Simon Wilson: Stockport County's seven-year plan
Written by Simon Wilson — October 29, 2023
STOCKPORT COUNTY are top of League Two and have just set a club record of 11 consecutive victories. Speaking at TGG's Scouting & Recruitment Webinar in March 2023, their Director of Football Simon Wilson outlined the club's seven-year plan.
Simon Wilson: Stockport County is an historic football club.
It has been in the Football League for 105 of its 116 years, the majority of that time in the third and fourth tiers. The club actually had eight years in what is now the Championship and achieved its highest position of eighth in that division (in 1997/8).
Unfortunately, in 2011 it was relegated out of the Football League and then suffered a further relegation two years later, out of the National League and into regional part-time football.
Winding forward to 2014, a local businessman called Mark Stott had a significant asset sale in his private business. As part of that there were a number of things he wanted to do - and one was to ringfence an amount of personal money for a football project.
Mark is from the area and had some experience of football, having previously invested in a football facility and coaching training business. He had got the bug and seen the impact that football can have on young people around the community.
I was introduced to Mark when I was consulting for people who were either interested in acquiring football clubs or those who owned them and wanted to get more out of them. Mark wanted to buy a club and see how far it could go.
We worked together on what turned out to be a seven-year plan for promotions through the football pyramid, to take the club past its highest-ever league position.
Looking at the business case for Stockport County, we felt there was a potential sleeping giant right under our noses. Stockport is a town with a combined population of more than 300,000 people, which is bigger than Sunderland, Portsmouth and Burnley.
It has a really resilient fanbase. For example, when the club went down to regional football, it was still getting a core fanbase of around 3,500, which is higher than 10 teams currently in League Two and three in League One. So we knew there was a baseline there that could support a sustainable club.
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We knew we were well located in the country’s football geography. There are 20-plus professional clubs and a big non-league scene within a one-hour radius. Being based in the North West around the Manchester area is also a very attractive place for people to live and a good location for sport, entertainment and employment.
Stockport is very accessible through plane, train and car travel and in terms of a base for players, coaches and staff, we would knew there was plenty of talent here already and that if we were relocating anyone it should make sense for them.
We also knew the fans would come back and that there was a potential Super League/ Premier League backlash at the time, with fans looking for more accessible football which was less premium and more authentic. We felt we could serve that purpose.
SUCCESS OFFERS CLUES
In January 2020 (just before everything was shut down for Covid), Mark acquired Stockport County. We started to do our research, in terms of looking for the clues for success in climbing through the pyramid. We had seen quite a few recent cases.
From 2009 to 2019, nearly 40% of the teams that had been promoted from the National League had climbed through to League One, and a further 10% had climbed all the way through to the Championship. We started to look at the commonalities and trends across these teams and the proof of concept that it could be done.
Using a mechanism called the World Super League Rating (from Twenty First Group) we were able to compare teams across divisions by relative strength. This gives a sense of how much stronger you need to be in order to be successful at each level and your probability of success.
We knew that if we could improve our team strength enough in the National League then we would also have a very strong chance of survival in League Two. Much of this is down to the number of promotion places in League Two (four) compared to the lack of relegation places (two). The bottom half of League Two over time have less pressure to invest versus the ambition of a lot of the top clubs in the National League.
This gives some reasoning to the high amount of National League teams that had done well within that 10-year period. To get from League One into the Championship is a tall order and a lot of improvement is needed, but in terms of probability, if you are able to improve your team to certain levels you have a high probability of not being relegated out of the Championship in your first season.
The next thing we were able to do was match those relative strengths to the average spend of teams over previous seasons. When we acquired the club, the team strength rating was 204 and we had an average annual wage bill of about half a million pounds. We knew we had to improve it significantly in order to give ourselves a stronger chance of promotion to League Two.
And we knew if that team was invested in in the right way, then that strength could carry us through to League One. We knew we were going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting in the first phase, but that if we got that right that team could potentially sail through before the squad needed to be rebuilt.
That was something we wanted to take advantage of straight away.
GETTING THE HARDWARE RIGHT
We had this phrase of being 'Championship-ready'. We didn’t want to wait until that point to start behaving like a Championship club, we wanted to do it immediately and knew that would make us an attractive place for talent to come.
To use a tech analogy, we wanted to get the hardware right from the start, rather than having to upgrade over time. We might need to update the software - that might be the players, certain staff - but we would have what was required to operate as a Championship club from day one.
That meant the right number of staff, the right departments; it meant investing in the quality of the training pitches, the gym, the dining - everything you would expect if you were to walk into a club in the Championship.
We also had to decide what we wanted the club’s identity to be. It had lost its way for a period of under-investment and we had to rethink what would work. It’s a well supported club, historic, working class and embedded in the community.
So it needed to be a team that represented its fanbase - front foot, hard working; one that dominated, that played in the opponent’s half; one that created lots of chances, had confident body language and played with speed and physical excellence.
We wanted a team that was entertaining and enjoyable to watch and attractive to come and play for. The crowd could occasionally be against the team here, and there were players who had found it challenging to play at Edgeley Park in the past, so wanted to flip that round, to make it a real strength. The way we played needed to excite and engage the crowd.
We knew the plan for the club was to grow, so we needed a developmental mindset and to be modern in the way we approached the game.
A catch-all one word for our identity was intensity. When the opposition got on the bus after a game we wanted them to describe us as relentless, intense and difficult to play against.
We’ve always worked on a lean squad of 20 profiles, giving space to development players, because we know that at some point in our journey we are going to need to develop our own.
Our first phase is about acquiring talent. Up until three years ago we were a part-time team. We had to turn the team professional and rebuild the squad to a level that was able to compete at the top end of the leagues.
We have tried to put our investment into these 20 profiles, which we believe are unique. We are able to construct any type of shape from these profiles. It enables the manager to have an engaged group at all times, who will make a contribution to the team and not have players who are regularly left out. It also gives you different ways to change a game, from game to game or from the bench.
We always do a ‘what it takes to win’ exercise at the beginning of the season - understanding how many points are required, how many goals, how many clean sheets - and looking at that group and ensuring they can achieve what’s required.
That includes robustness. The FIFA work around this anticipates an average availability range of 85% as industry standard, so we are looking to be above that, and working with a smaller group means we need to be at the top end of availability. That guides us, in terms of the way we staff and structure our training weeks.
In a squad of 20, we tend to have eight in the peak phase, who tend to be the players on the best contracts, who we would expect to have the most playing time. They tend to be known as the best in the league or are coming down to us from higher leagues.
They have a level where they are able to sustain the type of performance required and to be of an age where that will not vary. An example is centre-back Fraser Horsfall, who we brought in from Northampton Town in the summer and who has been very successful in this league.
We find these sub groups will play off each other and feed each other. These peak players will move on and get older and need to be replaced by pre-peak players.
These are on an ok guaranteed amount but it’s more incentivised. We are bringing a lot of this talent in, from National League football or Academy U23s and sometimes they can be loans. We are attractive for first loans from Category One teams in the Championship for example.
Either side of this we have the emerging players. Because of the lack of Academy in non league we have had to top this up with players from the National League, Academy Under-18 releases. An example is Ethan Pye.
They are on development contracts. We tend to give them one or two years with options and heavily incentivised.
Finally we have the twilight group, which we think is really important. They are players who have potentially played at a very high level and are looking to continue their playing time. We have done that recently with Phil Bardsley, who has actually donated his salary to charity but wants to continue playing.
There are risks with these types of players, in terms of their age and potential historic injuries, but off the pitch they can add a huge amount to the culture and to other players in the squad.
SCOUTING (AND FILTERING)
With any scouting operation, a big part is filtering. At the top of the game you are dealing with a much lesser amount of players who can potentially play for your club. As you go lower, the amount of players with the ability to play for you is much larger.
A couple of principles:
- Clubs don’t just sign the best players, they sign the best players they know. So we have to widen awareness so we consider all profiles and mitigate any biases around players we have worked with before or had recommendations on.
- You only sign around 10% of players you scout, so recruitment is mainly about preventing the wrong players coming to your club. So we need to cover with enough depth to make robust decisions.
Realistically, there are about 11 leagues we need awareness of, which we think generates around 4,000 players to look at. We need a good level of detail where we feel we can be credible in making decisions on those players.
We have nine steps to review this talent pool and then filter and benchmark (shown below). We don’t have a big scouting team, so we have to be very diligent and disciplined in how we work.
The majority of our scouting structure is part time and our one full-time role is our Scouting Co-ordinator (Dale Hargan), who has a very strong background in data. He is able to use his architectural skills to identify the pools of teams we need to look at and the fixtures that are meaningful for us to go to.
We tend to cover a lot by video and at the right point we will go live. With some teams we have to go live.
In non league you have a lot of flexibility in terms of timeframes for players you can bring in. There have been a lot of initial one-month loans with players we have looked at. As we get to know the levels and standards required we have probably done more. Being able to learn quickly.
And even made a couple of decent sales in that time as well.
We have been here three years and increased performance year on year - third in the National League in the first year, when we lost in the play-off semi-finals, to winning the National League last year and now this season.
Of course the budget has increased each time, but we’ve been able to justify that with the performance increase. We’ve had Cup runs every year - playing West Ham in the third round of the FA Cup on TV in lockdown (January 2021), last season beating Bolton in the first round, which was watched by three million people on iPlayer, and this season beating Charlton to get to the third round.
We are pretty much a sell out every home game, have doubled the average attendance from when we took over and are now at club revenue records. Getting back into the league has given rebirth to the Academy after 11 years, which gives opportunities to the local community and the chance to have our own young players again.
We are trying to work on that cycle of the best talent we can acquire at the best price leading to better results leading to better revenues which means we can reinvest in talent.
Where it has gone wrong in the past here is that it goes the other way in a negative cycle. We know we need better talent at a cheaper cost and that’s the constant challenge.
Over a period of time we aim to build talent - players, coaches, sport scientists, scouts - and that will be our next phase. Like pretty much every other club, player sales is an important part of that and is something we need to maximise, scouting the right talent, getting it high performing, doing deals at the right price.
This year we are really hopeful we can secure another promotion and will be doing everything we can to achieve that. If it doesn’t happen this year, then we will be going again next year.
We are in the middle phase of the project and believe we have established a high-performance culture which we need to sustain across all areas.