To reference Football Manager's latest feature, you're either a tracksuit manager or a tactical manager. Tactical managers deal in their own knowledge of players, elicit gains from the board, and push themselves into a wider array of duties. Tracksuit coaches, on the other hand, play the hand their dealt. They train what they've got and let others deal with the 'fluff' of upper club management. Steve Clarke is a tracksuit manager, and Tony Spearing is here to help deal out the best cards.
The 50-year-old former defender began his scouting career at Blackburn in 2005 and it is from 2006-07 when we can judge Spearing, with his feet truly under the table, where we'll summarise his hits and misses.
06/07 was a good year for the Rovers; while a 10th-placed finish may have been underwhelming at the time, the quality of incoming signings was undoubted. Striker Benni McCarthy arrived for £2.5 million, Dutch international Andre Ooijer joined from PSV, while Christophe Samba began his illustrious Lancashire career having come in from Hertha Berlin for £450k (later sold for £12m) and current Ewood icon David Dunn signed for £2.2m. Granted, Bruno Berner and Shabani Nonda were less inspired signings, but this gives a good initial impression.
The following season saw Blackburn finish 7th having signed Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz. Like McCarthy before him, he hit the ground running—under the excellent management of Mark Hughes—and netted 19 goals. Spearing left in March 2008 for West Brom, with his legacy being that for two seasons in a row, he had helped pull off the coup of signing future top-scoring strikers from top clubs for low fees.
It's fair to say the 2008-09 season was a bit of a failure for the Baggies, and Spearing's signings. Borja Valero (£4.7m), Gianni Zuiverloon (£2.3m) and Scott Carson (£3.25m) were all well-meaning transfers, based on good ideas, but they failed to set the world alight and WBA finish 20th in the Premier League. You can't win them all, but the deals involving smaller fees—Jonas Olsson (£800k) and Graham Dorrans (£100k)—would prove to be master strokes.
The 2009-10 West Brom season is perhaps the real litmus test for Spearing's Reading credentials. In the Championship with a large squad turnover and a good manager: Roberto Di Matteo. Familiar name Simon Cox (£1.5m), Gonzalo Jara (£1.4m) and Youssouf Mulumbu (£175k!) helped fire the Midlands side to promotion. Back in the big time, and perhaps less important to our interest now, Peter Odemwingie (undisc.) joined alongside Gareth McCauley and Craig Dawson (both free) on what appears to be a shoe-string budget. Under Di Matteo and then Roy Hodgson, they finished 11th.
Under ex-jammy-Fulham-boss Hodgson, in 11/12 West Brom flourished. Much of this was put down to Spearing's recruitment nous as Liam Ridgewell (undisc.), Shane Long (£6.5m), and Billy Jones (free) added to a strong squad. The man himself spoke to Norwich Evening News in September 2011, saying:
"I've been all over the world - Argentina, and other parts of South America. One of the players we signed is from Chile."
"I always say it's better than working for a living! It's been fantastic. Sometimes I go to matches and I think ‘I can't believe I'm getting paid for this'. At other games, you think ‘What am I doing here?' so it's a bit of both."
In 2012-13 Steve Clarke took the helm at the Hawthorns and guided the now-established Premier League side to 8th, with signings that year including Romelu Lukaka (loan), Ben Foster (£4m) and Claudio Yacob (undisc.). The foundations had been set, Clarke's hand had been dealt and improved upon masterfully on the training ground, while Spearing scouted to improve where necessary.
Clarke was to leave the Baggies in late 2013, after introducing Morgan Amalfitano (loan), Stephane Sessegnon (undisc.) and Victor Anichebe (£6m) to a stuttering side. Indeed, Spearing was subject to much of the speculation as to what went wrong as WBA fought off relegation, with several managerial changes and boardroom battles ultimately described as the reasons for the downfall. He was on the way out, and left in January 2015.
His next job was announced, as it happens, today. Now in Berkshire, it is clear that Spearing has history, not only with Clarke, but in plucking the unknown talents from European football and further afield, to great success. Of course, he needs time to get settled, and will need to get to grips with our own boardroom hierarchy. But, with the situation at Reading demanding some miracle working to deal out the best hand for our Scottish manager, it seems that making Spearing the dealer is a good place to start.