"I am always looking for the next player" - Head of recruitment McClelland on transfer targets, assessing players and squad rebuilding

It's that time of year again when all Gareth McClelland's hard work comes to fruition.

By Tom Scargill
Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 1:09 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 1:11 pm

In the maelstrom of the summer transfer scrum, FC Halifax Town are hoping head of recruitment McClelland's extensive knowledge and insight into hundreds of players will give them an edge.

Jack Hunter and Sam Smart have both joined The Shaymen so far this summer, but Town are in negotiations for several other new faces.

It's the culmination of a lot work going back months or even years on players who could end up at The Shay.

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FC Halifax Town. Photo: Marcus Branston

"Once the season ends it is very, very busy looking at all different possibilities of who's available," said McClelland, who is in his second spell at Halifax having previously worked under Neil Aspin.

"We've got to look at their demands of course, but we try and limit it to people within commuting distance - North West, North East and Midlands. We do have accommodation available if we need to bring players in from further afield but you generally find players are more settled if they live closer to the area.

"You've got agents putting players forward every day at this time of year and you have to follow up on each player, and just be sure you have them covered because you don't want to miss out on anyone.

"But it's constant. We went on a family holiday for a few days recently and Milly said 'make sure you get some time with your family'.

McClelland took temporary charge of the team with Steve Nichol after the departure of Neil Aspin in 2015.

"However, in my role I am always looking for the next player, and it can be difficult to switch off, and as a result I was on my phone from 3am straight through to the kids waking up, just going through players and trying to provide as much information to Milly as possible so we can get the best players available within our wage structure to FC Halifax Town this summer.

"I've seen the vast majority of players myself but there might be the odd one who's a squad player and not had much game-time that we watch online.

"But we like signing players we've seen with our own eyes."

Every time a player is watched, McClelland's file on that player in his database is updated.

Each player is graded either A - sign immediately, B - monitor closely, C - monitor or D - not ready.

"Sometimes it might be a B plus or an A minus to be a bit more accurate," he said.

"There are hundreds of players in there. I usually watch three games a week, so you're looking at, say, 75 players in a week, at all different levels.

"If Milly ever asks me a question about certain players, all the information is there.

"We're always looking at options, it just depends if the right player's available at the right time.

"We have to stick within our current structure because the dressing room is key, and we want everyone to be happy and people coming to the club for the right reasons - wanting to bring success to the football club.

"We want not just good lads, but winners, people who are desperate to do well for us, and I think you've seen that over recent seasons.

"They've got to have that winning mentality in two ways, in that they want to progress their career at a higher level, or they want to play at the club long-term like Scott McManus and Sam Johnson.

"But they need that hunger to do well and have that pride in the shirt."

From September to Christmas, McClelland is generally looking at potential loan signings in case there are any injuries.

"We're also looking at any players who stand out at Evo-Stik level or below because they start showing early in the season," he said.

"Once we start the New Year it's about looking at players for next season because it's more difficult once they've signed contracts, Wrexham being the prime example.

"When their owners took over it was late in the summer so they had to spend hundreds of thousands recruiting players but if they'd taken over a couple of months earlier they'd have got a lot of the same players on frees.

"A lot of our success has been with younger players getting full-time training and the opportunity to play regularly, have good coaching and getting well looked-after.

"Experience in the squad is important too - the likes of Martin Woods and Luke Summerfield have been so beneficial to the younger lads."

McClelland says gems can still be unearthed despite clubs with much bigger budgets competing for players.

"The likes of Wrexham and Stockport, they're looking at different players, more proven, Football League players, offering them a lot of money and giving them two or three year deals," he said.

"It is difficult but we've proven before that we can compete on the field with the way we recruit.

"It's about getting value for money and we've shown in recent seasons we do get real value, whereas that's not always the case at other clubs.

"We have to be very particular about who we sign, we don't take many chances.

"For example, Jesse Debrah, we did lots of research, went through a lot of clips, spoke to Graham Alexander, who was at Motherwell with him.

"He spoke so, so highly of Jesse, and then we invited him in so we could see him with our own eyes and impressed us.

"A lot of younger players do tend to come in on trial at first, because it's not just about their technical ability, it's what they're like as people, can they settle in with the group, are they happy, are we happy.

"With Jesse, we hadn't seen him many times but we did a lot of research, watched lots of video footage, contacted previous managers and previous team-mates, and invited him in on trial."

McClelland will generally get to see the northern and Midlands players a lot more, and has a southern based scout, Bob Gunton, who worked for Welling.

"A number of players we've talked to recently, I'll have watched six or seven times so we have as full a picture of them as possible," said McClelland, who will judge a player he watches live in several different ways.

"It depends on things like the size of the ground they're playing in on that occasion, some grounds can be quite tight, like at Farsley, so the style of football might be different than on a bigger pitch like The Shay," he said.

"You might see different attributes from players, see how they react to different scenarios, and you're looking at the weather conditions, some players might do better in warmer conditions as opposed to a wet, cold Tuesday night.

"You're always looking at their character.

"Then you're looking at systems, some centre-halves might look brilliant in a back three but in a back four they might not be as mobile.

"Some forwards do well in a two, but we've been playing more of a 4-3-3 recently so it can be more difficult for a forward in that role being more isolated."

When asked what profile new signings will ideally fit into, McClelland said: "They've all got to be coachable, they've all got to have that good attitude where they want to develop.

"They need hunger, not just be good lads but have that winning mentality, and wanting to progress and develop as footballers, but also fit in with the style that Milly wants us to play, which is an exciting style.

"It's going to be a good brand of football again, there might be a few tweaks here and there, but I'm really excited for the new season. Hopefully we can use the big pitch at The Shay to our advantage again.

"They've got to be good on the ball and comfortable in possession because we do like to play, which we've seen in recent years while Chris has been at the club.

"We need players who can adapt to different situations, such as away from home because we need to do better away next season.

"We are excited to see the new players in the pre-season games and I'm sure the supporters will be as well as we welcome to them to a fantastic football club and want them to really enjoy their football with us."

Expanding on how improving away from translates into the type of player that is being targeted, McClelland said: "Ideally, like most clubs, we would like a forward with a physical presence up front at times when we may not able to play as much away from home.

"When the home team is pressing us it can be more difficult to play the brand of football we play at home, so we need to have a different style away from home and perhaps look at different ways we can influence the game and ask more questions of the home team.

"We haven't had a physical focal point up top who has played regular games for a number of seasons, probably the last mobile one was the late James Dean. However Lee Gregory was fantastic holding up the ball and bringing others into play.

"Every club in the country will be looking for this type of player as it is such a competitive position to recruit, but someone who can help the ball stick up front and help get players up the pitch. Billy Waters did a fantastic job up-front last season but I think we got found out a little bit in the later stages of last season when other teams stopped our ball players playing.

"That is just one area we are analysing to see if the right player becomes available for us."

Top-scorer Waters and captain Niall Maher are two of the key players from last season who Town are trying to replace, but McClelland is relishing the prospect of doing so.

"I find it exciting. Those boys deserve their opportunity, if that's the career path they want to take they deserve that chance because they gave everything to the club while they were here," he said.

"And sometimes if we don't give players the chance to progress if that's what they want to do, then their performance can drop if they're forced to stay.

"There's lots of talented young players out there who just need the opportunity so I'm really excited about that.

"We're fortunate to still have a lot of talented players still at the club. Goalkeeper is such a huge position and we have Sam Johnson, who is fantastic, and he's got competition with Tom Scott.

"We have one of the most talented centre-backs in non league in Jesse Debrah and with his fantastic attitude I’m sure he will develop even further with more competitive games and excellent coaching from Milly and his coaching team.

"Kieran Green is a real leader for us in midfield, Matty Warburton, Kian Spence is a real talent, Harvey Gilmour showed real quality in the middle of the park towards the end of the season.

"We'll have Jamie Allen back, Jordan Slew, Sam Smart will give us pace down the flanks.

"It's just important we recruit the right people at the top of the pitch and at centre-half.

"I think we're in a good place, it's going to be exciting."

On recent signings Jack Hunter and Sam Smart, McClelland said: "Jack is someone we've always known about, he's got really good quality on the ball, reads it really well, has a fantastic attitude, really good for the dressing room.

"He's someone we've been watching for some time, he had a very successful season with Gateshead, who were by far the best team in that division and he was a key part of that.

"I saw Jack play for Newcastle when he was captain of their under 23s. I'm good friends with the head of recruitment at Newcastle and before we signed Jack I asked him what he thought, how did he conduct himself at Newcastle, and it was all really positive feedback on his character, as a footballer and as a leader, which is why he was captain of the under 23s.

"Sam didn't get as much football as he'd have liked last year but the season before that he was exceptional.

"I think maybe a change of formation made it a bit more difficult for him to get regular games but he did really well against us.

"When he was put to us, as someone with real pace and direct running, he was someone we wanted at The Shay to cause the opposition problems.

"Geography is a big thing as well, with Sam moving to Sheffield, as soon as we got that information we were straight onto him."

Underpinning all of McClelland's work is a strong working relationship with chairman David Bosomworth and manager Chris Millington.

On the day of our interview, McClelland and Millington had spoken five times between 5pm and 9pm.

"That's just normal, because there's so much to do, meeting players, speaking to agents, what players are wanting, where they're based," McClelland said.

"It's constant. As soon as we wake up from when we go to sleep, all we think about is getting the best players we possibly can.

"It's still the same role, and I really appreciate Milly giving me the opportunity to stay within the role because sometimes when a new manager comes in, that can change, so I'm grateful he trusts me to keep doing it.

"We had a trial session last weekend for 18 to 20 year olds, which had a really impressive calibre of players, probably the best we've had so far.

"Even if we don't sign players from that, we've established a relationship there that might come to something if they go somewhere else and develop as a player, so there might be an opportunity with us in the future. I'll be monitoring their progress closely.

"That gave us an opportunity to look at players who'd been released by pro clubs. There were 27 players there, all based within a one hour radius of the club.

"Steve Nichol, Gavin Atherton, Alan Jackson and Milly all came to attend and help the sessions run smoothly, and Paul Oakes attended to coach and develop the young goalkeepers.

"That shows how much the club means to everyone.

"We have a lot of respect for Milly and that works both ways. This is evident with him maintaining the same back room staff he has worked with over the past few seasons, and the exciting addition of his assistant Andy Cooper.

"You want your opinion to be heard as a scout and the manager to take note of what you say, and Milly is really approachable.

“He has excellent people skills and knows how to get the best out of his players and staff.

"Everyone knows how talented he is as a coach as well, which is important when developing players and getting our playing style across to the players each day in training.

"We've been on the phone and on WhatsApp non-stop, talking about players and how they might fit into our system.

"I've got the utmost respect for David, I can only say good things about him.

"People don't see what he puts into the club, he gives everything to the club. I don't think he's had time for a holiday this summer because of sorting out everything behind-the-scenes.

"I've known David a long time, he's put a lot of time and money into the club, he's taken the club a long way, which I think people need to remember.

"He will back the manager if we want to bring players in, and if we want to buy players, David will back us.

"It's got to be for the benefit of the club, but he will 100 per cent back us, which he has done since he's been at the club.

"We bought Marc Roberts, Lee Gregory and obviously Jamie Vardy. David has proven over the years he will is prepared to invest in talented footballers, and has made some very good offers for others in recent seasons."