SHEFFIELD, England. Vicki Jepson doesn’t think driving is that bad. She’d spent most of July on the road, traveling north of a thousand miles in just a couple of weeks.
Her trajectory seems so random at first glance that it looks like she is trying to shake off her tail: from London to Manchester, down to the coast at Brighton, north again to the unremarkable market town of Lee … then back to the south coast, before returning back to Lee.
However, a significant amount of thought went into every mile. Each stoppage has allowed Jepson, Tottenham Hotspur’s assistant manager, to play another game at Euro 2022: at one point, she’s been to nine matches in just 15 days.
They were not chosen by chance. Jepson went to some games to see how the best teams in Europe play, with particular attention to how they build their game outside of defense. She went to others to look at specific players.
However, often her eyes were not so much on how they play, but on who they are. “It’s only when you see the players in person that you realize what kind of people they are,” she said. “You see how they react in certain situations. How do they recover after a missed goal? Do they stay focused after they go forward?”
Spurs, like nearly every club in the Women’s Super League in England, couldn’t afford to miss the chance to see all the best players in Europe gathered in one place. And it wasn’t just Jepson who was on the road: Tottenham head coach, goalkeeping coach and analyst spent as much time on the English highway as she did. Almost all of its competitors do the same.
For all of them, the information obtained will be invaluable. Euro 2022 allowed them to flesh out scouting reports on players they’ve been following for some time, as well as follow anyone who may have previously eluded their attention.
“Having it in our backyard was a great opportunity,” Jepson said. “There are some things you just don’t see on screen.”
In the first couple of weeks of the tournament, as Jepson and her colleagues traveled around the country, it seemed like Euro 2022 was breaking a new record every day.
England’s opening night win at Old Trafford drew the largest crowd in the tournament’s history. The Netherlands’ victory over Switzerland last weekend recorded the highest attendance ever for a non-host country game. Midway through the group stage, Euro 2022 has already attracted more fans to the games than all previous competitions. Each day seemed to provide yet another proof of the breakneck speed and magnitude of the rise of women’s football in Europe in general and in England in particular.
This burgeoning popularity is reflected in the growth of the continent’s various national leagues and in particular in the investment made in the WSL. Sam Kerr, the highest paid player in the world, plays in England. Like Pernilla Harder, the most expensive deal in women’s history. A third of the Swedish team hoping to deprive the host nation of a place in the final on Tuesday night are already playing in England, as is the best striker from the Netherlands and one of Norway’s best playmakers.
However, investment in players is not always behind the scenes. The reason Jepson has racked up so many miles this month is simple. Like most WSL teams, Tottenham have access to the digital recruiting platform Wyscout, as well as a stream of potential target data provided by companies like InStat and Statsbomb. What he doesn’t have is not a single dedicated Woman Scout.
This is true for the vast majority of teams in the WSL and across Europe. In interviews with almost a dozen women’s football executives, agents, managers and coaches, most of whom did not want to be named for fear of being seen as critical of their employers, only a handful of teams were told to hire recruiters, among them this ” Chelsea and Manchester City in England, as well as the German champions Wolfsburg.
For everyone else, the system is “outdated,” as one of the leaders of the leading WSL club put it.
Coaches will watch the games they can, often using international breaks to check on players they think are of interest. Others rely heavily on performance data and videos, though viewing them is often the preserve of one overworked employee. Many, however, still turn to the fastest route available: agents.
“We get cold emails from clubs fairly regularly,” said one agent whose firm represents a number of players at Euro 2022. “It’s never a scout. This is always direct from the manager or technical director. They ask if we have free players who could work for them. Even as an agent, you know it’s not the best way to build a team.”
Chelsea found out about Kerr, the Australian striker, for 18 months before she finally agreed to move to London. There was little reason to examine her performance on the field: Kerr’s prowess in both the national team and domestic football in Australia and the United States spoke for itself.
What Chelsea didn’t know was whether she would fit in easily with the rest of her squad. Not only did she remedy this by inviting Kerr to visit her base in Cobham, in the quiet, wealthy banking belt that circles London three times, but she spoke to a string of her former coaches, former teammates, former adversaries.
After he was satisfied, Chelsea offered Kerr a contract it was exceptional in two respects. This reportedly made her the highest paid female player in the world. More importantly, it may also have tied her to Chelsea for the better part of three seasons.
Chelsea generally try to think long-term: the club will not offer potential recruits short-term contracts for one season, and its managers are wary of signing players even to two-year contracts. Kerr fit in so well that she has already extended her contract until 2024.
Many of its competitors do not have this privilege. The vast majority of contracts, even in elite women’s football, are for no more than a couple of seasons. This is partly due to the players themselves. “You want to have some degree of freedom to move fast,” said one former player. “If you’ve had a good season in a small team, you should be able to leave when one of the bigger clubs comes for you because that might be your only chance of getting paid.”
But shorter deals also serve as insurance for clubs who too often don’t know what they’re buying. The kind of due diligence that Chelsea gave to Kerr is standard in men’s football, but remains extremely rare in women’s football and out of reach for most teams. Instead, most have to take risks with players they haven’t had the opportunity to study thoroughly. As one agent put it, “They offer shorter deals for a lot of signings and then see what catches on.”
Invariably, many players don’t, meaning that most teams in Europe’s top leagues lose and gain handfuls of players each year. Last year, for example, eight of the 12 WSL clubs signed and traded six or more players, effectively changing half of their teams in one summer.
“There is a lot of turnover, which is why you see teams rise and fall so quickly,” the agent said. “You can roll the dice and get lucky in one year. But in most cases, this does not happen, so you have to start over.”
This means that most WSL teams start from scratch each year; it also means that only a privileged few can build something that lasts. Chelsea, for example, added just two players to their squad last summer and went on to win the WSL title and the Women’s FA Cup.
Which is why, as Jepson toured the country this month, she ran into countless friends, peers and rivals from other WSL teams. That’s why the ‘observer’ seats reserved by UEFA at every game were filled with club representatives from England, Germany and even the NWSL, all diligently jotting down remarks in notepads.
For all of them, the long hours on the road were worth it. The tournament allowed them to pick and drop potential targets, to know what they could get, to make sure their budgets were being spent as much as they could. “Every trip had a purpose,” Jepson said. “You learn a lot more about a player when you see him in the flesh.”