After starting out as a researcher for Football Manager when he was just 15, Matt Neil’s eye for talent was picked up by Plymouth Argyle. He now works as the League Two club’s lead first team analyst, providing data on player performance, opposition reports and potential transfer targets. Here’s Matt’s story…
“I initially applied for the Truro City researcher job eight years ago which was advertised on the Football Manager website. I went to five or six Truro games a season back then because it was only about three quid on the train and the ticket was about six quid. I already knew quite a bit about some of the players because they’d been at Argyle, so I thought I’d try and help out in that area because nobody had been doing it for a couple of years.
I got the job and had been following Truro for about six months when I noticed that the Argyle position had become available. I sent an email off to say I think I could do a good job. I’d been watching Argyle for years and Football Manager were impressed with what I’d been doing at Truro. Based on what I sent over – which included an excel spreadsheet with all the players’ histories, stats, etc – and considering I had a season ticket at the time, I was promoted to researcher for Argyle. It was just before I turned 16, so instead of revising for my GCSEs I was spending all my time on Football Manager.
— Jonny Gabriel (@JonnyGabriel) August 11, 2016
I’ve always played Football Manager. My greatest achievement was having a stadium named after me at Huddersfield. If I looked on Steam at the amount of hours I’ve played over the past five years or so, I’d be quite worried to be honest. It’s around 600 – 700 hours a year. The time just flies, you don’t notice when you’re playing it. I’ve never managed Plymouth because after becoming a researcher it feels like I know too much. I know every single piece of data for all the players and everything that’s hidden in the background of the game. It makes it too easy.
I’m now an analyst at Plymouth. We’ve just signed the goalkeeper Marc McCallum, who some FM players will remember was an incredible prospect at Dundee United as a kid. I used to sign him all the time. When he came for a trial this summer, he walked in and it was one of the strangest moments in my life. I’ve never met him in person – I’d only ever seen his face on a computer game – but straight away I knew it was him.
I spoke to him at a pre-season game the next day. We got around to the subject of Football Manager and he’d been in charge of Argyle on the last game, getting them to the Premier League and signing himself. I asked him what he did when he first took over, and he said he got rid of all the staff. So I said: “Did you sack me?” And it turned out he’d actually sacked me as well. It was a strange opening conversation to have with someone.
I’m only the second person under 16 to become a team researcher for Football Manager. They normally prefer people in their twenties who usually have a bit more knowledge, but I’d had a season ticket for four seasons at the time I became a researcher and watched the youth team every other week. I remember watching Lloyd Saxton in the Under-18s, who’s now at GIF Sundsvall in Sweden; Christian Walton, who’s now at Brighton; Lloyd Jones and Sam Gallagher, who are now in the Premier League with Liverpool and Southampton; and Joe Mason, who’s now at Wolves. If I remember rightly I rated them quite highly and they’ve gone on to do alright. When I started Mason was regarded as a Conference player at best in the game, so I increased his potential straight away. A few years later he scored the opening goal in the League Cup final for Cardiff against Liverpool.
When I watch players I don’t ever judge them on their Football Manager ratings. If someone has got a passing attribute of 17, I don’t immediately think they’re going to be an unbelievable passer, because that might be after someone’s watched them for three games. It normally only takes a couple of games to tell physical attributes, but when you’re getting into the finer details like concentration, that takes a while. Some games a player might switch off against good opposition, and some games they might not be tested at all. It’s the same with work rate and seeing which players chase absolutely anything or those who know when to press and close down. There are a lot of things I see now that I didn’t before.
Before I started at Plymouth I volunteered for an organisation called Green Taverners when the club was in administration. Before every game there was a fan fest, which cost around a fiver to get in, and all of the proceeds went to the staff who weren’t being paid at the time. We were basically set up to help the staff out when they desperately needed the money. After six months, every staff member was getting £100 a week because of the amount of fundraising we did, which may not seem like a massive amount, but when you’re not getting paid anything it’s huge.
I got to know a lot of the players and the staff because I was around the club four or five days a week – helping the kit man, helping set up the hospitality suites and so on. Carl Fletcher, the manager, always seemed really approachable. One day I was speaking with the club secretary and told him there was a player scoring a load of goals in the Conference South who was relatively young and could be a good signing. He passed it on to Fletch and then got back to me asking for a statistical and video overview to present to the manager.
I made a DVD with the player’s profile on it and went back a few days later. Fletch was quite impressed and said the club analyst was leaving at the end of the season, did I want to go in and see what the role is about. I watched a couple of matches from the top of the stand and he asked for my thoughts after the game.
After we played Morecambe away he asked me to prepare clips for all the players. It’s an easy job to do now but back then I had to go through the match and write down all the times for each player, all the incidents, and so on. I got all the clips together, stuck them into iMovie and produced a 15-minute overview for each player. I was 19 at the time and about a month later he offered me the job. My friends and family were delighted for me but a lot of them didn’t really know what the job entails because it isn’t really a publicised role.
In my first meeting with Fletch I mentioned my role as a Football Manager researcher and that was another plus point in getting the job. He knew I’d been looking for data and information on players for the past four years, so I already had a few good sources to check people out. He wanted me to work closely with our chief scout to make sure we had all opposition and recruitment analysis spot-on. The scout was only 21 at the time too, so we were quite young and new to it.
Given our ages a lot of people looked at us and were perhaps a bit sceptical, but we learned a lot about football in the first six months. Fletch left six months after I came in and it taught me about the harsh reality of football and whether there were things we weren’t doing right. Managers have very contrasting styles. Fletch wanted every single detail on every single player, but when John Sheridan came in he wanted to focus on the set plays with just a bit of information on individual opponents. It was a bit more old school. It taught me a lot because when I came into the role I expected it to always be the same. So I had to step back a little bit and understand there’s a lot going on in football and people see the game differently. I wasn’t as active under Sheridan, but it was a really important time to learn about working in a football environment.
After the first weekend of this season I’d already watched six matches including our own. I don’t know how my mum and dad don’t understand why I don’t have a girlfriend – they should know how much time I spend working on my laptop. I went for dinner on the Saturday after the first game against Luton and I think I had 25 WhatsApp messages from other analysts just while we were having food. It was ten o’clock at night but football never stops.
I still play Football Manager. I haven’t played it for a couple of months because I made the stupid decision of leaving my Champions League-winning Ajax side to join Man City, and everyone knows when you join City the game gets boring because you have too much money.
We’ve started our final phase of research for the new game so it’s pretty much ready, although there are still lots of tests to be done. I try to keep it quiet that I still give ratings for the Argyle players as I don’t know what they would say. I’ve had a few comments that this should be higher, or that should be lower. A physio turned around once because someone had shown him his profile and he asked “Why do I only have 10 for physiotherapy?” I couldn’t really answer that question.
Last season we had a game on the coach with a few players when we were playing Hartlepool away because we knew it was a long trip. We all started as Burnley and the aim was to get them promoted. Me and (Plymouth striker) Louis Rooney ended up winning the league, while a couple of the players ended up getting sacked by Christmas.