A festive reflection: The Technical Area, December 2023
This month at SCOUTED, we look back.
The festive season is my favourite time of year. I associate winter with, discordantly, warmth: of fire, and the shine it leaves on blood-red baubles; and of contentment, the kind that allows my brain a rare of a rare peace from work.
December is also the month of my birthday. On Friday, actually, I turned 28. Which means I’m ten years older than I was the first time I scribbled the words Scouted Football in a little black notebook.
I can break up my adult life so far into sections just by reflecting on Scouted (I’ll refrain from our all-caps stylising for a moment) and the many eras we’ve moved through. This little website has existed for more than a third of my life. I’m deeply proud we’ve survived this long; I am terrified, honestly, by how short a decade feels.
It began as a blog, a group project by teenagers who wanted to write about football. Yes, you’ve heard this story before, forgive me.
I realise now I’ve always believed in communal success, in collaboration, even if such beliefs were then years away from conscious ideals. All I knew back then was I lacked the resources to make much of a splash on my own, so I reached out to others: writers I admired, young journalists I felt kinship with, and (crucially) people with more followers than me on Twitter. One such person was Llew:
Other early collaborators included Chris Moar and Alex Philpott, without whom we’d never have made it off the ground - if you’re reading guys, hi! I don’t know how, but we’re still going!
Jamie Kemp still writes for us to this day. Will Savage does too. A list of everyone who’s contributed to Scouted would be hundreds of names long.
In my head, it was a year or two before Stephen - then a precocious 16-year-old, if you can believe that - reached out and bullied his way onto the team through sheer force of will. I checked my DMs today and we first started speaking in August 2014, meaning Scouted had been rolling for just over a month. Funny how memory disassociates from time.
I was initially freaked out that a person younger than me was smarter, more driven and believed in my idea more than I ever could. We were still years away from making any money, so we didn’t have formal roles - but Steve quickly established himself as a leader. We met for the first time in his city, Melbourne, in 2015, where we watched Raheem Sterling’s first appearance for Manchester City in the freezing cold. So much for Aussie heat.
If it wasn’t for Stephen’s work ethic and refusal to quit, Scouted would’ve died with my passion for running it in 2016. This is a self-indulgent story but I’ve not yet developed the ego to write a memoir (everyone sighs in relief), so I haven’t the time to go deep into my personal journey with Scouted: but I hope you can understand that over a decade, fires fade and lights dim. I was figuring out who I wanted to be and discovered it didn’t involve dedicating my entire creative life to football.
Around that time, Stephen brought Joe Donnohue, Jake Entwistle and Phil Costa onto the team. That team shaped what Scouted became while I was at university between 2015-2019. I popped up now and again, whenever I felt my skills could be of use - like when we launched the first Handbook in 2016 - but for the most part I owe the perseverance of this website to Steve, Llew, Jake, Joe and Phil.
In 2018, Stephen left Australia to embark on a European odyssey, as I had done earlier in reverse. Llew and I picked him up from London and we accepted an invitation to visit Southampton’s training ground - the first time the three of us had been together. Steve lived in my university flat for three months. We went to football games and drank too much (I’m remembering now he attempted to drink a different beer every single day of his stay and to my knowledge, he achieved it). We worked on and published the third Handbook in that apartment, powered by fluorescent Monster Energy cans we’d buy from the Turkish supermarket across the road. We used to check the label and giggle at how much sugar and caffeine we were consuming, because the post-3am editing runs required some serious juice. I genuinely believe a single sip today would send me into a coma.
We incorporated Scouted as a limited company in 2019, my final year of university. You know the rest: we published print magazines, made some cool stuff, battled with the rest of the world through Covid, and realised even our fairytale ‘do it yourself’ attitude had its limits.
Once it was safe to go outside again, those of us based around London committed to meeting in the city once a year to hang out and spend whatever pennies the company card could spare on food and beer. It sounds odd, to make a big deal of ‘work drinks’ - but over the past ten years, chances to be together have been so rare. And let me tell you something: you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Joe Donnohue do karaoke at 2am. At Club Tropicana, drinks do indeed flow free. (I am desperate to post a video here. 1000 subscribers and I’ll leak it.)
As ever, I feel guilty taking up space in a football publication to write about stuff like this. But, as ever, I do have a point, even if that point is a little saccharine. Fuck it: if you don’t want cloying sentimentality, check back after Christmas. This is the one time of year I shouldn’t feel weird about it!
To arrive at the truth, ‘Scouted’, the brand, means little to me. It has evolved as we have, from children to…whatever we are now. It has become whatever we’ve needed it to be. It is a list on LinkedIn. It is a product, a neatly wrapped box with a bow on top. Just like Christmas, this season, whatever you call it, it’s a barrage of our most curated images, of bright lights and perfect colours, of the artificial sheen we use to wrap every human imperfection we can’t live to look at. All must be packaged, all must be sold.
Peel it all back and it’s the people. It’s always the people.
Christmas means peace to me because I can focus on my people and nothing else. And when I reflect now, on ten years of doing this website, through the wandering of passion and blackest of thoughts, through illness and madness and triumph, I ask myself the question that bugs me every year: why haven’t you walked away? And I give the same answer, again and again: because these are my people.
Happy holidays from all of us.
Right, now onto the serious stuff: I want to recap this year, which has been transformative for Scouted in many ways. It’s important to look back, to meditate on what has worked and which paths have been dead ends, lest we tread them again. So, this was 2023.
The year started with indecision and uncertainty. We’d spent the last six months of 2022 trying to figure out a way forward for the publication. The Handbooks were over. Our website was our only source of revenue. Conversations with potential investors had reached impassable roadblocks.
If we weren’t going to sign our complete independence away, I wanted to lean into what makes a publication special while it’s indie and broke: its relationship with its audience. So, in April, we put together a two-pronged plan. First, we’d build an online subscription platform so our audience could support us directly, online, all year round - and we could write for them with no barriers, no worrying about SEO or plastering the thing in ads. Thus, Notebook was born.
Second, we built a crowdfunding campaign for a new, improved print magazine, a successor to the Handbooks we called simply SCOUTED. We raised £13,000 of a required £30,000. It’s difficult to be proud of failure, but I think we should be. That amount of money, in a month, with an audience of our size, many of whom had already spent on Notebook - I am proud, and deeply grateful. We fell well short, but I think that says more about the costs associated with creating an indie print magazine in 2023 than it does about us.
So, we didn’t return to print and, sadly, Dan Leydon’s absurdly beautiful covers went to waste (or did they - stay tuned). That path lead to a dead end. We turned around and walked the other way.
We continued apace with Notebook and our website, both of which began to pick up steam as the summer passed. Our website traffic is dependent on one thing, mostly: how many people want to find young players for their FIFA and Football Manager games? So, as we barrel towards the fall release of both titles every year, the ball begins to roll. Stephen worked his SEO magic and November was one of the strongest months in our history.
Just before the new Football Manager game met the wider world, the team behind it reached out and invited me to join them at Legends of Football 2023 - an annual event that was, this year, celebrating the incredible Emma Hayes alongside my childhood hero (and favourite living person), Ian Wright. Many beers were consumed, friends made, old acquaintances reignited. It was funny timing, because I was beginning to explore a new avenue to support the publication.
Scouted’s reach and audience has always been relatively small. We have, since day one, prided ourselves on an absolute unwillingness to engage in clickbait and hyperbole. We wanted to present sensible, thoughtful analysis and writing that met the standards of the industry’s most successful scouts.
Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the key for success in media’s internet era. At least, it’s not the way to build the biggest reach - that remains to chat absolute nonsense and scream how every 15-year-old winger is going to change the world. That’s fine, whatever, we’ll stick to our guns, thanks.
What that restraint has failed to deliver in numbers it’s made up for in, for lack of a better term, respect. Since the beginning, we’ve been granted very cool opportunities from inside the football industry by professionals who appreciated our work. As I mentioned above, we were invited to Southampton in 2018, by a scout who enjoyed what we did. That was the first of many such relationships.
This year, I wanted to see if we could lean on our industry reputation to ease some of our revenue pressures. It seemed a no-brainer, and I feel stupid for not mining this particular vein sooner. Regardless, we found the perfect partners at SkillCorner.
After lots of initial discussions, Joe and I met the team in Soho. I’ll spare their blushes, but let me say this: it’s really nice to hold talks like this with real football people. We signed the contract soon after with no reservations. Scouted and SkillCorner are a perfect marriage, we think, and we can’t wait to work with them further.
At the same time, a representative from the J.League reached out to us. They needed help developing their English-language audience, and felt ours would be interested. We clicked very quickly; it’s extremely cool to be working with a league we admire and have covered for years. Long may it continue.
And that’s the year. Something clicked in 2023, for us and for me, personally. We stumbled through the dark, bounced off some walls, and fell headfirst into something that works. Writing the Handbooks was always an immense struggle, financially and in terms of the team’s wellbeing. But this year we’ve settled on a model that seems sustainable, doesn’t crush the team’s soul (a rarity in football writing, let me tell you) and will scale if we play our cards right. I know it’s standard corporatism to say ‘we’re so excited for the future!’ but, for the first time in a while, I really mean it. I think we know where we’re going now. We’re so excited for the future!
YET TO COME
I can’t share everything we have planned for next year, but here are some general thoughts. This bit will be more brief, I swear.
Refining Notebook: the first six months of Notebook have been about throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. In the new year, I’d like to refine the offering further, so our subscribers know exactly what to expect, and what their subscription fees are buying. Above all, I want Notebook to feel like a real football magazine, but with a direct and real-time connection to you guys.
Paid — Paid subscribers will continue to receive SCOUTED50 profiles every week. We made our name profiling footballers and don’t intend to stop. We’ll also be publishing opinion or analysis stories from our team of freelancers at least twice a month, and intend to add more ways for paid subscribers to interact with the team: Q&A’s, mailbags and chats are all on the table. And, of course, our youth tournament coverage is going nowhere.
Free — I want to ensure being a free subscriber to Notebook is an experience so good you can’t help but give us money. So, we’ll be re-committing to more regular free stories like DIGEST, our weekly free roundup of international youth football. Any paid-for commercial stories will always be free-to-read, too, and our big interview profiles - like Modern Renaissance or Flowers on Asphalt - will continue to be free, so as many people as possible can read them.
Branching out: The SCOUTED Podcast is back, featuring the silky smooth tones of Joe Donnohue’s radio voice (he’s the rare kind of man man who can boast both that and a face for television, the handsome devil). In the new year, we’ll launch SCOUTED Roundtable, a new, more casual show, featuring myself and any of Steve, Phil, Llew, and Joe - plus guests from our pool of wonderful industry friends. This show won’t feature the kind of deep-dive analysis on specific subjects Joe has mastered, but will rather be a general round-up of the week’s big stories. We want somewhere to hang out, chat and enjoy each other’s company, and thought we’d bring our audience along for the ride. We’ll make sure to give it a SCOUTED twist, don’t worry.
To speak in slightly more ethereal terms, my only goal for Notebook over the next year is to build a platform where we can write the football stories we care about and get paid for it. For me, this means speaking to more of the people who make football tick and telling their stories, on their terms. For Llew and Stephen, it means watching more young players and bringing them to your attention, as well as delivering original and unique analysis. And of course, we want to do it all while supporting freelance writers and journalists with fair rates, paid promptly.
We’re taking a break over the festive period to be with family, rest our brains and relax our typing hands. We hope you do too. We’ll be back on January 3rd, or thereabouts. We have a scheduled story or two to publish between now and then, but otherwise we’ll do our best to chill out.
If you’re still reading, thank you so much for being part of a difficult but ultimately transformative year for us. And if you’ve been here longer, thanks for remaining part of our decade-long journey. We’ll be celebrating those ten years in the summer, and would love for you to stick around.
We hope you’re warm, well fed and with your people.