Think of Burnley FC and you think of target men, tigerish midfielders and hulking centre-backs. Of manager Sean Dyche’s gravelly tones. Of one of the Premier League’s less fashionable and most traditional clubs consistently outperforming more glamorous rivals with a defiantly no-nonsense brand of football.
But for all that they have punched above their weight, you probably do not associate the Lancashire club with being at the vanguard of innovation. With using artificial intelligence to scout and whittle down potential recruits. Or with implementing a multi-club model with tentacles overseas in order to capture the best talent.
Yet this week Burnley announced both of those developments. The two projects offer perhaps the clearest indication yet of the vision that their new owners, the US investment group ALK Capital, have for the club. Mike Smith, a partner at ALK and now director at Turf Moor, acknowledges that the new approach may raise a few eyebrows.
“They might be surprised if someone has slotted Burnley into a particular cubbyhole and thinks that’s where they belong,” Smith tells City A.M. “We’re OK with that.”
But he adds that ALK, which completed its takeover in December 2020, chose Burnley over other teams precisely because the Clarets had scope to be modernised.
“We looked at a lot of different clubs as we were evaluating what to do. The reason we settled on Burnley is that it had so many fundamental things that were positive but also there is an opportunity to maybe apply some new skills, new science, a different way of thinking.
“It may be that Burnley is an old-school, old-fashioned type club. That’s great. But it’s got a really solid foundation to build on. If we can use that to pivot in the direction of a new era, fantastic.
“If people want to say the jury’s still out, we say ‘great, wait and see the things we’re working on’. And there is much more to come.”
Burnley turn to AI in search for next Jamie Vardy
One of those things that ALK Capital has got Burnley working on is a global talent search using AiSCOUT, a platform which uses artificial intelligence to assess players’ ability.
In January, the club invited aspiring footballers to upload clips of them performing prescribed drills to the free AiSCOUT mobile app in the hope of landing a trial.
More than 12,000 people from 125 countries including China, Bangladesh, Kenya and Belize did. This week, two of them began trials with Burnley’s under-23 squad.
Two more are due to try out in the summer, while a further 24 have been invited to showcase their qualities in a match in front of scouts from the club.
“To leverage technology to expand searches is something we always envisioned,” says Smith, who spent 20 years as a lawyer before joining ALK.
“As it turned out, in this crazy Covid world where scouts couldn’t get out to live matches, it actually worked extremely well as an avenue for kids to give it a shot.”
While Smith admits Burnley would love to unearth the next Jamie Vardy via the platform, the talent search is geared towards young players rather than the first team.
He believes it could be especially useful for finding prospects in poorer countries who slip through the net because they are not already playing organised football.
And that, Smith reasons, could help Burnley to bridge the gap with their richer Premier League competitors, who are able to scout overseas more extensively.
“If we can democratise these tools I think we can find incredible players that maybe aren’t going to be caught in even a wide-cast net of the larger clubs,” he says.
“It’s not that it replaces conventional methods at all; it’s a nice tool that falls into those broader things that we’re trying to accomplish.”
‘Why would Burnley not be doing this?’
ALK Capital, it should be noted, also owns a stake in AiSCOUT, a fact that is unlikely to assuage those sceptical about the project’s chances of unearthing gems.
Smith insists their publicised use of AiSCOUT is not an attempt to piggyback on a Premier League club’s profile, that the software can make decisions more evidence-based and less subjective, and that, in any case, it is not costing Burney anything.
“The sceptics who say this is just using Burnley to market the platform, I would really disagree,” he says.
“I would say this is the opposite: a platform that can really help Burnley to create some parity and maybe find some people that they wouldn’t have the ability to find at all.
“If nothing else it’s a very low-cost opportunity with lots of upside and little to no downside. So why would Burnley not be doing this?”
Smith does seem genuinely enthused about the possibilities of AiSCOUT and is unequivocal that this is no one-off experiment for Burnley.
“We didn’t pre-judge that we’re absolutely going to take somebody no matter what. But we’re very pleased with what we’re seeing,” he says.
“The prospects that we could sign someone are quite high. You can be absolutely certain that we’re going to include this on a going forward basis, for sure.”
Why ALK Capital has signed up four partner clubs
Burnley’s use of AI scouting is part of a wider push into finding, nurturing and fielding more club-produced players.
It is a cost-effective strategy that makes a good deal of sense in a pandemic, and perhaps even more so at Turf Moor given ALK’s need to service debt from their heavily leveraged buyout.
To that end, the Clarets today announced “strategic partnerships” with four clubs in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The alliances with Ayr United, Llandudno, Portadown and Cobh Ramblers will give Burnley a first look at their partner teams’ best youngsters in exchange for sending players on loan and sharing expertise.
A partner club in the Republic of Ireland could be particularly useful for overcoming regulatory hurdles post-Brexit, which make it harder to sign unproven talent to UK teams.
“What you’ll see is a broader academy system that is not just England-based and creates pathways for these types of kids,” says Smith.
“As we bring them in there may be a pathway to the Burnley team ultimately, but it might have a few stepping stones along the way.”
‘We definitely feel that we can climb’
Clarets chairman Alan Pace, ALK Capital’s managing partner and a Wall Street veteran formerly of Lehman Brothers and Citi, is credited with turning Real Salt Lake from whipping boys into Major League Soccer champions in another of his previous roles.
Such a transformation may be even harder to engineer in the Premier League but Smith is bullish when asked how much higher Burnley – who look set to finish 17th this season but steered clear of relegation long ago – can climb.
“It depends if you’re talking value or table – there are a lot of ways to measure how high Burnley can go,” he says.
“Burnley is already very high depending on which metric you use. If you look at spend per goal, we outperform in a lot of different areas.”
He points to Leicester City and, this season, West Ham United as proof that teams outside the Big Six can “punch up” into their territory.
Smith also draws parallels with a 1985 ranking of the top 50 publicly traded companies in the US. None are still in the top 50. “Things do change,” he says.
“We definitely feel that we can climb. We’re not trying to kill it all at once and make big bets, but we think that if we make lots of smart bets over time we’re going to be in a position to challenge at any level.
The next step is “how we fill out the squad and give us a little additional strength”, he says. “I think we’re excited by the prospects.”