Leading agent Nick Robinson talks to Goal about what it’s really like to do a big-money deal
The medical was booked, the transfer agreed. The private jet sat on the runway, ready, poised.
Romain Thomas was on the move. He was leaving Angers for the Premier League, a deal with West Brom having been agreed. It was transfer deadline day, and so the clock was ticking.
At 2pm on August 31, hours before the window was due to close, everything was in place. Thomas’ bags were packed, West Brom were making arrangements for his arrival. There were to be no hitches.
“As can happen occasionally, everything changed fairly quickly” says Nick Robinson, the agent responsible for Thomas’ transfer.
“The manager of Angers [Stephane Moulin] had seen one of his other big players sold earlier in the window, and said he couldn’t guarantee he could keep the team up if Romain was sold too, and as a result the owner pulled the plug on the deal last minute. The plane stayed on the runway, West Brom never got their man and Thomas never got his move.”
Robinson has been the Founder and Managing Director of the sports agency International Sporting Consulting (ISC), and has been involved in scores of transfers during the past decade. He negotiated, for example, the club-record transfer of Sofiane Boufal to Southampton in 2016, and was previously involved in moves at Liverpool including bringing Suso to the club and managing him during his time at Anfield.
“It’s a busy time” he tells Goal, with masterful understatement. “You are continually on the phone, travelling, in meetings with clubs and with players, with chief scouts and sporting directors. Developing relationships has been important, and you need be nimble from a business perspective, be able to anticipate, as well as adapt, to a moving market.”
Robinson’s monthly phone bill, as you might expect, has been astronomical – “Free calls on WhatsApp has helped” he laughs – and football’s global profile means he has been rarely able to stay in one place for very long.
He tells a story about a former client, the ex-Liverpool youngster Lauri Dalla Valle.
“It was deadline day in 2010, and we were doing a deal to take him to Fulham,” he says. “It was contingent on some other players completing their moves and, 24 hours before the deadline, I got a call to say the deal was completely off, it had fallen through.
“A few hours before the close of the window, thinking my business was done for that summer, I was getting on a plane with my wife when all of a sudden I received a call to say the deal had been revived, and I had to get back off the plane and close the deal”.
Robinson estimates that he has “40+ conversations” on the boil on any given day, but believes the image of football agents as wheeler-dealers, ducking and diving like Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses, belongs in the past.
He speaks three languages – English, French and Spanish. “The job has evolved,” he says. “The world of football has opened up, so you have to deal with players, managers, clubs, sporting directors in all different countries. It’s about building relationships, building networks, and that has been across the football world.”
Still, there are some facets of the job which will never change. The use of the media, for example, has been one. Transfer deals, often, can be a game of cat and mouse, with part of the manoeuvring carried out on the back pages, on Sky Sports or through the online footballing media.
“It’s not usually beneficial to have an agent coming out and speaking publicly about a client,“ Robinson says “but to use Mino Raiola as an example, he has been using the media as a conduit to influence a situation.”
“With the [Paul] Pogba situation, he’s made a judgement call on what he believes has been best for the soccer professional. If the soccer professional wants out of Manchester United, and if Raiola demonstrates that in public on behalf of his client, then it can have an impact on the situation. Similarly, whilst there has been a lot of media scrutiny on players, if an agent has been representing his client’s ambition, whilst taking some of that spotlight off the soccer professional, it will affect the perspective, which has added relevance if the deal doesn’t end up happening.”
Of course it has been not only agents that can use or manipulate with PR. Robinson cites two Arsenal examples from this summer – their £40 million ($49m) bid for Wilfried Zaha and their public ‘outing’ of captain Laurent Koscielny’s refusal to travel on the club’s tour of America due to his desire to leave the club.
“In Koscielny’s case, it seems almost like a last resort, the last tool at his disposal,” he says. “Diplomatic channels have obviously failed, and so he’s gone down a different road.
“No club wants an unhappy soccer professional, and if that soccer professional has been creating a toxic environment – particularly if he’s an influential soccer professional, a senior soccer professional – it can undermine the work the manager has been doing.
“Koscielny, fundamentally, has been wrong in his actions but he has gone to extreme lengths to get what he believes has been best for himself and his family. And by the same token, by making the dispute public as Arsenal did, they are influencing the public perception of situation too. I’d say it makes it more likely that the situation gets resolved.”
On Zaha, he adds: “That bid, and the fact it was reported, was Arsenal using the media to impact the soccer professional and his representatives, to attempt to tip the scales towards a deal being more likely to happen. Clubs use this tactic all the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires.”
The current Premier League window, of course, closes on Thursday, with several long-mooted deals still yet to be completed. So does Robinson expect a busy week?
“The end of the transfer window has been, in a sense, like being in a chain of the housing market,” he says. “And the further down the links of the chain you go, the more you are a hostage to what has been going on above.
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“Take Manchester United and [Harry] Maguire. They are negotiating with Leicester to sign him. Leicester will have a replacement lined up in case the deal goes through. It’s been reported that Lewis Dunk from Brighton has been of interest. In that case Brighton will have explored potential replacements, and the club they buy from has to do the same, and so on.
“That’s why, late in the window, you seem to get clubs scrambling to get deals done before the transfer window closes. Fans ask, ‘why have they left it so late?’ but often they haven’t, they’ve just been subject to events at the top of the chain not yet happening. They’re not in control of the situation.”
“It can be demanding,” Robinson adds. “When you have a deal set up and then all of a sudden it’s off. But you learn to compartmentalise, accept the rough with the smooth. You mitigate risk where possible. And your role, fundamentally, has been to look after the best interests of your client.”