Review: The Nowhere Men: The Unknown Story of Football’s True Talent Spotters

A Football Blog. @OfPitchandPage reviews  @CalvinBooks latest offering.

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A tribe of skilled and humble workers under threat from modern technology and greed – at its core, The Nowhere Men is a classic underdog tale, reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times if that’s not too much of a stretch. But in its detail, it’s truly unique. Just when you thought every aspect of football had been done to death, sportswriter Michael Calvin has infiltrated the one remaining secret sect, a shadowy fraternity who both compete with, and assist, each other in the all-important pursuit of new talent. Ever wondered how the likes of Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling were discovered? Well here’s your answer.

While these fairy-tale success stories do feature, they’re certainly not the focus of The Nowhere Men. Instead, it’s about the daily grind of a largely unappreciated profession. With the rise of data analytics, super agents and third-party ownership, the scout is increasingly becoming an endangered species. Factor in the strong ties to the fates of individual managers and it truly is a precarious position. The multitude of ‘forty-pence-a-milers’ still out on the circuit offer evidence of just how desperate it can get when you’re holding on to a fading dream. Scouts vs analysts, subjective vs objective, experience vs data – these are the key debates, fought largely along money lines. Sadly, the obvious need to balance the two sides is rarely as straightforward as it sounds.

Key to the success of The Nowhere Men is Calvin’s empathy with his subject matter. It’s ‘the essential romanticism’ of the scouting role that draws him in in the first place, but he finds plenty to admire as he delves deeper and deeper into the brotherhood. He meets a whole host of ‘resilient sorts’, full of ‘earthiness and authority’ and a ‘rare generosity of spirit’. Bolton’s Dean Austin speaks for all when he says, ‘It’s a brutal game, absolutely brutal, but I believe good things happen to good people. You’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to keep fighting.’ By the end, Calvin is completely won over: ‘I realised I had completed the process of identification with the tribe. A Nowhere Man does not deserve to be treated as a Nobody.’

As a narrator, Calvin really puts his characters centre stage and allows them to speak for themselves. The book contains extensive profiles, long speeches, scouting reports and even a brilliant ‘Chat Show’ chapter, which records a conversation between three industry veterans. In this way, The Nowhere Men is arguably as much a how-to educational guide as it is a social study. ‘Don’t look at the game, look at the man…You cannot follow the ball in this job’, ‘You also need to be a talker to be in the game. You need to network’, ‘At first team level it is not actually scouting, but realising what a manager wants in a player for a specific position.’

The structure of The Nowhere Men is also excellent. As Ian Ridley did in the brilliant There is a Golden Sky, Calvin offers a full range of test cases, from Arsenal to Forest Green, from the high-tech data systems of the Premiership through to the one-man band approach of the lower leagues. These shorter, reportage pieces suit his journalistic background perfectly. The writing is sharp and succinct, with just the right amount of description and humour. But what gives the book its weight and structure is the central narrative strand. The uncertain fate of Liverpool’s Chief Scout Mel Johnson (‘my guide and tutor’) plays out across the pages, as first Director of Football Strategy and Moneyball disciple Damien Comoli, and then old-school legend Kenny Dalglish, are forced out of Anfield.

Despite the many sad stories found throughout, The Nowhere Men remains an uplifting celebration of these men who ‘exist in a parallel universe where schoolboy sticker books come to life’. Brentford in particular emerges as a beacon of hope, where a management team combining football expertise with business nous has invested real faith and money in scouting and developing player potential. This season, The Bees will return to English football’s second tier for the first time in 45 years. ‘Analytics will evolve, and eventually justify the inordinate faith placed in it,’ Calvin concludes, ‘but the link between a scout’s optic nerve and his brain will never lose its value.’ In its panoramic portrait of one of the sport’s biggest blind spots, The Nowhere Men represents a remarkable achievement and a brilliant addition to football literature.

You can buy The Nowhere Men now on Amazon.