As a scout and youth coach, you would think Hugo Langton would be firmly in favour of Under-23 football – but he believes it is failing to prepare young players for the real thing.
In 2017, Pep Guardiola described the academy system in England as a “real problem” and suggested the answer would be to allow Premier League ‘B’ teams to compete in the Football League.
Such a move is incredibly unlikely, of course, but Guardiola’s point about the failings of the current system still stands.
“They compete in these second teams, but it is not a good league, the consistency is not physically strong,” Guardiola said. “In Spain, the second teams in Barcelona and Madrid play in front of 40,000-45,000 people in Barcelona, Madrid.
“Here, they play with no spectators. It’s not strong enough and that’s why it’s so difficult for the English players sometimes at big clubs like City.”
Langton, who has worked for clubs from Thamesmead Town to Chelsea, fully agrees with the Manchester City boss.
“I find a lot of U23 football pointless,” he says. “Not all of it as there are some great U23 sides here in England – Swansea, Spurs and Brighton to name a few. But it can be quite false with regards to the style of play, and clubs end up making decisions on players based on this sort of false football.
“The more these players can go on loan and play first-team football the better – to play for three points where team-mates are to an extent dependent on win bonuses.
“Many players who I have worked with who come from U23 football don’t understand their position either. So, I must teach them, and it makes me wonder what their coaches have been doing with them. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to every U23 team and coach.”
Langton believes there are other failings too. He is also in agreement with Sporting Lisbon coach Joao Guimaraes, who says English football scouts still put too much emphasis on a player’s physique rather than skill level.
“There’s too much emphasis on things like size and shape, and not enough about a player’s game insight and decision making.
“All I heard last season at games was people saying things like, ‘He’s a great size,’ but what is he a great size for? Too many non-contextual football terms for me. Stick to football please gents.”
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Furthermore, having experienced it himself and then seen countless other players suffer the same fate over the years since his retirement, Langton still believes much more needs to be done to help those dropping out of the game.
“I don’t think we do enough,” he says.
“I see players released from clubs who believe their world has ended and it either takes them a few seasons to recover with support from a non-league club, or others just drop out of the game altogether.”
Due to the huge number of football betting sites and casinos that sponsor and work with football clubs in England, it is not surprising that retired footballers look to replicate the thrill of a matchday through gambling.
Such issues have affected a variety of footballers after retirement, including Keith Gillespie and Kieron Dyer. Matthew Etherington says retired footballers are “easy targets” and “vulnerable” to gambling after retirement.
“My own playing career stopped before it really started and I turned to alcohol,” Langton says. “I was possibly even depressed, I don’t know as I was drinking too much to just forget about it. We don’t do enough.”
Langton now uses his past experiences of coming to terms with his playing career ending in order to help others in the game, having acquired his UEFA ‘A’ Coaching Licence and built his way up from amateur and semi-professional football to where he is today at Bristol Rovers.
He also set up his own football scouting business and teaching course.
“I educate others to be opposition scouts and I rent them out to teams around the country,” he says. “Over time this has started to include players as well as teams.
“A few of the players that were in the headlines in the last January transfer window I watched through my company. On deadline day it was great to see them being announced on Sky Sports as they happened.”
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At Bristol Rovers, meanwhile, Langton is involved in both first-team recruitment and opposition analysis, but he’s keen to stress both are team efforts.
“I really enjoy it, it’s great to be part of a process,” he says. “I get a great deal of satisfaction if the club signs a player that I have made positive comments about, and I also get a lot of satisfaction when an opponent is defeated on the back of one of my reports.
“The Bristol Rovers current recruitment process is a result of all our work, and it’s great to see the fruits of our labour working out at this moment with the players that are being signed.
“It’s difficult to judge a player on one showing, but there are players that obviously do excite you when you see them for the first time, but the recruitment process is a bit more extensive than this.
“If a player becomes a serious target then the player will have been watched six or seven times, home and away, by three to four different guys.
“The final decision rests with the head of recruitment and he really listens to us and that’s great. So, this is more of a team process than say one person taking the glory.”
There are, of course, downsides to life as a scout, namely the amount of solo travelling that’s required.
“I really enjoy watching games, but it can also be a lonely existence,” he says. “I spent a lot of time on the road last season, as is expected. I live in Kent, and for example on Good Friday, I went to Fleetwood and on Easter Monday to Plymouth.
“On the player side of things, I tended to cover games more in the south – from Northampton to Portsmouth and into Essex etc as well as everything in between. I’d also watch a lot of U23 games and reserve games during the day.”
And though on the whole Langton thoroughly enjoys his role, his long-term ambition remains to coach in the Football League.
“First and foremost, I am a coach,” he says. “I have also been a manager, and this is something I am hoping to do more of now.
“As much as I love scouting there is no substitute for the actual match day and the three points itself, and everything that goes with it, preparation wise.
“My goal is to work as high as I can, I’d love to coach in the Football League at first-team level one day. I’ve come close many times, but it just hasn’t happened yet. Coaching is my first love.”