Football scout Mel Johnson: ‘The day I first saw Gareth Bale…’
The role of a football scout consists of thousands of motorway miles, one-too-many service station sandwiches and an undying love for the game.
A scout will see thousands of players of all ages and levels over a season, and very few of their recommendations will come off. But every now and then, a gem, a diamond, a player of rare quality, is discovered. Such a player caught the keen eye of Mel Johnson when he was chief scout at Tottenham Hotspur.
Speaking to UCFB Wembley students as part of his Executive Guest Speaker session, Johnson explained: “I went to see a game and reported back to Director of Football Damien Comolli. I told him about this left back I’d seen. I said to Damien, ‘He’s got a chance.’ Like every player, you never really know how far they’ll go.”
That left back was 18-year-old Gareth Bale, who soon signed for Spurs from Southampton. His glittering career, and goal scoring exploits, have been well reported since.
Johnson, who now scouts for Bolton Wanderers and does video scouting for Chris Hughton at Brighton and Hove Albion, added: “I never thought Gareth would be where he is, he’s done fantastic, but I thought he could come to Tottenham and be a good player.”
Johnson has had a long, established career in the game. Since his first scouting role at Cambridge United, he’s also held roles at the likes of Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool. In 2013, Johnson was the subject of Michael Calvin’s fantastic award winning book The Nowhere Men, which took an in-depth look at the life of a scout.
Johnson also worked with Comolli at Liverpool when Kenny Dalglish was manager, and helped bring the likes of Jordan Henderson and Jordan Ibe to the club. He said: “I watched Henderson at Sunderland coming through when he was on loan at Coventry, I kept my eye on him.”
During his talk with students, Johnson, whose son Jamie is also a scout, made it clear that not all players that a scout recommends will make it to the top. Often he’d go to a game to watch a specific player only for them to spend 90 minutes on the bench. He added there are other times a player will be recommended by a scout, only to then be turned down by the manager and go on to succeed elsewhere.
Johnson added: “I’ve worked at clubs where recommended players have gone on and made it, but for one reason or another someone at my club didn’t like them or we couldn’t afford them. Many players over the years that you recommend don’t always take off. But Gareth is the one I wanted the first time I saw him, and we were lucky enough at Spurs to get him.”