The Vanarama National League is notorious for being a division almost like no other to clamber out of. A gruelling 46 games with only one automatic promotion spot makes it a true war of attrition. Many sizeable clubs have tried over the years, with some soon tumbling through the relegation trap door instead. After success in May’s play-off final at Wembley, Tranmere Rovers made it back to the EFL this season after three years away, and they took with them someone who has earned his own shot at the promised land of the League. Only you won’t have seen this one reported in the list of transfers into Prenton Park.
Alex Mitchell was a player for Cadbury Athletic, Liskeard Athletic and Hoddesdon Town growing up, but it is as a scout that he has successfully forged a route from non-league. After almost six years at Solihull Moors, Alex spent last season at Chester FC, before joining Tranmere as first-team player scout in June this year. He was the man who first spotted Michael Nottingham, the former Salford City star who now plays his football in League One with Blackpool. Alex takes us behind the scenes of his own rise through the divisions…
The first match I scouted was when I was asked to watch Droylsden v Corby Town on a freezing cold November evening back in 2011. This involved a 180-mile round trip from Birmingham to Manchester. My mate Marcus Bignot had recently started at Solihull Moors FC, who were due to play Droylsden on the Saturday. I remember being forwarded a template via email and being quite overwhelmed with what I had to record.
I was given a template which included formations, top three aerial threats, set-piece strategies for and against, strengths, three areas of weakness, a breakdown of every player’s preferred foot/physique/height, missing players, team overview – it all equated to approximately 11 pages long. It initially took me around four hours to complete, but after practice, I managed to get it down to about 2.5 hours.
I recorded set pieces on either my phone or iPad to help me when I could, and spoke to fans to find out a bit more background as to why certain players might be missing, or any patterns of play. Fans who watch a team every week are usually a good source of information.
There were times when I would see non-league ground-hoppers on a regular basis and actually dropped a few off at stations when in remote areas such as Colwyn Bay and even following a friendly at Airbus UK. These fans were also very knowledgeable about non-league and would always be happy to share some insights and let me know about any players who were worth watching out there.
For that first game (Droylsden v Corby Town), I was pretty much the only scout in attendance and remember not being able to hold my pen properly due to the coldness of the evening. I also remember the standout players that night were Danny Rowe (currently starring for AFC Fylde) and (former Manchester City youngster) Carlos Logan. The team sheet was pinned to a red fence on the back of a turnstile and I stood in a small huddle with a number of people trying to get as close as we could to make sense of the scruffy handwritten list of players.
This first season was mainly spent analysing teams and took me all over the place – Bishop’s Stortford, Altrincham, Bradford Park Avenue, Hyde United and Colwyn Bay.
The first time I came across Michael Nottingham was in the 2012/13 season when I went to watch his teammate Jordan Gough, who was at Gresley Rovers with him at the time. They were playing away against Loughborough, Jordan was captain and really stood out. He made strong, purposeful runs and had an impressive left foot. However, I remember seeing this tall, gangly player at the back who dominated without really knowing it and appeared to not get out of first gear. I could almost picture him playing while checking his phone and talking to the crowd, such was the ease at which he found it all.
Following the first match, I lingered in the clubhouse after for a coffee and to catch up on the other results, as well as to see how Jordan and Michael carried themselves off the pitch in amongst the other players and fans.
I went on to watch them several more times and it was at Sheffield FC where I remember them both identifying me on the touchline and them probably thinking ‘wow, this bloke’s keen.’ I just had to make it my business to try to get to understand how good these players were.
After a few months of trying to watch them in various types of games and weather conditions, I managed to get Marcus (Bignot) to come along to watch them in the County Cup final for Gresley. I remember Jordan scoring early (after one of his runs driving inside from left-back) helped settle his and my nerves.
However, Michael didn’t really show much in this match and I had found out prior to the game that he had been out partying the night before, so I had to work hard to convince Marcus he was worth pursuing, following this match!
Roll on pre-season 2013 and Solihull Moors had managed to secure the signatures of both Jordan and Michael, to my delight. I remember how chuffed I was after being made aware via a text message at the first game of the season that Jordan had smashed a strike into the far corner and realising at that moment I had contributed something positive to the team.
Both players developed well during the season, but at times found the step up difficult, with the lengthy travels and toughness of the league.
I spoke to Michael a lot that season and he even played a couple of games for my 5-a-side team that year down at Goals Star City, which I obviously had to keep quiet from the manager. However, I enjoy watching players close up at 5-a-side venues in tough games where they can’t hide and have less time to make decisions. People are regularly squaring up to each other and handbags are never far away, so it is good to see how people handle themselves in such situations.
Over the next few seasons, Michael and Jordan both developed into almost the first names down on the team sheet, and scouts were starting to take note and query me about their talents.
It was inevitable that at some stage they were going to have to decide on their future. It wasn’t until the year Solihull Moors won promotion that Michael was given the opportunity at Salford City to continue his development, a move which disappointed me, as I thought he could have stepped up into the Football League, but I understood.
Then fast forward two more years to the summer of 2018, and Michael at 29 was given his chance at Blackpool following the expiry of his contract at Salford City. There aren’t many players who make a move to the Football League at 29, however, I can’t help but feel that this is a big statement as to the sort of talent that is available in non-league right now.
There was a certain irony that following Michael Nottingham’s move and almost six-and-a-half years scouting in the non-league pyramid, my opportunity in the Football League finally came along with Tranmere Rovers.
I am now scouting for players in the South East for Tranmere but have thoroughly enjoyed what I call serving my apprenticeship in the non-league, where everything is a bit less glamorous, and grounds that bit harder to find.
I continue to be as hungry as ever and look forward to what I can achieve in another six-and-a-half years, as I genuinely believe football has a habit of rewarding those who are willing to put the miles in.
As well as his scouting endeavours, Alex completed an Ironman event in July 2018, raising £1450 for Mind – The Mental Health Charity, a subject relevant no matter the level of football you’re involved in.