Thursday, May 5, 2022

Meet the former Scotland Yard detectives who help Premier League clubs spy on transfer targets

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After years of fighting serious crime, from arms smuggling to terrorism, John Reynolds and Neil Whitbread are now using their expertise to carry out due diligence on million-pound footballers

Or the player who left one championship club to sign for another with a drunk driving case pending?

Have you ever heard of the French players who showed up to training Monday morning exhausted because they had got into the habit of going to Parisian clubs at the weekend after a Saturday game with the Eurostar?

No? Well, the clubs who signed these players in million-pound deals didn’t have that either – which is one of the reasons why two former Scotland Yard detectives with more than 25 years’ experience in serious and organized crime are now on the job work with Premier League and Championship clubs to due due diligence on potential signings.

John Reynolds and Neil Whitbread worked in some of the most hostile and challenging environments in London and across the UK on serious cases including gun crime, drug smuggling, anti-corruption and counter-terrorism.

Whitbread worked in covert roles, conducting surveillance and working with high-risk informants. He received “regular calls at 2 a.m. telling me, ‘Someone just got murdered, I know who did it, but you have to get down here quick.'”

But now he has turned to football, the sport his brother Adrian played for 14 years at Portsmouth and West Ham, among others.

Whitbread is Football Investigations, Intelligence and Risk Specialist for Silverseal, an international private investigations firm more widely used in the corporate world. But now they’re trying to crack soccer, a world where networks can still be pretty closed and sources prone to bias.

“If you break it down, how many signings actually work?” he says.

“This is a multi-billion dollar industry but quite often clubs make these deals without properly assessing the risk. Proper due diligence is absolutely essential.

“Why not give your most significant investment thorough due diligence to increase your chances of getting it right?

“As a supporter you would like to believe that this process has been completed and clubs are doing their proper due diligence, but that is not always the case.”

The key areas Silverseal examines are the players’ backgrounds, where they grew up, who they are associated with, their business interests, lifestyle habits and, crucially, their use of social media.

They are often used by clubs to scout for rising stars, but there is also an increasing demand for players from areas such as South and Central America, where it is more difficult to penetrate the world of third-party property and individuals claiming to be agents to be.

Whitbread says the company doesn’t try to snoop on players’ backgrounds or pre-judge them.

“We’re not here to judge and jury over a player and say, ‘Don’t sign them.’ What we’re saying is we can find out that information,” he says.

“We can go so much further and use different methods than people in football do with our technical background and expertise.

“You may be signing someone who needs a certain type of support. It’s better to know that before you sign him.”

Also, he says, a lot of the things you see in clubs just aren’t equipped to handle it.

Take Andre Gray’s 2016 FA indictment for historical tweets, for example. Homophobic social media posts were dredged after he scored for Burnley at Anfield.

“If we look at social media, it’s not just about the player, it’s also about who they’re close to,” he explains.

“Are there any dubious comments you have liked or retweeted in the past that could result in reputational damage and financial loss?

“Obviously people know that young players can be naive or immature and make a comment that nobody is paying attention to at the time, but then six or seven years later when their profile goes up, someone digs that up and it’s all over the news with potential reputational damage for both the player and the football club.

“We know that some recruitment teams look at a player’s social media accounts, but they are not experts at it, they are not trained investigators. You have to know where to look and that’s where things get overlooked.

“I get frustrated when I’m told, ‘We’ll do it.’ What they really do are advanced Google searches that everyone does daily when they want to research where to go on vacation. It’s really not the same.”

It’s an idea that quickly picked up steam. Whitbread has recently presented to the English FA, Uefa and the Scottish FA the implementation of thorough due diligence and risk analysis. A number of major Premier League clubs are already using their services, along with Championship and MLS clubs.

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