In January 2013, Aberdeen fans unveiled a memorable banner at Pittodrie before a 2-2 draw against Dundee United.
It read: “Aberdeen have what money can’t buy – a soul, a team spirit built in a family tradition.” The quote was attributed to Alfredo Di Stefano, Real Madrid’s then-manager and revered striker, after Aberdeen’s famous extra-time victory over Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in Gothenburg in 1983.
As a quote, it is a reminder that sometimes it takes a stranger’s eyes to see things as they really are. And it is also a perfect encapsulation of The Dons’ carefully cultivated image as a historic club that has dared to dream while staying true to their core traditional values of respect, community and fierce ambition, laid down in the era of Alex Ferguson and Dick Donald, Aberdeen’s quietly inspirational chairman.
So it was especially sad to see Aberdeen embracing the worst excesses of modern football in March when they advertised a pair of performance and scouting analyst roles as unpaid internships of indeterminate length and with undisclosed prospects for employment.
The successful candidates would be required to “assist with the filming, scouting and feedback on the performance of Academy players”, reporting to the first-team analyst. They would film a match at the weekend and “carry out appropriate analysis” and “provide feedback to coaches and players” afterwards.
Further scrutiny of the job description revealed not an opportunity for self-development and training but the requirements for a professional skill set of an experienced person. That is, a successful candidate able to “communicate analysis findings and make recommendations” and to “provide the necessary support and advice to Youth Academy coaches, players and other Aberdeen FC staff through the development, analysis and dissemination of all data collected via test results, player profiling and match analysis.”
And all for the price of two Aberdeen season tickets and some “subsidised” food.
Understandably, the ad met with significant kickback, and when I put it to the club that asking people to work for free in professional football roles was not morally correct, I was delighted to hear that these vacancies would now be withdrawn, temporarily at least.
An AFC spokesperson said: “Subsequent to these positions being advertised, it was agreed to conduct a root and branch review, in conjunction with our HR advisers, of our complete intern process. That review is currently ongoing but any changes will be implemented prior to the advertised positions being confirmed.”
Having been alerted to the plight of unpaid “volunteers” and interns at a number of Scottish clubs, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) were cautiously optimistic about Aberdeen’s U-turn, while insisting it was only a start.
An STUC spokesperson said: “While we welcome Aberdeen Football Club’s decision to carry out a review of their internships, we must stress that any review carried out must put an end to unpaid bogus internships and ensure that interns are treated fairly.
“What we don’t want to see in Scotland is a culture of unpaid interns being both exploited and used to undercut the wages of other workers.
“The STUC are happy to work with Aberdeen Football Club, the SFA and any other football clubs who plan to employ interns to bring about best practice that will benefit all workers.”
But for the veteran football journalist Michael Calvin, author of a definitive trilogy of books detailing the business of football in England at the start of the 21st century, the adoption of “foreign” practices in Scottish clubs, and the rhetoric used to justify them, is all too familiar.
He says: “This is a culture that purposefully blurs the lines between contribution and exploitation, opportunity and endpoint. The football industry has a terrible record of caring for its people.”
The ever strengthening cult of getting people to work for nothing in football has its advocates right at the top of the game. And if anything, its grip is strengthening, with its proponents happy to publicly share tips on how to extract maximum value for zero outlay.
Last year the second episode of The Scottish Football Marketing podcast featured Colin Millar, accountancy graduate, Hibernian’s then communications and marketing manager and now Hibs’ operations manager, in what was an SFA-promoted “How To…” for recruiting and deploying volunteers.
Millar was himself a volunteer who would no doubt claim that his decision to work for nothing landed him his top job. Yet, in a flat recruitment structure, Millar is the exception to an otherwise dismal rule, where there are no guarantees, no progression and almost certainly no training. When paid vacancies are advertised, they tend to be filled not by time-served volunteers but by those already in comparable paid roles.
Millar regards “volunteer culture” as a compelling solution for cash-strapped clubs in the digital age. But does the endless pleading of poverty by clubs – at least in the top two divisions – really hold true?
In October 2018, Hibernian reported a pre-tax profit of £0.2 million for the year ended June 30, 2018. Cash balances were £4.2m, up from £3.5m one year earlier. If they wanted to establish the principle that paying for good work is the right and proper thing to do, then they could. It either isn’t a priority or you would have to conclude that clubs that “employ” a reserve army of volunteers are philosophically opposed to paying people they can otherwise exploit for free.
Fans, of course, can and do view volunteering as a badge of honour. And that is absolutely fine when it comes to a bit of DIY or clearing snow from pitches, but true football people – those with hard-won professional skills – are likely to see volunteering as something quite different.
For scouts, casual coaches in cash-generating community projects, put-upon support staff and the like, free labour is the perfect illustration of football’s class system in action. This is what the Irish Independent’s Eamon Sweeney calls football’s Downton Abbey economics.
He says: “Upstairs the aristocrats have so much money they hardly know what to do with it while downstairs the servants scrape by on a pittance.”
This is a cynical encroachment on previously sacrosanct roles and an attack on genuine professionals’ livelihoods and expertise. It is a source of abuses that has encouraged deskilling and downgrading within clubs’ scouting, sports science and media and marketing departments.
As Calvin says, it is a sophisticated application of internships, CV building, jam tomorrow – a divide-and-rule strategy that pits misplaced enthusiasm against hard-won experience in a race to the bottom.
As the foremost chronicler of modern football’s realities, Calvin highlights an important distinction between performing menial tasks as an expression of shared identity and the casually cruel use and abuse of talent, youth, goodwill and technical, professional skills.
He notes: “At its heart, football is naturally exploitative, and it is populated by people that excel in that culture. The rhetoric is of clubs as community assets, but the rationale is that of a multinational corporation.”
With unabashed pride, those that promote the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing volunteer cult exemplify football’s twisted ethics; and the miserable bent for back-office decisions predicated on self-preservation, an absence of accountability and the morality of instrumental reason.
At Arsenal, for example, academy manager Per Mertesacker was recently dispatched to a refugee camp in Jordan as part of the club’s commitment to “social responsibility”. It would be wrong to doubt the sincerity of this exercise but it is perhaps interesting to note that Arsenal have refused to sign up for a national living wage for their own staff.
In effect, the labour of volunteers and opportunity-seekers is subsidising corporate wages. Despite the rhetoric of poverty, the balance sheets and other spending confirm that clubs can afford to pay but actively choose not to do so.
According to the Soccerex Football Finance 100, which ranks teams from all over the world on their money in the bank, playing and fixed assets, the Gunners hold £766m in fixed assets, which is more than any other club in world football; have £300m deposited in the bank, and have the lowest debt in England (£8m).
At Aberdeen, Derek McInnes is one of a number of Premiership managers on record as an advocate of VAR, a system that estimates say would cost £10,000 per game to implement. If he is even aware of the practice once mooted as an option at Pittodrie, then he somehow sees no contradiction with his football department exploiting free labour in technical areas.
If our top clubs can find money for VAR there is surely no case to answer here that “volunteers” or “interns” that are really doing professional work must be paid, moving the debate on swiftly to how that should be done.
In the four Scottish league divisions, 16 of the 42 clubs had replaced or removed managers within the first 70 days of the season. That’s 38 per cent of Scotland’s clubs committed to paying up contracts to replaced managers, assistants and other staff. Clearly, clubs can find cash for the things they want to pay for when it suits them.
Football treats good people – its so-called servants – poorly not because it has to but because it can.
Consider the story of Alan – not his real name – who is currently in his second, long, hard season of attempting to build a career at a Scottish Premiership club as a volunteer.
Alan supplies online previews and match reports, video and social media content, contributions to the club programme and video footage on match days.
He estimates that he gives the club around 20 hours of peak-time labour each week while at the same time meeting the obligations that come from having a young family. In the summer he was led to believe that he had finally got his break with a paid role as a provider of in-house media for a Scottish League Two side – only to be told at the eleventh hour that a teenage volunteer would be doing the work instead.
“It’s an impossible situation to be in,” he says. “You’re taken for granted, but at the same time you can see your work being credited with making an impact for the club. You’re left in no doubt, though, that should you move aside there’ll be another mug along shortly to take your place. And at the same time your body of work becomes a rod for your own back. It’s hard to just throw that up in the air and walk away, although that’s what any rational person would do in any other line of work.”
There is a fundamental disconnect between the men and women who arrange things in the padded seats and the underlings who actually make the spectacle possible. The net effect is that whenever a club takes on free scouts, free support staff, free journalists or free photographers and videographers, real jobs, paid jobs, become deskilled by perception and devalued in fact.
And once a job has been deskilled and devalued financially, as is happening throughout the game, there really is no going back.
We have already reached a stage at which Blackpool can try to hire an analyst for £12,000 a year and Doncaster can pay an experienced physio a salary of £16,000. Free-market fundamentalism alone dictates that there is no reason to cough up any more than people are willing to accept. Clubs endlessly play up their role as institutions reflecting their wider communities’ hopes and aspirations – so why don’t they all simply do the right thing?
Dan Ling, of the Scouting Network, a supplier of Next Opponent and Player Assessment since 2005, is one of those prepared to take a stand. He has established the Football Scouting Forum to provide resources and assistance to novice and established scouts alike, allowing them to make more informed decisions as they navigate the shark-infested waters of professional football clubs.
“A pattern of behaviour is spreading through the game in every UK country,” says Ling. “The club will take a scout in – a young guy from a university degree course – and have them write reports on players and next opponents. They’ll check their work against Wyscout or Instat, and if it stacks up they’ll allow them to continue until they inevitably ask to be paid – then they’ll let them go and restart the same process again. There’s no training, no feedback, no honing your craft – just short-termism.”
Sadly, Swansea City’s website no longer contains their shameless 2018 advert for voluntary talent scouts. The nine-point wish-list includes previous experience of football scouting, knowledge of youth football and player development, involvement in school district or county football and a familiarity with local league or grassroots football. In effect, an English Championship side is seeking a strategic planner, organiser and coordinator – for no pay.
In November 2018, the scouts’ grapevine was buzzing with the news that a well-known ex-chief scout was being replaced at an English club by a novice prepared to work for petrol expenses. Make no mistake, volunteers are taking the place of paid employees in a culture of bad faith.
As I write, a well-known Scottish scout is considering his options after a period out of the game. His next move to a Premiership club has been complicated by the fact that two existing scouts work for free as “fans”. They consider it “a noble contribution,” he says.
But the reality is that their status as volunteers means that those who can’t afford to subsidise a club with their phone bills, fuel and time have to step away. What volunteer culture gives you is clubs that exploit the dream of working in football and a social and economic barrier to entry where the last man or woman standing is the person with the deepest pockets. It’s the opposite of a meritocracy, and the people who work for free make it difficult for everyone else who makes a contribution that should be being paid for. It isn’t right.
But you can hardly blame individual clubs from behaving expediently when even the game’s governing body is in on the act.
In February, my fellow scout told me, the SFA were also looking for a youth scout to look for talent at U12 level – the boys who will attend the local elite school, this area’s potential future internationals. At the very least the job will entail 10 to 20 hours’ work every week, attending games, writing reports, maintaining admin. Our cash rich governing body was paying nothing over and above 45p a mile to cover the cost of petrol.
If, as a fan, you wonder why we don’t have the right people in position or the best boys coming through, you should start here. If you don’t reward genuine expertise then you end up with people who will pay to wear the coat rather than the best people for the job. And that’s what we have in very many cases at clubs in Scotland, including clubs in the Premiership.
I have witnessed this myself, having previously worked at a League Two club whose budget for scouting is a big fat zero.
The prevailing philosophy is that the goodwill of volunteers “seeking experience for their CVs” will suffice. The same trigger-happy club have paid off three first-time managers and their assistants in the past four years, destroying their management careers in the process, yet no-one is posing questions about a lack of due diligence, or poor return on investment in recruitment.
But this is what happens when decisions are made by a corporate class of professionals whose only experience of management strategy is cutting budgets.
Bobby Jenks, a veteran scout and recruitment expert, is convinced that the embedded logic of austerity is killing clubs. He says executives should prioritise raising money to fund the projects they would like to enact rather than always relying on others to foot the bill and exploiting the goodwill of those desperate to get a start in the game.
It would be foolish to ignore what Jenks has to say. His CV encompasses major successes at the likes of Motherwell – where his tenure earned millions of pounds in transfer fees for Fir Park – Hearts and Aston Villa. He worked with Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest and Ron Atkinson at West Bromwich Albion. He helped to unearth talents such as internationals Phil O’Donnell, Stephen Pearson, Lee McCulloch and James McFadden. Chris Cadden, Allan Campbell, Barry Maguire, David Turnbull and Jamie Semple are the latest crop that have graduated to emulate previous Jenks signings within Motherwell’s first team.
Yet it is hard to imagine Scottish football’s current corporate class paying too much attention to the scout’s words of wisdom.
“The cry you hear is that there’s always no money to do anything,” says Jenks. “And yet there’s always money to sack a manager and his staff or to pay for other priorities, such as addressing poor recruitment on the playing side. The truth is that there are ways to pay for everything, and the first resort shouldn’t be to ask people with skills and experience to work for free. There’s another way, but to make it work needs a bit of vision – a different mentality at the top.”
This feature was originally published in Nutmeg 12.