Long gone are the days when Lou Macari and John Rudge would be trying to get one over each other sneaking around in mid-week reserve or non-league matches with a steaming cup of Bovril trying to unearth a hidden gem.
The recruitment model at all football clubs has evolved significantly over the last couple of decades and the challenge for Stoke City is to make sure they have the best of the new – data analysis to help to highlight strengths, weaknesses, potential and availability – with the best of the old – a good old-fashioned eye for talent.
It’s part way between the old system where a manager would be left to sort everything out for himself and the continental model of a sporting director and head coach, where the former is in complete control of who comes and goes.
So Michael O’Neill – who has already brought in four new signings, all free agents, this summer – will be helped from this point on by new head of first team recruitment, Alex Aldridge. It is a key, club-defining relationship.
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Aldridge, aged 27, has arrived from Millwall, where he has spent five years in their transfer department and the last three – since, incidentally, a course in sports directorship at Manchester Met that O’Neill later enrolled on himself – as chief.
He has had an interesting route to the transfer front line, having been a Millwall supporter and reporter – founding the popular and successful website NewsAtDen and working for Southwark News.
But he was clearly very highly regarded by Neil Harris at The Den – and Harris’s successor Gary Rowett, too, who might have been parachuted into the relationship but was impressed with Aldridge’s insight and organisation. They are disappointed to be losing him.
So what exactly will his role be at Stoke and how does the whole recruitment process work?
In theory, in an over-simplified nutshell…
O’Neill will have a vision for what position he needs in his squad – and what kind of player he is looking for in each role, whether the focus is on pace or aggression, creativity or discipline.
Then it will be Aldridge’s responsibility to come up with a list of options and targets.
He told the South London Press in 2017: “My role is to know the market inside-out, so that we are aware of every opportunity and constantly monitoring availability of targets.
“I’m generally the first port of call for agents – it’s not realistic for the manager to be on the phone constantly or out and about having meetings as well as managing the team. We have also tried to build up relationships with other clubs – like Liverpool, Manchester City, Everton, Southampton and Arsenal – in the event we want loan players.”
O’Neill and Aldridge will then work with chief executive Tony Scholes and vice-chairman John Coates – and their budget – to work their way through candidates, with names dismissed or underlined and prioritised.
In reality, it’s not really a straightforward step-by-step guide but a constant whirling machine.
And it is a collective responsibility to get it right.
Robbie Earle wrote in his StokeonTrentLive column this week: “The biggest thing in any club is recruitment. If you get it right, you have a chance. You get people in the door who enhance what you’ve got, provide good value for money, give you a chance to make a profit or make the club progress on the pitch.
“If you get bad players in, it makes everything more difficult. They drain the budget, they’re hard to shift and they make life more difficult day to day on the training ground.
“So good luck to Alex Aldridge, who needs to make sure there are significantly more new faces in column A than column B. It doesn’t matter if he’s 27 or 77 as long as he knows his stuff and let’s be clear, this is a crucial appointment for Stoke.
“There have been too many players over the last few years who have come to the bet365 Stadium with decent reputations but not taken the club any further – or even furthered their own career. You won’t get every deal right and not every transfer will be a bargain but you need to consistently be happy with your business.”
More signings are expected – but probably only if and when space in the squad and the budget is created by moving on some of the current players. There are some players who definitely need a new home and others who were on the fringes last year who could do with a fresh start too.
O’Neill has spoken at his press conference this afternoon about how important it was to get the bulk of his incoming business done early, landing free agents Morgan Fox, James Chester, Steven Fletcher and John Obi Mikel.
He said: “New signings always give the squad a lift – you certainly hope that they do that.
“It was a very quick transition and we’ve also had players returning having been on loan at other clubs, the likes of Benik Afobe and Harry Souttar in particular who have been training with the group.
“New players, good players, good professionals can settle in quickly. The four boys have done that.
“Chezzie (James Chester) doesn’t feel like a new player because he’s kind of felt like he’s ours since he joined us last season but it’s good to have a player like that because he has much more influence as a permanent player as opposed to loan player.
“The other three have all made a very positive impression since he came in.”
He added: “We brought in players who have a pedigree, there’s no doubt about that.
“We did a lot of work before we actually met them, spent a lot of time with the players. It wasn’t done without having done a lot of due diligence on the four players, James Chester included – obviously we’d had James for six months already so we didn’t have to do too much on that.
“The important thing was considering the stage of career the players are at that we are bring the right types of people into the building. They’ve settled well and I think strengthened the group. They are all good professionals and good types.”
But outgoings are obviously important.
“(There’s no news on departures) at the minute,” said O’Neill. “The market is very, very slow. There hasn’t been a lot of clubs doing a lot of business in terms of bringing players in.
“So it will take a bit of time. The window is open until the middle of October so we’re still a good bit away from the end of the window.
“But the squad is too big. There are players who for their own benefit and the benefit of the club need to move on. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time but at the moment we don’t have anything concrete to report.”
And it is evident that Financial Fair Play is dictating that Stoke won’t be big spenders.
“We’re restricted in the transfer market because of Financial Fair Play,” said O’Neill. “Young players who would come in and automatically affect our starting XI would cost quite a lot of money so we’re not in a position to buy those players at this minute in time.
“We have to be mindful of that and find the best players available to us. I think we’ve done that with the signings we’ve made to date.”
He added today about Steven Fletcher: “He’s brought in for goals but not only that – he’s a quality player. You only had to see him on his first day at training to see that. His link up play is excellent. He’s very strong in the air, times his jump very well. He wins a lot in the air despite not being maybe 6ft 4in or 6ft 5in. He has a real physical presence.
“What he has as well as real quality is experience. He knows how to use his body, how to be able to take contact. He’s a handful for any centre-back to play against.
“Equally, we’ve brought him in to score goals and what we see day to day in training is a top player.
“We would rather he was 25, of course we would, but we wouldn’t be able to buy him if he was 25.
“But he’s a player who has come here with a lot to prove still. He still believes he has a lot to offer and certainly from what we’ve seen in training he’s showing us that already.”
The vital thing for the board, the manager and Aldridge – and for fans and Stoke City as a club – will be for Fletcher and most new recruits from this summer and going forward to show it when it matters too.