To celebrate the 28th anniversary of Tony Adams’ England debut, we pulled an interview with the man who discovered him from our archives. This piece first appeared in the Arsenal Magazine in April 2003.
Arsenal Chief Scout Steve Rowley had a lot to live up to live up from the moment he arrived at the Club. His first ‘discovery’ as an Arsenal scout was an 11 year-old imposing central defender who went by the name of Tony Adams.
Tony, of course, went on to become Arsenal’s most successful ever captain, winning ten major honours. And Steve himself continued to live up to those early high expectations, as he and his network of scouts have unearthed a steady stream of hidden talents through the years.
Steve, 44, started as a part-time scout before progressing to full-time status during George Graham’s reign. Then Arsène Wenger made him chief scout upon his arrival at Highbury in 1996.
As a junior coach for junior park side Guinea Park Rangers, Steve already had a good knowledge of the outstanding young players in the area, and it was this which tempted Arsenal to bring him aboard.
“I started by doing the Arsenal youth section scouting for Essex,” Steve explains. “Terry Burton and Terry Murphy were in charge at the time for Arsenal and there was a vacancy in the Essex area.
“While I was coach at my park team Terry Burton used to say to me, ‘if you ever see any good young players, let me know’. Anyway I’d seen this good young player, called John Moncur. So I phoned Terry up and said I know this player, so he had a look at him and agreed t he was good and then they took me on as a scout.
“Another interesting one was Stewart Robson. I told Terry to come along and watch this representative game in Dagenham. As soon as Terry saw him he said ‘let’s bring him over’ and this was when Stewart was 14 - no one knew him.”
But Steve really proved he’s got an eye for spotting potential when he brought Tony Adams to Arsenal.
“I was a bit naïve at the time because it was my first boy,” recalls Steve. “Anyway I approached him at the West Ham training ground, which you couldn’t do now of course - I wouldn’t get through the doors for a start - and I asked his dad Alex if he would be interested in bringing him over.
“At his first training session at Arsenal, he came in and saw the Assistant Youth Team Coach Tommy Coleman.
“Anyway Tommy said to Tony ‘who are you son?’ So he said ‘I’m Tony Adams, I’ve been sent by Steve Rowley’. Then Tommy said to him ‘who the hell is Steve Rowley?’ because like Tommy I hadn’t been there long either and he didn’t know me.
“So Tony Adams walked off and was just about to go home until Tommy told him he might as well join in the session. Then Terry Burton took him for training and he was sold on him.”
The way football clubs scout for new players nowadays though, has changed drastically since Steve’s early days. Perhaps the most notable change is how much ground is now covered by the network of scouts. Steve has roughly 15 scouts based in Britain in addition to one each in France, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Holland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
“They all work exclusively for Arsenal, I won’t have any freelancers, there are too many conflicts of interest,” Steve adds.
“The scouting network has become so much broader and more sophisticated in terms of intelligence and organisation over the last few years. Eight years ago it was very rare that the previous chief scout Steve Burtenshaw would travel abroad. It was a very rare occurrence that any team would scout abroad. It’s so much more global now - I would say that is the major change over the last few years.”
But of course pure quantity of scouts are no guarantee that they will find the best players, the scouts need to know what they are looking for. So what separates the best scouts? What can they see that regular supporters can’t? Surely anyone can spot a brilliant player when they see one?
“Yeah I agree that a really outstanding player can be spotted by any one - it hits you between the eyes. But there are very few of them about.
“But I think what you must look at are the basics - have they got power and pace, are they intelligent, have they got a good touch. “Another important factor is trying to learn their attitude and character, both on the pitch and off it. Do they moan when they lose the ball, that sort of thing.
“I think scouts watch games in a different way. When you go to watch a game you are there mainly for the enjoyment but a scout needs to be more precise and concentrate on a particular player and focus on those attributes I just mentioned.
“That is a lot more difficult when they are young. Anyone can watch Zidane and see he’s a good player, but in younger players, I’m talking 18 or 19, it’s a lot harder to see. That’s when you need good experienced scouts. You only really get that by watching more and more football.”
As well as a scout’s ability to judge a player’s talent, a crucial part of the job is building up contacts and gathering ‘intelligence’ on players, as Steve calls it.
Steve and his scouts need to know whether other clubs are interested in the players they are looking at, then they know how much time they’ve got to make a decision. The more time they have, the less element of risk there is.
“Staying ahead of the opposition is a major part of the job,” Steve confirms. “You need contacts and to gather intelligence. We want our scouts to build up their own networks and to be fair they are excellent at it. I’m lucky that we’ve got such good scouts.
“We want to know about the good 16 to 19 year-olds, who are usually playing in reserve teams, before the other clubs do. And I think we have got that. We’ve got more scouts than any other Premiership club, which means we should know about these players first. That gives us more breathing space when it comes to making a decision.”
Sometimes the Club have to move quickly, and Arsène Wenger is kept abreast of major developments along the way, as Steve explains: “What happens first is our scout in whatever country will get a call from one of his contacts about a player. The scout then tells me about the player and goes to watch him.
After watching him he compiles a report and sends it to me via the computerised database we have. He will include all the player’s information such as club, position, age etc, and also a full report on how he played.
“If he likes him he’ll watch him again and if it is positive then I will send one of my senior scouts to watch him once.
“Then I expect the senior scout to be decisive - should I go and watch him myself, or is it not worth it? If they say yes, then I’ll go and watch him, probably two or three times. I usually prefer to watch them in away games because then you learn more about their attitude and fighting spirit. All the while we are keeping the manager informed about the player.
“He will read the reports and I will tell him whether he needs to have a look at him personally, either on video or whatever. So it is down to me whether the boss should take a creative interest in the player.
“I’ll usually take the boss’s interest about six or seven times during the season, and I will say that at the moment there are some really good youngsters about. Whether the manger pursues it depends on what he wants. He does tell me what positions we need for example, then I will pass that information onto my scouts.
“But if we are talking about youngsters then he’s not too worried. Good players are good players, you shouldn’t worry about position. Then finally if the boss wants him in then it’s down to the money men to sort out the deal and my involvement is finished as far is the transfer is involved.”
If that player does end up signing for the Club Steve usually plays an active part in helping him to settle into the Club and country. This could include helping him look for a house, buying a car - he even found himself shopping in IKEA one Friday night with the newly signed Alex Manninger!
But despite the complex and sophisticated process of drawing up transfer targets, Steve admits that every now and then you need a bit of luck.
The story behind Silvinho coming to Steve’s attention, illustrates the point. “I couldn’t get to sleep one night,” Steve remembers, “it was about 3am so I turned on the tv and there was a Brazilian game on.
“I was just watching it for a bit and I thought that the left back was good- very clean with his passing. That’s what I noticed first, he was so precise with his passing.
“Anyway I watched the game then the next day I got a few videos of him and said to the boss “this player doesn’t look half bad.” So he looked and agreed, and told me to go and watch him. Then the boss went over too watch him and decided to buy him.
“That was it. It all stemmed from me turning the television on by chance in the middle of the night. I had never heard of him before. So you do need to get lucky every now and then, although at the time we didn’t have a Brazilian scout. Now our scout out there would know all about a player like that.”
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