Hereford FC manager Josh Gowling’s first monthly column for the Guardian (Available on The Guardian now):
When I am interviewing prospective signings for Hereford FC, one of the best questions is the shortest one: “Why?” I want to know why they are sitting in front of me, why their career has taken them down this path and why they think we would be a good match. We speak about their personality, their background and their ambitions. It is all designed to see whether they buy into what we are trying to do, and whether they have the right mentality for our environment.
But that is not where the process ends. We cannot afford to get too many decisions wrong as a sixth-tier club, playing in the National League North, on a tight budget and amid competition that gets tougher by the year. The financial margins are wafer-thin, particularly after the Covid-19 shutdown that denied us precious gate receipts and commercial revenue. We were hit harder than most and sustainability comes before anything. Every penny counts towards staying alive but, at the same time, this club has a historic name and a sizeable fanbase so our aims need to be bigger.
That is why I have spent the summer enhancing our recruitment process with a strategy based on data and analytics, which has become commonplace higher up the leagues but I believe is groundbreaking in our division. I have hired a team of a dozen undergraduates from one of the UK’s leading football analysis courses to work alongside me, my assistant and our analyst in profiling the players we need. We look for key markers in players to see whether they fit our approach: high pressing, quick transitions and intensity. Collating this information means I am armed with all the detail I need when I meet them.
I like to think I’m a pretty good judge of character but you can’t guarantee, from an interview, whether somebody will perform. Consistency is a particular issue in the National League and the mental side of the game is a big reason why a lot of players are at this level. We are fortunate to welcome crowds of about 3,000 to Hereford, so I need players who are comfortable playing under that pressure. The idea is that, by adding analytics to old-fashioned intuition, I have a far better chance of getting these decisions right.
We will also use the system to analyse our opponents. Last season we played Aldershot in the FA Trophy and knew that a team that scores first against them has an 80% chance of winning. That informed my gameplan: we had to have a go at them. We scored after six minutes; we were pegged back at the end and eventually won on penalties, but it gave us a platform to succeed against a team in the division above us.
During my playing career at clubs such as Bournemouth and Kidderminster, we never had access to this kind of detail. Sean O’Driscoll, my manager at Bournemouth, did a lot of his own video analysis and in many ways was ahead of his time. We want to implement something that helps our players and management to a unique degree; a system that we can adapt, improve and, as we hopefully move up the levels, shape to become different from anyone else’s. Models like this have worked spectacularly at places such as Brentford and Brighton; Notts County are on that path too, although at an earlier stage. When I eventually have to move on from Hereford, this is the legacy and structure I want to leave.
With or without data, pre-season has been a challenge. We have kept about half of our 22-strong squad – when I arrived last year we retained only three or four – but the level of flux still poses problems. Bringing in quality players who fit the budget and are happy to be part‑time is a juggling act. Getting deals over the line means constant phone calls and, in practice, little sleep. I have two young children and live in Grimsby, so it is perfectly normal for me to rack up 1,000 miles a week. We train in the Midlands, at Aston University, as it gives us access to a wider talent pool and most of our players are based in the area, but it is a four-hour drive from my home to Hereford.
Last season the theme we presented to the squad was: “This year only.” The circumstances everyone faced were extraordinary and I just asked them to squeeze everything they could out of it. We reached the FA Trophy final and had a day at Wembley, even if we were deeply frustrated to lose against Hornchurch. But we were pushing for the play-offs when the league was declared null and void in February, so this time it is about “Elevation”. We want to take last season’s work to another level, starting when we host Farsley Celtic on Saturday.
Hereford is a massive club and its natural resting place should be in the Football League, but we have big outgoings and that means we have to be smarter in everything we do. It can be hard to think long term at National League level because so many factors can lie beyond your control, but the clubs that put in the right infrastructure and commit to their targets, such as Stockport and Chesterfield in the division above us, will be rewarded. Recruitment is a fundamental part of that and it is my job, through the new approach, to ensure we can steal a march on the rest.
Josh Gowling will be writing for the Guardian through the 2021-22 season.