It may have been 15 years ago, but Steve Jones vividly recalls the circumstances around the first match he scouted.
The details of the first corner he reported on are not so clear though. That’s understandable as the Cardiff City Tactical Analyst-Opposition Scout attends around 80 live matches per season, so you can do the maths on how many corners that equates to, then treble that figure to include the games he analyses on video.
But he still remembers his first scouting experience like it was yesterday because he wasn’t too thrilled about being dispatched at short notice to watch Swansea… at Swansea.
The year was 2005. Jones was Centre of excellence Manager at Gillingham and had been on the go since 7.30am and was on his way to a budget meeting for 3pm at the Centre of Excellence HQ in Canterbury when the then Gills manager intercepted him.
“I remember the day because I was not happy about it because it was not in my job remit,” Steve said.
“I used to leave home at 7.30am and get into Gillingham at 8.20am, the scholars would come in at about 9 O’clock.
“We didn’t have a base at the training ground, so we all had to meet at the main ground and then take everything down to the training ground.
“So I would go see the manager and have a quick five minute meeting with him to see what he needed down at the training ground, balls, bibs, poles, cones, two pitches set up – one full size and the other whatever size he wanted. I would then relay that to the Scholars and they would put all the equipment on the minibus, head down to the training ground around 9.45am and set up the first team pitch, and also our own area.
“We would usually start training at the same time as the first team around 10.30am.
“We Trained and worked on our development as a group, for around two hours, once finished we would clear the training ground and head back to the main stadium, but on this particular day I had planned a meeting in Canterbury at 3pm about COE budgets for next season.
“The manager came up to me and said ‘Look Steve I need you to go do a match report for me. Here’s my keys take my car’.
“This was around 2pm in the afternoon and I had to drive to Swansea to do a match report.
“I was in my kit. I had not come dressed to go to a match. All I had was my training kit on, and here I am driving down to Swansea. I got there at about 7pm for a 7.45pm fully kitted out in full Gillingham training gear in the middle of the Liberty Stadium, so to say I stood out was an understatement.
“I didn’t really have time to do anything else but just watch the game. I watched it until the 86th minute constantly looking over my shoulder in case anybody noticed that I was head to foot in Gillingham training gear,and then headed home.”
FIVE IN FIVE OUT METHOD
Details of the game itself are quite sketchy. Steve delivered his report on the game verbally to the manager the following morning, after a drive home down a fog-filled M4 that saw him arrive back in London at 2.30am.
But the notes he scribbled on his coaching pad on Swansea’s corners that night were based on a method that remains the cornerstone of the process Steve still uses today.
That is to firstly look at the players outside the box, so you are then left with the number of people inside the box at the corner.
He refers to it as five in/five out because invariably teams taking attacking corners will have five players inside the box and five outside the box, though as he pointed out ‘at times they might put in an extra one depending on height, physique of their team, or the opposition defending strengths and weakness, or maybe there chasing the game’.
This gives coaches and analysts the information they require to prepare for the corner itself, and also identify the second phase and transitional attacking opportunities.
Steve recalled: ” I can’t really remember much about the match, never mind the first corner if I am being honest. It was all just scribbled on my coaching pad so my report was more verbal from what I had written down and could remember.
“I got home at 2.30am and had to be back at training at 8.30am in the morning so I was absolutely knackered.
“When I spoke to the gaffer, he came in and I just said what I saw, very much just the bullet points in football jargon. They play 4-4-2, go direct or whatever it was and set plays would have been these, just identifying their main attacking options and threats.
“I still work on the basis of five in five out. That is usually how I work. It’s not an exact science, but it gives you a starting point; most teams will set up with five players outside the box and five players inside it for an attacking corner. It is just about identifying who is doing what.
“It was not something anyone told me about. It was just something I did when looking at corners and set plays when I used to play and then when I coached. How many players are in the box and how many are outside?
“It was only when I left Gillingham and went to Millwall with Kenny Jacket that I first started to get myself properly involved in match analysis in the 2006-07 season.”
YOUR INFORMATION NEEDS TO BE BESPOKE TO THE MANAGER
Steve worked at Millwall until 2011 under Kenny Jackett then moved on to Leicester to work under Sven Goran Eriksson for 12 months. From there Steve moved to Forest and then onto Rotherham before returning to Millwall to link up with Neil Harris at the start of the 2015/16 season.
Whilst at Millwall Steve built up a close working relationship with Neil Harris and the rest of the coaching staff and analyst, that saw him follow the Lions legend to Cardiff in December, where he works as the Bluebirds Opposition Lead Scout.
Steve said: “When Neil first took over at Millwall I spoke to him and asked what exactly he wanted me to do regarding opposition scouting and specifically set plays. I explained how I had worked on the basis of five in five out at corners and set plays and he said perfect, let’s work from that.
“The scouting of the opposition live is down to me. No one else goes and reports on the opposition for him. It is just me.
“My role as the opposition scout is really to build a framework, that’s really what it is. It really becomes about key information that you put into the framework that needs to be bespoke to the manager that you are working for at that particular time.
“Neil, probably like most other managers at other clubs, prefer just that one person who they can trust, and who is knowledgeable, committed, experienced and who can bring that consistency of detail they or any manager wants.”
THREE-GAME OPPOSITION SCOUTING PROGRAM
While the evolution of technology and software like Scout7, Wyscout and its subsequent integration with Hudl have helped make opposition reports deeper in detail and more visual in their presentation, that verbal style Steve first used at Gillingham 15 years ago is still a key part of his working relationship with Harris.
Steve added: “I’m in that privileged position where I can relay information quickly and directly, probably the best match report I give to the gaffer is the 15 minutes verbal report I give him in the car on the way home.
“After a game he will do his press, finish about 6pm and he will be in his car or on the coach and I will be driving back from wherever I have been, and then we have that 15-20 minute talk in the car about the team and what they have done and that gives him an idea so that when he sits down and watches the footage he can highlight the information I have told him, he will see it himself as well.”
The last conversation the pair had after a game was on March 7, 2020.
Steve was driving back from Leeds v Huddersfield at Elland Road. The home side were due to be Cardiff’s next opponent before the lockdown brought the 2019-20 season to a halt.
But his scouting on Marcelo Bielsa’s team had begun the week before by downloading footage of their two previous games.
Steve explained: “I usually work on the three-game scenario, some scouts or clubs might do five. It just depends how far you want to go back into the fixture list to see if there has been a change of shape or personnel, remember I see these teams numerous times throughout the season as well at other fixtures when maybe I’m scouting other teams.
“I will watch a team twice on video before I go to watch them live. One as an overall view, two to do a version of how they play using sports-code, then the third one is a live game, I work on this three-game program for every opposition fixture.
CODING, CLIPS AND LIVE TRIPS
“The last game I did was Leeds so taking into account I’m doing a three-game program, I watched their previous two games on video coding one of them, but then also watching the first footage of the opposition for the next fixture after Leeds, which was Preston North End in midweek, so I’m basically always working on two fixtures, the one coming up and the one after.
“During the week before the fixture I download the footage from hudl then I clip the games.
“I have a template and a Sports-code window attached for certain situations within the game
“I have about ten codes and I just press and record, then I tag them and send them to the analysts with all the set plays separate, and then they go through it and take out all the best clips to use to show on video, but also you have to remember this is standard procedure at most clubs with this technology, with the manager and staff doing the same thing as me, not all managers do it but the gaffer does and so do the staff, so we rarely miss things, and because we know the division and teams well now it becomes second nature, it’s not like were going in cold.
“There may be 1-14 set plays for example throughout the game and you just clip them into different groups and watch them back through, highlighting the delivery, runs, blocks, counters etc,etc
“So not only do I watch the footage, clip the footage and then watch the clips I recorded, I then go and watch them live on a Saturday. Sometimes with the Tuesday, Wednesday fixtures I can plan to see them live twice, but for Leeds it was two games on video and one live.”
ALWAYS GET THE FIRST CORNER
The first 20-25 minutes is the key time of any game for Steve, as this is when the teams are working to their game plan, and when it comes to set plays he always tries to make notes on the first corner, using his five in-five out approach and does not concern himself with any other detail whilst in the ground unless it’s a well worked set play.
He explained: “For me personally, I always try to get the first corner. The reason why I always try to get the first corner is because it may be the only corner in the game, sometimes there isn’t any attacking corners from the team you are scouting only defensive, and you have to then rely on your video footage from other fixtures, also normally a goal from a corner is usually poor defending or a collective mistake, rather than a well worked set piece, only a small percentage of goals scored from a corner are a well-worked routine, it’s all about moving players.
“When I’m watching a live game, I usually concentrate on players outside the box first. So does the full-back go and take the corner. If so, who takes his space etc etc.
“So I am usually working from back to front. You have the goalkeeper, do they keep two back or just one back. Do they put one in the hole or two on the edge and the one on the outside and ‘five in the box’ are the ones that are left which is usually the two centre-halves, the centre forward the second striker and AN-other, but this could differ due to the physicality of team.
“I usually work on that basis. Five in five out and I go from there. That will be put down in my notes and will go into my match report.
“It is hard to get more detail than that. I just note down the numbers of the players and the starting position. By the time you do that the corner will probably be taken. You will not get the intricate movement until you get to watch it back on video.
IT’S ABOUT FACTS NOT YOUR OPINION, UNLESS YOU’RE ASKED FOR IT
“Now because of the technology you can get the first one to have your eye in so make sure you are watching the corner but the other ones afterwards you can go to Hudl and download the whole lot.
“I would normally check over the players in the box to make sure that I have the right players, however short, quick corners can become hazardous, when you’re working live.”
That is one of the first things Steve did after he returned home after his trip to Leeds.
He downloaded the video of the game he had just been to see and sat down and watched it back that evening before analyzing it in a bit more depth the following morning whilst writing up his report which usually takes around three hours to complete.
Even watching back the footage the process for corners remains the same as he starts by checking that the five-in/five-out he noted is correct and then scans to add detail for his report.
Steve said: “Every corner is unique. It is virtually impossible to replicate a corner. There are so many factors that affect the set play, for example the delivery, the runs, the blocks, even the weather.
“These intricate details you can only really see by watching back on video.
“So when I do watch back the footage I can see the set, the blocks, the runs, the delivery, second phase and that all goes down in my report.”
Steve’s memory of the game is still clear, but as Cardiff’s game against Leeds was postponed and has still to be played, he held back on sharing too much detail on what he noted.
But he was keen to stress the need to avoid opinion in a match report and just stick to the facts.
He added: “Every match report I do I try and base it on fact. Everything is fact, fact fact.
“You have to distance yourself from your opinion. If the manager rings me up and asks my opinion it is totally different, but your match report framework has to be built on fact.
“So if you look at a corner, there was five in the box.
“You can watch the video back and that is fact.
“How it gets delivered is a fact. Who took the corner is a fact.
“Then you can use the video technology to work on the blocks and the targets.
“But you can only make that decision once you have watched it back and have a clear picture.”