Saturday 18 January 2020

How sports' middle men get to stay on a winning team

Graeme McDowell winning the French Open in July
Graeme McDowell winning the French Open in July
Angel di Maria is the big transfer in the Premier League to date
Di Maria

Right now, in airport lounges, club boardrooms and five-star hotels all over Europe, a small army of men in expensive suits are obsessing about a window that is about to slam shut.

The summer transfer period, the annual frenzy of buying and selling between football clubs across Europe, climaxes this weekend. Last year, England's Premier League clubs alone spent €791m in August, setting yet another new record.

Monday is Deadline Day, when phalanxes of Sky Sports reporters are dispatched to stand at the gates of club car parks, often enduring the kind of lonely, pointless hours that would have inspired Samuel Beckett to put pen to paper.

All business will have to be concluded by 11pm, local time on Monday night. And over a marathon 24-hours of screaming yellow "Breaking" banners and endless speculation, Sky stalwarts like Jim White will be expected to spot some teenage Belgian wonder-kid sneaking in for a rushed medical. Or snatch a few words with Harry Redknapp through a car window.

However, it is the men you don't see, the players agents who operate in the very secretive world of rumour, hurried deals and massive numbers, who make most of the running. A small group of Super Agents have taken virtual control of business at Champions League level soccer, an overheated world fuelled by vast pools of petro-dollars or the deep pockets of Russian oligarchs and Asian billionaires.

But the business model is also rapidly changing in other sports, including the more traditionally old-school environments of rugby and golf. Irish golfer Graeme McDowell has just announced that he is to leave Horizon Sports Management, the Dublin-based agency that has guided his career since November 2007.

The split is amicable when compared to the highly public falling out between his fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy and the same agency in 2013, which is now mired in a legal battle. It's certainly been a big week for McDowell, who became a father for the first time on Monday, welcoming a little girl into the world with his wife Kristin.

And in a statement covering his break with Horizon, the Ulsterman said he felt it was time for a change. "I am at a stage in my life where it feels right to move on to the next phase of my career - both in golf and business," he said. "I'm now involved with a growing number of exciting business ventures, many of which Horizon helped me establish, and as the landscape evolves, so must I." McDowell now plans to establish his own management company, a move that is increasingly popular with elite sportsmen.

Irish rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll has his own sports and entertainment talent agency, IKON, in partnership with former Ireland soccer star Damien Duff. IKON reps the likes of Robbie Keane and Jamie Heaslip. With ex-sports players now getting involved in the business, the already crowded agent market is becoming even more over-heated. Dubliner Eamon McLoughlin was with one of the biggest agencies in Ireland before going out on his own to set up Fortitude Sports Management several years ago. He now deals with players and clubs across the UK and Europe, specialising in the Belgian league, one of the hottest markets for young talent in recent years.

He represents players and also works with clubs to buy and sell talent. A job that sees him spend a lot of time in airport departure lounges. "The summer and winter transfer windows are obviously the busiest time of the year, but it's pretty much a 50-week business now," says Eamon. "Everybody involved will typically take two weeks holiday a year, a week after each window closes.

''But for the rest of the year, clubs are always looking to buy and sell. You saw it with Manchester City after they won the league this year. They didn't say 'right, we've won the league, so we've got a good squad and we don't really need new players'.

"What the big clubs will do is plan to win the league again, win the Champions League and constantly bring in new players. It's a business where nobody can stand still". Eamon was able to chat on the phone as he sat in the departure lounge in Dublin airport on Tuesday morning, waiting for a flight to Glasgow to watch Celtic play in a Champions League knock-out game.

And he said a lot of business will typically be done in the directors' lounges after big games when the power-players, the agents and various big club sporting and technical directors will mix. "There is a lot of networking. You have to establish good relationships with people across the game. A lot of it is just being on the road as much as possible, talking to players, managers, sporting directors; finding out which club is looking for what kind of player, who is available, the club that wants to move a player on.

"I've been in football for 15 years and really, it's a very, very small pool of people who do the business. There might be just 100 people in the whole of Europe that you need to know".

Agents like Eamon also have to establish a strong relationship with the players they represent (and he has handled Irish internationals and players at Premier League clubs)."I don't usually talk about who I represent, because it's a situation where other agents are always looking at who you have or who you are interested in.

''But what I tell the players I represent is that I'm always happy if they are getting contacts from other agents, because that means they are in demand.

"When you represent a player, it has to be a situation where you are in daily contact and you are giving them the best advice and the best guidance possible. Whether you are Wayne Rooney or some guy playing in the lower leagues, you have to make what you earn count for the rest of your life".

As Eamon tells it, agents have to become a mix of lawyer, fund-manager and big brother to the often very young men they represent. There are currently only a handful of FIFA-registered agents in Ireland. A smaller number manage to make a full-time living from the game. Raw talent is no longer enough without the right agent. It is a tough game played for high stakes. And it is only getting tougher.

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