Managing in the Modern Game: Steve Evans - Navigating The Transfer Window
In the latest instalment of Managing in the Modern Game, a series of interviews looking at specific elements of football management through the eyes of those involved, Dean Eldredge of Oporto Sports Management speaks to Gillingham manager Steve Evans about the complexities of the January transfer window, working with a sporting director and the work that goes in to persuading an owner to sign a player…
Steve, how difficult is the January window to operate in, compared to the summer and why?
I have a very clear view on this and people will have different opinions. If I look back at my time at Leeds United, I think it’s easier for a club like that to sign players in the summer as it’s not always about wages, it’s about the club you are joining and the vision. All players should aspire to play at the highest level and I’ve never come across a player or manager who doesn’t operate like that. Players like Lewis Cook spoke about wanting to play in the Premier League, like James Tavernier when we were at Rotherham United together, and he is now captain of Glasgow Rangers.
So, I think from my point of view, it’s easier for clubs in League 1 and 2 to operate in the January window than it is for clubs in the top two divisions. My rationale for this is that there will be players desperate to play first-team football, that will be content to drop down a level rather than sit for four or five months on the bench or in the stand. Players are more likely to speak to their agent and ask if any clubs are interested to get them some game time. I keep in touch with a lot of former players I’ve worked with and they agree.
Can you name some examples of loan players you’ve signed and why they were a success for you?
There’s probably been 10 or 12 players I could pick out that have made a massive difference to my sides, but I’ll keep it to a couple. Emi Martinez, the Aston Villa keeper, who was at Arsenal at the time. At Rotherham in the Championship, we had decided to stick with what we had, but in key positions we needed to strengthen. We had Adam Collin in goal who was excellent for us, but we identified that we wanted to bring someone else in. That came from a conversation I’d had years before in Scotland, and I was privileged to be in the company of Sir Alex Ferguson, Craig Brown, the late Walter Smith, Archie Knox, the real heartbeat of Scottish football management. The chat went on to talking about keepers, and I was asked about the traits I would want in my goalkeeper and I spoke about distribution, height, agility and then Walter said, ‘I just like my goalkeepers to keep the ball out of the net!’
I spoke to Arsenal about Emi, and he’d only played a handful of games, but his agent had said he was keen to play. I got permission from Arsenal to speak to Emi and went down to London to meet him and his partner. I was told I had a one in ten chance of him agreeing to join us, but he’s a good kid and we sat together for two-and-a-half hours talking football and I told him I thought he could reach the top level. Within an hour of driving home, the agent confirmed he wanted to join us. Emi was stunning on and off the pitch for us and played his part in us retaining our Championship status.
The other name I think of, and again it’s from Rotherham, was Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe. We were in our second season in the Championship and we wanted to sign someone who could the Paul Scholes role for us, an almost impossible task. One evening, I went to Norwich to watch a reserve game and this boy, Vadis, was playing and I think Alex Neil had paid a fair bit for him, but unfortunately he’d had a lengthy injury in his first season. I watched him as he was returning and thought he could play. I called Alex, who joked that I must have had a bug in his room as Vadis wanted to go out on loan. Like Emi, Vadis was stunning for us. He could score, he could run, he had everything. I would probably put him in the team of the most talented players I’ve worked with, even though he wasn’t with me for long.
Throughout your time in management, how have you adapted to working with heads of recruitment, sporting directors, to ensure you get the right players?
Until I joined Peterborough United, I hadn’t worked in a structure that included a director of football, and everyone knows the man, Barry Fry. Barry knows everyone in the game, he knows every level of the game, he has more people ring him about players in a day than I have in my phonebook. He knows everything that’s going on, and when we were together he would watch training most days, would support you and like Victor Orta at Leeds, they give you honesty. It’s all very well winning 3-0 and not playing well, most people would take that, but you need the honesty so you know what’s really happening around you. In fact, my only regret from my time at Leeds, because you can’t regret working for such a wonderful football club, was Victor Orta joining after my time there. I see what he brings to the club, and how a sporting director role should work. That person and the manager have to be on the same page. For example, if I want a left-back but the sporting director says we have two of the best players in that position in the division, they would rightly be looking at me and wondering what I’m talking about. With someone like Barry, I would lead on the profile of player I wanted, but Barry would immediately know what was realistic for us as a club, as I’d likely be describing a Champions League player. Barry would know the figures, benchmarking, who would want to come to us, everything. Clubs at the top levels of the game have that kind of structure in place.
How do you convince a player to sign for you?
I think I have a good example of this, rather than just speaking generally. I identified Ivan Toney back in his Northampton Town days, before he got his move to Newcastle United. I watched him on loan at Scunthorpe United and he was very good for them. I made it clear to Barry that I wanted him and to be fair to Barry and the owner Darragh MacAnthony, Ivan had already been on their radar for a while. Barry and Darragh offered me great support, and we got an agreement with Newcastle to speak to Ivan, and set up for him to come to Posh’s training ground a day or two later. Ivan’s agent came in and said there’ll be no issue with the financials of the deal, but was concerned about whether we would be able to persuade him to join. Ivan is very close to his family, they follow him to his games, and of course, while I have to talk to him about his football, how we can improve him, the project, how I see him fitting in to the side, I also know that it’s important to talk to him about what’s right for him, to see it from his perspective, and to remind him of those that have been on the same path, such as Jack Marriott, Craig Mackail-Smith, Dwight Gayle and George Boyd. I had them written up on the board for Ivan, and Barry and Darragh had persuaded them to sign and they’d all gone on further in their careers and contributed substantial transfer fees to the club.
I cleared out my office and went up to Barry’s, leaving Ivan and his family to decide with his agent. No more than ten minutes later, his agent came to us and said he wanted to sign. I think we sold Ivan a vision, worked hard with him on the training ground, and I still have contact with him over WhatsApp every week or two, and he is playing at the top of his game. Looking back, I think it was important to go in to such detail with him, but we needed to give him a platform to perform, after the disappointment of being surplus to requirements at Newcastle. He is the best striker in terms of his ability in the box, to manipulate a ball, that I’ve ever worked with.
What key personality traits do you look for in a player that you are considering signing?
It depends upon the status of their career. At Peterborough we were looking for young, natural goalscorers, with the capacity to improve significantly, and with the desire to work hard. That was the model we worked with to try and ensure we could generate income, and it is the model most clubs should work towards. If you’re signing a 30-year-old in the January transfer window, to help you go up or stay up, for example, the things I look for are: is he settled? Does he still want to win matches? Is he focused and professional? Will he work as part of a team or as an individual? Can he improve what we have? Throughout my managerial career, I’d be asked by the owner or the board how the squad was looking, and my standard answer would be, “One or two short,” and they’d laugh at me, but in January you’d know you have four or five tough months to get through and if there’s injury issues, or a weakness somewhere, you can’t afford to go in to that run under-prepared. It’s then a case of working out how much of a risk that investment is.
Sometimes there are players who will join you in the Championship or League 1, making it clear they want to play in the Premier League. My job is to convince them to work hard and get there through being part of our process. Make no mistake, the player himself has to be 100% committed to us and if I get a sniff that he isn’t, I won’t go through with the deal.
Looking at the January transfer window from an owner/CEOs perspective, what does a manager need to highlight to persuade them to provide the cash for a potential new signing?
First and foremost, you have to be clear on whether there are funds available for a player, and what the limit is. You have to find value for money on a player too. Does he have resale value? Why are we spending this money? You have to justify it and show the statistics to back this up. I believe that when you are signing a player as a manager you should have seen him play live, and be able to talk to your owners about him, how he plays and what he’s like. Too often a player is signed purely off someone else’s say so. For example, I only saw Siriki Dembele play three times, but I’d seen enough to know that he had turned my left-back inside out. I think it’s important to show what the player’s pathway is as well; is he short-term, or a long-term signing? At what point will the club see a return on his investment, either on the field, or in terms of selling him on?
In the majority of clubs, it is the owners, the boards who are making up the differential for any losses each season, so what they spend on players and wages, and what they recoup is absolutely vital. Especially given the impact of the pandemic, this has been magnified. I have a great relationship with Peterborough United, with Barry and Darragh, and look at the money that Darragh has put in to keep the club competitive, and has also brought in other investors to help. The burden on an individual is so great that you have a responsibility to make sure every penny spent counts, otherwise it’s just unsustainable. I think as long as you are honest with the club hierarchy and they are honest with you, then you can all sleep at night.
To what extent have you embraced working with analysts to use data to identify suitable targets?
It’s an absolutely essential part of the modern game. My brief to the analysts is to break down looking at a player in to two parts. Starting with the prosecution, I ask them to identify the player’s weaknesses with evidence, and look at how we feel we can improve on them. Then we look at the evidence that supports the player’s qualities. Once that is complete, we need to look at what the player himself is like, whether he has the right attitude for what we need.
Analysts are also crucial for looking at your own players, sitting them down and showing them what they are doing and how we can improve. It needs to be a case of watch and learn, and then repeat it. Looking at the opposition and identifying their strengths and weaknesses is vital too. I’ve spent time at other clubs, like at Marseille a few years ago, and looked at details like how they travel, when they travel, what they eat, when they eat, how they analyse. If you aren’t looking and moving forward then you are standing still.
With vast experience operating across various levels of the game, Steve Evans has demonstrated a proven ability to guide the clubs he’s managed in the right direction. Over 1000 games in the dugout, six promotions and three manager of the month awards go some way to telling his story, but Evans would be the first to admit that none of those accolades would have been achieved without operating shrewdly in the transfer market, identifying talented players, maximising their output and selling them on for a profit to help his respective clubs balance the books.
His reputation as a no-nonsense, skilled motivator is well-known, but by embracing modern managerial methods, using a data driven business approach to recruitment, he has continued to deliver on and off the field for the clubs he has worked for.
League 1 manager of the month – March 2021
League 1 manager of the month – August 2018
League 1 Play-off winners 2014
League 2 runners-up 2012/13
National League winners 2010/11
League 2 manager of the month – October 2011
National League winners 2001/02
Southern Football League Premier Division winner 1999/00
United Counties League Premier Division winners 1996/97 and 1997/98
UEFA Pro Licence
UEFA A and B Licences
Managerial highlight to-date
Every time you win a football match is a highlight, as anyone in the game knows. I was told that winning promotion at Wembley would be with me until my final day, and it still means so much to me. To come back from 2-0 down to win made it extra special. I didn’t prepare my half-time speech, and it wasn’t any motivational Robert the Bruce stuff, it was about the players and the supporters and about believing in ourselves. After the game, hugging my wife, daughters, the Chairman Tony Stewart and his son Richard, and realising what we’d achieved can never be taken away. Also, I have to say that it was a highlight to sign my contract to manage Leeds United and for their supporters to sing my name, with my family there in attendance. They are the two moments that stand out for me.
For more information on Dean Eldredge and Oporto Sports Management, please visit www.oportosports.com and follow them on Twitter @DeanEldredge and @OportoSports
Images: Main Image – Unsplash