FC Halifax Town: Talent-spotter McClelland back at The Shay to help uncover some more hidden gems
If Gareth McClelland finds half the number of gems he helped FC Halifax Town uncover in his previous spell at the club, then The Shaymen are onto a winner.
McClelland returned to Halifax last month as head of recruitment, five-and-a-half years since his first spell at the club came to an end.
During that first spell, McClelland helped Town to sign Marc Roberts, Matty Pearson, Lois Maynard, James Bolton, Liam and Scott Hogan, and Dan Gardner, among others.
Not a bad track record.
And now he is back at The Shay, tasked with working hand-in-glove with manager Pete Wild to identify and assess potential new targets.
“I’ve always been in contact with David (Bosomworth),” said McClelland. “He said when I joined Salford that ‘I’ll make sure I get you back one day’.
“I’ve got a lot of time for David. I really enjoyed going to the FA Trophy final at Wembley too as a supporter.
“I said I’d left my position at Port Vale and he said he’d speak to Pete and see if there was an opportunity, but that it wouldn’t be his decision, it would be down to the manager.
“Pete then gave me a call and we had a really good conversation, and it went from there.”
Explaining how his role as head of recruitment, which will be part-time, will work, McClelland said: “It’s helping Pete and Milly (Chris Millington) identify players at all levels - non-league, where we’ve been successful previously, under 23 players - as well as doing opposition reports on teams we’re coming up against.
“You learn a lot about players doing those reports as well.
“The football industry is very much instant now.
“I’ve had good experience at the likes of Salford and Port Vale, but it’s very instant and they want proven players, and it’s very difficult to give younger players an opportunity.
“But I know Pete and Milly are big believers in giving young players an opportunity to play.
“It’s getting that fine balance about being competitive and giving young players that chance.
“But at the moment Pete’s got a really good blend of younger lads and experience in the team and that showed against Torquay.
“In recent weeks it’s been looking at players to bring in at the moment, which can be difficult because the Conference North has been all over the place so it’s difficult to get players from that level.
“Hopefully there’ll be a conclusion to that soon with regards to contracts.
“The Evo-Stik hasn’t been happening for quite a while and that’s been curtailed now, but that’s where we’ve had a lot of success.
“But they’re an ongoing process which we’re always watching.
“Under 23s, that’s usually coming up to the January window when you’re looking at getting loans in.
“But the most important recruitment is getting your own players in, in the summer.
“Myself and Pete are constantly speaking to one another and we have meetings every Friday to identify players who are doing well.
“We’ve got to look at who’s got two-year deals, who’s going to be with us next season and who Pete wants to get signed up for next year.
“But I think Pete’s got a really good team together. It’s just so difficult, him managing a football club and having to deal with recruitment, agents, watching under 23 game, watching opposition, so I’ve come in to help in whatever way I can.
“You’ve got to have a good relationship with the manager.
“It was Pete’s decision to bring me in.
“I feel I’ve developed my knowledge even more in the last few years.
“I’ve had four or five scouts working for me, so we’ve had all the different league covered and I’ve got a database of all the different players who’ve impressed.
“It’s just that knowledge of different levels to try and support Pete.
“Obviously we’ve got to be realistic with budgets and there’s other clubs, the likes of Stockport and Chesterfield, signing players for a lot of money.
“So we’ve got to be realistic with the targets.
“But I’m a big believer in giving young players an opportunity that have got that hunger and that love for the game.
“All the lads that have developed with us have had that hunger, the likes of Jamie Vardy still has that same hunger he showed at The Shay, the likes of Matty Pearson has the same hunger, the likes of Liam Hogan and Lee Gregory.
“It’s great seeing players do well, I saw Phil Foden when he was 11 playing a school football game. Look where he is, but he had the exact same love for the game.
“Sometimes players are more interested in the image of being a footballer, but if they’ve got that love for the game then it goes a long way.”
After a knee problem curtailed his playing career, McClelland became involved in scouting and management around the age of 22.
He managed in the Manchester League and the North West Counties League, as well as running the Town team in Stockport, which includes the best players from 15 schools in the local area.
McClelland then worked for Blackburn Rovers’ academy as a scout for around five years before becoming assistant manager at Woodley Sports.
“The first game we played was against Halifax, I think we won 1-0,” he said.
“I remember coming on the bus on the M62 and thinking ‘how nice is this’.
“The expectation of the supporters that day, Halifax were expecting to win, and I remember thinking about the Halifax fans ‘how passionate are they?’”
McClelland then took over as manager at Woodley and played Halifax twice, drawing 2-2 at home, with goals from Lee Gregory and James Dean - “the noise of the supporters that day I thought was fantastic, a really good backing, passionate, loyal supporters” - and losing 2-0 at The Shay.
“That was my first insight into Halifax and from that I built up a relationship with Neil (Aspin).
“A lot of the Woodley lads went to Halifax, the likes of Liam and Scott Hogan.
“Neil did want Antoni Sarcevic, but he ended up going to Crewe and is now captain at Bolton.”
From there, McClelland went to Chester as head of recruitment when they reformed and helped them get promoted.
“Then I got back into management at Mossley and had a fella called Fabio Abreu, and he went to Maritimo in Portugal, and last summer he transferred for £2.5m to Al Batin in Saudi Arabia.
“Then Neil offered me the opportunity to become chief scout, that was in January 2012.
“Myself and Neil had been talking for a couple of years prior to that.”
McClelland’s track record of players he brought to The Shay emphasises how integral he was to the success the club experienced under Aspin.
“I’ve lots of good memories of that time,” he said.
“Scott Hogan was one of mine, Liam Hogan, Dan Gardner I recommended from Droylsden, Marc Roberts we’d known for quite a while, since he was 17 at Wakefield.
“We watched him when he was 21 and I was really impressed with him.
“We had to pay a fee for him, and then the first game he had a very difficult game at Cambridge, but Neil backed him and played him against Wrexham the following Tuesday and he got man of the match. And he’s obviously done very well for himself.
“Then I got Matt Pearson from Rochdale, he was previously at Blackburn.
“James Bolton wasn’t getting a game at Macclesfield, but I got a good report from the Workington manager so we got him, initially on loan and he’s at Portsmouth now.
“Lois Maynard was at Winsford and he was trialing at Rochdale, but we ended up getting him and he’s done well for himself too.
“I did trial days too and we identified some good players, the likes of Josh Macdonald, who’s obviously had setbacks with injuries.
“Jake Hibbs, who obviously played at Wembley. He was given a three-year deal but Billy (Heath) brought in his own players so he didn’t get to play a lot of football really, so that stopped his progression.
“Then there were loan players like David Brooks and CJ Hamilton from Sheffield United.”
McClelland has lots of cherished memories from his first spell at Halifax.
“Obviously promotion at Brackley was a special day for everyone, and then reaching the play-offs the year after when we played Cambridge,” he said.
“It was a fantastic atmosphere at The Shay that night and we were leading 1-0 going into the second leg.
“Another nice moment was when we played Bradford in the FA Cup, leading 1-0 at half-time and we possibly could have won that.
“Neil carried out my son as a mascot for that game so that is a nice memory for me.
“I’ll always be grateful to Neil Aspin for giving me an opportunity at the football club many years ago. He is another person I have the utmost respect for.
“When Neil departed, David (Bosomworth) trusted me to do the caretaker role for three games while he searched for the manager, which I really appreciated.
“But seeing so many of these young lads who learned and developed at The Shay now playing Championship football, like Matt Pearson, Scott Hogan and Marc Roberts, it’s nice to see them doing so well and hopefully there’ll be more in the future.”
McLelland left Town in November 2015, and then joined Salford before linking up with Aspin again at Gateshead, where nine players progressed to play in the Football League.
After leaving Gateshead he spent three years as chief scout at Port Vale, again linking up with Aspin.
“The first season we managed to keep the club in the Football League after taking over with the club in the relegation zone,” he said.
“Last season the club were in the play off places the week before the season was curtailed. A draw at Cheltenham meant the club finished eighth.
“We also made a lot of monies after a good cup run which involved playing Man City away.
“This season the club were two points outside the automatic places at the end of October, but changes had to be made due to the financial constrictions caused by the pandemic which is understandable.”
McClelland admits there have been a lot of changes at the club since his first spell.
“David, Louisa and Steve are still at the club, which is really good because I think it’s really important to have people who know the club long-term,” he said.
“But I think it’s important that the manager has the staff he wants because sometimes managers are forced to work with people that maybe they don’t want to work with.
“It’s always nice when you’re wanted. David and Pete showed they really wanted me at the club.
“The big thing as well is the fans. The Halifax fans are so passionate and loyal to the club, days like Wembley, Brackley, Cambridge, Bradford showed that, and the travelling they did in the lower leagues.
“I remember coming to the play-off game against Salford and the final against Chorley.
“When other clubs don’t have that history and that following, a big pull is the fanbase and having passionate fans, and you want to reward them.
“Adam Heslop goes home and away with his parents, people like that who you want to do well for.”
McClelland says the drive to sniff out the next big thing is as strong as ever.
“I’m continually learning and trying to improve my knowledge of players and teams at all levels,” he said.
“I’m really looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“I’m more hungry than ever to keep identifying good players.
“It’s getting more difficult because due to Jamie Vardy getting picked up in non-league there’s tens upon tens of scouts at every game now, so it’s your networking, having your contacts to give you tip-offs of who’s doing well.
“For example, there’s only one player who has jumped from Evo-Stik to Championship in six months in my time in football.
“I watched him in Nottingham one Monday night, he came on with 25 minutes to go.
“I contact the people looking after him first thing in the morning and he’d been out on a contract half-an-hour previously.
“This is what I mean about having the backing and the relationship with people you work with.
“David straight away put an offer in for the player, we were the first club to put an offer in for him, and it got rejected, and he ended up going to Sheffield United for £120,000.
“Six months later he scored two in-front of 24,000 at Bramall Lane against Spurs in the semi-final of the League Cup and now he’s at Southampton for £15m.
“That’s unheard of. Obviously Vardy’s a big success but he gradually moved up the leagues, whereas Che (Adams) went boom, boom.
“But it just shows how quick decisions have got to be made.
“David has always backed me, he backed me with Marc Roberts as well when we had to pay cash for him.
“I think the key thing will be trying to get these lads on good contracts.”
McClelland has a database featuring thousands of players he has watched over the years, and each is graded from A to D.
“D they’re not good enough, C I’m monitoring them, B I’m watching them very closely and then A is we must sign them straight away if we can,” he said.
“But there’s so many different variables to it - who have we got contracted, who can we afford.
“But realistically, I think now we’ve progressed from a part-time club to a full-time club, that’s even better when you’re trying to recruit young players up to the age of 23, 24.
“Once players get to 28, 29 and they get a really good offer in the league below, and they’ve got a job as well, it’s hard to compete.
“We are networking across the country. I’ve got a gentleman who is based in London who is going to be watching games for me there, I’ve known him a long time, he used to scout for Welling.
“Having good staff working for me previously was important too, as they worked hard for me and the football club.
“It is important to trust those staff as you obviously want to recruit the best players you can to the football club.
“Mark Gould is one of those who is a good friend and did a very good job for me in the past especially with our loan signings.
“Sadly one of my best friends Eddy Haslam who was my assistant when caretaker manager passed away just over two years ago.
“We had great times together and a memorable moment was celebrating the FC Halifax Town victory of Chorley.”
McClelland says he will watch at least three or four games every week.
“I don’t like being in a situation where someone mentions a player and I don’t have any information on them, I like to know every player I’ve watched,” he said.
“Mondays is usually an under 23 game, Tuesday is National League, then Friday is under 23s as well, then Saturday National League.
“Then Sunday is your opposition report and sometimes Wednesday depending who I watched on Tuesday.
“Even though it’s a part time role, it is pretty much full time.
“For me the massive thing is reputation.
“The football club has a reputation of developing young players and giving them a chance.
“That’s huge, and my reputation as well, so when I bring a player to the club, he’s looked after in the right way.
“And that shows by having a good relationship with players when they move on, so the likes of Lee Gregory, he’s fantastic, he responds within a minute with messages, the likes of Matt Pearson, Marc Roberts, Dan Gardner, they’re all fantastic men.
“That all hopefully comes from having a good reputation in the game and hopefully that will benefit us trying to get players in the future to the football club.”
McClelland says he likes to look for players with potential.
“Sometimes if you get the proven ones and they’re staying at the same level, they don’t have that hunger,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, you need that balance of experience and young players, you can’t just have all young players.
“But I do like to see young players and have that potential to develop.
“I do a lot of homework on their background, on their personality, if they’ve got love for the game, how dedicated they are to it.
“At the lower levels, if someone’s a non-contract and they blow me away, then that needs doing straight away, we’ve got be really quick on that because more and more players at lower levels are being put on contracts.
“I always look for pace and power in players, especially at the top end of the pitch.
“All the players who’ve moved on and done well at the top end of the pitch, the likes of Vardy, Scott Hogan, they had pace.
“Obviously you can’t take your eye off a goalscorer, someone who’s scoring week-in, week-out.
“We’ve got be patient as well because these players didn’t stand out straight away, they had to be developed over time.
“It takes some of these lads 12 to 18 months to settle in and understand the style of play, and have the correct training.
“When you look at Lee Gregory, his body shape changed, he was quite muscular in the season he was second top-scorer in the league behind Andre Gray, he was all about his core strength.
“The key thing is they’ve got to do the job. For example, a right-back has got to be able to defend.
“I know the modern day full back or wing back has got to get forward but for me, they’ve got to be able to defend as well.
“I’ve seen some really good players going forward as a right back but they can’t defend and it costs their teams dearly.”
McClelland’s primary objective will be looking for players to help reshape the Town squad for next season.
“My main focus is the summer, looking at what players Pete wants to keep at the club and where we need to strengthen even more,” he said.
“Devante Rodney is the type of player we should be looking at having permanently. He’s stepped up to League Two and scored ten goals for Port Vale.
“The priority is to get our own players and that’s generally done throughout the summer.
“I’ve spoken to Pete about having open trials because there’s so many players who’ve missed out on football over the last 12 to 18 months and deserve that chance, so we’ll be doing what we did in the past because we got the likes of Josh Macdonald through that.
“Ash Palmer at Stockport attended one of the trials and has developed his game since then, and the likes of Josh Kay who is at Barrow.
“So if we get one player through it and build relationships with those young lads, track them and see their progress, that’s important.
“I would like to try and find gems, it’s getting that fine balance of having experience in a very strong league.
“But I’m always looking for those lower league gems and there’s definitely ones out there, it’s just being proactive and working hard and being the first one there.
“But it comes back to reputation. There might be clubs with bigger budgets but all you’ve got to do is look at the team sheet, once you look through it and see that all the players are 25 plus, then realistically you’re not going to get a chance.
“But our team sheet, we’ve got loads of young lads.
“The work Steve Nichol is doing as well, that doesn’t happen overnight, the recruitment doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process.
“If you find a Che Adams or a Scott Hogan, or a Jamie Vardy, if you find one or two of them a year then you’re doing really, really well.
“But the key thing is being proactive, having those contacts and hopefully one of those will come.
“It’s good to have the support of Pete and David, who will back my judgement.”
On the current Town squad, McClelland said: “In the team now, the likes of Jack Earing is doing ever so well, and Jack Senior, hopefully they kick on. Matty Pearson recommended Senior because they were at Luton together.
“Obviously I know Sam Johnson, he’s been at the club a long time and he was at Gateshead as well.
“Obviously Nathan Clarke with his experience in the Football League.
“I know the players, I’ve been watching them very closely, and I attended a few games last season.
“The Torquay game really impressed me because Torquay are a very good side and we made them look like a poor side because they had no shots on target bar the penalties.
“I thought Pete’s game plan was superb because they’re very strong down their left hand side and we stopped their left back getting forward.
“I watched them against Wealdstone and how they never won that game I don’t know, it was the most one-sided game, and it was all down their left hand side, the likes of Whitfield, who is a Yorkshire lad.
“But we stopped it, we pressed at every opportunity and could have won by more with the chances we created.
“We just need to try and get that consistency. Obviously the Barnet game was disappointing but we’re still in a good position and Pete’s done well with so many injuries.
“Pete will be looking to decide who he wants to keep for the summer.
“Players have got to be realistic as well with no fans in the ground, they can’t demand what they did in previous years.
“In League Two, maybe a player was getting £1,400-£1,500, now they’re settling for £800-£900, that’s how much it’s dropped, so that will be a better situation for recruitment.
“It’s just getting the right characters who want to be at the club for the right reasons.”
McClelland says Wild has been “absolutely fantastic” since he rejoined the club in the middle of January.
“I had a good relationship with him, I saw a lot of his games at Oldham,” he said.
“A good friend of mine is his best friend and spoke very, very highly of him, and I trust this gentleman, he works in football as well.
“I’d been very impressed with the way Oldham played, the team spirit, the style of play they had.
“In the last 12 months, I’ve seen him at a lot of games, we sat beside one another at a Blackburn under 23 game and had a really good conversation throughout the game.
“He’s very, very hard working, thorough in his preparation for the games, he takes a lot of time studying the opposition reports I provide, which is good for me as a scout or head of recruitment because sometimes maybe opposition reports aren’t focused on enough, and I think it’s so important you know the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.
“Milly’s been superb, probably getting a bit fed up by the amount of messages on WhatsApp on a daily basis but I like to keep them updated with where players are going etc.
“I’m really excited for the rest of this season and long-term at the club.
“Pete’s very keen on young players, very keen on the trial day and wants me to help guide them on who they watch now for the rest of the season.
“We’ll be working very closely covering games over the coming weeks and months.”
Halifax is clearly more than just another club to McClelland, and he says he would love for his second spell at The Shay to be long-term.
“If David and Pete see me being there long-term, that’s what I’d like to do,” he said.
“I’ve learned by going to different clubs how these clubs work but I’m a big believer in giving young players a chance.
“You’ve got to have a good relationship with the manager and other people at the club.
“Like Steve Nichol, he knows the club inside out, I’ve known Steve for ten years.
“Louisa has been here for a long time and she’s absolutely fantastic, she helps with everything and works tirelessly.
“And then David, he’s first class to me and my family.
“You get more out of it when you spend a long time at a club instead of jumping from club to club.
“If there’s an opportunity to stay at the club long-term I’d jump at the chance.”