The Story Of A Football Scout: Paul Cunliffe

MEET The Fans Agency’s newest recruit: PAUL CUNLIFFE

Paul, 50, who holds a UEFA A Licence in coaching, has joined The Fans Agency to head up scouting in the north west of England and brings with him a wealth of experience in the game, from grassroots level into professional football.

The Wigan-based coach-turned-talent spotter first became involved in the development and management side of football when his amateur playing days, including a spell with Wigan Rovers, were ended prematurely by two serious knee injuries.

He explained: “I got involved with coaching a grassroots team aged 10-11 and ended up taking them right through to under-18s and we became a part of Ashton Athletic. We got them into two Lancashire Cup finals and won leagues year in and year out.”

It was there that Paul first experienced the buzz of spotting a player with the talent to go higher in the game. Signing Alex Marrow as a 16-year-old for Ashton, Paul had soon seen enough to be sure Alex had a chance of making a go of it in the professional game.

“Within in the first few months I realised he was just too good to be playing grassroots so I contacted a few clubs and said you need to come and watch this lad,” Paul explained.

“The only scout who ended up turning up was from Blackburn Rovers. And at the end of the game he said to me, ‘he’ll be a pro by the end of the season’. That was that and he ended up going to Blackburn.”

Gary Bowyer initially managed Alex for Blackburn Rovers under-18s before he found first-team opportunities on loan at Oldham Athletic and Crystal Palace.

Palace signed him on a permanent basis, with caretaker manager Dougie Freedman saying at the time: “I’ve been very impressed by Alex since I saw him in a reserve game for Blackburn and he has really shown his quality during his games in a Palace shirt.”

Marrow went on to play in the Championship for Palace and Blackburn in a later spell, while also playing League One and League Two football with Preston North End, Fleetwood Town and Carlisle United.

Confident that he could spot football talent at an early age, Paul wrote to then Wigan Athletic manager Steve Bruce highlighting the tale of Alex and pointing out that The Latics had missed out on a potential gem.

“He invited me in to see the academy manager,” Paul said. “And when I went in they offered me a job.”

Paul began scouting and coaching for Wigan, working alongside Under-18s coach, Dave Watson, the former England international and ex-Everton captain.

A seven-year spell at Wigan followed until a staff change when Dave left for a new position at Newcastle United.

For Paul that meant new opportunities and a spell working with Accrington Stanley before a move to Bury, where after some part-time work he headed the Greater Manchester club’s 12-16 youth development programme for four years, while continuing to search for talent.

“Bury didn’t really have any scouts,” he said. “On Wednesdays, when most of the players and staff were off, I’d go in and I created contacts with all the schools in Manchester. I’d go in and do a bit of coaching or watch school games.

“By doing that I spotted three or four kids who Bury eventually signed and one or two moved on to bigger clubs for a few hundred thousand pounds. I got great satisfaction out of spotting a player and being part of their development.”

Most recently Paul has been working with the youth set up at Burnley. But what has attracted him to join up with former Premier League manager Danny Wilson and football agent brothers Jon and Phil Smith at The Fans Agency?

“What’s got me excited about The Fans Agency is that it is so close to grassroots,” said Paul.

“No matter what some people might say, ultimately every player comes from grassroots football of some sort.

“It’s good to see some help for grassroots because the money in football is not really being spread about properly. There should be 4G and 3G pitches dotted around everywhere in every town but in some towns you’d be lucky to find one.”

Paul will now start the process of getting out about in the North West watching Under-18s, Under-23s and League One and League Two games as he searches for talent seeking experienced representation.

He is also encouraging supporters, players, parents, managers, coaches and more to get in touch and share videos of potential future stars. You can email Paul at: [email protected]

But what does Paul look for in a player looking to turn pro?


Technical ability

“Number one is technical ability,” says Paul.

“How good is the player on the ball? How do they control it? How do they shape to receive the ball? And how do they move to get away from a player?”


“A player that wants to go far has to have good awareness – on and off the ball,” says Paul.

“There are three key aspects – when the player’s got the ball, when the player hasn’t got the ball, and the transition.

“What does the player do when his team loses the ball? Does he just stand still? Does he recover back in position? And when his team wins the ball, what is he doing?

“If he’s a midfielder are they getting forward into space so the team can counter attack quickly and potentially score goals?”

The video problem

“Sending in snippets of goals or flashes of brilliance with the ball is one thing, but we need to see what players do off the ball,” says Paul.

“Players can be on the ball for two minutes in total across 90 minutes, sometimes less. So it’s about the rest of the time. How does he influence the play? How good is he at finding space, affecting the game, creating chances, scoring goals?

“It’s hard with videos and of course it’s about attitude as well as ability and things like their age, how they move, pace.

“You can have a technically very good player who gets into spaces and the right positions but his team-mates may not be finding him. But if you’re more of a worker minus that ability then League One, League Two is probably the highest you will go.

“I’d potentially ask for a couple of videos of games of a player I was interested in before looking to watch them, meet them and judge for myself.”

Any other information?

“If anyone is getting in touch the more information they can give us, the better. What are the player’s strengths and weaknesses? Are they at, or have they been at, an academy? What clubs have they played for?

“If a player ticks the boxes we’ll come and see them play and have a chat.”

– Would you like to recommend a player to Paul? You can get in touch with him at: [email protected]