Football/Soccer

Soccer agent Lee Mudd supporting clients through testing times

Lee Mudd with client Jordan Thompson, the Northern Ireland international who recently signed for Stoke City.

There was so much to look forward to this summer – but now it’s just about staying safe, keeping your family safe, that’s all.

HOME. Home offices, home schooling. Just days into the lockdown everyone’s probably going a little stir crazy. Yet testing though it is to be virtually trapped in our homes, imagine how it feels not being allowed to return to family and friends.

That’s the lot of some fit, healthy young footballers, however, restricted to digs while their clubs await the return of the soccer season.

Belfast man Lee Mudd runs the Irish operation for New Era Global Sports Management Limited, which opened an office in his native city last year.

Normally this time of year would be busy enough: negotiating contract renewals or potential summer transfers.

Now, like so many, he’s into the arena of crisis management. Sport’s place is kept in perspective, of course, but many footballers face similar uncertainty to other workers:

“At the end of the day football takes a back seat, doesn’t it? Obviously this is problematic for every industry.

“But it’s still a difficult time for lads who are just earning enough to survive. They’re thinking ‘Where am I going to be next season?’

“Premier League players who are on masses of money have got that comfort blanket for a year or whatever, but lads who are just earning enough, it’s very tough.”

For lads from here ‘over the water’ with English or Scottish clubs, there’s not even the consolation of being with loved ones at the moment:

“Some of them have been allowed home but others are worried that if they did come home and tried to get back they might not be able to. Some of the clubs have said ‘No, you’re going to have to stay’.

“You have some lads in digs who have just had to stay put – I have a couple who have family in England who have been allowed to go and stay with them. It’s been difficult

but the majority have been allowed home, which is sensible.”

For New Era “most of our work is done with younger lads we’re trying to nurture.”

Since last year’s launch, attended by Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand, Mudd says: “We’ve flown, we’ve got 28 players we look after. We’ve got a good group of players.”

Mudd, who heads operations for Northern Ireland and Ireland, said: “That amount of players need a big network around them.

“I’m based between Northern Ireland and England and we have 20-odd staff in England, so some of them can go to their games if I’m not able to go to a certain game.”

At present, of course, he’s confined to his home office, with the west Belfast base at the former Mackie’s factory site on the Springfield Road – now the Innovation Factory – closing earlier this week.

“Normally I’m travelling to see players or games, it’s completely alien. We’re looking at ways we can use social media, Skype, whatever, to still speak to our players daily.

“They’re out of their routine, although clubs are giving them [training] programmes. A lot of them are back in Northern Ireland now and having to do their own thing, it’s just so alien to them.

“We’re reaching out to their families, working on something to get players in contact, run little competitions. Keep people’s minds active.

“Young lads who have had that routine from 16, all of a sudden they’re thrown out of it. It’s really strange.”

Beyond potential dates for a return to playing, June 30 is probably marked on the calendars of many footballers – when contracts expire.

Mudd expects flexibility to be a two-way street for footballers and clubs in any efforts to get this season concluded:

“Fifa have a working group looking into all that. Obviously if anyone is out of contract and the season’s still running there’ll be hundreds of free agents and that would create pandemonium.

“They may look at rolling contracts, they may look at just extending until the end of the playing season. I don’t see how they can have players contracted until the end of June but have the season still running.

“I just don’t see a situation where those players would be without clubs; it would create a mess for everybody, leave clubs short, leave players without a club before the season’s even ended.

“They probably will do it until the end of the playing season, perhaps rolling it on a month to month basis.

“We would expect to hear something from Fifa in a week or so.”

Until there is greater clarity, some footballers have no more job security than many others: “At the moment it is concerning, our lads are all asking questions but we can’t give them answers yet.

“We just make sure we’re up to date with regulations and try to keep them calm and make sure they’re doing their programmes. Keeping their minds busy is the priority.”

Contract renewals normally happen “in and around now” but even those for whom the future seems bright are now looking into an unclear future:

“I’ve got lads who were being offered new deals, I was in discussions with their clubs…

 

“Normally we’re also speaking to clubs about what they need, managers are speaking to us about what they want, those conversations were really only starting to happen in the weeks leading up to this outbreak.”

New Era’s ethos is one of support for their players on and off the pitch, the latter element needed more than ever at present.

Mudd acknowledges that young players are often protected from day-to-day reality, making them more vulnerable now:

“They’re young, they probably expected this to just go away. They’re asking what they can and can’t do…

“Footballers live in a bit of a bubble, they get up go to training and have a very regimented way of life that involves ensuring they look after themselves in every way on and off the pitch and living the right way, so in their down time they just prefer to relax.

“We have had to tell them ‘Look after yourself, make sure you’re doing the right things’ because they all want to socialise, the lads who’ve come home especially, they’re thinking ‘I haven’t seen people for a long time’.

“We’re saying ‘Number one, go and do your [fitness] programme and keep your head down.’

“We’re looking at ways of integrating people, get people speaking. We’re all in the same boat, even lads at different clubs.

“They’re out of their club environment so we want to put something around them that makes them still feel part of something.

“The mental health side is a concern – I just don’t know how this is going to end.”

When all this is over, Mudd and New Era aim to keep helping players succeed on the pitch.

A recent example is 23-year-old Jordan Thompson, who started out with big clubs before becoming Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s first signing at Stoke City:

“He’s hit the ground running, got into the team. He had those games with Northern Ireland, Michael’s very happy with him.

“Going to a new club, he’s got over that hurdle, stamped his authority on the team – but now he’s out of his rhythm. It’ll be a case of going back and trying to pick things up.

“Jordan’s interesting, he sort of lost his way – he was at the Manchester United academy, then Rangers, on loan at Raith Rovers and Livingston, got released and went down the pecking order. You’d have felt that he’d never get back to the heights he was at.

“But we’ve nurtured him, got him into Blackpool, now he’s in the Championship and looking the part. He’s technically gifted.

“He shows the value of persisting with people – sometimes you get written off and there’s not always a direct route.

“A lot of young lads go to an academy and think ‘I’m going to go through this system and play in the first team’, but that’s not always the way. You get released, you have to go down the levels, learn your trade, and hope that your quality comes through.

“Jordan is a brilliant success story of a lad who lost his way. The satisfaction you get out of that is huge because you’ve been there when he’s down and questioning his future. Now he’s back where he deserves to be. That doesn’t happen for everybody, but it’s nice to add value.”

For all players there’ll be challenges in getting up to speed when games resume – but Mudd believes there is a strong desire to get this season completed, whenever that will be:

“The difficulty will be when they start again, having not played but I guess everyone’s in the same boat. They just want the league finished.

“I think everybody just wants the season done, football in general just wants that. Even if it does go into the summer, which is the likelihood, even if they do get back on the 30th of April – that’s probably pie in the sky.

“They’ve had momentum, everybody’s striving towards something, everybody just wants to get back as soon as possible into a routine and playing games.

“There was so much to look forward this summer – but now it’s just about staying safe, keeping your family safe, that’s all."

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Football/Soccer