Record-breaking diver David Lavelle still rising to the top in football
Swimming with sharks isn't just a metaphor for David Lavelle, it's his lived experience.
So it's no surprise that when he was offered a drink in the Manchester United boardroom just days after they were humiliated 7-0 by arch-rivals Liverpool, he didn't hesitate to ask for a 7UP. The fact that he's a supporter of the Anfield Reds made the barb sting even more.
"We had a laugh about it, it's that camaraderie," recalls the Belfast man. Through his 365 Football Management agency, he brokers deal for players from huge clubs, not just Manchester United but also Barcelona, AC Milan, and PSG, among others.
As the English season comes to a close, supporters of the Red Devils will probably be pleased that Lavelle is battening down the hatches, preparing to plunge into a hectic summer of transfers.
One of those deals in January involved Axel Tuanzebe, with the strange scenario of two men with Antrim GAA backgrounds discussing the future of a Manchester United player, as Lavelle recalls:
"I was talking to John Murtough [MU's Director of Football] but he had to jump out of that to do the Marcel Sabitzer loan deal.
"Andy O'Boyle from Randalstown, phoned me, said 'Let's get this deal done' – then Andy got pulled into another deal and I got put onto someone else. Got it done around 10 to 11, got it over the line, Axel to go to Stoke on loan."
O'Boyle, almost a year into his role as Deputy Director of Football at Old Trafford, happens to be the cousin of Cargin and Antrim football stalwart Kevin O'Boyle. Lavelle is a St John's Belfast man.
"I didn't know Andy but he actually knew a cousin of mine who lived not too far away from him, bit of banter about that… Sometimes you have to pinch yourself, that you're representing these clubs."
Major English clubs have no doubts about him, though.
He's friends with Chelsea's new sporting co-directors, Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart, knows Newcastle United's Dan Ashworth from his days with Brighton, has a good relationship with Ross Wilson at Rangers.
Benfica president Rui Costa and Milan director of football Frederic Massara – 'Ricky' as Lavelle calls him – are among his many contacts.
If a deal can be done, David Lavelle will get it done.
Deep sea diving
Don't misunderstand him: he's not the sort of guy who'll punch a shark on the nose. When he came face-to-face with that predator in his previous job as a saturation diver, he didn't act the hard man, but got out of Dodge.
On another occasion, he helped retrieve 14 bodies from the depths of the North Sea after a helicopter crashed.
After those experiences, the murky waters of football deals hold nothing to faze him.
Given his character, the 44-year-old was always going to rise to the top.
"My friend's father owned a diving company, based in Dunmurry and then it grew and grew from there.
"I thought, 'That's a bit different….' I'm very headstrong – when I put my mind to doing something, I'll do it. I went and did a diving course in Fortwilliam, Scotland. Before that, my friend's father took me to jobs, so I saw what I was getting myself into.
"I worked here for couple of years, normal diving, then ventured further afield, the Middle East, oil rigs, Mexico, all over world.
"I wanted to get into saturation diving, deep, deep diving, when you live in a decompression chamber for 28 days at a time, breathe helium the whole time. It's the same sort of work, but getting used to it takes a toll on you.
"Then I moved into what would be classed 'the Premiership of diving', the North Sea, everybody tries to get into that. The pay, the conditions, the vessels, the food: everything is fantastic.
"Average age was 55 – I was 24, the youngest diver in the North Sea. I did that for 17, 18 years, maintenance, construction, inspection, body recovery…"
One particular incident will always remain with him. "In 2009 a helicopter went down between Aberdeen and Norway, unfortunately with 14 on board. We were going to a job but at three in the morning got woken out of our bunks in the chamber, asked to go and do the body recovery.
"I was married at the time, spoke to my then wife, and she made the valid point 'If it was you, you'd want someone to recover you'.
"Zero visibility, bumping into people, body parts – it was horrible, but it was part of the job. We got all 14 victims back."
He had his own near-death experience with that shark, "of all places, off Norway, we were attacked by a shark. I'd worked off Trinidad, you see sharks but they don't go near you."
He can laugh now – "It was hilarious, an eye-opener" – but at the time it was frightening: "We were in the middle of nowhere. It was getting inquisitive. We were in a diving bell and I had gone up to get a drink.
"The seabed was about 120m [down], bell was 100m, so I'd climbed up my 'umbilical' halfway through a six-hour shift.
"There were lights on the bell, and the shark got one of its fins caught on the bell, which veered the shark into under-structure where I was standing.
"I've never moved as quick in my life!," he says with a laugh. "It was a shock to the system.
"I still had to go back diving after, very dubiously, as soon as it was out of the vicinity. We had an ROV, robot, which kept an eye on it, but the rest of that dive I was looking over my shoulder."
Milan, Manchester, Belfast...
Lavelle has a much more comfortable life now.
When we spoke, he'd been to Milan and Manchester, at AC and Old Trafford.
Being a deep sea diver was usually boring, which was what spurred him into his career change.
"About eight years ago I watched an agent interviewed on TV, discussed the exam, and how difficult it was.
"Me being me, I thought 'I'll look into that'; never in my wildest dreams thinking I'd be a football agent. I thought I'd get the literature, reams and reams, spend my free time while decompressing, for up to a week, may as well put my time to good use."
He did the exam, passed it, but thought no more about it. However, when oil prices dropped, he went from working seven or eight months a year, to only four.
An old school friend helped him. "I contacted [football agent] Gerry Carlile – I think he thought I was looking tickets for a game!
"Gerry asked me to pick players I thought we could move. I did some research and he said 'You're definitely going to make it in the game'. I've gone from strength to strength."
His first client was a crash course in the issues facing modern footballers – Republic of Ireland international Darron Gibson.
The Derryman had just moved to Sunderland from Everton, having been at Manchester United.
Lavelle's concern for his client is clear, even years later. "It was after a game against Celtic when the wheels started coming off.
"Sunderland got hammered in a friendly. Darron was recorded by a fan. He was in a pub, pint in his hand, and Darron gave him an honest answer.
"Had he not had a drink in his hand, it wouldn't have been an issue, because everything he said was the truth. I don't think he was talking out of turn.
"That's the power of social media and phones, players have to be aware of that, you don't know when you're getting recorded.
"You have to look over your shoulder. Everything they do is scrutinised, from getting up in the morning to you go to bed. Papers have allegations, week in, week out.
"You have to be squeaky clean, as it should be, they're role models for kids."
Lavelle still advises some players who are friends, but mostly he's a deal-maker now.
"It's harder work representing players. Chelsea, Spurs, Man United, I've enough on my plate.
"The window before [last summer] we had something like £450m worth of players on the books, for clubs throughout Europe. There are not enough hours in the day.
"Some agents just want to get paid themselves. I thought 'No, I want an umbrella, I don't want to be just David Lavelle, I want to grow a business, a brand.'
"I've put a lot of work in to develop relationships with clubs. I know others have quite a few players on their books and now I'd say we're the biggest football agency in Ireland. We've certainly transferred the biggest value player in Donny van de Beek.
"Coming from nothing to now, dealing with Manchester United, Spurs, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan…
"I am a very driven person, but I didn't think I'd be dealing with those clubs, maybe Championship the odd lower Premiership club. It's been fantastic, a rollercoaster of a ride. It's a bit daunting when I think about it."
Dealing with the Red Devils
So how did he come to be working with the behemoth that is Manchester United?
"It was a bit of strange one. It comes down to perseverance. I got introduced to Les Parry, who was loans manager, and Steve Brown, developed friendships with them.
"It's all about trust in this business, 100 per cent about trust. When they knew that you were solid, that you did what you said, that you were reliable, you found yourself further up the totem pole.
"Then I got through to Matt Judge, who did all the deals. A club like Manchester United will have their targets of who they want to bring in, so we didn't really discuss that much, it was more players they'd like to move out."
Lavelle has been seriously impressed by the impact of Erik ten Hag as Red Devils boss. "Ten Hag was the perfect man for the job.
"Take the Cristiano Ronaldo situation - he wasn't intimidated by the name or the reputation. He sat him on the bench because he thought that was the best thing for the club. A big call moving him on, but fair play – I think his attitude was bringing the whole dressing room down."
With Champions League involvement secured for Manchester United, Lavelle anticipates another big summer for them:
"I think the whole structure of the club is going to change in the summer. That's why they didn't do much in January because they were holding off for the summer.
"They're doing all right in the League, won the [League] Cup. In January, people know you're struggling, that's why prices are extortionate in January, because they know clubs are desperate.
"United did sensible business in January, which I was surprised at, given the pressure from the fans
"Sometimes you have to push back 'Listen, we're building for next season, there's no point us spending your money on players who are only going to be there for six months'."
While their supporters may feel there's a 'ManU premium' in terms of buying, Lavelle doesn't believe there's also a discount demanded when they're selling or loaning out:
"Man U are a club that has the money – they can hold on to a player… Big clubs can hold on to a player unless they see the benefit in it for them, I've found that quite a lot."
Having visited Old Trafford in the spring, "we've already earmarked a couple of players we've had discussions about…
"Any players they've asked us to find loans for, we've brought offers for. The deals don't always go through. Brandon Williams, there was a deal from another Prem club, but the player himself didn't want to go. [Facundo] Pellistri, had four or five offers – but on transfer deadline day Erik ten Hag pulled the plug on that, said he wasn't going on loan.
"It's OK having the trust, but you also have to get the job done.
"ManU don't use that many agents, but we have a track record that shows we can get deals done
"For a boy from Belfast out of 5,500 agents in the UK to be the one representing Manchester United is not a bad achievement."
Family connections - and Messi
Making connections, making friends, must be in the Lavelle blood though.
His sister Rebecca lives in Barcelona, where she was a manageress in a designer shop there. One of her regular customers? Lionel Messi.
"She's fluent in French, Italian, Spanish. She and Messi became friends, so much so that when Argentina went there before Russia World Cup she was invited to go with them. Unfortunately our father took ill and she couldn't go.
"But my two boys have tops signed by Messi – I went to get one framed for Eoin and the guy said 'I'd pay a fortune to get that off you'. It's not for sale. They have a memento of a World Cup-winning captain.
"All the [Barcelona] players came into her shop. She's got me tickets for games that I couldn't get tickets for!" Another friendship, with Aymeric Laporte of Manchester City, led to Manchester derby tickets for David on his birthday.
He prides himself on personal connections too. "I try to deal with the big clubs myself because then I know things are done right.
"Whenever I get over-run, I have guys in England, Germany, further afield, working on a commission basis. We trust them and they know how I expect them to work.
"I always give the clubs a heads-up that the guy is working for me, I don't want anyone representing 365 cold-calling clubs. We're looking at a new office in Belfast and potentially having a couple of agents there."
Although he's operating at the top level of the European club game, Lavelle still has his roots in his home city.
When he tells me he's a Johnnies man, the name of John Gough comes up: "I used to go to John's house and get all the hurls, he used to have them in his garage. As part of the Festival they had the Half-Pace Hurling and we put a team in – hadn't lifted sticks for 20 years and we ended up winning it. It was great fun but I was sore for days after it.
"I always loved football, although I played more hurling and Gaelic than football. I was good at football but I was never great."
Yet having reached the top (bottom?) as a deep sea diver, David Lavelle is now excelling as a loan arranger.