Talent spotting: How Paul Rowe helps Plymouth Argyle to find the best young Cornish footballers

By Colin Bradbury

Paul Rowe gets to more football games in the average week than most people. Plymouth Argyle’s Head of Cornwall Recruitment and Development watches a range of youth games and Academy matches, as well as fulfilling his duties as manager of high-flying South West Peninsula League side Wadebridge Town in his (presumably non-existent) spare time.

“You’ll find me on many a touchline during the week at school, county, and representative games, and of course grassroots games at weekends,” he says. “On a good day I can get up to four games in. I’m looking to see if what’s out there is as good as or even better than what we’ve currently.”

Argyle have long scouted for players in Cornwall, but have stepped up their efforts considerably in the last couple of years. That was reflected in the appointment of Rowe to lead the club’s efforts in identifying and developing talent in the Duchy, and the opening of two Elite Coaching Hubs in Penryn and Bodmin 18 months ago.

Argyle have always recognised the size of the talent pool in Cornwall and had a two-level structure in place until 2021 as part of their Player Pathway.

That consisted of Player Development Centres (currently seven across Cornwall) where youngsters participated in a training block of around six weeks. Promising players could then be offered a trial for the next level of the programme, the Centres of Excellence.

The next stop after that was the Academy in Plymouth. But the time and expense involved in travelling across the Tamar two or three times a week could be prohibitive, especially for those in the west of the county. Which could mean players with potential slipping through the net.

That’s one reason that the Elite Coaching hubs were introduced as a third level of the player pathway, sitting between the Centres of Excellence and the Academy. To illustrate the difference this has made, Rowe gives the example of an under-11 player currently on trial with the Academy.

“Each week he’ll go once to the hub in Penryn, once to the Bodmin hub and then once to the Academy in Plymouth,” he says. “That’s much less onerous in terms of travel – it’s just not realistic for someone to travel from, say Penzance, to Plymouth three times a week. The hubs have made a big difference in terms of the geographic challenges we face.”

Another advantage of the Hub model is the flexibility it gives in terms of player development. Recently a talented Cornish under-10 was identified playing for a Centre of Excellence against a Hub team. On that basis, he was sent for a trial at the Academy who asked that he spend some time in an Elite Hub working on specific points. After doing that he went back to the Academy where he was signed.

As Rowe says: “That’s an example of the pathway working by the book. There’s lots of flexibility within the system.”

First-team coach Kevin Nancekivell (centre) conducts a training session at the Elite Coaching Hub at Penryn College. Picture: Colin Bradbury / Cornwall Sports Media

Rowe’s main focus is on the under-7 to under-11 age groups. While he does keep an eye out for players older than that who might have been missed (Luke Jephcott, for example didn’t come into the Argyle pathway until he was 14), the younger age group is key.

“You want to get them in earlier to get used to Academy life and to develop them at an Academy level,” he says. “Look at some of the fixtures the under-8s have had over the last few weeks. They’ve been to Arsenal, Wolves and Cardiff — the experiences they get and the ability they gain compared to other lads that haven’t had that opportunity are invaluable.”

So how are players with potential to join the Argyle pathway identified? Cornwall is a big area and obviously Rowe can’t be everywhere. While he has a wide informal network across the county as a source of player referrals, recently three fully registered scouts have come on board. Rowe says that they are already playing a crucial role:

“Scouts don’t just spot – they can approach managers and parents in an official scouting capacity and get priceless information. They might find that a lad is playing up an age group, which they wouldn’t know that unless they asked. They see that and think ‘we’ve got one here.’ We don’t have everywhere covered yet but it’s a really positive start.”

Rowe is also quick to give credit to Cornwall’s grassroots clubs.

“By and large, the clubs have been terrific,” he says. “Of course, we have to be a bit careful because a lot of Academy stuff happens on Sundays when grassroots matches take place. There’s a lot of give and take, and I don’t take the support of the grassroots clubs for granted. I’d like to think that the teams we’ve got a lot of these players from appreciate that I’ve been really fair to them.

“The grassroots clubs are the lifeblood of what we’re trying to do. Our goal is to develop the players, but you should never underestimate the great work that the local coaches put in, and how well they develop the players. Working alongside them is vital and I think that’s going really well.”

Rowe points out that Argyle also want to contribute to developing the standard of football coaching across Cornwall. The club runs coaching development events in conjunction with the Cornwall FA, and in recent months Kevin Nancekivell (Argyle first-team coach) and Darren Way (Argyle under-18s coach) have been down in the county to participate in sessions

“This really helps perception of Argyle with the local coaches,” Rowe says. “Last time he was in Cornwall, Nance (Kevin Nancekivell) invited the coaches to go up to Plymouth to watch a first-team training session. Several took up the offer and were given a great insight into Argyle’s coaching methods.

“It certainly makes my job easier when Argyle look after grassroots coaches like that. It’s all part of the way the club interacts with the Cornish community.”

Once promising players have been identified, Rowe gets to do what he calls: “…my favourite part of the job. A big part of what I do is assessing players in person.

“On a good day I can get up to four games in, but usually two or three. I’ve already got an idea of who I want to go and see. It could be on the back of a recommendation from a manager or something our spotters have seen. Then I go and follow those up to watch the players.

“You get a feel for what you’re looking for. Generally, we’re after the very best grassroots players that we don’t have in our pathway currently.”

Cornish boy Freddie Issaka (right), who became Argyle’s youngest-ever player when, aged just 15, he made his debut as a substitute in a 2-0 EFL Trophy defeat to Newport County in August 2021

These efforts have really started to deliver in terms of the numbers in the Hubs and the volume of Cornish players going into the Academy.

“The numbers in the Hubs have swollen from round about 60 to about 140 players across the two locations,” Rowe says. “Things have evolved quickly, and the quality has gone up as well. The number of under-8s, -9s and -10s going up from Cornwall into the Academy age groups in Plymouth has jumped significantly since the Hubs started.

“For example, about 50 percent of under-10s in the Academy are from Cornwall which is quite a jump. It’s a similar story with the under-9s — maybe not quite so high a proportion but still a very healthy number.”

All of which, combined with a wide range of other activities west of the Tamar and success on the pitch continues to boost Argyle’s profile and reputation in Cornwall.

“I was talking to a parent at a Cornish club the other Sunday, and they’d been up with the kids the previous day to do the matchday experience at Home Park,” Rowe adds. “Argyle made a big fuss of them, with photos and a stadium tour etc.

“There’s so much good work going on at Argyle that there’s a lot of goodwill towards the club in Cornwall. I’ve certainly noticed a difference over the last 12 months.

“I went to my local pub in Wadebridge the other week to watch the Carabao Cup Final. It was full of Man United fans, but everyone was talking about Argyle. People were buzzing about how well it’s going at Home Park — the interest down here is huge and for me, it’s great to be a part of that. Promotion would just kick things on again.”

With Argyle’s big push in Cornwall, some might be concerned about the club hoovering up all the best young talent in Cornwall. But of course, only a small percentage of the youth players who go through the Argyle pathway will go on to join the Academy, let alone to play for the first team. The rest will have received a first-class grounding in football skills and will continue to play for their schools and a Cornish club. That’s pretty much the definition of a win-win situation.

“A few years ago, talent identification in Cornwall was very informal,” Rowe concludes. “Now there’s a clear focus on finding and developing the best players down here. The level of ability in Cornwall is as good as anywhere in Plymouth or Devon — we just have the extra challenges of distance.

“The club’s ambition is to have lots of local footballers in the first team of a sustainable Championship club. The substantial investments they have made in the whole youth and Academy setups recently certainly reflect that.”