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the square ball week: the dog ate our prozone

the square ball week: the dog ate our prozone

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Brian McDermott doesn’t do embarrassment. If I was to write a mantra for him – and you can use this, Brian, for free – it would be: facing reality with confidence. 

Things are how they are, and Brian won’t hide away if things aren’t good enough, because he has the belief that he’ll sort them out. 

That said, McDermott’s appearance on the Footballers Football Show this week caught him as close to embarrassed as you’re ever likely to get. He wasn’t embarrassed for himself, though – he’s got nothing to be ashamed of if Leeds don’t have a chief scout – he was embarrassed for Leeds United. 

That it was billed as a ‘shock revelation’ afterwards shows just how normal a proper scouting system is in the football world. That its absence only really merited raised eyebrows here in Leeds shows just how deep the damage done to this club by Ken Bates has cut.

McDermott’s comments on the programme were as measured as usual. “That’s an interesting subject at Leeds,” he said, “because we certainly need to improve what we’ve got. I wouldn’t say we have a scouting structure per se. At a club as big as Leeds, what is absolutely fundamental for me is scouting and recruitment, and that wasn’t in place in my opinion.”

Scouting was not in place; among other things. At Thursday’s press conference, held in the Made in Leeds x LUFC store at Trinity Leeds, McDermott revealed that as well as being close to securing a chief scout, he had made another backroom addition. 

“We’ve got Prozone now,” he said. “Prozone is a really important tool that we haven’t had at Leeds since the Premier League days.

“It’s a way of measuring how far your players travel in games, basically, and you can measure it against the opposition. And we haven’t had that, so I’ve had no form of measuring, until last Saturday. I know what happened in that game, I know by my experience and my gut what happened – but we’ve got the facts now. So we can show the players, this is what you’re doing, this is where you’re going, this is what your measurements are. It’s a really important tool for us.”

No scouting structure “per se”; no Prozone since the Premier League days, when presumably it was cut from the budget due to costs. All this time, though, United did have one expensive element to its backroom toolkit: a technical director, called Gwyn Williams. It’s an ‘interesting’ subject. 

Williams was placed on gardening leave in the summer, having stayed in office while Kevin Blackwell, Gary McAllister, Simon Grayson and Neil Warnock came and went. He was the man who discovered John Terry for Chelsea; and Armando Sa for Leeds. To be fair, Luciano Becchio also arrived on his watch, but it’s hard to think of another totally unknown player that arrived at Leeds in that time and became a success. 

If Williams was what we had instead of a scouting network, he was presumably what we had instead of performance analytics software, too. He was technically the ’technical’ director, after all. While I doubt the absence of Prozone will have bothered Neil Warnock over much – he doesn’t need a computer to tell him the lads have run their socks off for him – McDermott clearly feels its absence acutely, and I’m sure Grayson and McAllister would have loved to nerd it up with some computerised measuring tools. “All of these things can make a difference,” McDermott said yesterday. Not having them can make a difference, too.

I do my utmost these days to resist invoking The Beard of Chelsea, because with him gone, I just want to try and enjoy what the players he wasn’t able to sell are doing for us under our new manager. Besides, GFHC’s ownership structures are fascinating enough on their own. But sometimes it pays to take a moment and remind ourselves of just what has gone on at Leeds United over the last nine years, and of how much needs to be done to repair it. 

The lack of money spent on signing players was a loud and justified lament during the Bates era. We can add to the complaint list now a lack of money spent on even trying to find any players to sign, and a lack of money spent on trying to get the best out of the ones we had. I wouldn’t try to argue that, say, Gary McAllister could have Prozoned Paul Huntington into Franz Beckenbauer. But giving the manager the tools to analyse his team would without doubt have been a more intelligent use of funds than court cases and executive boxes.

But we know all this; we were here while Bates was, so it’s only a mild surprise that Thorp Arch was running on a shoestring. The question is, did Brian McDermott know it? As I said at the start, he’s not a man to get embarrassed by his own actions – he’ll take responsibility and put things right. But Leeds United should have felt a burning, shame-cheeked sensation whenever Brian turned his office chair towards his Prozone computer and then remembered – oh, yeah. Crewe Alexandra have a performance analyst, and I’m pretty sure that when Luke Murphy signed for £1m for one of the biggest clubs in the country, he expected Leeds United to have one too. “We’ll talk about that later, Luke. But have you seen how nice the East Stand looks in the sunshine?”

Part of this is purely status. We’re Leeds effing United, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed in front of anybody. We don’t blush. We don’t have anything to blush about. But when Brian McDermott shifts uneasily on the television and tries to explain the conversations he has with a chief scout that doesn’t exist; when he tells Murphy that he can feel it in his gut that he could have made some better runs in the last game, but doesn’t have the tools Crewe have to back it up; when those things happen, Leeds United can only look at its shoes and mumble. Sorry, sir, the dog ate our Prozone. 

But aside from status, part of it is to do with what I was saying on Monday, about helping ourselves. “United need to be able to match that will to win,” I wrote after the Huddersfield game. “Not necessarily with the covered eyes and salivating prayers of their supporters, but by matching our standards to our potential and giving ourselves the best chance to win.” Huddersfield Town installed an eight-camera Prozone system at their stadium while they were in League One. They beat us on Saturday. A statistician would berate me for drawing a correlative conclusion from that, but who cares. They have it, we don’t; they won, we didn’t. Whether it was directly influential is an open question, but that we’d be better having it that not seems cut and dried to me. 

Nobody else will ever help Leeds United – we’re not a club that gets many favours. We have to help ourselves, and make our own luck, and make sure we at least have everything the other teams have. And we have to make Leeds United as confident in itself and its capabilities as Brian McDermott is in his. 

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