Neil McGuinness is one of football's top talent scouts. Currently employed by a national team in the Middle East to recruit players for their World Cup bid, he has previously worked at Celtic and as an independent scout for numerous clubs.
We asked Neil to reveal how a player gets signed in the modern game. He outlines the process from the perspective of a scout, in this seven-step guide.
Step 1: Requirement
The first step is always the requirement phase. Ideas here require buy-in from all involved—the scouting department, first-team coaches and the first-team manager himself. The final decision will always lie with the manager.
Ideally the manager gives his scouts a clear guideline of what he is looking for, in terms of the position he wants to fill and the attributes he's after.
For example, he may feel that he lacks height when defending set pieces and high balls into the box, so he asks you to find a full-back. This request often comes with details such as the minimum height of the player, his aerial ability, recovery pace and talent for playing out from the back.
Player requirements will vary depending on how the manager likes to play and the style of the team. He will have a vision, and it's your job as a scout to marry new players to his master plan.
Step 2: Identification
This is where a scout earns his crust. Now it's time to go out there and find a player to match the criteria set out by your manager.
Players can be identified in numerous ways these days. Sometimes you'll find one using video platforms like Wyscout or InStat. Sometimes agents send you DVDs or website links.
And then there are the players you hear about through direct communication with agents. The best agents will recommend players based on the requirements given. You may even get player recommendations from former team-mates or players who've played against them.
My preference is always to identify the players myself and work backward.
Agents typically have an agenda, while software can only show you so much. It doesn't give you a real feel for the player—you can only get that viewing the player live. You need to see what a player does off the ball and how he reacts to things around him. And you need to gauge his work rate and recovery.
Signing a player from video alone is lazy and a dangerous approach in scouting. Millions of pounds can be at stake during the signing process, and it's too important to cut corners.
Once you have identified a player, it's on to the fixture-planning and travel-arrangement phase.
Step 3: Planning and Travel
Ideally this step is handled by the administration department at a club, but it requires communication if you want to get it right.
Booking into the same hotel as the player and his team is ideal. Seeing how the player acts off the pitch can be an important factor in getting the bigger picture of who he is and whether he'd fit at your club.
I have managed to observe a player in social circumstances without him being aware that I was in the corner. As I've sat drinking a coffee, I've watched how he interacted with fans and team-mates. You learn a lot in these situations.
It's also important to make sure your travel plans are well thought out. I've heard from numerous scouts who have ended up missing matches and return flights because they flew into airports that were over an hour away or further from the stadium.
Step 4: Viewing the Player
I always aim to get to the stadium early to watch the player in the warm-up. I want to see his focus. Is he concentrating in the pre-match drills or is he messing about? Little things like that can give you small clues into the player's character.
When the match begins, I take notes. Often you are sat close to other scouts, many of whom you will know, so I make sure not to write anything that gives away who I am viewing or my thoughts on the player.
I go knowing exactly what I'm looking for. Primarily, I want evidence of a player's ability to perform in the position we need him for.
How is he tactically? Does he stay in shape and play to the team formation, or does he tend to drift out of position? How is his concentration? Is he switched on and focused?
Crucially, I am watching his ability both on and off the ball. How is his ball control and first touch? Does he get the ball out of his feet quickly? Is he lifting his head and being aware of his surroundings? How is his movement—does he look for pockets of space and call for the ball, or does he pull away and move into wide areas with more space to receive but in less congested areas?
Is he the type to run onto balls over the top, or does he prefer to play off the defender's shoulder and time his runs into shooting positions?
For forward players, is he a finisher? Can he make shooting opportunities for himself, or is his main attribute his ability to find space and be a penalty-box player? What's his strength like? Can he hold off defenders, or does he go down at the first contact? Can he head the ball?
In one instance I went to see a striker who ticked every box—his movement was first class, and he was constantly playing off the shoulder and giving his marker a terrible time of it.
This player's ability to read the play and get into goalscoring positions was glaringly obvious. He was playing at a level above those around him. That player went on to sign for a big Italian club and is currently one of the best strikers in Serie A. I don't think Italy will be his final destination either.
Step 5: Report and Discussion
I start work on my report either as soon as I get back to the hotel or in the airport if I'm flying straight back. Time is critical when you have a large workload and may be traveling to another match shortly afterward.
In my report I cover all the points I feel the manager needs to understand: positional, tactical, technical, physical, attitude, game understanding, strengths/weaknesses and a final review and recommendation of the player.
On completion of my report I will initially submit it into the system—various clubs and national teams have software-based systems that allow the scout/coach to upload their reports into a central area that specific people have access to view, such as the manager, coaches, specific scouts and in some cases the board members.
Upon returning to the training ground you are asked how the player did—does he fit the requirements? Would he be a good option to consider? Next up will be a meeting to discuss various targets, where you can speak up and vouch for a certain player.
Step 6: Further Monitoring
If the club are interested, you may be sent to view the player again. Sometimes they'll send another scout to get a second opinion.
Ideally you want to watch a player in home and away matches, cup games and if possible at international level if he is of that calibre. Players can respond differently to a mix of situations—everything from weather, location, the style of opponent and beyond can impact how they perform.
A few months down the line, should the player still be under consideration, the assistant manager and/or the manager will tend to travel to view the player. This is usually the final-decision phase and will be when the manager will make his own formed view from a live-game environment.
Some managers may wish to view the player a few times, but the process is always the same. Once the manager has made his decision, it's final—he will either see that the player fits or he will pull the plug on him as a potential option.
Step 7: Bid and Conclusion
This is where the money men at the club get involved. Typically the chief executive will handle this process and will be responsible for tabling a bid.
The executive will agree with the manager on where they feel the player fits—is he a top player, a squad player or a player who needs some time to develop?
These discussions will form the basis of what figure is bid and the wages and contract structure offered to the player—including bonuses, usually based on appearances and some other criteria.
This part of the stage can go very smoothly if the player's club wish to offload the player, or it can become messy and drawn out if the club are not in a rush to sell or feel that they can command more for him.
If the suggested deal between the clubs is successful, the player and his agent will be involved to discuss the contract side and agree on wages and length of contract term.
This is where the agent makes his money and is responsible for negotiating the best possible deal for his client. Many deals can fall apart at this stage, but after the club bid is accepted, the process tends to push forward and the contract side of things is worked out.
With that, it's on the player to say his goodbyes, clear out his locker and start to plan for his next chapter.