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The following is an extract from 'The Nowhere Men', a new book by respected journalist Mike Calvin, about the fascinating and enclosed world of football scouts in England...
The Fish House, situated in a parade of shops 150 yards from Roots Hall, home of Southend United since 1955, is a place of pilgrimage for football scouts. The portions are generous, the plaice is exceptional, and the batter is light, crispy and golden. The chips have the thickness of a labourer's fingers and the mushy peas prove that the dish is not exclusively a Northern delicacy. Mel Johnson found a corner table, close to the door, and ordered a large cod, to be washed down by his customary black tea.
The place was packed with supporters, and a florid man in a cheap grey suit offset by a chain store shirt and tie set asked to share. He was friendly, forthcoming. A veteran journalist on a local news agency, evidently with good contacts in the Southend boardroom, he regaled us with tales of lower-league ducking and diving.
Freddy Eastwood, a Welsh international striker from Romany stock who had just returned to the club which once sold him for £1.5 million, was a potential source of regular freelance income.
'Piled on the weight a bit,' he said. 'Still decent at this level, but he can't really run.'
Johnson, Liverpool's senior scout in the South, shot me a glance. He knew I was obeying the first law of football scouting: reveal only what is convenient to you. The journalist's news editor would not have been amused. He left without asking what either of us, who admitted to having no allegiance to Southend or their opponents Cheltenham Town, were doing at a League Two game on a Friday night. The 'Liverpool swoop' story that was one pertinent question away from realisation remained unwritten. 'Information, information, information,' said the scout, with a chuckle.
- - - - - - -
The following Friday, Good Friday, Johnson picked up Damien Comolli at Gatwick airport. The Frenchman had been summoned to the United States to see Liverpool owner John W. Henry, where he presented an overview of the club's redevelopment. He and the scout to whom he was most closely aligned ran a final check on Crewe's Nick Powell in a 1-1 draw at Crawley Town. They left when he was substituted eight minutes from time, discouraged by well-sourced intelligence that Manchester United intended to activate their option to sign him, for a fee of £4 million.
The weekly conference call between the main players in the recruitment department took place, as usual, on the Tuesday, after the extended holiday weekend. On Wednesday Comolli was called into another emergency meeting, in Liverpool city centre. On Thursday Liverpool's official website was leading with a preview of the weekend's FA Cup semi-final against Everton, featuring Steven Gerrard. It was entitled 'Make yourself a hero.' Then, in early afternoon, it carried a fateful four-paragraph statement:
'Fenway Sports Group and Liverpool FC confirmed today that Director of Football Damien Comolli has left the Club by mutual consent.
'Principal Owner John Henry said: 'We are grateful for all of Damien's efforts on behalf of Liverpool and wish him all the best for the future.'
'Liverpool Chairman Tom Werner added: "The Club needs to move forward and we now have a huge game on Saturday. It is important that everyone joins us in supporting the manager and gets behind Kenny and the team and focuses on a strong finish to the season."
'Damien Comolli commented: "I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to work at Liverpool and am happy to move on from the Club and back to France for family reasons. I wish the Club all the best for the future."
Johnson was at home, setting up a DVD, when he received a call from Andy Stevens, one of Liverpool's part-time scouts. 'Have you seen Sky Sports News?' he asked, breathlessly. 'If not, get it on.' As Johnson did so, with a mounting sense of dread, he instinctively flicked on to his emails.
There, in his inbox, was an unread message from Comolli: 'Thank you for all your hard work. I will contact you soon.' The rest of the day sped by in a blur. Shock quickly mutated into alarm: 'Bloody hell. Where do I start? The phone, text and e-mail has gone mad. I'm ploughing through the messages, getting back to people. It's a massive shock. Everything looked OK. After Damien's meeting with the owners in the States we were talking about our plans, players and money. We carried on as normal. He sent me an email about targets yesterday and then, bang. I know this is football and you shouldn't be shocked but...'
Insecurity has an avalanche's speed and destructive power. It swallows people, whole. Steve Hitchen was immediately besieged by his network of international scouts. All were anxious, yet aware their contacts were transferable. If they were surplus to requirements, they had arrangements to make. Hitchen sought an early meeting with the Liverpool hierarchy to stress the scouting staff 's need for reassurance. Airy public statements, reiterating support for Kenny Dalglish, were of limited relevance. Lines of communication were fractured, and Chinese Whispers multiplied. The sacking of Peter Brukner, the club's head of sports medicine and science, and suggestions that Achterberg would be moved on at the end of the season, were ominous. 'We just don't know who is going to be our boss,' said Johnson. 'We will be seen as Damien's men, but all of us want to stay at Liverpool Football Club, if they want us.'
Concern scoured his vocal chords, but professional pride dictated his priorities. On Friday he took a brief break from preparing a profile of Paulo Gazzaniga, an imposing young Argentine goalkeeper who had materialised at Gillingham, to take Jan, his partner, for lunch. Even during that respite, 17 messages stockpiled on his mobile phone. Callers were split into two distinct groups. The first, professional acquaintances, were seeking inside information on events at Anfield. They could be fobbed off with generalities. The second were friends from within the game, whose concerns were more personal. They ranged from managers, such as (Kenny) Jackett and Gary Waddock, to fellow scouts, like the venerable John Griffin, a man of huge knowledge and instinctive kindness, who was working in impoverished circumstances alongside Waddock at Wycombe Wanderers.
Saturday was surreal, a fusion of the past and an uncertain future. Johnson was in the car park at the Kassam Stadium, listening on the radio as Andy Carroll, a central character in Comolli's downfall, scored the 87th minute headed goal which took Liverpool into the FA Cup final. He was accompanied by Dean Austin, whose professional duty, assessing Gazzaniga's potential for Bolton, gave him the opportunity to offer moral support. When Johnson entered the press room, which doubled as a watering hole for the scouts, he was approached by a string of colleagues. Most offered sympathy as bait. At least one, Bob Shaw, seemed authentic in his compassion.
Shaw was a month from his 65th birthday, but looked 15 years younger. His shoulders were broad, and though his torso was encased in a leather bomber jacket, zipped to the chin, there was no sign of excess fat around his waist. His eyes were clear, and his silver hair was short and neat. His opinions, incisive and robust, reflected a schizophrenic working life. He had combined 34 years underground, as a coal miner, with spells as chief scout at Hull, Derby, Bolton and Sunderland, where he was a victim of a purge instigated by Roy Keane. He was compiling opposition reports for Plymouth Argyle, as a favour to Peter Reid.
'I'm glad I didn't need football to bring up my family,' he told Johnson, as they sipped tea from polystyrene cups. 'We've all taken the wrong jobs for the money, and we all know that if there are problems, people are managed out of football clubs. When I get this season out of the way I'll take a long hard look at things. I'll only take the job I want, for the right reasons.'
'The Nowhere Men: The Untold Story Of Football's True Talent Spotters' by Mike Calvin is out on August 8, and the Kindle edition is available to pre-order here.
Alternatively, we have five copies of the book to give away - click here to enter.