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Graham Carr: The super scout who didn’t spot his plan’s fatal flaw

7 years ago

After seven years on Tyneside, chief scout Graham Carr left Newcastle United ‘on good terms’ according to the club’s managing director Lee Charnley.

The former Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City scout, closely linked to both David Pleat and Sven-Göran Eriksson, left Newcastle by “mutual consent” and three years before his 75th birthday this is likely to be his last big job.

Despite the fact that Carr (to the left of Ashley in image above) has been in situ at St James Park since the 2009/10 season and was five years into a bumper eight year deal, after joining his home town club during the Chris Hughton era, his star has been on the wane for some time. Possibly since the high-water mark when a team containing Carr signings Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux, Papiss Cissé and Cheick Tioté finished fifth in the Premier League in the 2011–12 season, leading to qualification for the Europa League.

Before Britain’s most high profile super scout was charged with the mission of making Newcastle the ultimate selling club, Graham Carr was either tangentially known as the father of the flamboyant comedian and chat show host Alan Carr. Or as a former manager and journeyman player at Northampton Town and others.

When the now 72-year-old signed a high profile long-term deal at St James Park he instantly became the most unlikely poster boy for ambitious scouts everywhere – the so-called Nowhere Men of Michael Calvin’s award-winning book. The 40p-a-mile brigade with their notebooks and all-weather gear suddenly had an exemplar, a star to aim at.

The Professional Football Scouts Association are making great strides in promoting their agenda of better pay, conditions and education for their members. But the loss of Graham Carr from the front-line represents a return to normal and a situation whereby the suits can return to seeing scouts as ‘strictly below stairs’, a tolerated legacy of time past. So this is a setback.

Graham Carr made his name identifying underexposed players in the French market for a business model that would introduce them to Premier League football at St James Park, tie them in on long contracts, and then look to move them at a high fee profit. The scouting parameters appeared to be a French nationality, an age profile under 26 and a fee ideally less than £10m with the promise of a major upside on resale.

As a business strategy it is self-evidently attractive. But as a football strategy it is destined to fail. The reason being is that while the financial ROI from polishing and rebranding unloved bargain buys can be high, even fantastic, the downside is always central to the piece.

This is because inevitably ‘buying cheap to sell on dear as a strategy’ is a numbers game. It is bound to throw up more misses than hits. Misses you have to tolerate, to absorb, to do something with.

And in football, where the current, and probably correct thinking, is that teams are defined by their worst not their best players. That means that you end up kissing too many frogs between princes to have a balanced, functioning team – regardless of the financial gains you make along the way.

Remember, for all the high profile exceptions to the rule, players end up in the bargain basement for broadly good reasons.

In addition, the act of speculating on future assets’ values always puts business and individual agendas front and centre. And this is to the detriment of what the team or club needs at any given point to be competitive on the park today.

The players joining Newcastle were sold the dream that they’d be moved on at the earliest opportunity and the people identifying and buying them wanted the same endgame. Football and squad cohesion are the inevitable fall guys in this situation.

It is also a strategy that exposes the lie that all a team needs is an aggregate of good/valuable players for everything to run like clockwork. But as in all businesses, effective football teams are the product of dynamic factors, personal chemistry and a blend of sympathetic talents. Real life football is not a game of Football Manager or played out on a balance sheet.

In order for the Mike Ashley/Graham Carr model to work it had to dovetail perfectly, at all times, with football and team-building objectives so that players signed were the right players, for the right roles at the right time. And that is where both Carr and Newcastle appear to have failed as a football project.

Ironically, Carr’s reputation was forged specifically on the back of three deals involving Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Mathieu Debuchy. These three players were neither unknown nor underexposed as internationals at the point of their joining Newcastle. And in each case a large slice of ‘right place, right time’ allowed Newcastle to pounce at an opportune moment. It would be fairer to describe them as outliers, rather than obvious products of the stated recruitment aims at St James Park in the Carr era.

All three players had favourable contract situations that allowed a cheaper below market price transfer. And none of them were unexposed or immature. They were ‘safe bets’ at a bargain price.

Demba Ba left West Ham for nothing when they were relegated as stipulated in his agreement with the East London club.

Yohan Cabaye had a release clause of around £4.5m.

Mathieu Debuchy was allowed to leave Lille for (around £5m) less than his true market value as an acknowledgement of the player’s loyal service and a gentleman’s agreement that promised the player a reduced fee transfer in return for his staying on in France for one final season.

Demba Ba was settled in the Premier League for West Ham already and scoring goals, as an international. Cabaye and Debuchy were already established in Les Bleus squad and both were key players in unfashionable Lille’s successful Ligue 1 title win in 2010-11.

But nor were they youthful prospects likely to garner massive sell on fees. At 27, Debuchy and the 25-year-olds Cabaye and Ba were hitting their prime.

In summary, all three were internationals in their peak years. The common factor was happen-stance: a situation that allowed them to be poached on the fly.

When you run the rule over the Graham Carr project as a whole, you can really see why Mike Ashley’s men in suits would consider it a successful strategy.

In the round though, this is a tale encapsulated in the story of one player, Moussa Sissoko signed from Toulouse in January 2013.

Newcastle United confirmed they had signed Sissoko on a six-and-a-half-year deal for an undisclosed fee, believed to be in the region of £1.5 million, with a desperate to escape player allegedly waiving his right to a signing on fee in order to push the move through. Toulouse had been unwilling to let him leave until the summer, when his contract expired.

Like so many of Carr’s signings of the period Sissoko excelled inconsistently, in a series of ‘well-timed’ high profile cameos on Tyneside.

He made the the opening goal in a 2–1 win against Aston Villa on his debut. In his second match, his first at St James’ Park, Sissoko scored the equaliser and winning goals in a 3–2 comeback victory against Chelsea.

Just when tide of terrace sentiment may have been beginning to turn against him Sissoko scored his first goal of the 2013–14 season on 30th November, against West Brom. Crucially it was another winner. A stunning 25-yard strike to make the score 2–1.

With the end of season looming, Sissoko was on hand to rally the troops in timely fashion. He scored twice in a 4–1 win away at Hull City in March 2014. Chronicle reporter, Neil Cameron, described the Sissoko show as an “utterly superb” performance.

In the 2014–15 season, Sissoko, became that most unlikely of leaders, being given the captain’s armband, replacing the injured Fabricio Coloccini.

And you could almost write the script. Starting as captain, Sissoko scored his first league goal of the season in a 1–0 win over Queens Park Rangers. He was then shown two yellows in the space of 45 seconds, in a 1–0 away defeat to West Ham United. His second league goal of the season, was again impeccably timed, allowing Newcastle to draw 3–3 against Burnley in January 2015.

Fast forward to the last knockings of a poor campaign now, and in April 2015, Sissoko was sent off in an away fixture at Anfield, receiving a second yellow card from referee Lee Mason, after a dangerous challenge on Lucas Leiva. On the final day of the season however, Sissoko scored the opening goal in a 2–0 home victory over West Ham United, which helped Newcastle clinch their Premier League safety.

Mission accomplished: the Geordie faithful could be persuaded to renew their pricey St James Park season tickets on the promise of better times ahead. But we know now what a false dawn that final day win represented, as Steve McLaren’s ‘Franco-Dutch’ Newcastle side suffered relegation a year on.

As Newcastle slipped away, Sissoko was made captain for the final six games of the season by Rafa Benitez, and in his first game back in the role, he celebrated regaining the armband by scoring his only goal of the campaign in a 3-0 home victory against Swansea City.

A six-game unbeaten run in Newcastle’s relegation battle preceded a bittersweet final day 5-1 victory against Tottenham Hotspur. It was not enough to save a side that’s effort in relegation can only be described as ‘too little, too late’.

Without a backward glance, Sissoko though, headed off to the Euros with France no doubt feeling he’d fall on his feet once more. After all, he had ‘peaked’ at just the right time to create a favourable impression for potential suitors.

After France were beaten by Portugal in the Final of Euro 2016, a revived Sissoko signed for Tottenham Hotspur on a five-year deal, with an eye popping £30 million reported fee that represented an uplift of somewhere between 16-20 times the initial outlay to Toulouse in 2013.

Having barely kicked a ball in anger for Spurs, their boss Mauricio Pochettino complained in a BBC interview of November 2016 that the midfielder, best seen centrally in a 4-3-3, “has failed to live up to expectations”.

Pochettino said: “You need to show on the training ground you are better than another team-mate and you deserve to be involved.” “Of course he needs to work hard and show in the future he deserves to be involved in the team.”

Seen through the prism of Moussa Sissoko, you can see why Magpies fans are unreconciled when it comes to Carr’s signings.

Transfer market alchemy is of little consolation when your side endures relegation, as Newcastle did on the watch of Carr and Steve McClaren in the 2015-16 season. For fans, the P&L of the balance sheet will always be of secondary importance to the points and goals scored tallies of the league table.

Carr leaves St James Park five years into an eight year deal, unbowed but with a mixed record. The club’s official statement confirming his departure plays up Carr captures like Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye , Matthieu Debuchy, Vurnon Anita, Moussa Sissoko, Papiss Cisse and ‘the late, great Cheick Tiote’. But there is an overwhelming sense that it will be the bum notes that live longer in the memory than the rousing crowd-pleasers.

While a plea of mitigation just might rehabilitate names like Remy Cabella, Florian Thauvin or even Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, signings such as Manu Riviere, Seydou Doumbia, Henri Saivet and Siem de Jong have to be considered unalloyed flops.

Back in 2010 or so though, there was a perception that the players from Ligue 1, players like Hatem Ben Arfa, were technically more advanced than other equivalent players (pound for pound).

However that perception changed later, and perhaps as a consequence of Carr’s ‘misses’, to a view that the French players that were part of the current cycle can be technically good but also mentally weak and toxic to team spirit.

As much as I have marvelled at the achievements of the Super Scout’s career I have never been a great fan of Graham Carr’s signings in the round. They point up a common flaw in the prejudices of former players operating as high profile scouts. And that is that an admiration for the obvious strengths a player possesses such as physical presence, pace, strength, technique and vision blind them to all too human weaknesses.

Graham Carr seems to me to overrate physique and talent on the ball to the detriment of every other attribute. But footballers, good footballers, require a range of characteristics to flourish. Mental bravery, commitment, loyalty to a team cause, resilience, flexibility and adaptability are the foundations that allow athleticism, strength, pace and skill to express itself.

In the final analysis Graham Carr will likely be considered as a scout that exploited a moment in time opportunity to make great money for his employers. His greatest talent was not his eye for a player but rather the strength of his network and a seemingly unmatched working knowledge of players’ contracts.

The reality is that Carr’s approach inevitably contained the seeds of its own demise. As his success promoted gold rush fever, the allure of the North East began to pale relative to the bright lights of London in particular as rivals encroached on Newcastle’s favourite patch. In the fevered competition for signatures the value in the French market evaporated almost instantly, fuelled by the cash generated by successive Premier League TV rights deals.

Writing in May 2016, following Newcastle’s relegation, The Mirror’s Mark Douglas summed the situation up perfectly when he said: “What has sealed his and Newcastle’s fate is their inability to read a very changing football landscape. First, the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson disrupted the order of the Premier League to such an extent that the top four was no longer such a closed shop.

And then the last TV deal kicked in, allowing the rest of the Premier League to plunder foreign markets with the might of Sky’s millions. The funds that flooded the top flight levelled the playing field from a recruitment perspective – how else to explain Gianni Imbula at Stoke or Cabaye going to Palace on wages that matches those he picked up at Paris Saint Germain?”

As it is, the era of Graham Carr will go down in history as something of a Curate’s Egg. While ‘parts of it were excellent’ there is no doubt that Graham Carr’s few high profile successes in his transfer dealings obscured the reality that, at a basic level, something was always ‘a bit off’.

Greg Gordon is a scout and journalist based in Glasgow.

The mission of his How to Watch Football website is to give fans a window into the hidden world of football – the game behind the headlines.

‘The site is powered by genuine football people: working scouts and journalists with authentic football experience.’

You can visit Greg’s How to Watch Football site here.

You can also follow on Twitter @HTWFootball.


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