Looking for the next big player

Gareth McClelland
Gareth McClelland

Name any footballer in the non-league game, and there’s a good chance Gareth McClelland has seen him play.

Town’s chief scout is an integral figure among the back room team at the Shay and has played a key role in Town’s recruitment policy since being appointed 18 months ago.

McClelland’s playing career at county level in Northern Ireland was ended by a knee injury when he was 19.

He cut his teeth in management in the Manchester League with Maine Road and was also in charge at Woodley Sports, where he worked with Liam and Scott Hogan, and Mossley either side of a spell as chief scout at Chester.

Fulfilling the same role at the Shay sees McClelland usually attend three games a week scouting players and reporting back to Neil Aspin on Town’s next opponents.

He said: “One of the matches is usually the opposition we’ll be playing against, one is an under 21 match from the Premier League or the Championship and the other is a non-league game from the Conference North or the Evo-Stik.

“I’ll write a report on our upcoming opponents which will be mainly about their strengths and weaknesses, star players, formation, substitutions, heights of players and generally as much information as possible.

“That one little detail might make the difference between wining and losing.

“A written report might take three hours to complete so you never get time to enjoy the match - the pen doesn’t stop moving.

“I watched Barnet the week before and the tempo they played at made it difficult to keep up.”

McClelland insists character trumps ability when it comes to potential recruits, and sees Matt Pearson as a prime example.

The 31-year-old says the midfielder’s switch from defence has helped improve his game, and credits the Town boss with playing a part in Pearson’s development.

He said: “A player needs to be watched a number of times. It’s unfair to judge someone on one appearance.

“Ideally we look for younger players with ambition, although it’s important to have experience in your squad as well.

“There are a lot of talented footballers in the non-league who just need that chance.

“Geography is a big thing for us as well because it’s difficult to attract a player from the Midlands or down south.

“But attitude of the player is the most important thing.

“We’re always working hard to find that next big player, that next Jamie Vardy because he had that work-rate and desire in every game he played.

“Sometimes academy players don’t have that hunger and that’s where Matt Pearson stands out.

“I spend a lot of my time doing research on a player, getting as much information as possible and speaking to people who know him.

“We did a lot of research into Matt - his attitude at Blackburn was fantastic and Gary Bowyer really recommended him and spoke very highly of him.

“What Neil is very good at is identifying what position best suits a player and Matt has really developed as a central midfielder.”

McClelland admits he had two lists of players to work on depending on if the club gained promotion or not last season.

But after beating Brackley in the Conference North play-off final, McClelland says he and Town’s management team specifically targeted taller players to increase the team’s proficiency from set-pieces, and is pleased with the results.

He said: “We identified the league as being much more physical and a lot of clubs that have come up from the Conference North identified that they needed to be more of a threat from set plays.

“We’re causing the opposition a lot more problems from set-pieces and that’s a massive plus for us.

“And we’re more secure at the back so it’s working well.

“I think we’re doing extremely well. The big difference this season is that if we make mistakes, we get punished.

“But there’s no reason why we can’t be competitive in this league.”

McClelland says his long-term vision is for more local players to come through the ranks.

Town announced the appointment of Steve Nichol as the club’s head of youth development over the summer, and McClelland wants a new generation to follow in the footsteps of Ryan Toulson, the only player at the club to have come through the youth system.

He said: “Ideally it would be good to have home-grown players from Halifax.

“We do hope to have an academy system which will encourage more home-grown players to come through.

“The aim is to close the gap between the under 19s and the first-team and hopefully give more local boys an opportunity.

“They know how big the club is so if we can get more we will but we won’t just bring them in for the sake of it - they have to have the quality.”