Paul Tisdale’s guide to scouting: Nine rules of recruitment

In conversation with Adam Bate, former Exeter and MK Dons manager and serial promotion winner Paul Tisdale reveals the key tenets of his recruitment philosophy…

Work with what you have got…

My first managerial job was at Bath University where we would take professional footballers who had not quite made it so they could get a degree as well as training full-time.

But in terms of recruitment I had to work with what I was given based on who turned up through UCAS or who arrived from clearing. University students only come in once a year. You don’t get a chance to sign new players if you have a bad run of results. That was my apprenticeship for seven years. If we lost players to injury you had to make do.

I remember we had one very successful year playing without a centre-forward for the whole year simply because I had no centre-forward. I had a Master’s student who could only play at certain times and no striker but we still scored umpteen goals.

As a coach it makes you very creative and you realise you can find other solutions. Also, players improve quicker than football managers would ordinarily give them time for. They will improve if you have to commit to them.

Honestly, there is not a lot of difference between the players’ ability levels. We are given some sort of pecking order from Premier League players down to non-League players. However, the scale from top to bottom is not as big as you may think. There is a difference in how they think and the decisions they make on the pitch, but that can be coached.

Too many clubs lose three games and go into the loan market to sign five more temporary players. What you discover is that there is a lot more potential for improvement in the players you have already signed if there is no option to go into the transfer market.

Spend the money like it’s your own…

I suppose I was given the Exeter job because I fitted that brief. They wanted the club to be a development club. Not going bust again was more important than winning the next couple of games. The ownership model was in place based on those principles. So they had a real clear purpose. They wanted to win but it was about developing the academy.

They had been in administration before I arrived and they had no overdraft facility so they couldn’t borrow money. In fact, they were still in debt. You could never go to the owner for more money so you had to be incredibly strict. I spent the money like it was my own. For every one pound spent, I wanted two pounds in value.

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When I went to Exeter in 2006, I think I only had the opportunity to sign two new players. So there was not much talk of scouting or recruitment. That was the starting point and I was comfortable with that. You got what you were given and you had to make do. Magnify the strengths and minimise the weaknesses.

The reason I had a very successful first few years at Exeter was mainly because of the players who were already there. It was down to those under my nose. It was the confidence that I had gained at Bath that allowed me to trust in my ability to improve them and to make a difference.

Don’t waste time on players you are unlikely to sign…

We had three or four scouts dotted around the country. The old flat-cap guys watching matches and sending in reports. That was my first challenge really because I was not sure that was appropriate. I just looked at it practically in terms of time, energy and resources. You don’t want to be spending thousands on something that’s of minimal advantage.

I was talking to these scouts and I wasn’t really sure whether they were on my wavelength or not. It was all very intangible because it was all so subjective. It was hard for me to make decisions off the back of their reports and I am very clear that if you are not sure what to do then do nothing. Do not take chances on recruitment.

These scouts were sending me these lists of players. I spent a lot of energy in the first two years on these players only to find out that they would not come to Exeter anyway.

For every 10 we looked at I might be interested in one. For every 10 I was interested in there might be one who I would get to talk to. So we might be looking at 100 players just for me to get to talk to one of them. Then I find out that he doesn’t fancy living in Devon. And even if he does fancy it, I still can’t pay him any more than the club down the road anyway.

In order to get them to Devon from London, you can’t offer them a one-year contract. It has to be two. Then how many clubs are they going to have to drive past to get to us? If any of those clubs offer the same money then they will go there and there is always a club having a real go at it. It became a very practical business view – we had to change the thinking.

Have a filtering system to make a shortlist…

There came a point around 2010 when we had a couple of promotions and financially things were looking better where my focus switched to improving the quality of the team.

We had players who had left us for bigger clubs and we had players still with us who had come up from the Conference who were now in League One. I needed players who could play at a higher level but I didn’t have much money. It became a filtering system.

If you go back a decade we would get a list from the PFA through the post of all the players who were out of contract. Whether they were 17 and being released from a YTS or whether they were senior professionals. There would be their name, their date of birth, how many games they had played and a telephone number. You are talking 800 names on this list.

I can remember calling the PFA asking when it would be sent out but they were relying on the players sending them their details. You can imagine how that was being put together. I remember trying to get hold of videos of these players or trying to work out whether I knew someone who had coached him or played alongside him or something like that.

This process used to go on for ages. Your shortlist was down to 150 players but you had no idea how much that player was earning. You might want him but you had no idea what was his bottom line. All you knew is how much you have to spend. It was a carry on. It was absolute chaos. So I decided that we had to stop working like that.

Have a system in place for picking up a bargain…

What I decided was that we would have a filtering system.

We would look at players who were of a certain age and had an objective level of quality to their game based on one or two key factors. I decided to look for players who had been sold to a bigger club before the age of 20 and then not made it at that bigger club.

Here was a player who went to a bigger club at the age of 20 for, say, £400,000 and had not made it. Now, two years later, he is not going to be a bad player all of a sudden just because he has not played much football. But suddenly he’s worth nothing and nobody wants him.

It was like stocks and shares. That is how I looked at it. This was undervalued stock.

Find out if they have a connection to the area…

The other filter we used is going to sound a bit tongue in cheek, but we did apply it. We looked at how many players on the list had played for a club in the south west, been on loan in the south west, been on holiday to Cornwall or Devon, had an auntie from the south west. Honestly. We ended up with a list of 11 players and I think we signed five of them.

It was very basic but it was very clear. We signed Scott Golbourne on a free transfer from Reading and he had been bought from Bristol City when he was a teenager. I signed Richard Duffy who had been sold from Swansea to Portsmouth when Harry Redknapp was there. We signed Ben Hamer on loan from Reading who had an aunt who lived in Taunton.

It sounds too simple but it was an effective way of applying our filtering system. We wanted a certain quality and a certain age with links to the area who we could get on a free transfer.

I had been through too many phone calls where I had the perfect solution, a player who could fit perfectly into my team, who wanted to play in League One, but then you would hear that their wife did not want to move from Manchester to Devon. You end up wasting so much time. It was a basic but effective filtering system.

Put in the groundwork so you can sign them later…

A lot of the players who I signed for Exeter were players with whom I had left my calling card years earlier. They might have been playing at a higher level and earning money that we could not afford but I still tried to cultivate that relationship.

I don’t mean tapping players up. I would do it in a social way. I just mean saying hello or having some sort of connection over a long period of time. It is amazing how many players will have a hard moment in their career at some point and they will pick up the phone.

I remember signing David Noble. He had played in the Championship play-off final for Bristol City. I really liked him as a player. He had such ability and a real intensity to how he played. There was no way I was going to be able to sign him but I maintained an interest.

It was a couple of years later that I heard he was going to leave Bristol City for Doncaster and he then picked up a really bad injury. Doncaster pulled out of the signing and we signed him with an anterior cruciate ligament injury before he had even had the operation.

I am sure it raised a few eyebrows at board level and I can only imagine what the supporters said. It was nine months before he was fit but that was what we had to do to get value. We couldn’t afford him under normal circumstances but when he had that bad bit of luck we were able to make it happen and, importantly, we both benefited. In fact, I believe Exeter fans recently named David in their team of the past decade.

Make sure players want to play for you again…

There were so many players who came back to play for me.

George Friend came back on loan after he had made a big move which is an unusual thing to do. Ryan Harley came back, Troy Archibald-Henville came back, Jamie Cureton came back, Jake Taylor came back, David Noble came back, Dean Moxey came back, Danny Seaborne came back. Matt Gill came back. Jayden Stockley came back.

It was about creating relationships. I wanted to be either the first or last club that a player thought about. It sounds strange but it makes sense if you think about it. I wanted it to be that obvious that the player wanted to sign. He would know the way he would be treated. There would be respect and enjoyment. I wanted that to become our unique selling point.

For example, when Jake Taylor left Reading, he had been with us years previously on a season-long loan so he picked up the phone and said he wanted to play for us. The same happened with Jayden Stockley. It gets to the point where the player makes the call.

The other scenario is where you become the last call for a player. He has tried everywhere else and nothing quite fits. You become the last phone call that he makes.

The business aspect of that means that you have real leverage because if that player wants to come to you or he has tried everywhere else before coming to you, then you are in a strong position from a negotiating stance. It is not that you want to take advantage but it does mean that these signings become affordable.

I think there were a large number of players who played for me at Exeter who were worth double what I paid, in my opinion. That is because we signed them at the right time, with the right leverage, and they wanted to come.

Be flexible about your style if there is talent available…

It is because of this that I don’t always insist on a preferred style of play. There are only so many clubs that have the financial luxury of being able to cherry-pick the best players for their system. Instead you must find a system to suit the players. It is all about getting the best players on the pitch. There is always a way of beating the opponent. Remember, I played a whole season without a conventional striker.

I was always prepared to sign talent and find a way within my team. It was never a case of thinking that I am playing 4-3-3. If I had the chance to sign talent I would make it work.

I remember signing Rob Edwards and I think that was the best signing that I have made in my entire career in terms of the value that he gave me. He wasn’t considered to be a conventional centre-back because he was only 5’11” but he was a classy footballing Wales international.

He was a left-footed defender but we had three very good young left-footed defenders emerging from the academy at the same time in George Friend, Dean Moxey and Danny Seaborne.

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