Mel Johnson won’t forget the phone call in a hurry.
Heading out with his partner, the couple were looking forward to seeing Dionne Warwick in concert at the London Palladium. Then the phone rang, with the voice at the other end telling Johnson he had to ditch his plans and, instead, go to a game to watch and report on a player.
Welcome to the immersive world of the football scout.
“It is very consuming and it is a 24-hour a day job,” says Johnson, who has been scouting for more than 30 years. “You have to have a very understanding partner – or you have to be single.
“I am up very early in the morning and I go to bed very late at night, so you have to be constantly dedicated to the job.”
Now 68, he has worked at numerous professional clubs across the divisions and told Tottenham to sign Gareth Bale, as well as advising Liverpool to buy Jordan Henderson.
Those are just a few of the players he has spotted and recommended in a career which has taken him from Cambridge United to Liverpool, Tottenham and, now, Queens Park Rangers, where he is enjoying a second spell as the club’s southern England and European scout.
— QPR FC (@QPR) July 22, 2017
A boyhood Oxford United fan, Johnson ran a greeting card business prior to entering the game full-time.
His friend, Stewart Henderson, the former Chelsea midfelder, was assistant manager at Reading and invited him along when he went scouting. It led to him meeting Neville Proctor, the chief scout at Cambridge, who invited him to work for them.
He moved on to Crystal Palace, Huddersfield Town and Watford before heading to QPR in 2001, when the club had been relegated to League One. He was involved in the recruitment of a number of players, such as Lee Cook, Gareth Ainsworth and Marc Bircham, before leaving for Tottenham in 2005.
Initially entrusted with finding players in the UK, he became Spurs’ chief scout in 2008 and later spent a year at Newcastle United. He soon followed former Tottenham sporting director Damien Comolli to Liverpool, where he spent four years, and then took in West Brom and Bolton Wanderers before he returned to Loftus Road last summer.
Johnson, who can take in up to 10 games per week, is easily noticeable among the scouts, as he prefers to make notes on a simple piece of paper, rather than inputting data through an iPhone or iPad, as is the norm among his colleagues.
“I like to watch the whole game and you can’t do that if you’re spending your time on your iPhone or iPad. I scribble notes on my pad and I know it is old school, but that’s the only way I can watch properly, without being distracted.
“As a scout, you’re actually watching only one or two players. What I am looking for is if they are technically good in the ball, athletic, clever in the way they read the game and taking good positions, but there are a lot of factors.”
The pitfalls of technology
Most clubs today use scouting and match analysis systems such as Wyscout.
“Years ago, I would put a report together, fax it to the club and they’d keep a copy of it in a filing cabinet,” Johnson adds. “Clubs now have a lot of IT and data guys and most backroom staffs are huge.
“From that perspective, it was easier when there was just a scout, chief scout and manager giving their opinions on the possibility of signing someone.
“I was chatting to a well-known guy who used to be a manager, a big name in football, and is now a scout at a top club. He told me about one young player he recommended, but his club went to their IT people, who advised against signing the boy.
“Some of these IT guys have come straight out of university and landed jobs at top clubs, despite having no football background whatsoever. They should serve their apprenticeship by actually going to games.
“If you’re watching a game on a laptop, you can’t see the player on the wide right or wide left because you can’t get a proper view of him. It is a fantastic tool, but you have to learn to marry the two because the game isn’t played on a computer.”
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For Johnson, football hardly ever stops. Over the past few days, he watched two Bundesliga 2 games, compiled a report on Hamburg v Koln and watched various matches on Wyscout.
Tomorrow, he will travel to Germany to see Paderborn v Holstein Kiel and Koln v Dynamo Dresden, before heading back to Germany on Monday for Bochum v Darmstadt.
That isn’t even a typically busy week, as Johnson can often also be found at Under-23s games across the south of England and at numerous Football League matches.
“It is all about networking and making contacts,” he says. “I went to watch someone at Reading the other week and chatted to the guy on the gate about this particular player. I also spoke to my pal, who is a Reading fan and was sitting behind the goal, so he gave me a different perspective.
“Once I get home, Gary Penrice, who is QPR’s chief scout, will give me a call and we will discuss the player, or players, I’ve watched, and then I will put together my report and input it into the system we use.
“If there is a player we want to pursue, then I will discuss him with Gary, Les (Ferdinand, QPR’s director of football) and Steve McClaren, the manager.”
One of his biggest success stories is Gareth Bale, whom he convinced Tottenham to sign in the summer of 2007.
“I went to watch Gareth in an Under-21s game Spurs were playing against Southampton at Stevenage and really liked what I saw,” says Johnson, whose son, Jamie, is head of recruitment at Rotherham United.
“He was tall, athletic and technically very good and it as the first time I pointed him out to Martin Jol and Damien. I thought, ‘Wow, we have a player here.’ I am massively proud of what Gareth has gone on to achieve.
“You just get a feeling when you spot someone like him and it is all about getting him to the club and then seeing him play for the first team – that’s what you’re aiming for.”
The one that got away
He also spotted Danny Rose playing for Leeds United’s Under-19s against Nottingham Forest on a foggy Saturday morning at the Yorkshire club’s Thorp Arch training ground and told Liverpool to sign Jordan Henderson, who was then at Sunderland, and Jordon Ibe, from Wycombe Wanderers.
But one player whom he advised Liverpool to sign didn’t come to fruition in the shape of Dele Alli.
“I went to watch MK Dons against Spurs in a pre-season friendly and he really stood out,” Johnson says. “He was only 16, but must have been about six-foot and was a real box-to-box player already.
“Dele had an agent who I knew and Gary Waddock, who I’d known for a long time, was MK Dons’ assistant manager – that’s where the networking comes in. I put Dele’s name forward to Liverpool, but someone else went to watch him and the rest is history.
“I’d have taken him all day long, but Liverpool’s hierarchy disagreed and he went to Spurs. Damien had left by then and there was a new regime which was computer and stats-led.
“It was a frustrating time for me because, instead of striking while the iron was hot, like Damien with Gareth Bale, they insisted on watching players again and again, until it was too late and another club signed them.”
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Despite changing times and his odd irritation, he still loves – and is passionate about – football.
“I can’t believe it myself sometimes when I’m on these silly weeks where I am watching game after game,” Johnson says. “It feels fantastic, though, when it’s done and I look back and crash out on the settee with a cup of tea and take a breath.
“Then, of course, I put on Sky Sports News in case I missed anything. I’ll carry on until nobody wants me anymore.”
As for Dionne Warwick?
He finally went to see her in concert at the Royal Albert Hall a few weeks ago – and, this time, there was no phone call to disrupt his evening.
By Simon Yaffe