SHEFFIELD, England — Vicky Jepson didn’t find the ride all that bad. She spent much of July on the road, racking up somewhere north of a thousand miles in just a few weeks.
Its trajectory, at first glance, seems so random that it’s almost as if it’s tried to shake a tail: from London to Manchester, to the seaside in Brighton, north once more – until to the mundane market town of Leigh – then back to the south coast, before retracing his steps to Leigh.
A considerable amount of thought, however, has gone into every mile. Each stoppage gave Tottenham Hotspur Women assistant head coach Jepson another game at Euro 2022: at one point she had played nine games in just 15 days.
They had not been chosen at random. Jepson went to select games to take a look at how Europe’s top teams were playing, paying particular attention to how they built the game off defence. She went to others to watch specific players.
Often, however, his gaze has been drawn not so much to how they play as to who they are. “It’s only when you see players in person that you get a sense of what they are as people,” she said. “You see how they react in certain situations. How do they recover from a conceded goal? Do they stay focused after advancing? »
Spurs, like almost every club in the English Women’s Super League, couldn’t afford to pass up the chance to see all of Europe’s best players in one place. And it’s not just Jepson who’s been on the road: the Tottenham head coach, goalkeeping coach and analyst have all spent as much time on England’s motorways as she has. Almost all of its rivals have done the same.
For all of them, the information they have gleaned will prove invaluable. Euro 2022 has allowed them to flesh out scouting reports on players they’ve been monitoring for some time, as well as keeping an eye out for anyone who may have previously eluded them.
“Having him in our garden was a golden opportunity,” said Jepson. “There are things you just don’t see on a screen.”
An “archaic” system
In the first two weeks of the tournament, as Jepson and his colleagues crisscrossed the country, Euro 2022 seemed to break a different record every day.
England’s opening night victory at Old Trafford drew the biggest crowd in tournament history. The Netherlands’ win over Switzerland last weekend saw the highest attendance ever for a match not involving a host nation. Halfway through the group stage, Euro 2022 had already drawn more fans to matches than any previous edition of the competition in total. Every day, it seemed, served as further proof of the breakneck speed and scale of the rise of women’s football in Europe in general, and in England in particular.
This burgeoning popularity is reflected in the growth of the continent’s various domestic leagues and the investments that have been poured into the WSL, in particular. Sam Kerr, the highest paid player in the world, plays in England. Just like Pernille Harder, the most expensive signing in women’s history. A third of the Swedish squad that hope to rob the hosts of a place in the final on Tuesday night are already playing in England, as are the Netherlands’ top striker and one of Norway’s top playmakers.
The investment in players, however, has not always been matched behind the scenes. The reason Jepson racked up so many miles this month is simple. Like most WSL teams, Tottenham have access to the digital recruitment platform Wyscout, as well as data pipelines on potential targets provided by InStat and Statsbomb. What he doesn’t have is a single, dedicated female scout.
This is the case for the vast majority of teams in the WSL and across Europe. In interviews with nearly a dozen women’s football executives, agents, managers and coaches – most of whom did not want to be identified for fear of being seen as criticizing their employers – only a handful of teams were credited with employ specialist recruitment staff, among them Chelsea and Manchester City in England, and German champions Wolfsburg.
For everyone else, the system is “outdated”, as one executive from a leading WSL club put it.
Coaches will watch the games they can, often using international breaks to check on players deemed interesting. Others rely heavily on performance data and video footage, though sifting through it is often the domain of a single overworked staff member. Many, however, still turn to the fastest shortcut available: Agents.
“We get cold emails from clubs quite regularly,” said an agent whose firm represents a number of players at Euro 2022. “It’s never a scout. It’s always directly from a manager or a technical director. They ask if we have any players available who could work for them. Even as an agent, you know that’s not really the best way to build a team.
A constant turnover
Chelsea had heard of Kerr, the Australian striker, for 18 months before she finally agreed to move to London. There had been little reason to seek out his performance on the pitch: Kerr’s prowess, both for his national team and in domestic football in Australia and the United States, spoke for itself.
What Chelsea didn’t know was if she would fit in easily with the rest of her team. He remedied that not only by inviting Kerr to visit his base of Cobham, in the quiet and wealthy bankers belt that rings London, on three occasions, but by speaking to a succession of former coaches, ex-teammates, old adversaries.
Once satisfied, Chelsea offered Kerr an exceptional contract in two respects. This would have made her the highest paid player in the world. More significantly, perhaps, it also tied her to Chelsea for the better part of three seasons.
Chelsea, in general, try to think long-term: the club won’t offer short-term, one-season contracts to potential signings, and their managers are reluctant to even sign players on two-year contracts. Kerr has been so well suited that she has already extended her contract until 2024.
Many of its rivals do not have this privilege. The vast majority of contracts, even in elite women’s football, last no longer than two seasons. This is partly due to the players themselves. “You want to have a degree of freedom to move quickly,” said a former player. “If you have a good season in a small team, you need to be able to leave when one of the bigger clubs comes looking for you because that might be your only chance of getting a salary.”
But the shorter deals also act as a hedge for clubs who all too often don’t know what they’re buying. The kind of due diligence Chelsea have carried out on Kerr is standard in men’s football, but remains extremely rare in women’s football and beyond the reach of most teams. Most, instead, have to take their chances on players they haven’t had a chance to scout thoroughly. As one agent put it, “They give a lot of signings shorter deals and then see what sticks.”
Invariably, many players don’t, meaning most European major league teams lose and acquire handfuls of players every year. Last year, for example, eight of the WSL’s 12 clubs signed and sold six or more players, changing half of their squads in a single summer.
“There’s a lot of churn, which is why you see teams go up and down so quickly,” the agent said. “You can roll the dice and get lucky one year. But most of the time you don’t, so you have to start over.
This means that the majority of WSL teams start from scratch every year; it also means that only a select few can build anything sustainable. Chelsea, for example, added just two players to their squad last summer and went on to win both the WSL title and the Women’s FA Cup.
It’s also why, as Jepson traveled the country this month, she met countless friends, peers and rivals from other WSL teams. That’s why the ‘observer’ seats reserved by UEFA at every game have been filled with club representatives from England, Germany and even the NWSL, all sincerely scribbling remarks in notebooks.
For all, the long hours spent on the road were worth it. The tournament allowed them to screen and weed out potential targets, know what they might get, make sure their budgets go as far as possible. “Every trip had a purpose,” Jepson said. “You learn a lot more about a player when you see him in the flesh.”