Article from Rob Tanner about Steve Walsh
At the back of a small cafe towards the rear of a gift shop in the Leicestershire village of Rothley, the unassuming figure of Steve Walsh sits with his wife, Val, quietly drinking coffee. The crumbs of a very-much-enjoyed cake are still on the small plate in front of him.
The 66-year-old fits into these humble surroundings, having remained quietly out of the limelight throughout his career as one of the most important scouts and recruitment gurus in the Premier League. Having lived locally during his time as Leicester City’s assistant manager and head of recruitment, he knows the area’s coffee shops well, but not half as well as he knows where to find hidden footballing talent.
The softly-spoken Walsh, whose Lancashire accent hides his Irish ancestry, was once dubbed by Sir Alex Ferguson the “most important influential person in the Premier League” as a squad of players Walsh largely found and recruited, at a cost of just £21 million, claimed the Premier League title, defying bookmaker odds of 5,000-1.
At Chelsea, he scouted and wrote reports on Gianfranco Zola, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, and worked under a succession of managers, including Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas, but his most famous finds have been Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante, who played such huge roles in Leicester’s title triumph.
His work at Leicester prompted Everton to make him their director of football, but he didn’t find the same open and unrestricted environment at Goodison Park that he enjoyed at the King Power Stadium, with the likes of Andy Robertson, Harry Maguire and Erling Haaland slipping through the net. After leaving Merseyside in May 2018, he has remained in demand as a recruitment consultant but is taking things a little easier these days, enjoying travelling with Val.
Walsh is back in Leicestershire temporarily to see old friends and to watch his former club take on arsenal as they once again look to upset the Premier League’s elite, and he takes the time to reflect with The Athletic on his career.
Born in Chorley to Irish parents, Walsh and brother Mickey were obsessed with football from a young age and while his brother went on to play as a striker for Blackpool, Everton, Queens Park Rangers and Porto, Walsh played non-League as a defender for Chorley, Morecambe and Leyland Motors, but from an early age he was involved in organising teams, including a seven-a-side outfit when he was just 12.
While playing semi-professionally, Walsh worked as a PE teacher at Bishop Rawstorne High School in Croston, took his coaching badges and managed Lancashire Schoolboys, including the future Leicester captain and namesake Steve Walsh, Steve Thompson, Franz Carr, Mark Brennan and David Lee.
“After playing, I had joined Bury and I was still teaching full-time but I was on call to do some coaching, take the reserves and sometimes the first team, doing stuff in the holidays,” Walsh recalls.
“The logical next step was to do the analysis. I did that for Bury and helped coach. I was a general dogsbody. I would coach, wash the kit, drive the minibus. Then I went to Chester City and did a similar role there. You do everything: put the nets up, watch the opposition etc. I was very much involved in that.”
In 1990, he was asked by Gwyn Williams, Chelsea’s chief scout, to do some part-time work watching opponents and providing reports and the role became permanent.
“I was working in analysis, going to watch the opposition,” Walsh says. “There were no DVDs in the early days, no recordings, it was based on what you saw. You would go and watch a team or a player and write a report.
“While I was there, the club was managed by Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli. I was working really hard and had other offers from clubs, including Notts County, and from there I went full-time at Chelsea.
“Jose Mourinho was there by then with Andre Villas-Boas and Frank Arnesen as director of football. Lee Congerton was there, Brendan Rodgers was looking after the under-21s, Paul Clement was looking after the under-16s and Steve Clarke was first-team coach. Mick McGiven (youth coach), I worked with him quite closely. We had a good bunch of people. I grew up with those people.
“It was a good environment for me. I was doing European scouting, watching Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Drogba, all the players they eventually signed. It wasn’t 100 per cent me, I was just part of the process.
“When I joined Chelsea initially, they were lucky if they stayed out of the bottom three but it just got better and better. Then Glenn came in and stabilised the club, took us to a cup final against United, we lost 4-0, and then he was taken for England.
“We had a succession of foreign managers. I was in Nigeria around about the time when Roman Abramovich took over, working with Bryan Robson and Geoff Hurst, coaching the coaches in Lagos as part of the Pepsi programme. I saw Abramovich was coming in and I wondered what would happen to me, but it was good.”
Abramovich’s arrival sparked unprecedented success at Chelsea, especially under Mourinho, who Walsh says he is still on good terms with now. He feels Mourinho lost his way during his tenure as manager at Manchester United, and blames the club’s recruitment policy. For Walsh, recruitment is crucial to any club’s success, but it has to be recruitment with a purpose and a plan, something that didn’t seem obvious during United’s recent transfer activity.
“I had more to do with Villas-Boas than Jose, but I did have a good relationship with Jose, and still do,” says Walsh. “He was very driven in those days. He is probably more mellow now. I remember we got beat 3-1 by Spurs. No one planned to get beat. We were top of the league. The next day it was like going to a funeral down the training ground. He was really driven and still is. He is a real character and a real winner.
“He would be the first to admit that he probably needs to reinvent himself now a little bit. Obviously, it didn’t go right at United. Pep Guardiola was asked in an interview with a newspaper how he accounted for his success. He said 80 per cent of it was recruitment. I think Jose may have lost sight of that fact.
“You have to work out what you want and need. Don’t try to attract players with no plan: ‘He’s available so we will take him.’ Alexis Sanchez is a good example. During the title-winning season we only lost three times but two of those were against arsenal. They pasted us at Leicester, 5-2. We played well and Jamie scored a remarkable goal, but Sanchez was outstanding that day. He was instrumental in both games.
“But it is not about collecting players, it is about having a clear plan and a strategy of how you want to play.
“When Jose signed Romelu Lukaku from Everton, I remember saying to him, ‘You have to be careful with Lukaku. He is a big baby, you know.’ He said he could handle him. I don’t think he really got Lukaku on-side mentally, which you have to do. That is the case with him and Paul Pogba. They aren’t my type of players. They are more about themselves than the team. I wouldn’t have touched them. Because they are good players doesn’t mean you are going to get a good team out of it.
Mourinho of Manchester United gives the ball to Romelu Lukaku against Valencia in 2018 (Photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)
“United have made a lot of signings. Look at £50 million for Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Now, perhaps it is too early and he will improve, but my eyes tell me when he gets the ball he is not the best. He is a good athlete and very quick, strong, and a good defender, but United don’t need a good defender, they need someone who can play, get on the ball.
“If I had been at United, I would have said, ‘Put your £50 million away, go and get Kieran Trippier for half that. He is an England international. He isnt a great defender or a physical specimen, but he can play right-back and get the ball in early and you have strikers who can score goals.’ It is common sense.”
Walsh left Chelsea to become chief scout at Newcastle United under Sam Allardyce. That is where he first met Nigel Pearson, who he would form a successful partnership with at Leicester, although their early relationship was tested when Walsh would send Pearson off to scout players across Europe.
“Previously to that, Nigel had been with Glenn Roeder but he (Roeder) had been sacked and Nigel stayed,” Walsh remembers. “He was forging his relationship with Sam but he had also brought in Steve Round at the same time. They did the coaching between them. I met Nigel and we got on.
“Sam had a big thing to say, ‘When the international break comes, you make sure these coaches get out and watch some games and players. They need to look at players for you and help with our database.’ I sent Nigel to watch a full-back in Switzerland. He wasn’t pleased. Sam was in the room at the time and Nigel had obviously lined up something else. So I gave him the task and he just said to text him the details, and after he left the room Sam said, ‘He is definitely going. Make sure he goes.’ Nige was fuming. I badgered him, and he wrote a report for me, too.”
Pearson would soon calm down, and when he was offered the chance to take on the manager’s job at Southampton he turned to Walsh to advise him on recruitment and scouting. “When he got to Southampton he didn’t have any help, so I offered to help him talk about players,” Walsh says. “So when he got the job he called me up and said he needed an agent, so how could I ever recommend anyone other than my brother? So, he ended up representing him. He got him the job at Southampton.
“He called me up and said he wanted me down there. I asked, ‘In what role?’ He said whatever one I wanted! I flew down and had an interview with the board, and they were on-side with it, but then they all got the sack. Rupert Lowe had come back and sacked everyone, including Nigel. Nigel then joined Leicester.”
Pearson would take Walsh — and Craig Shakespeare from West Bromwich Albion — with him as assistant managers.
“I didn’t know Craig until we met up at Leicester,” Walsh added. “Now I stay with him from time to time. It was so much fun. Nigel is funny. He can make light of things. If he was in a good mood, we were all in a good mood. He was exactly what the club needed at the time.”
It wasn’t just the recruitment on the pitch that Walsh was concerned with. He set about building a team off the field that could help find talent at the right prices, as Leicester were still operating on a minimal budget under Milan Mandaric, who had taken over the club as it recovered from entering into administration in 2002.
Walsh embarked on building a scouting network that would eventually uncover many of the side that would go on to win the Premier League title in 2016, looking in areas and in leagues that many clubs were not.
“There wasn’t much at Leicester when we went in,” he remembers with a smile. “The first time we were there, Ian Holloway had just left and all the staff had left. The decks were cleared. We had a blank canvas to start again.
“It is about people and about bringing the right people to help you achieve your goal. It is about building it with the right people. I have had David Fallows, who was with me at Newcastle. Dave is at Liverpool now. I brought in Gavin Fleig. Gavin looks after the recruitment for Manchester City’s New York and Melbourne teams. Also Ben Wrigglesworth, who is head of recruitment now at Wolves. Rob Mackenzie went to Spurs. I could go on. Laurence Stewart was with me at Hull but was poached by Manchester City. I took him to Everton and now he is at Leipzig.
“You need those people who have good analytic brains. You need them to do the number-crunching and a lot of the leg work, so when you go out to watch a player a lot of the work is done. You aren’t going in blind.
“You could watch any game in the world and like a player, and you can tell whether that player will fit into what you want to do, but you need other things. You need the back-up to convince the owner that if I am spending £50 million of his money I am not wasting it. I am not going to write down on a piece of paper that he is a good player and hand it to the owner, I need to back it up with the stats and video footage of what I want to highlight.”
It was this approach that convinced Vardy to join Leicester. Walsh gave the then-Fleetwood Town striker a video presentation of his strengths and what they wanted to develop in him, similar to the one he would give the club’s hierarchy to convince them to spend £1 million on a player from non-League.
But in those early days, there weren’t millions to spend. Very little in fact, and the loan market was Walsh’s domain, calling on his contacts at Premier League clubs.
“In the first year we didn’t have much money,” he says. “I think we had five goalkeepers on loan in that first season. We had loads of loan players.
“Tom Cleverley came in from Manchester United, Jack Hobbs from Liverpool, Michael Morrison from Oxford United for £20,000. We had Chris Powell on a free from Charlton, Kerrea Gilbert came in on loan from arsenal to play right-back, although he couldn’t take a throw-in, strangely.
“I remember on one occasion we handed a team-sheet to Andrew Neville (director of football operations) and he told us we couldn’t field that team because we had too many loan players. I told Nige. He said, ‘I’ll do what I want.’ I had to remind him that we were breaking the rules and if we won we would lose the points. We had to change the line-up. But it worked as we got promotion, and it kicked on from there.”
But only for another season. Pearson, Walsh and Shakespeare almost took Leicester straight through to the Premier League, but for a penalty shoot-out defeat at Cardiff City in the play-off semi-final and Yann Kermorgant’s woeful Panenka penalty. With Pearson’s sometimes abrasive approach rubbing up chief executive Lee Hoos the wrong way, they were all shocked when Hull City were granted permission to speak to them – an indication Leicester were looking for a new direction.
While they were at Hull, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and King Power took over Leicester, Sven-Goran Eriksson was given millions to spend on a new team of big-name signings, and Walsh’s template was ripped up. But the trio had unfinished business with Leicester and when Eriksson’s approach, which saw a dozen players arrive in a single summer, failed, those still at the club championed Pearson and his team’s return.
This time, it would be a completely different ball game.
“When I came back, we had to start again because Sven-Goran Eriksson had been in, so there was no strategy, which was great because, again, we had a blank canvas on which to work,” says Walsh.
Once more, Walsh and his recruitment staff would be scouring untapped areas to find talent. One of their signings who captured the imagination was diminutive French winger Anthony Knockaert, discovered by Walsh at Guingamp. They paid £2.5 million for his services.
“He was great, Anthony, for us, but Nigel was never fully having him,” Walsh says. “I was pushing him in team meetings and Nigel would say, ‘If you mention him one more time I am going to knock you out’. I would say, ‘Well, if you are going to leave your best player on the bench, it is up to you’. Eventually, he got into the team.
Anthony Knockaert of Brighton faces former club Leicester City in February (Photo: Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)
“I went to watch him. I tried to have a scouting system but I didn’t have anyone in France at that time. I would send scout David Mills, who is still at the club, to go and watch and then I would go. There was a video system but, in those days, even back eight years ago, there wasn’t the coverage there is now. The systems were Pro Zone, Scout 7 have a system and there was one other. You can pretty much get anything on anybody at any time day or night. There are big companies who have invested a lot of money into it.
“I think I sent Millsy out to watch him and tell me what he thought. I watched him first play on video footage and I remember his brother had just died. He had a shirt on underneath in tribute to his brother and when he scored he took his club shirt off and revealed this t-shirt with a tribute ‘For My Brother’.
“I met him, his girlfriend and his dad. I went to watch him play and I took a friend of mine, because I had a place out in north France. My friend was a good French speaker and he came to have dinner with them, to translate. His English wasn’t bad, but his father, who has sadly died, couldn’t understand.
“Anthony was a good signing for us. It was ground-breaking, I suppose, for Leicester in those days, to sign Anthony. When we won the Championship we had Anthony on one side and Riyad Mahrez on the other. Anthony could be very frustrating as a player because you never knew when the ball was coming in. He would check back three or four times before he crossed it. I remember Jamie saying to me once, ‘Don’t sign any more of these French players,’ because he was sick of Anthony.
“I signed Riyad and N’Golo Kante after that. I saw Jamie at his villa in the Algarve not long ago and I reminded him of the time he said don’t bring any more of those French players in and then I signed Kante. He said, ‘Alright, alright!’ But Anthony was a part of Leicester’s success.”
But while Pearson had laid the groundwork, guiding the club to the Premier League and keeping them up after a great escape, Walsh and Shakespeare would lose their leader and the man who brought them together when Pearson was sacked.
His successor was familiar to Walsh from their time together at Chelsea, but he remembers there was genuine shock within the camp when Claudio Ranieri arrived during a pre-season training camp in Austria. They were expecting someone else!
“I was the only one who knew Claudio because I had worked with him at Chelsea. I was doing match reports for him back then,” Walsh recalls. “He said to me once a long time ago, ‘Steve, you are the best.’ When someone says that to you, you remember it. Me and Craig were taking the team. We didn’t know what was happening. I had a call from Jon Rudkin (director of football). They were flying in on a private jet and we were going to meet the new manager. That was the first time he told me it was Claudio.
“All the players were expecting Big Sam Allardyce to come through the door. There had been so many rumours. But Claudio walked in and he called me over and seemed pleased to see me. I took him upstairs and introduced him to the players. They were all like, ‘Who?’ Jamie and Kasper Schmeichel were the first to react. Gary Lineker said the same thing, didn’t he? It was amazing what followed. It was a great time for us all.”
A big feature of that incredible season were Ranieri’s entertaining press conferences and comic phrases.
He rang an imaginary bell and shouted ‘Dilly-ding, dilly-dong’ to attract his players’ attention and after the media got wind of it, when Vardy revealed his attention-grabber, Ranieri would repeat it in press conferences, affairs which would become more and more comical as the season progressed and his players continued to navigate unchartered waters.
“It was good when he did that stuff in press conferences because if deflected the pressure off the players,” Walsh insists. “Nige would never have done that, and he got the press on-side. If you were English and saying, ‘Dilly-ding, dilly-dong’ they would have had you committed. But as a foreign manager with limited English, you can get away with it. Even Jose Mourinho would do it at times. Some of his phrases he uses…”
Where do you go after such a high as winning the title as 5,000-1 underdogs? For Walsh, it was time for a new challenge.
Everton, his brother’s former club, came calling with the offer of becoming their director of football, paying £800,000 compensation to Leicester. No longer was he just overseeing recruitment, now he was given the responsibility of overhauling all of the club’s football operations… or so he thought.
Walsh is reluctant to reflect too much on his time with Everton. It is still too soon after his sacking 18 months ago for him to go into much detail, but it is obvious sitting across the table from him that there is a sense of frustration.
“While I was at Everton, I offered them Andrew Robertson and Harry Maguire deals, when they were at Hull, and it was worth £20 million for the pair,” is one of the things he does reveal. “Everton wouldn’t take them.
“I had a deal done for Jonny Evans too before he came to Leicester, but again they wouldn’t take him. Erling Haaland, the striker with Salzburg, I had him and his dad at the club with a deal done for €4 million. The club wouldn’t back me.”
Walsh stops himself from revealing any more, but while he is disappointed his time at Everton didn’t work out as planned, he is not bitter. He is enjoying himself, travelling with the extremely patient Val, a retired head teacher, seeing some of the places they had always dreamed of going to.
He is still working too, helping out his many contacts in the game when they ask for help and advice, offering tips on scouting and even checking out a player or two for other clubs.
Walsh’s skills are still very much in demand.