candidates who match the criteria are presented to football management.

Players from lower leagues who are flagged up by scouts and match the criteria will also be considered. However, in the evaluation process we will benchmark their performance and ability as to whether they are ready to make the step up on a consistent basis. That said, we often consider whether there would be a pathway for a younger player to come into a younger age group for the coaching staff to develop and nurture their talent.

The former Manchester United and Leeds United scout Tony Collins said that watching a player too often in short timeframes merely exaggerated his flaws. The current obsession seems to be quantity of observations over quality. Surely that's counterproductive?

Not too sure what is right and wrong on this one. We generally will scout a player, and if he fits the initial criteria will monitor over a period of time. We tend to favour taking him in home and away and where possible against the better teams in the respective league to gauge an overall view. If that means the games come thick and fast, then so be it.

When working as a head of technical scouting, there's the timeframe of the manager in place, but do staff "bookmark" players even if they know they won't fit into the current manager's or game model?

Or is everything funnelled to the current needs? Generally we work in the immediate timeframe. As I mentioned previously, the planning and acquisition of players is a long and thorough process. It is vital the manager/head coach gives a true and honest assessment of his requirements. If not, the system breaks down. Too many clubs will acquire players for their ability alone, even though they may not fit the system.

How valued is the "player X always performs against our team" criterion? Is there a bias to avoid, or on the contrary is it a lead to pursue?

Not really. There could be a multitude of reasons why a particular player may do well against a particular team.

What's the impact of live scouting in the recruitment process nowadays, what are the things to look out for? E.g. attitude, how the player warms up...

Crucial, as is collecting and monitoring data in the first instance. Both are equally important. Correct: watching warm-ups, attitude, body language, how does the player react to adversity in a game equally when things are going well – you can learn a lot.

What are the best intangibles of a good player?

It is a collective: ability, attitude, hard work, character, personality, a willingness to express themselves, listen and learn, and a desire to improve and be a team player.

Though he came from a traditional football and scouting background, Tim took the initiative to build up his expertise in technical scouting as well. Here’s what he has to say about the use of data today.

Are there areas in which you lean more on data than on observations?

Not really. As I said, I put equal importance on both. However, if working for a club in the UK and you need to evaluate a player from another country, analytical data is a great tool in helping to benchmark the difference.

In which areas do data fall short, and do you prioritise scouting those qualities?

When you take in a live game, there are several opportunities open to the naked eye which data or even video scouting – unless watching a wide angle – fail to cover. For example, tracking runs in build-up play, being alert and switched on to developing situations, etc.

With the current rise of data analytics, how important do you think data will be in scouting in the future? And in which roles or phases will data be able to support the scouting process?

Data currently support the scouting process in a huge way, and I can only see data being more and more prevalent going forward.

If and when your observations aren't proven by stats, or stats don't reflect your observations, what do you do?

There could be several reasons why when watching a player live they don’t meet expectations or vice versa. The player could be carrying an injury or short on confidence if his team are below par. In this situation more due diligence would be carried out. If after scouting the player over a period of time there was still indecision, it would be a judgement call of the head of scouting/recruitment to evaluate the whole reasoning process and to utilise their experience as to why the player should be shortlisted or logged for continued monitoring.

The nexus between scouting and recruitment is one of the most important aspects of the job for a senior member of staff. This is where all those reports and metrics turn into short lists and recommendations.

How do you combine and weigh the information to make decisions?

Going back to the initial process, if a target player meets the majority of criteria utilising the data and the scouting reports are positive and consistent, character referencing has taken place and the financials stack up, the player is shortlisted. There is an element of risk in all player acquisitions. By carrying out the correct due diligence, you hope to reduce that element of risk.

What indicators show players are ready for the jump to a higher level of football (e.g. League Two to League One, Championship to Premier League, midtable to top six)?

There is no real hard and fast rule here. If a player demonstrates the ability to perform consistently and achieve at a certain level, there are a multitude of reasons why. To step up, you have to evaluate whether they possess the physical and technical ability, are they mentally strong enough and have the character, desire and hunger to succeed, will they fit the system the team play? Finally it is another judgement call, and if you are confident the player ticks the boxes you make the call.

Since multiple clubs might try to get a particular player, do scouts still have time to go over a player's family background and character, or do clubs try to snap him up as soon as there is a chance, due to the competition for the said player?

We endeavour to carry out thorough due diligence on a prospective target, which is time-consuming if a player is wanted by several other clubs. If they want to short cut their diligence in order to acquire the player, then so be it. My advice is stick to your principles and be thorough in your work. Many transfers as we all know don’t work out for whatever reason. If the reason was we wanted the player but faced competition and did not carry out the work we should have, then there are no excuses and the department would be accountable.

What information do you wish was available to you that isn't?

From the perspective of analytical data, the industry is more than well catered for. My frustration is sourcing player contract information. There are companies out there who supply these data, but they are not always reliable and up to date.

Some of our members wanted to know how they could follow in Tim’s footsteps. Here are his replies:

How do I get into scouting?

Firstly I would recommend you check out the following websites – both will give you an insight of what is required to prepare yourself to become confident and competent in your work:

What sort of attributes and qualifications are needed to become a scout (if from a non-footballing background workwise)?

Good question and one I am asked quite often. Obviously a passion and understanding of the game, with reference to qualifications. Various football associations run talent identification programmes which in today’s game are becoming a given. I would advise if you want to pursue a career in scouting once you gain an understanding of what is required you enrol with your local association.

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