In an exclusive interview, leading football agent David Lee from world-renowned agency Stellar Group offered a unique insight into the day to day life of a football agent. From his time as a player coming through Spurs’ academy ranks during the late 90’s to managing some of the sport’s biggest stars.
Stellar Group is one of the football industry’s leading agencies founded by business giants, Jonathan Barnett and David Manasseh.
Stellar Group boasts an estimated client list exceeding 300 of the sport’s biggest stars. Most notably managed by Stellar Group are footballing royalty such as Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and Manchester United new-boy, Daniel James.
Stretty News has been fortunate enough to speak exclusively with Stellar Group agent and ex-pro, David Lee, who opens up about a career ending injury, how he got to where he is today and offers some valuable advice to any aspiring young agents.
Lee explained that the root of his passion for football came from the influences of his father who was a lower-league player back in the 80’s: “I was always around football as a kid […] I was always going to games, my earliest memories of being four or five was being around football stadiums with my Dad. I suppose football was drummed into me early.”
It was around the age of eight that Lee began playing himself and was scouted by Spurs’ academy two years later in 1996.
He later signed his first professional contract before parting ways with Spurs three quarters of the way through his second professional year to team up with manager Peter Taylor and join top of the table Gillingham.
From Gillingham, Lee went onto play for Southend where he had arguably the best spell of his career: “I done alright, I played 50 odd games and scored a few goals,” he said.
In 2002, Lee linked back up with manager Peter Taylor at Brighton and Hove Albion on a three year deal. After three years, Lee left Brighton and joined Aldershot which is where his playing career sadly came to an end due to a horrific ankle injury, Lee said: “I finished the first season at Aldershot and then I started the following season and in my first game of the season, I went in for a tackle and dislocated my ankle and broke my tibia and fibula.
“I woke up in hospital the next morning and the surgeon said ‘the good news is we’ve fixed your ankle, the bad news is you’ll probably never play again.”
The Transition from Player to Agent
After being forced to hang up his boots, Lee explained how he had ambitions to become a manager: “I always thought I could be a manager, but I didn’t want to be a coach. I thought I would be better off at mentoring and man managing people […] I felt like I saw things in games to change things that would work. […] I feel like I have a good eye for a player.”
It was to be under the guidance of his own agent and close friend, Tommy Cunningham, that the door to football intermediary for Lee opened up. Lee was offered a part-time role as Head of Recruitment for Cunningham’s agency where he gained valuable experience in scouting local talent.
Lee recalled a particularly embarrassing moment he had during his early days in the business: “Tommy said ‘can you send out a message to all these clubs that we’ve got these players available?’ – So I did. I sent it to a manager and the manager came back and said ‘I’ve not been manager at that club for the last two months.
“I must have missed that one, he’d been sacked.”
Whilst building his reputation, experience and portfolio, Lee came to be back in touch with John Moncur, the man who was responsible for signing him as a boy for Spurs’ youth academy. Having recently been made Head of Operations at another, larger agency, Moncur was keen to secure Lee’s services. It was around this same time that West Ham also approached Lee: “Obviously I had a loyalty to Tommy [Cunningham] who gave me the opportunity in the first place. […] So I said to him ‘I have been offered these two roles, I’m going to take one of them’, because at the same time, West Ham offered me a job as European Recruitment.
“He said ‘all the best’, but I could see he wasn’t too happy, I think he wanted me to carry on working for him, but for myself, I needed to start earning some money so that I could live, rather than just getting by every month,” he explained.
Lee opted to team up with Moncur, he explained how his focus was youth and who some of the first names he managed to secure were: “My focus was youth recruitment and I signed some good ones, like Lewis Dunk and Nick Pope when they were 16 and 17 who at the time no one really fancied as players and they’re still with me to this day.”
After successfully working with Moncur for a decade, Lee was approached by industry leaders, Stellar Group, which is where he’s been plying his trade for the last two years.
Roles and Responsibilities
I asked Lee to shed some light on the day-to-day responsibilities of an agent. He went onto explain how an agent does much more than just look to move their clients clubs: “It’s a lot deeper than that, the way we see it, is that we take care of anything that takes their focus away from football.
Ideally, we just want them to go into work every morning with a clear head, without any worries on their shoulders, to just enjoy playing football. If they’re enjoying it, then they’re normally doing it well.”
Another aspect of footballing agencies is ensuring that players are financially secure and not being targeted for their naivety at such a young age, Lee explained: “We bring in independent [financial] companies, but obviously have to make sure we do a lot of due-diligence on these companies, just to make sure they’re legit.
“We basically protect the player as much as we possibly can, especially these young players. You’ve got companies on social media now that by literally just one click of a button can contact a player.
“There’s a lot of these companies trying to trip the young players up, so it’s tough to try and protect them. The problem you have is one of the players in the dressing room will say ‘I’ve just gone with this car insurance company, they’re unbelievable!’ and my player will ring me […] and I always say ‘if something is too good to be true, it usually is. There’s a lot of people trying to get into these young lads. They’re young with a lot of money so you have to try and protect them, it’s a major part.”
Managing Expectations and Attitudes
Lee went onto explain how a big part of his role as an agent is communicating with the families of his players: “I probably speak to some player’s Dads more than I speak to the player.
“I think it’s just a parent’s instinct to worry about their children. It’s not a waste of time, but you do spend a lot of time speaking to families, trying to manage expectations and trying to give them peace of mind.
“What we find is, sometimes the parents that just let you get on with it and just be parents and let you get on with the business side, the players just seem to get on with it as well. They have that same mentality.”
Addressing the diversity of football, with a host of differently cultured and aged players on his book, Lee admits that a common theme among all successful players is a good attitude, he said: “They’re the ones that end up falling out of the game because they’re so worried about what everyone else is getting and doing they just don’t focus on themselves.
“I always find that the best kids at 16 or 17 they’re never the ones who go on to have the best careers. It’s always that next block below them where they’re fighting, they’re looking above at them ones. […] The ones that are already at the top, they’re not looking down thinking ‘wow, this boy behind me is getting better, I need to kick on.’
“It’s massive [a good attitude], the longer I do the job the more I’ve realised it. If I sign a boy at 16 or 17, within two years I know if he’s going to be a player or not, just by his mentality.
“We’re very selective on who we do and don’t take. We’ve pitched to boys at 16 and parents and we’ve left the meeting and said ‘he’s not for us’ […] you can tell straight away if you meet parents and players and they’ve got the wrong mentality and mindset, we’re experienced enough to know you’re wasting your time.
“It doesn’t matter how good the kid is, you’re wasting your time.”
Stellar Group Doing Their Bit for the Financial Crisis
Speaking on the current financial crisis that clubs all around the world are facing at the hands of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, Lee said: “We don’t feel like it’s been right to call clubs and offer players when they don’t know what’s going inside their own club.
“They don’t know if they can pay the wages for the players they’ve currently got, they don’t know their budgets for next year, they don’t know when they’re going to be able to play to a crowd again.
“We’ve held back from being as pro active as we normally are.”
Lee went onto say how Stellar Group have made a conscious decision to temporarily suspend outstanding invoices: “We’ve got outstanding agency fees that were due in March that we haven’t put invoices in for, just purely because the last thing they [the clubs] want to see is another invoice laying on their desk.
“The owners have turned around and said ‘look, don’t be invoicing anyone, we’ll wait until football is back up and running again’.”
Lee also took the time to pay tribute to his employers, Chairman and Managing Director, Jonathan Barnett and David Manasseh: “I think the guy I work for is the best agent in the world. I think he’s ahead of the game in a lot of areas. Jonathan oversees the business, whereas David is more the day-to-day orchestrator, […] he’s phenomenal as a guy.”
Advice for the Next Generation
Lee finished speaking to me by making reference to how popular being a sports agent has become. He admits that he’s often contacted by young, aspiring, wannabe agents asking how they can do what he does.
The industry is notoriously difficult to get into due to the lack of hands-on experience available due to the confidential nature of the work: “It’s so tough. No companies do any work experience. I couldn’t let them do my emails, I couldn’t let them listen to my phone conversations, so they wouldn’t actually learn anything.
“The way I learnt was on the job,” he explained.
Lee did mention though that it’s not impossible and that there are four main ways to enter the world of football agencies; by studying sports law, experience with working with brands, knowledge of football club’s recruitment systems and lastly, the ex-player route.
It was fascinating hearing one of football agency’s most successful men reveal how the work of agents is not always to cause clubs problems. In fact, on the contrary, they’re there to “take the brunt” of the frustration in an attempt to alleviate players from unnecessary pressures and external criticisms.
With modern sport increasingly evolving into a commercial juggernaut at the hands of social media, perhaps the harsh criticism and assumptions that some agents receive is unjust.
Currently embroiled in a financial crisis, the game of football is forced to evolve in more or less, every aspect.
With the President of FIFA, Gianni Infantino recently calling for financial caps, as per Sky Sports News, it would be fair to suggest that agents could find themselves playing an even greater role in ensuring that the future of football is one operating at a more financially sustainable level.