BIG INTERVIEW: PNE head of academy recruitment Andy Livingstone
In the week that Paul Pogba joined Manchester United for an eye-watering Â£89m, it was refreshing to chat with Andy Livingstone whose focus is on football at grassroots level.
Livingstone is Preston North End’s head of academy recruitment, a job he has done for the last three years.
He oversees PNE’s scouting of young footballers, whether that be lads ready to sign scholarship forms or playing local junior matches.
Officially based at the impressive UCLan Sports Arena at Cottam, the ‘office’ for Livingstone is more commonly the touchline.
Anyone who follows him on Twitter can scroll through his timeline and see pictures of the various places where he has watched games that particular week.
Whether it be a professional club’s academy venue or a park pitch, Livingstone is on the lookout for young players to join North End’s academy and maybe one day pull on the famous white shirt for the first team.
He coaches the Under-16s at the academy, swapping the scout’s coat for the tracksuit.
“I put on Twitter ‘#today’s office’ when I’m out at a game,” said Livingstone.
“It is where I do a lot of my work – I could be just about anywhere watching a game.
“I enjoy watching football, whether that is a grassroots game, a non-league match or at an academy.
“At the moment, this is tournament season, with a lot of grassroots clubs playing in summer tournaments.
“We have signed up six players for the academy at various age groups over the summer just by watching tournament games.
“I’ll watch grassroots games on a Sunday, while on Saturday, I will go to a club with a Category 1 academy – Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton – because we have to be aware of players who they might release.
“Josh Brownhill got released by United and we picked him up from there, Clive Smith – who is the first team squad now – we signed after City let him go at Under-16s.
“In the current group of scholars, we have got a boy released by United at 16 and another who City released.
“At whatever level you watch, sometimes a player will stand out within five minutes.
“He might do one thing which sets an alarm off in your head.
“Every scout could go to a game at grassroots and pick out the best player on the pitch or the best player in each team.
“But the skill of a scout is to see whether that player would fit into your club’s environment and values.
“Sometimes you see that in five minutes, sometimes over the course of a game, sometimes you have to watch a player six, seven or eight times, it just depends.”
Livingstone, 48, was born and raised in Preston, and now lives in Lancaster.
He played for Morecambe in their non-league days and for Darwen.
For 12 years, he was youth coach at Morecambe, while he had two years coaching at Padiham with former PNE player Steve Wilkes.
Livingstone coached part-time at Preston’s academy for six years before coming on board full-time.
“I’m head of academy recruitment, what I look for is players from Under-18s down to the young kids.
“It can be lads who have dropped out of Cat 1 and 2 clubs, or it can be boys playing grassroots football.
“The majority of our players at Preston come from grassroots.
“I run a team of scouts, all of whom are volunteers.
“When I started this job three years ago, we had 16 scouts – now we have in excess of 50.
“Our coverage is from the North East right down to London, with most areas in between covered.
“We have scouts in Ireland as well, it is a network we have worked hard to build up.
“The difficulty is that we are in a very competitive area in the North West. It is not just the big Manchester and Merseyside clubs who are looking for players, but you have got Blackburn, Burnley, Wigan, Oldham and Rochdale too.
“Fleetwood have just become Cat 3 status like us, so that is more competition.
“The EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) has travel limits but in the North West you can reach any of the clubs in the time allowed.
“The bigger clubs have all the resources and a phrase I use is that they are fishing with a fleet of trawlers, we are fishing with a rod and line.
“We have to be good at our jobs and visible when we are out there – we have to try and get the best possible players for Preston North End.”
Livingstone says PNE cast the net wide in terms of the players they recruit for the various age levels of the academy.
“A lot of clubs are very specific in their strategy,” he said.
“Some will concentrate on what is called the pre-academy, the five to eight year-olds.
“Others will focus on the foundation phase, which is nine to eleven.
“Very few of the bigger clubs now will concentrate on the youth development phase which is 12-16.
“They will look to have done the work with the kids at the younger age.
“At Preston North End, we like good footballers.
“Kids develop at different rates – some kids’ development is best served with a grassroots club, they play on a Sunday or on the tournament circuit or the Futsal circuit.
“We had Nick Anderton here who joined us as a scholar straight from grassroots, without being at an academy.
“In the current group of scholars, we have lads who have been in academies since they were five or six, getting that professional training.
“At the other end of the spectrum, there is a kid who played his football in five-a-side pens in the inner-city.
“We picked him up at 16 and signed him as a scholar.
“We are open-minded with what we are looking for, we look for good footballers.
“If you came to watch our academy Under-14s, we have one boy who is 6ft 2in and another who has not yet touched 5ft, but they are both good players.
“We look for certain things – we like players who are good characters, hard-working with good discipline.
“The technical and tactical side of the game, that is what the coaches are here for.
“We have a great relationship with a number of clubs in grassroots.
“Just about every season we provide them with kit, footballs, cones, bibs, put on coaching sessions, whatever help we can give we do it.
“Whether you are Joe Garner, Paul Gallagher, Harry Kane or Wayne Rooney, every player starts their football life in grassroots football.”
The long-term aim for those in the academy – managed by Nick Harrison – is of course to get players through to the PNE first-team squad.
Livingstone lists a number who have progressed in recent years.
He said: “In the current squad you have Bailey Wright, Mat Hudson – who made his debut at Leeds last season – Clive Smith and Ben Davies.
“Others have come through and moved on – Tyler Forbes has just signed for Brighton, Conor McLaughlin is playing for Fleetwood, Jamie Proctor, Danny Mayor, Adam Barton.
“They have been through our system and have become professional footballers.
“It is a big challenge for the club but young lads are making it which is great.”