In Steve Cunningham’s debut season in charge at Curzon Ashton, the National League North club have made a number of shrewd additions. As well as directly bolstering on the pitch, the Tamesiders have been busy strengthening behind the scenes. That included the official appointment last month of Ryan Winson as The Nash’s new head scout.
Although a local lad, he joins the Curzon set-up with experience of working for divisional rivals Boston United, as well as Danish Superliga side and three-time national champions Odense Boldklub. Here is an intriguing level of insight into his work and his path so far, including a cameo from a former Celtic striker and Dutch international…
Firstly, tell me about how you came to be involved with Odense BK. Where did the link come from?
I did some scouting work for some Northern Prem clubs a while ago and started getting some really good feedback; I was very new at that point. Scouting at that level, though, is very heavily reliant on making connections with players, managers etc., as well as obviously producing reports. I wanted to also get involved at a higher level, where you gain a different set of skills, in terms of connection-building and working within a department of staff. So I made a connection in Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink at PSV Eindhoven, who gave me some good feedback on my work. From there, I made a connection with Ole Nielsen at Odense Boldklub, who, following reviewing my work, wanted to bring me on board as soon as possible.
I was based in Manchester but did a lot of travelling; I visit Denmark frequently. I watched lots of video from home, too. I would attend games – usually Championship level – on behalf of Odense, and would do lots of video work for them, focusing mainly on Scandinavia, Central Europe and Eastern Europe. The people who work in football who know me will tell you that I am a bit of a Scandinavia and Eastern European expert. I love those regions; so much talent and so many players who have a move in them. I’m also lucky enough now through my work that I have contacts at clubs like PSV, Everton, Chelsea, Östersunds FK, NEC, Odense Boldklub, Mjøndalen IF, Sacramento Republic, and many other professional and semi-professional clubs around the world.
Are you a North West lad? Where have you spent your time over the years, be it through work or otherwise?
I am a North West lad; I was born in Bury but grew up in Dam Head, Moston and Newton Heath. I still live in Manchester today. I have left a couple of times to go down south for work but seem to always end up back in Manchester. One day I will leave Manchester to move to Denmark, that is the ambition anyway. I’ll settle for Germany as a second choice.
How far back does the connection with (Curzon Ashton boss) Steve Cunningham go? A fair way or more recent?
I’ve known of Steve for a while without knowing him personally. I watched what he achieved at Colne very closely, and after his time at Colne came to an end, I made contact with him. I was introduced to Steve through a friend who had been in touch with him to recommend me, given my knowledge of this level of football, as well as my local knowledge and connections. Steve is brilliant; I have attended plenty of games and training sessions and it is so clear to see the passion, dedication and talent that he has. It’s clear to see that he wants to take Curzon Ashton to heights that they have not yet reached. Working for him is a pleasure; he holds high standards but he will give you 100 per cent so that you reach those standards and beyond. I cannot speak highly enough about him.
Welcome to the club big man. https://t.co/qcAFVOkyb0
— Steven Cunningham (@StevenCunny) October 26, 2020
Tell me about how it worked at Boston United, how you’d liaise with (chief scout) Richard Boryszczuk, and the time period you were involved with the club.
Richard is a total gent, one of the best there is. He would be in touch regularly to have me watching teams and targets, some of which are now playing for Boston United; I hope that my reports assisted in the recruitment of these players. Working with Richard was brilliant, I enjoyed every moment of it. I was absolutely devastated for him and the club when Boston missed out on promotion last season, as they really deserved it. I’m sure it will come for them soon, though. I will always only say good things about Richard and Boston United; such a well-run club with some brilliant people there. That’s also one of the great things about Curzon Ashton, there are so many brilliant people at the club who are so passionate and so hard-working to make sure that Curzon can achieve. It’s a pleasure to be connected to such a brilliantly-run, community club.
Steve Cunningham mentioned the quality of reports that you were producing for Curzon, and how you were on the same page for the type of players you were trying to identify for the club. What is that ‘type’ the club is primarily looking for? Without masses of finance to work with, is it players who’ve been let go by pro clubs, is it someone doing well at lower levels in non-league, pro club youngsters available for loan etc.?
When it comes to recruitment, we have different categories which we look to scout within. This could be that we are looking for young players who have been let go by professional clubs that are looking to make their way back into the pro game. They have to be hungry to succeed but also willing to learn the ugly side of the game. We are also looking for players who are well experienced at this level, players like Craig Mahon, Paul Turnbull, Dale Whitham and others who offer so much knowledge and experience to some of the younger players in the squad, whilst also offering so much themselves on the pitch. We are looking to these players to bring their talents, which have brought success elsewhere, here to Curzon Ashton. We also look at the lower levels of football for players who could take the step up and adapt to this level of football. Marcus Poscha is a perfect example of this player; Poscha, whilst unfortunately injured at the moment, has been one of Curzon’s best performers in the games he has played so far.
We then look for players like Darren Stephenson, Dom Knowles, Alex Curran and Max Harrop. Players who have such a good reputation and have good seasons recently behind them, but they might be coming off the back of injuries and spells out. It’s a case of ‘can we pick up a player who is looking to kick off his career again?’ It might take a little time to get them back to their best but we think we offer good, structured training to assist these players. We also offer an environment which allows these players to get back to their peak, which is obviously good for both the player and Curzon Ashton. We are also looking for players who can cope with Steve’s style of management; Steve is very intense, the training sessions are very intense. You need to work hard if you want to succeed at Steve Cunningham’s Curzon Ashton. He has very high standards and he expects those around him to meet those standards, which is something everybody at the club should be striving to achieve.
Tell me about the kind of details you go into with the players/teams you will compile reports on. With players, will it bring in things like what people they’ve worked with say about them as a character?
I will really deep-dive into all aspects of them as a player; their football, their body language on and off the pitch, their communication, and I will often get references from people who have worked with them. I’m lucky enough to have lots of good contacts at this level of football, and if I don’t know somebody who has worked with a player I am watching, then I will know somebody who knows somebody who has. It works both ways too; at times, people will contact me asking about a player. I regularly get calls and texts from clubs in Europe who want to come to an arrangement, in regards to my knowledge of players in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. When it comes to team reports, it really depends what the manager asks for. There have been times where I have been asked for a full report and there have been times where I have been asked for something more basic. Generally, I go for a full report, though, which will include shape in and out of possession, set-pieces, attacking movements, defensive shape and many other aspects of a team.
Are there any differences in how this side of the game (scouting, data, analysis etc.) is approached/viewed in Denmark to England, in your experience? Obviously FC Midtjylland got attention for the ‘Moneyball’ way, but is that still a unique example in Danish football?
The Moneyball method is still quite a unique way of working in Denmark; it’s obviously reaping rewards for FC Midtjylland recently and it’s nice to have some healthy competition in the Superliga. FC Midtjylland do get a lot of attention, both within and outside of Denmark. People make assumptions on what Moneyball is and I think many people have different ideas of what it means, and that means lots of people have different opinions on it. FC Midtjylland have taken data to a new level in the Danish game, which is interesting to see. Some clubs in Denmark don’t really have a data analysis process in place. I think it’s something which won’t work for every club, though; for a data analysis department to succeed, it needs buy-in from everybody at the club. If that isn’t the direction the team manager wants to go in, then this method just won’t work.
Scouting is very valued in Denmark, whereas I have spoken to a couple of clubs elsewhere in Europe who don’t really put the money or time into their scouting team. The Superliga is a very competitive league, and apart from a couple of clubs, there aren’t really any vast differences in terms of budget, so clubs often look to make the most of their scouting department to give them the edge. I think scouting in Denmark, you gain a different set of skills and different expertise than you would working in England; there is no wrong way of working but it is interesting to learn new ways and to gain experience of different regions.
Finally, how has the role with Curzon worked so far, with the uniquely challenging circumstances in a wider sense? How does it fit alongside any other work you do and life in general?
It’s certainly very strange at the moment. It’s challenging, and with the suspension of non-elite football, it makes my job much more difficult, but there are still plenty of things I can keep myself busy with. I already have one database with over 300 reports in there, and another with over 500, so I can look to revisit these and update accordingly. I also work full-time as a complaints handler in financial services and I run support groups for youngsters who live with Tourette’s Syndrome. I live with Tourette’s and I have worked so hard to get to where I am today where it doesn’t affect me much at all really. I share that knowledge and run support groups so we can all bounce off each other to help each other. At the moment, this has all moved on to WhatsApp, with the current situation.
I also regularly support a local charity who provide period products to local schools and food banks so that girls and women who can’t afford them can still have access to them. This is something I put a lot of my time and money into, as I am a big believer in it. Other than that, to be honest, I like to just chill out with a pint of IPA, DIPA, or if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll go for a TIPA. Anything by Mikkeller, To-Øl or Cloudwater is the way to my heart. I’m also a massive geography and architecture nerd; my bookshelf is full of football, travel, geography and architecture books. I love reading about those topics and learning new things. I spend a lot of time researching cities and the style of architecture within those cities. I am a lover of Copenhagen, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava and Amsterdam.
Interview by @chris_brookes