With more pressure than ever before being applied on Premier League clubs to encourage the purchasing and developing of more English talent, chances are scouts from the top division will soon be staking their reputations on the plethora of untapped talent plying their trade in the lower leagues.
The introduction in 2010 of the ‘homegrown quota’ – which says eight of the 25-man squad each Premier League club names at the start of each season must have been playing in this country for at least three years – means clubs are likely to want more English players in their ranks (although ‘homegrown’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean English, just registered with the FA for three years, it is likely most of eligible players will be from these shores). The demands of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play will also have an effect, as top clubs looking to balance the books may take advantage of struggling non-league sides by cherry-picking their best talent for a relatively cheap sum.
Which brings me to the first of what I hope will become a regular feature, the Scout Report – which will pick out the lower league players who could soon be making a name for themselves on Match of the Day (or, if they’re less lucky, after midnight on the Football League Show). If you’re a fan of any of the ’92 Club’, the name Jason Prior could be ironed on to your replica shirt very soon.
Who he? Well, like many holidaymakers at the town’s Butlins resort, Prior has been having a whale of a time at Bognor recently. The 23-year-old netted 95 goals in two and a half seasons for Bognor Regis Town in the Ryman League Division One South, an enviable record at any level. Before Christmas it appeared Prior’s next step on his path to stardom would be a jump of just two divisions, to Conference South neighbours Eastleigh. But just as they were about to get their man, having agreed a £12,500 fee with Bognor, there was a dramatic twist – as Newcastle United stepped in and offered him a trial. Eastleigh fumed and, like a spurned lover (or a spoilt child, depending on which way you look at it), immediately washed their hands of the whole thing.
Prior, meanwhile, took his opportunity with both hands, scoring on his first appearance in the famous black-and-white stripes, a reserve team game against Wigan, in front of the watching Alan Pardew. Magpies reserve team boss Willie Donachie called it a ‘fantastic finish’ while Pardew himself admitted: “We’re going to keep looking at him, we like him.”
But this week Prior returned to the south coast with dreams of featuring in a schoolboy’s sticker album dashed for now, after Newcastle decided against offering him a deal. Steve Bone, sports editor of the Chichester Observer, believes fate dealt their local hero a bad hand as a niggling injury he picked up in training ruled him out of a second chance to shine at St. James’s Park (down with naming rights!) but he told me he expected Prior to make it in the pro game.
“I think Bognor fans expected him to move in the summer – Swindon, AFC Bournemouth and Carlisle were mentioned. He is under contract with Bognor so whoever signs him would need to agree a fee first.
“That’s his sort of level at the moment I think, League One or, more realistically League Two – that would still be a massive jump. Brighton have close links with Bognor and they will have seen Prior and kept tabs on him. They may be waiting in the wings.”
For any Football League manager reading this – and let’s face it, you all will be once I’ve established my talent-spotting reputation – Bone described the attributes which caught the eye of Pardew and Donachie. He said: “Jason’s an old-fashioned centre-forward and they like those up at Newcastle. He’s quite a big lad, very good in the air – he prefers playing alongside a partner in a 4-4-2 and flicking the ball on.
“He’s also a very nice guy – he’s a big favourite with the Bognor fans, as he always went and had a drink with them in the clubhouse after games.”
Jason Prior – coming to a Football League bar near you, soon.
(EDIT – January 25th, 7.05pm: Prior didn’t waste much time in wrapping up his move into the Football League, signing for League Two AFC Wimbledon.)