Not your run-of-the-mill Gap Year adventure

This article appeared in the Winter Edition of Pi Newspaper – The official newspaper of UCL.

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Few students will have experienced a gap year quite like Ed Stoner’s. In 2010, under the guise of volunteering, Ed flew to East Africa. Yet it didn’t take long for his true passion to shine through. Within the space of 7 months, he had become one of most high profile football agents in the region. However his footballing journey, which took him through Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya all begun courtesy of an opportunistic moment whilst watching a disjointed training session held by a Ugandan Super League club.

Bewildered by the lack of structure, intensity and effort levels, the 19 year old thought it was only right that he should give his two pennies worth. Standing up in front of a large group of fully grown African men took some guts and Ed had a few choice words for them about professionalism. Their reaction was receptive and they got the Leyton Orient fan on board. It transpired that there was a vacancy for a goalkeeping coach and so Stoner volunteered his services for the Mbale-based club, CRO.

As well as gaining an understanding of the daily running of a professional sports side, Ed used this opportunity to immerse himself in Ugandan football. Attending all the games, whilst seated upon the side’s technical bench, the young coach paid special attention not just to his own team but to players of the opposition, as he sought to increase his knowledge of the league. Using his position at the club, he took to meeting as many people within the game as possible, getting to the stage where he was mixing with players from the national side.

Yet whilst amazed at the wealth of talent that had not been tapped into from abroad, the soon to be History Undergraduate, was equally appalled at the conditions these players were subject to. Ed experienced first-hand, corruption, abysmal administration and witnessed players being treated like slaves, never receiving their salaries on time. They were helpless. Ed’s decision to pursue an interest in football agency was in part profit-making and making a name for himself but a huge part was humanitarian. “I just wanted more than anything to give these guys a bit of hope” he reflects.

Without any real footballing background, Stoner really did have to start from scratch. The key was networking and building relationships both in Africa, but also attempting to establish bridges with clubs in Europe. As Ed says himself, “you have nothing without relationships”. Unlike countries in West Africa, such as Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, there are no real links between nations from East Africa and Europe. For example, the colonial links between Angola and Portugal are strong therefore there is a strong Angolan contingent in the Portuguese leagues. Moreover, historically East African countries record in international competitions is meagre in comparison to their companions in West Africa, as can be signified by the lack of countries from the area qualifying for the 2013 African Cup of Nations. This has led to neglect by scouts of the area.

Ed’s strategy to connect with Europe initially began by cold-calling receptionists of clubs in Scandinavia. Through East Africa, Ed was able to network with players who were already playing in Europe, who were happy to provide contact details, through which Ed was able to put his foot in the door. The perception from the outside that the lifestyle of a football agent is a lucrative and laid back one, was certainly not reality for the voluntary goalkeeping coach. The word that Ed constantly put to me was ‘persistence’, and this was the key for him to drive through deals for his players.

His exposure to this market has taught him an awful lot about business, both through his successes and through his mistakes. A key part of this has been appreciating the value of market research. Beforehand it was a case of cold-calling clubs whom he knew nothing about, yet a vital principle he has acquired has been that “you’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of the other person”. This has meant taking time out to watch these clubs play, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses and proposing a player who would actually improve their side – “before I even call a team, I watch their matches, I’ll learn in what positions they are weak and I’ll call them and say “your left winger lacks pace; I have a left winger who’s going to be cheaper and quicker”.

Yet there have been troubles along the way. For instance, in 2011, Ed manufactured a move for Kenyan starlet, George Odhiambo, to Danish Superliga side, Randers FC. Odhiambo had been highly rated before his move to Denmark, picking up the Kenyan player of the year award in 2010. Randers had extremely high hopes for the player signing him on a 5 year deal. However, he failed to settle and suffered from a poor attitude and lack of professionalism, resulting in the termination of his contract earlier this year. This was at huge embarrassment for the club who had sacrificed big money to bring Odhiambo in from Africa. Ed took a fair brunt of the criticism from Randers, but he saw it as just another part of the learning curve. His relationship with the club still remains fairly strong – “One thing I’ve learnt in business is everyone makes mistakes but if you’re honest about them and reasonable, then people are willing to work with you”.

Whilst trying to balance a degree with his interests in Africa, Ed is still working with a number of players who he is hoping to bring to Europe. One of these includes 5 foot 1 inch left back, Godfrey Walumsimbi, a Ugandan international that Ed has already brought to Europe twice for trials. On both occasions the player was deemed too small, but the UCL 3rd team goalkeeper is convinced that he is a player of immense ability. Another player that Ed mentioned is Charles Tibingana, a young Rwandan winger, who actually featured in the U17 World Cup, coming up against Premier League youngsters Nick Powell and Raheem Stirling. Ed has high hopes for him and believes he can play at the highest level in Scandinavia. The issue of gaining work permits in England mean it is difficult to discuss these players in reference to the Premier League, Championship etc.

Whilst Ed is not sure whether he will fully pursue a career as a football agent at the culmination of his degree, he has picked up key skills and a fair few incredible stories along the way. As well as getting involved in the sport that he loves, being on in the inside of the game he has learnt what really goes on behind the scenes and gained an unbelievable experience in business, all beinning at the age of just 19. “People have these grand plans but until you actually do something, how can you judge? ..You learn so much from your experiences”.

You can follow James (@savzy007) and Ed (@edstoner91) on twitter for more views on the wonderful game!

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