If you follow my writing, you’ll know I am a massive soccer (football with a round ball) fan. Having watched my national team, Wales, all around the world (including in 2003 in San Jose), I must admit I was particularly excited to sit down recently with former Chelsea, Sunderland, Swindon and Wales defender Gareth Hall Head of Football Operations at AiSCOUT, as well as Founder and CEO of AiSCOUT – Darren Peries.
Based in London, AiSCOUT is a fully automated talent identification platform for professional soccer clubs, associations and federations to scout amateur players worldwide. Using artificial intelligence, the app allows scouts to find, analyse, score, rate, benchmark and identify players’ technical, athletic, cognitive and psychometric ability. The idea for the platform came about after Darren’s personal experience of dealing with scouts’ interest in his teenage son
“We’ve been on this journey for three years now,” he explained. “I’m not actually a football person – my son was let go from Tottenham Hotspur F.C. and I was intrigued by the number of scouts looking for insight. I figured there was a huge lack of data and insight in amateur soccer.”
According to (national hero!) Gareth Hall, data is only just becoming a much bigger part of the modern game overall.
“I’ve been in the game over 30 years now and as a player there was nothing in the game like this,” he said. “We are giving scouts the ability to redefine the way they find new guys and girls. It is such a competitive world in football and with more technology being introduced, it’s changing week-to-week.”
While the use of technology continues to be a controversial point in a traditional sport like soccer, challenging the accepted norms of the dark arts of developing young players has also proven difficult for some.
Darren said: “We put together a fantastic team of experts from football and AI. We worked with Chelsea F.C., Loughborough University and IBM to look at amateur talent in a very different, objective way. It annoyed people initially, but we managed to get them to challenge what they’ve always thought.”
Pressure to identify talent is getting harder because of the pandemic limiting clubs’ ability to scour the country as they would normally.
Gareth: “The top end clubs have it easier, but the smaller clubs have it tough right now; they can’t afford to send out scouts. Our platform supports the top clubs all the way down to the bottom. We work with them and help team understand who they are looking for.”
In 2020 AiSCOUT was boosted by investment from ALK Capital, the new owners of Burnley F.C, and the app is being launched in collaboration with the English Premier League club..
Burnley will be searching for players above the age of 14, who could join its Category 1 Premier League Academy. The players download the app, complete a profile, and do athletic and technical trials via a smartphone that a player would typically do once scouted by a club in the traditional way. It gives clubs access to potentially millions of new prospects.
Gareth: “The amateur players can see what it is like to trial for a professional soccer club. We’ve built the platform, built the opportunity, we now have a list of top clubs & FA’s looking to come on board to provide that opportunity to players to trial for them. Burnley F.C. has come onboard as the first partner to unlock this as a global campaign. As a small start-up this is phenomenal for us.”
While anyone can upload their performance for free using the AiSCOUT app, exceptional players identified through the app will be invited to attend formal academy trials day later in 2021 (when it is safe to do so!) with the chance for eligible players to earn a place in the Burnley Academy.
Darren: “We’ve built something called the ‘National Rating Score’. It’s a standardized score based on the nation they are in to understand your athletic ability using AI. You can then do further trials, and eventually it unlocks a club and national side trial – as long as you say in your profile you are eligible to play for them! It gives coachable feedback and scores that are derived from a complex scoring model we have in the backend.”
Burnley sees this as an opportunity to introduce new data-led technologies and promote Burnley to the wider world.
Darren: “The success from the early testing was incredible. We went out to 50 random young players in the Surrey area to test the app. We found six of them Premier League trials, three Championship [second level] trials and two got selected for the Sri Lankan national team!”
Another trialist Ben Greenwood was snapped up for a trial by JJ Watt’s favourite team Chelsea F.C. (who he literally lived around the corner from despite never begin spotted). He was there for 10 weeks before then signing for AFC Bournemouth. Two months later he also played for Republic of Ireland under-19s. Ben is now only 17 and playing for the AFC Bournemouth under 23’s and training with the 1st team.
Ben Greenwood: “I thought it [a career in football] was all over but hoped it wasn’t. I downloaded the AiSCOUT app and copied some drills. Through my score I was then invited to play for Surrey County and then Chelsea under-18s. It was a great experience and I even scored on my debut and I then went on to sign for AFC Bournemouth and from there onto representing the Republic of Ireland under-19s. Who’d have thought that downloading an app would have changed my life?”.
Another young prospect Reef Peries was selected for the Sri Lankan men’s national team at just 18 years old. Despite being on the books of several major clubs in his youth, he eventually left full-time soccer to study at Nottingham Trent University. Reef’s trial data from the app was provided by Gareth Hall to the Sri Lankan Football Association. Reef was due to play in the World Cup qualifiers until Covid-19 hit. Incredibly his first game back is due to be against South Korea – where he will face global super star Son Heung-min!
Reef Peries: “To be selected for a national team 6,000 miles away from where I play football after downloading AiSCOUT, was both amazing and a proud moment. I’m really looking forward to representing my late grandfather’s homeland Sri Lanka in the up-coming World Cup qualifiers.”
AiSCOUT is one of just four companies in the world nominated for the ’Most innovative use of AI in 2020’ at the DataiQ awards. At the World Football Summit, AiSCOUT was also named one of 16 leading start-ups that are transforming the football and sports tech industries.
Gareth: “The feedback we’ve got from some of the top scouts from the top clubs is that they already know about all of the talent, but we completely disagree with that – looking at their archaic process. It’s for these kids to take ownership of their ability now. If you are a young player, 14, 15 years old, it is up to you now. Put your information in there, do the trials and so many scouts will see it. You are giving yourself an incredible opportunity. The Scouts have now worked out that we are there to help them, not replace their roles. The more data we can provide on a player, makes it easier for the Scouts to find them.”
I love this example of how technology can support doing things in an entirely new way. While selfishly I hope the app mainly unearths the next generation of Welsh-qualified talent, the truly global nature of the search for talented young players it can support is so exciting. The chance to play in the Premier League or for a national team is the dream of every young player (and adult!), and the ability for these players to use technology to show their skills is so exciting – as is changing stubborn mindsets through the use of data.