YOU GOTTA HAVE SEOUL
David Fearnhead tells the remarkable story of how he became the football agent for the captain of Korea’s Women’s World Cup team
It was always going to be this way. The Women’s FA Cup semi-finals, the score deadlocked, penalties, sudden death, and up steps Cho So-hyun smiling away. One kick, £20,000 on the line – and she’s smiling! A big broad grin.
“Was it an issue that I was smiling?” she asked me. “It’s unusual,” I replied diplomatically. “The other players were asking me how I could be smiling, but I wasn’t nervous. I have never missed a penalty for the national team. So, I have a reason to smile,” she explained.
Of course she scored, and then that smile turned into a scream of joy as her team mates sprinted towards her from the halfway line and engulfed her in a group hug. Cho So-hyun had just made headlines around the world and her smiling face exploded all over social media. Just five months after arriving in London I would be watching her play at Wembley. I like to think I played more than a small part in making that happen, certainly Cho thought so. She thanked me, and I thanked her for trusting me.
I first saw Cho So-hyun play in 2015 at the last Women’s World Cup. She was hard to miss with her bleached blonde hair and metronomic ponytail, but what really grabbed my attention was her ability to influence a game. She was the sort of player who could get oil from a barren well.
Little did I know then that four years on I’d be waiting for her to arrive at Heathrow on a cold January afternoon having negotiated her contract with West Ham. That wasn’t the plan when I’d first contacted her to congratulate her being the first Korean to successfully lead her team out of the group stages. I’d wanted an interview for a magazine, but Cho didn’t speak any English. We kept in touch anyway through the help of Google Translate.
What changed was her move to Norway. Having spent most of her career in Asia, playing in Korea and Japan, she’d decided the time was right to play in Europe. A team mate had put her in touch with an agent she never met, who sold her to a Norwegian club who were long-ball specialists. It wasn’t a great move for a box-to-box midfielder whose ability was in short direct passes.
With the FA Women’s Super League having turned fully professional, I knew the time was right for her to make a move here. She was not happy in Norway and asked me if I could help. I said yes, convinced more by my belief in her ability than my own.
In reality, I’d grown up in football. My father took me to my first match aged around eight and my mother had been the manager’s secretary at a Premier League football club for close to 20 years. I’d got to know many players, and a few agents as well. So, I understood the nature of the job. Agents sometimes get a bad rap, but there are good ones who genuinely want to help a player fulfil the promise of a career.
Bringing Cho to England was personal for me. She was a friend, and I didn’t want to let her down. Her former agent agreed to sign a termination of their contract and I then set about contacting the WSL clubs. The interest was there. Experienced players of her quality aren’t easy to find.
When the offers started to come in, it was about which would be the best fit for her game, but it was also a question of money. Despite being a professional league there isn’t much money in women’s football, and whilst England subsidise their national players, most professional women footballers in England make in a year what an average Premier League footballer earns in a couple of weeks.
West Ham United Women had leaped two leagues when the WSL went fully professional in September 2018, and are currently being featured in a season-long BBC documentary series. They’d brought in Matt Beard, a highly respected Head Coach to create a new side from scratch. Anyone who has watched the BBC documentary will get a sense of his passion. Matt told me he needed a box to box midfielder, and he really rated Cho. She was the missing piece he’d been looking for.
Three clubs had been in for Cho, but after speaking with Matt a few times and then discussing things with Cho, we both agreed that West Ham was the best fit. It also helped that West Ham had hired Russ Fraser as their General Manager, someone who knew the business. Russ was always available for a chat and he had the patience to go through the complicated forest of paperwork required to obtain a work permit for an non-EU player.
Being a women’s agent is a little different to being a men’s agent, where most clubs have a flotilla of staff to look after male players. With the women’s side a larger burden falls on the agent. There is the glamorous side of being in the executive lounge at Wembley, but there’s also the freezing night in Tranmere sitting in a stand on your own watching them lose to Liverpool. Then there was the trip to Aston Villa away in the cup, which I made with my mate Roger. The glory of a FA Cup Quarter-Final victory was somewhat tarnished by a scheduling mix-up, which saw half a dozen men’s walking teams using the player’s lounge at the non-league ground as an impromptu changing room.
However, West Ham United Women FC have proved to be the perfect fit for Cho. They’ve been so welcoming to both Cho and to myself. Nobody fancied them to be playing at Wembley in the FA Cup final, less than a year in operation as a professional club, but they got there because every single person at that club gives everything they can to the common cause. With so many of their first choice players injured they were always going to be up against it. The final result may have not gone their way, but they can rightly take pride in their achievement.
Next for Cho is the World Cup in Paris, where she’ll be leading out Korea in the opening match against hosts France. No pressure then, but I’m sure she will still be smiling away.
At the end of the day, being a good agent is about the relationship between player and agent. I remember early on another agent giving me advice, telling me he speaks to his player every couple of weeks or maybe sends a quick text after a result. I laughed, I probably speak to Cho every day.