The scouting tool helping Chelsea find the best grassroots players

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When Darren Peries’ son was released by Tottenham’s youth set-up, the confused father was unsure how to propel the disappointed youngster back into academy football. Having been tossed back into the grassroots game, Peries feared his son would struggle to stand out among the millions of young boys still hoping to be offered a golden ticket into a professional setting.

Approached by scouts asking for video clips of his son’s performances, Peries concluded that grassroots football trailed too far behind the professional game’s vast digital analysis. His answer was to develop AiScout, an app that “democratises” scouting and allows talent-spotters access to players they might otherwise never lay eyes on.

“What struck him was that, in the pro game, everything is done on data now,” AiScout’s director of sport science and COO Richard Felton-Thomas tells Express Sport. “We added technical scouts 20 years ago now. There’s not a scout in the business who’s not using something like WyScout to do some video analysis, or whatever it’s going to be.

“At grassroots, he was just baffled that, actually, these are the kids of the future and we’re blind to it. We’re still, ultimately, sending a guy out on a Sunday morning in a coat in the rain, scribbling his notes, going home, trying to write it up on his laptop and trying to tell his boss what he thinks of a player. He saw an opportunity to bring some objectivity to that.

“If you can say to a scout, ‘well if we can get you some data up front, you can better target your time’. Rather than blanketly just going with what you’ve got, we can give you something that tells you, ‘you should go over here instead today. This is going to be a better use of your time’. It’s a better use of the club’s time and we can reduce travel, so there’s a sustainability element in there too.”

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AiScout allows players to submit videos of themselves completing an array of physical and technical challenges. Aspiring footballers will be given a score based on how well they perform, while partnerships with the academies of Chelsea and Burnley present a benchmark for those wanting to know where they rank in relation to the country’s best players for their age group.

Jez Davies, a Burnley U21 midfielder, was signed by the Clarets thanks to the platform. Chelsea have also been impressed and aim to use it to find the best grassroots talent.

Felton-Thomas continues: “It’s a player-led product. If you’re not in the right team or in the right area to be found by a scout, there’s very little history of a player being found in a grassroots team if a scout very rarely goes to watch that specific team.

“But giving them a platform to download a free app and be able to give them objective scoring, and if those scores are good enough then that’s going to flag to the scouts. You’re now on their radar, you can now put yourself on their radar if you’re good enough.”

Despite partnerships with Chelsea and Burnley, Felton-Thomas recounts a different tale when discussing AiScout’s biggest success story so far. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Asia, five-star Indian academy RF Young Champs turned to the platform to help them source the country’s best young players.

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“Chelsea and Burnley are great stories, getting players signed. We love that. But I would say that our most enthused case with our MVP testing was with an academy in India, RFYC. Every year, they found the best group of U12s in the country and give them a five-year residency at a schooling programme.

“It’s one of the only five-star academies in all of Asia. It’s a pathway into professional football. The players and their families move to Mumbai, so it’s a big deal to get there. The year with the pandemic, they had no way of getting scouts out so they turned to us.

“So we said you can download the app and trial for RFYC while you’re stuck at home. They put it out and at the end of it, they signed multiple players through the system. One of the players actually downloaded the app on the village phone, he didn’t have his own mobile but he was able to use a community phone. He would never have been found even if you put 1000 scouts on the ground because he wasn’t playing registered football.

“That got the FIFA Innovation Programme onto our case because they were very interested in that globalisation element. Outside of the top 20-30 teams in the world, the other nations don’t really know where their best young talent is at a young age. They’re probably waiting for them to go to a professional team before picking them up.

“FIFA want bigger World Cups, so if they can build the talent pool across all the other nations, they’re going to have better football quality throughout the whole pyramid.

“We’ve had two players recruited by the Sri Lankan national team who were actually playing non-league football in the UK. they downloaded the app and we collected some data on what national teams they could play for through their grandparents.”

For some onlookers, an absence of analytics in academy scouting might come as a surprise. Surely the very best academies would want all the data available to them to ensure they have a full profile of a player. But Felton-Thomas argues that the technology was not always available.

“Data came into the pro game and it was easy, you had the broadcast cameras and every player was wearing a GPS device. At grassroots, even if we gave scouts a load of GPS data, it was meaningless because they didn’t know the context of the game.

“I could look at GPS and go ‘well yeah but who did they play against?’ whereas GPS data for Manchester United at the pro level, if you know they played against Crystal Palace, you can think about those two teams and what the data might mean. But at grassroots, you have no idea.”

Others might argue that there is no better scout than a pair of eyes, that many aspects of a player’s game cannot be quantified. And Felton-Thomas insists that in-person scouting still has a role to play.

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AiScout will provide talent-spotters with more information to help refine their search before they head out to watch grassroots games with a better understanding of which individuals to look out for. After all, Felton Thomas points out that only 2,000 of football’s 265 million participants are watched by scouts every year.

“There’s always going to be a need for in-person scouting. I can’t tell about your attitude on the pitch, I can’t tell about your ability to deal with adversity. There will always be a need for that.

“Even on AISCOUT, players can put their match footage into the system so there’s a way where a scout doesn’t even need to go out. AISCOUT has told them about this player and has some game footage because there was a camera at a game, and they can sit and watch that within the AISCOUT portal.”

The fresh technology will provide access to football that millions of players never had.

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