Behind the man who coached and developed Rio Ferdinand: Modern football must not forget the human

By Nigel Brown

As part of #ThePursuit campaign legendary football coach and developer of players Tony Carr talks to Proximie’s The Link about developing young talent, the evolution of technology in football and the core considerations you need in the modern game when assessing a player.

Today, the scouting of professional footballers is a very different process to what it used to be. Data now dominates the modern game with decisions made on players based heavily and, in some cases, purely on performance data and predictive computer algorithms. In order to discuss the journey football has been on, and the change in approach to scouting, #ThePursuit campaign sought out the most famous Premier League academy player developer, the man with the best track record in modern football. Tony Carr MBE.

Now 70, Carr is the former Academy Director of West Ham United Football Club. He is credited with coaching and developing some of the greatest footballers to have played for England. Carr spent 41 years leading the Academy of Football at the Hammers, overseeing the recruitment and development of dozens of the biggest talents English football produced during that period.

He was appointed as director of youth development at the age of just 23 in 1973, and guided the young Hammers to FA Youth Cup glory in 1981 and 1999 — the latter a record 9–0 thrashing of Coventry City in the final. Carr was instrumental in the development of future England captains Paul Ince, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard Jr and John Terry, along with fellow Three Lions stars Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Alvin Martin, Tony Cottee, Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson. In his final years as Academy Director, the likes of Mark Noble, Jack Collison, James Tomkins, Anton Ferdinand, Junior Stanislas, Freddie Sears and Declan Rice all graduated to the first team and played Premier League football for the Hammers.

“You measured things on a simple level — your instincts, and on a gut feeling. Obviously the older the player is, the easier it is; the younger the player is, the more difficult because you’re looking at potentially maybe 10 years ahead. These days you might be assessing youngsters as young as eight years of age, and that is almost impossible.

“Now, obviously, there’s a lot more video evidence and a lot more stats you can gather in terms of their physical capabilities.”

In the modern game, before a player is even scouted, clubs can access data, video and even first hand summaries from former coaches and managers. Despite having increased access to more tools and technology, Carr believes it’s crucial to remember the human eye in assessing a footballer’s ability.

“The first look was and should always be technical. Technical, using your eyes,” says Carr.

“Making a decision on a player using your experience and what you had seen of them alone. Their family, their background, etc. When computers started to come in they took over from the logbook, which used to be a PFA requirement. We used to have to log player’s performances on a weekly and then monthly basis. And we would sit down with a player and talk about his performance and try to analyse the games.”

Carr is honest when asked if having access to current monitoring tools, additional data points and more analysis, would have changed many of his decisions or development choices:

“I don’t think data would have changed the decisions in my career too much if I’m honest, and I remember, sometimes, the technology and data can become a hindrance. Here’s an example and I will not name the player. We had a young player at the club, who was a very good young player. And when he was about 15, he developed quite a serious knee injury. And he spent about a year rehabbing. It became time to make a decision on whether a scholarship was going to be offered. So I had a consultation with my physio at the club, the youth team physio, and spoke to the boy’s consultant. The diagnosis or prognosis was that they didn’t feel that his knees would withstand a career in professional football. So we didn’t take him. We would have taken him but we didn’t take him purely because of those experts. That boy is now playing in the Premier League. My instinct was overridden by stats and expert advice. Obviously, the boy must have had a real willpower and has worked very, very hard to get where he is. I always used to say to my staff that we should use all the stats available, but don’t forget to use your eyes. Use your own instinct and your own knowledge and initiative in that respect. But don’t ever forget to use your eyes.”

One particular memory for Carr was when French manager Arsene Wenger first entered the Premier League in 1996, taking over at Arsenal. The profile of the modern player changed overnight, with more of an emphasis on mobility, athleticism and ultimately pace. Carr warned at the time, and he believes it has stood the test of time, that a singular focus or approach can be a little blinkered, and in doing so, one could miss other exceptional talents. He cites Barcelona as the perfect example of this, with the diminutive players progressing in recent years, who weren’t necessarily incredible athletes, or even that fast: the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

“I remember when Arsene Wenger first came in and he was obsessed with pace,” Carr explains. “People started to say, unless a player’s got pace, he can’t have a top career. Everyone was getting carried away. Well, if he hasn’t got pace don’t sign him. You don’t need pace to be a great asset to a side. It helps, but it’s not essential. Players with a quick brain have the first yard in their head, and these players can sometimes read the game better than the others — because they have to!”

In short Carr is a believer that tools and technology can only be a good thing for the game, as things are proving for successful modern clubs across Europe. However, the key for Carr is that the most effective use of the technology will still depend on the best scouts, with the best eye. It will always be a human that can give you the edge in finding a player.

“The game must not forget the human aspect. It is and will be forever more, fundamental.”
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