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Real Football: Sampling the hectic life of a chief scout

20 February 2013

By Russell Kempson

Many in football may claim to have achieved everything. To have been there, seen it, done the lot. And got all the T-shirts. Yet few can compare, surely, with Brian Owen. His CV, which spans half a century in the game, provides a fascinating insight into a career that has encompassed just about every facet of the sport.

Owen the winger, with Watford, Colchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Owen the coach, with Wolves, Peterborough United, Ipswich Town and England. Owen the physiotherapist, with Crystal Palace, Colchester, Luton Town and England. Owen the assistant manager, with Cambridge United. And Owen the scout, with...well, too many clubs to mention.

At Colchester alone, Owen has been player, coach, physio and scout. He is now back at the Essex club for his fourth spell as chief recruitment scout, having returned in December last year.

"Actually, it's 'talent identification officer'," he says, laughing. "OK, it's chief scout. But just scout will do me fine."

Owen, 68, sits in a cafeteria at the Hilton Park service station on the M6 - familiar territory for someone who racks up 30,000 miles a year on his travels. He could probably name every service station on every motorway in England. In the past few weeks, from his home in Clacton-on-Sea, Brian has trekked to Preston, Doncaster, Scunthorpe, Shrewsbury and Portsmouth.

All with the objective of assessing Colchester's upcoming opponents - to guide Joe Dunne, the manager - or in the hope of discovering a future superstar of tomorrow for Dunne to take on board at the Weston Homes Community Stadium and nurture. Today, Brian is off to Shrewsbury Town, again, for their npower League 1 fixture against Sheffield United.

United will play Colchester in a week's time at Bramall Lane. Dunne needs Owen to define United's strengths and weaknesses, to give him the inside track on their upcoming opponents. Rain and sleet swirl around Hilton Park, the banging and drilling of the improvement works fill the air, young children scream at the meal tables.

Yet Brian is unfazed by the noise, talent spotting requires a clear head. "There's certain players you know who you think you might be able to get," he explains. "The more you see them, the better idea you get of what they are and what they can deliver.

"A lot of the time, it's about getting them at the right age. Sometimes, if you get them a bit too young, they are probably not going to be an asset to you. You build up a backlog of players over the years who you keep an eye on. In the old days, I used to keep a book, which I've still got. Now, I just go online or keep it all in my laptop.

"You can go on to the scouting networks, which keep a log of players from all over the world, but I tend to rely on who I've seen myself. If an agent comes to you with a player, he'll be a world-beater. Naturally. You'll be shown clips of him. You're told, 'he's going to be the next Pele'. But you can make anyone look good if you cut the tape down to just a few minutes. You really need to see the player first-hand.

"I worked at Ipswich with Ron Gray, who was a scout for Bobby Robson. Ron used to say, 'don't look too hard, let them hit you'. Sometimes, you can be looking for too many things. Ron was right - just sit back and let them hit you, which I've tended to do ever since.

"I like to see a player at least three times. I'd think to think, then, that I pretty well know all that's good and bad about him. You'll see someone once and he might have a 'worldy'. The next time, though, they may be not quite so good or you'll see all his faults."

Brian pauses, sipping his coffee and tucking into a chocolate biscuit. The drilling continues, a baby is shrieking. Apart from what a scout sees with his own eyes, there is a certain science to his job, too. "Over the season, performances can tail off," he says. "With players, as with anyone, you have to consider biorhythms.

"Sometimes, he's on a high; sometimes, he's on a low. When you're watching, you have to bear that in mind. You might see someone on a low but, if you've seen them over three games, the chances are you'll know exactly what you'll be getting. You'll probably delve into their backgrounds as well. You have your contacts in the game, you'll ring people who maybe know the player better than you do.

"Now and again, you have to make a rush decision. It can happen, say, when someone in non-league is being chased by a lot of people and you feel you have to go in suddenly at the last minute. You have to do it and it can be a bit of a gamble. I don't really like doing it that way, I'd rather not do it at all."

In life, though, Owen would rather have done nothing else. He could have been born to be a scout. "When I was a kid at grammar school in Hillingdon," he recalls, "I used to do a paper round, save up my money and go into London to watch games. I'd go to Chelsea, Fulham, Arsenal, anywhere. And on my own, too. Just to watch matches.

"If you'd said to me then that I would spend 50 years in football, I wouldn't have believed it. I've played in every division and worked as a physio and a coach in every division. I've certainly had a good run for my money and I've loved every minute of it. I still love it now."

Pen and paper may be the main tools of Owen's trade, when out and about hunting for an unpolished gem, but his hands-on approach as a physio is still in demand. He runs clinics, usually on a Wednesday, for injured athletes.

"I like to keep my eye in," he says. "It all started when I was playing at Watford back in the 60s and, after my father died, the physio there sort of looked after me. That got me involved in physiotherapy but I also made sure that I did my coaching badges."

And when England called, Brian was ready. "Alf Ramsey was the first manager I worked with," he says. "I was physio for the under-18s but did a bit of everything really. Even a bit of team selection as well. And at that level, we won four of the five championships we played in.

"When Don Revie took over, he moved me up to the under-21s with Les Cocker. When Don left, Ron Greenwood came in and got me involved with the B team. Ron had all the best coaches around him so I was watching Terry Venables, Dave Sexton, Bobby Robson and Don Howe. I had information coming out of my ears. It was a brilliant education."

Not always, though, has it gone to plan. When a potential capture, a big fish, escaped the net. "When I was Ipswich, I went to Holland to watch a goalkeeper for manager Bobby Ferguson. I went to Feyenoord and when I got back, Bobby said, 'what's the goalkeeper like?' I said, 'forget about the goalkeeper. I've just seen a player who can play anywhere'.

"Feyenoord had just paid £300,000 for him from Haarlem and I said to Bobby, 'offer them double'. He said, 'I can't do that, I just can't do it'. So I said, 'Bobby you can't not do it'. Ipswich were a big club then but, yes, that's how we missed out on Ruud Gullit."

Or the time when Romeo Zondervan - the former Ipswich midfielder, now an agent - recommended Ulrich Wilson, the FC Twente defender. "We were looking for a left-back at the time so I flew to Amsterdam and got a train to Enschede. I had to meet a guy at the station who would have a newspaper under his arm. It was like something out of a spy thriller.

"I met the guy, we went to the game, it kicked off and, five minutes later, Ulrich broke a leg. So I went back to Amsterdam, stayed overnight and came home. All for five minutes." Wilson did play for Ipswich on loan from Twente during the 1987/88 season but made only six appearances. "He didn't do that well," Brian says.

Hilton Park is left behind; the brightness of Greenhous Meadow Stadium, the home of Shrewsbury Town, provides a stark contrast. It is on the outskirts of town, amid gently rolling hills and separated from a supermarket by a railway line and a footpath. Just six-years-old, it signifies shrewd Shrews progress in the mid-reaches of The Football League.

Owen had left home at 9am. "It's been a long old day already," he says. "I've had many of them." And he won't get back until about 9pm. He averages five matches a week - sometimes two a day - and, in the past five days, he has taken in Tottenham Hotspur Under-21s against West Ham United Under-21s, Gillingham versus Wycombe Wanderers, Stevenage against Notts County and West Ham Under-21s versus West Bromwich Albion Under-21s. And also supervised three physio clinics.

"Sunday is my day off," Brian says. "I like to get down to my allotment but I might struggle with that this year." Yet he always makes time to walk the dogs - Bess, a Cocker Spaniel, and Nala, a Labrador - on the beach near his home; and to visit his 13 grandchildren, one of whom, 11-year-old Alfie, is a full-back at the Ipswich Town academy. "Christmas is expensive," he jokes. "That's why I've had to go back to work."

Owen semi-retired when he left Colchester in 2009 but agreed to scout for Phil Parkinson, the former Colchester manager and a close friend, at Charlton Athletic and Bradford City. When Colchester restructured their scouting, Owen could not resist the challenge again. "Joe [Dunne] rang me up and asked me if I'd go back," Brian said. "So I did."

Kick-off approaches but there is a slight set-back. With Sheffield United in town - 12 of their supporters coaches are stacked up in the car park - the Meadow's facilities are stretched to the limit. Owen is unable to gain access to the Arthur Rowley Lounge, the usual refuge of the scouting nomads.

"Shame," Brian sighs. "I like to get to the ground about an hour before the start, in plenty of time to have a chat with the other guys. You can pick up so much information from them."

Instead, we troop off to our seats in the Roland Wycherley Stand. I decline the bizarre offer of having my DNA sampled, at a stall near the main entrance, but look forward to the delights that my 'scout food voucher' will afford.

Brian, in flat cap and scarf, is wrapped up to ward off the cold. As is everyone. Scouts, including Alan Durban, the former Derby County forward, are everywhere, crammed into the seating in front of the press box, with notebooks, clipboards and stopwatches to hand. One has a pad marked 'PGMOL' - Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the referees' governing body - and is probably keeping a close eye on Mark Haywood, the referee, and his fellow officials.

Owen prefers several sheets of A4 on which to make his notes but freely admits that it might end up looking as if a spider has crawled across his paper. It does. But with United's set-pieces itemised down one side of the A4 and their moves down the other, there is a concise method. "It's what works for me," he says. "Even if, sometimes, I can't read my writing."

Guessing the team formations before kick-off is child's play for a scout of Owen's experience but he does get one position wrong. "Not bad, though," he muses.

As the spider weaves its web across his notepaper, Brian - a Blackpool fan from the Stan Mortensen and Stanley Matthews era in the 50s - concentrates on the play, digesting the action.

"See how the United back four held their line to force that offside," he says. "United have improved from when I saw them play Doncaster. They're a lot more competitive, they're really up for it today".

Brian pleads for a corner against United so that he can chart their defensive set-up at it. Bingo, Shrewsbury win a corner. "They've answered my prayers," he says. "But if you miss something that you need, you can always see it later on tape or DVD."

United are leading 2-0 and, on 82 minutes, Owen leaves. It also signals a scouts' exodus. "I usually go about now, like many of the others," he says. "By now, there's not much more to learn."

Sunday, his day off, beckons; a day perhaps spent on the allotment, reading a novel, walking Bess and Nala on the beach, visiting the grandkids or just relaxing with his wife, Carol. "She hates football," Brian says. "She's more into sewing, knitting, quilting, stuff like that. But that's lovely. It helps me to get away from football. Now and again, you need that."

On Monday morning, Owen will write up his report on United for Dunne. "I'll put it on to a grid, on my laptop, with match diagrams, a little piece on each player, strengths and weaknesses, free kicks, etc. It's all charted for you, you just fill it in.

"Wherever Joe is, he can log in to see it. And if there's any points that he wants to discuss, he can talk to me at any time during the week. I've still got all my notes, if I can read them."

Also on Monday, Brian has already targeted matches that require his attendance - the under-21 meetings between Reading and Norwich City and Crystal Palace versus Manchester City. "Just to check out the kids," he says. He is always planning, plotting, trying to stay ahead of Colchester's rivals.

How long can Owen keep going? "I know people who have done this nearly into their 80s," he says. "And as long as my health holds up, I hope to be doing it for a few more years. When you get to my age, you never know.

"I've never minded all the travelling, I love watching football, I love the people, I love being involved. I just wish I'd kept a diary. It would have made a fantastic book."

Indeed, it would.

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