Scout’s honour: An in-depth interview with Southampton’s Ryan Cardwell on life in the football recruitment jungle

"ONE day I want to be sat there in your seat."

The words that the then Southampton Director of Football Operations Ross Wilson heard from Ryan Cardwell signal the relentless drive and burning ambition of an emerging talent.

Sport Careers Agency client Ryan had the fortune to have industry leader Wilson, now Sporting Director at newly-crowned Scottish champions Rangers, as a guiding mentor in his career in the scouting and recruitment sector of The Beautiful Game.

It's a relationship Cardwell values deeply and he stressed: "Ross Wilson has been a huge influence on me and I am able to pick up the phone and talk to him on football matters which is invaluable.

"I feel he looks at things uniquely, he is a real hybrid of modern and traditional methods of scouting players.

"I spoke to Ross once in his office and told him: "I want to be sat in that chair in 10 or 12 years time."

"I want to get to a Sporting Director level and learn how to filter all the information and data available to a club and use it wisely.

"From an ambition perspective Ross is a key relationship for me, he always has time to take a call."

Wilson's success and rise to prominence in a key area of the modern game has been a blueprint for many aspiring talents.

The 36-year-old Scot graduated from the University of Strathclyde with a degree in Social Science that would later become a Masters in Sports Management from Stirling University.

He cut his teeth at his local club Falkirk before moving on to Watford and Huddersfield Town to fashion a reputation that saw him win that prized post at Southampton.

Now it could be argued that it was Wilson's appointment in October 2019 - and the rock-solid recruitment he has overseen since - that was the final piece of the jigsaw in Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard's gradual rejuvenation of fallen giants Rangers.

At 27 Ryan is still doing the hard yards that Wilson had to complete to begin to earn the respect of those who matter within the game.

His current role as an National/European Emerging Talent Scout at Southampton is part-time and mixed with his day job as a Business Development Manager.

It's a path well-trodden in scouting and recruitment and Ryan smiled: "I can finish work on a Friday lunchtime then grab a flight to Europe and get back late Sunday night.

"I had one trip when I got back to Gatwick on a delayed flight, the M25 was shut and everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

"I got through my door at 2.45 am and was back out at 6.45 am to get to the day job.

"Those, though, are the sacrifices I made when seeking a full-time job in the game.

"That's the lure of football I guess to so many of us. Winning that full-time role is now my no1 target."

Every day at Southampton, though, is a school day for Cardwell.

Those trips abroad seeking out talent for one of the Premier League's most productive Academies have been critical to his growth.

He revealed: "Going to Ajax's Academy, watching Barcelona's kids, seeing young French internationals. It has opened my eyes to see what is out there.

"From Spanish technicians to superb French athletes to the Dutch who can bring a mix of both at times.

"You see the world in a different light in football terms.

"You have to possess the intensity to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. You will drop into a city on your own and have to find the game, hire a car and think on your feet."

Southampton's Academy has a stellar reputation for producing young talent that is given the opportunity to flourish in the Saints' first team.

The latest to roll off the conveyor belt, 19-year-old Swiss youth international midfielder Alex Jankewitz, was sent off after just 79 seconds of his debut in what turned into a horror 9-0 defeat at Manchester United.

Ryan reasoned: "I've seen a few come through now and our fans grab hold of a homegrown Academy player. They love them and they expect to see them make the transition.

"Even when Alex Jankewitz was sent off so early at Old Trafford recently you could see that the fans rallied around him which was great to see.

"He is such a talent and he will learn a lot from that day. The Premier League is a tough school."

As is the world of recruitment with every club chasing the best young talent.

The double whammy of Brexit and then the COVID-19 pandemic means that Ryan is operating in an ever-changing marketplace.

One key part of his process when looking at young players for the Southampton Academy system goes beyond simply their on-field skill-set.

Ryan revealed: "I compiled a Player Character Document to be used for a player and I think that is massively important.

"In this day and age we are making huge commitments on players in terms of finance and hours put in by staff into development.

"We have to know how he will fit into Southampton FC. It's about style of play and the training environment.

"If you look at our first team now there are players who won't fit that mould, they might not want to go and press and work hard.

"They may still have good careers but it just won't be at Southampton.

"My biggest challenge is asking the question of how the players I look at will adapt to English football.

"The Premier League is unique because of the pace of it and you have to do the due diligence.

"After Brexit it could be that the players we are looking at are now 18 years of age rather than 16. You have to look at the data on them.

"We might be taking kids from a Category Three environment and they haven't had a video analyst, a nutritionist or a sports psychologist available.

"That's what we have at Category One and it can be overwhelming for them."

Much of the foundation work for Southampton's magnificent success in the market over the last decade was laid by former Senior Recruitment Officer Bill Green who sadly passed away in 2017.

His legacy, though, has been added to by men like Elite Scout Rod Ruddick and European Recruitment Co-ordinator Stewart Naughton.

Ryan sees every day he can spend working with experience like that as a gift and the club fully backed his quest to attain Level 3 of the Talent ID qualifications with the English FA recently.

He explained: "That course opened up different types of learning, we had a class of 30 from all levels of the clubs from first team to Academy.

"We were being taught to understand a little more around potential and performance and we looked deeply into the maturation and physical development of players.

"Our goal was to put a strategy together to run a department and there were some fascinating speakers.

"We did the last two modules on Zoom because of COVID-19 and I did my presentation on Decision-Making in the recruitment process.

"I looked into how I would better present a player to our Academy Director, what that process can look like.

"The visuals, the numbers, the data. I wanted to show that every scout could use a common language to make it simpler for those making the key decisions.

"We will have multiple eyes on a player multiple times before a commitment is made.

"They might then be brought in on trial if we can do it or we present them to the Academy Director.

"He will then have a dossier compiled and he speaks to the Board in terms of the budget required."

The TV cash that flows into the English game means that at the top level it's a high stakes game where the 12million GBP spent on signing imperious Dutch centre-half Virgil van Dijk from Scottish champions Celtic can be seen as MODEST.

It was when you range it against the 75 million GBP he brought in when he was sold to Liverpool!

Ryan believes the scouting and recruitment set-up at Saints is the perfect environment for dedicated young football professionals like himself to develop in.

He said: "The way the club is set up gives staff stability, the Academy know the club philosophy and the coaches employed at first-team will always fit a certain profile.

"Southampton's superb recruitment record means there is pressure on the department always to keep producing.

"You need to deliver and it's great to see it when Academy players make it through.

"In the past Alan Shearer, Gareth Bale and James Ward-Prowse are all Academy graduates and they have given us an established name.

"Players look at us and know we can be a superb stepping-stone for them in their careers.

"That's the financial model at Southampton and I think people are always realistic about that here."


"Years ago I was looking for a sporting job and I had a conversation with Sport Careers Agency and the way they operated always stuck in my head.

"Now, with a full-time move into the game being a big target for me, it gives me reassurance to know that my CV looks so slick.

"The feedback I have had from applications I have made is that it really stands out. Now it's my job to get more content on it!

"Seriously, I have been able to use Sport Careers Agency MD Piero Carrino as a bounce board for ideas.

"I have been doing strategic documents and they have been so professionally done. I couldn't recommend Sport Careers Agency enough."

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