Steve Walsh: ‘The next Kante? I’ve already brought him to Everton’
‘Super scout’ Steve Walsh has high hopes of Gana and other new signings at Spurs today
The most influential person in the Premier League was at Bloomfield Road on Tuesday, on a cold, dank evening, watching League Two football on a quagmire pitch. Blackpool v Barnet: well, you never quite know. “I’m just going to have a look to see if there’s anybody there,” Steve Walsh had said. An addict talking. At 63, with a track record that leaves him nothing to prove, he would have been forgiven for staying at home.
“My wife would say I’m obsessed,” says Walsh in amused Lancastrian tones, “but the more you watch, the more knowledge you acquire.”
There is nothing quite like that moment of first clapping eyes on a talent. After all, it was only a few miles up the coast from Blackpool, in an obscure FA Cup tie, that Walsh saw Jamie Vardy at Fleetwood.
Vardy was among 10 players recruited by Walsh who were in Leicester’s regular starting XI last season. Those 10 cost £21m. As Leicester closed on their title miracle, Sir Alex Ferguson said: “The most influential person in the Premier League has been Steve Walsh.”
Obsession struck early. Growing up in Chorley, to Irish parents, Steve and brother Mickey were daft on the game. The magazine, Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, invited entries for a boys’ seven-a-side competition and Steve chivvied pals to club together the fee.
“I was the manager, the captain, washed the strips, organised the transport. We put the team together with players from different schools. I suppose I was doing recruitment even then.” He was 12.
Mickey, a forward, played for Blackpool, Everton and Queens Park Rangers before blazing a trail abroad with Porto. Steve, a centre-half, played non-league for Morecombe, Chorley and Leyland Motors while following a teaching career. While head of PE at Bishop Rawstorne High School, Croston, he was also European scout for Chelsea: after school on Friday he would race to an airport and fly off for a weekend of watching games, returning Sunday evening in time for school again. He did not tell the headmaster.
At Leicester he was not only head of recruitment but assistant manager, and he is full of tales about how that team was put together — Riyad Mahrez for £350,000, Danny Drinkwater £1m. Maybe his favourite concerns N’Golo Kante.
“When I first saw him [for Caen] I thought ‘is there two of him?’ He was everywhere. He wanted to go to Marseilles. Leicester? He didn’t know where Leicester was. We had to almost kidnap him.
“I had friends in France bring him over. His primary agent didn’t even know he was there.” Walsh got Kante to switch off his mobile phone and would not let him leave the training ground until he signed.
Claudio Ranieri was sceptical. “Claudio kept saying, ‘He’s not big enough. Why do I want Kante?’ I said, ‘I’m telling you . . . ’” and Walsh wore down the Italian.
“We bought him for £5.2m, sold him for £32m,” Walsh says, adding with a twinkle: “If you have an employee who can make you £27m in 12 months, that’s not bad.”
Now, Walsh brings that acumen to Everton, as director of football. We’re chatting on a sofa in Ronald Koeman’s office and a conversation here was his start point when he arrived in July. “We used that tactics board,” he says, pointing, and he got Koeman to run through his preferred systems, structures of play and the key roles in his teams.
Walsh then did a player audit on Everton’s existing squad and began going through his own vast records, a combination of documents and computer files. “I work my scouts really hard. They go to three games per week minimum and have to write three lines about every player on the pitch, so you’re getting a database on maybe 28 players per game, and not far off 100 reports from one scout per week.”
Initially, it was not easy. Walsh arrived halfway through the transfer window and had agreed with Leicester not to pursue targets they were working on, but fans had great expectations. “Everyone goes Kante, Mahrez, Vardy, he won the Premier League but it’s hard to do that wow-wow factor every time. But I’d like to think we did sensible recruitment in that first window.”
In Ashley Williams, an £11m arrival from Swansea, “we needed a player who could bulk up that defence, who could trade punches, get blocks in, be a leader. John Stones, good as he is, probably wasn’t the player we needed at that time.”
The next Kante? “I’ve already found him,” chortles Walsh, half-serious. He is talking about Idrissa “Gana” Gueye. Walsh had earmarked Gana to replace Kante at Leicester, having scouted him extensively when he played for Aston Villa, and Gana’s £7m signing typifies Walsh’s knack of seeing value by looking beyond a player’s surrounds. “He was playing with a really poor back four and being bypassed a lot when the ball went the other way. But I remember thinking, ‘If I get the chance . . . this guy is better than he’s showing’.”
Now Gana has the best stats in Europe’s top leagues for tackles and interceptions, just like Kante last season, “even though he’s been away to the African Nations,” Walsh says. Gana will have another chance to impress at Tottenham this afternoon.
“He’s very grounded, gets whacked, gets up, gets around people when they have the ball — very much like Kante. I’d say his use of the ball is slightly better, even if he’s not quite as good at retrieving.”
Morgan Schneiderlin was hardly a find, but a deal that was important to get done. The latest discovery is Ademola Lookman. Fans craved big names when the January window opened and there was surprise when Walsh’s first signing was a teenaged striker from League One. “Ademola’s the future,” Walsh explains. “He was on my radar at Leicester. I saw him against Oldham Athletic for Charlton, and never changed my mind on him. He’s got two feet. He’s not one who shifts it to his ‘stronger’ foot to finish. He does things that are unusual.
“There are things to add to his game, but I’ve real hope for him making it into the England team, if I’m honest.”
Lookman is in the vanguard of a strategy aimed at pushing Everton into the top four. A priority for Walsh, on arriving, was retooling the club’s under-21 recruitment. He installed Jamie Hoyland at its head, Damien Matthew in the south and Tony Grant in the north and issued an order: “Go away and find me the best five or six players where they’re at an age I can invest.”
Walsh has high hopes that Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a 19-year-old with power and pace, snared from Sheffield United for £1.5m, can be next to break through. When Lookman did it was glorious, the youngster coming off the bench with a minute left and still scoring in a 4-0 defeat of Manchester City.
Everton’s star on that rapturous night at Goodison was Tom Davies, a home-grown 18-year-old. “I see a lot of Bryan Robson about him, that swashbuckling, never-say-die attitude, wanting to be involved in everything. And he’s not just about aggression, he’s clever — 18 years of age for goodness sake. We might have to renegotiate that contract,” Walsh laughs.
“Putting Mola and Tom in the team sends the right signals. Even the best talents are interested in Everton: we might not pay top dollar but we have a pathway to the first team.
“If we can buy those kids and integrate them with our own youngsters of quality, it’s a potent mix. You get their energy and vitality and then you put Gana in there, Schneiderlin, Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, Ash. You just need a few more pieces and then you’ve got a top-four side.” Why, given the policy, covet Wayne Rooney then? It appears Koeman feels Rooney could elevate the whole team and help the kids through his ability and winning mentality. Rooney would have to take something like a 50% pay cut but the hope is that romance will prevail over money-making when Rooney chooses his next club after United.
“He didn’t leap to China [in January],” Walsh says. “The only person this can be driven by is Wayne and how much he wants to come back to Everton. He’s a top player. If the opportunity arose to bring him back, and it sat well with everyone, I’d drive over myself and get him.”
Of course, he would have to go and watch Rooney first. Walsh laughs. “Yes, I suppose.” He never signs a player he hasn’t seen himself live. For him, stats are important — they played their part at Leicester and he has brought in Laurence Stewart, who held similar roles with England and Manchester City, as Everton’s senior recruitment coordinator, promoting Dan Purdy to technical scout.
But stats “just back up your gut feeling.. All scouting does is minimise the risk. Until players go out and integrate on the training pitch, then put on that blue shirt for real, you’re never sure.”
No exceptions. At Blackpool, Walsh did not let himself off the hook, and dutifully complied his own three lines on every player. “Let’s say my German scout comes to me and says, ‘Steve, this is what we’re looking for, I really feel this is the guy.’ At that stage I’ll go across and see them.
“At some point someone’s got to put their balls on the line and say, ‘This is the man for us.’ And that’s me.”
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