Starting from the kitchen table to being named the No.1 person in your field by Forbes is a feat that only a handful of people can say they have achieved.
One such individual is Jonathan Barnett, one of the most powerful agents in football, having built Stellar Group with David Manasseh.
The agency’s client list includes Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, Atletico Madrid midfielder Saúl Ñíguez, Manchester United’s Daniel James, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and many others.
Speaking exclusively to Sport Witness, Barnett explained how he decided to start Stellar Group with Manasseh.
“I was working for another company. David was much younger than me. I was at another sports agency. I knew his father very well and he suggested we get together and we did,” Barnett said.
“We were based in London. It was only the two of us, we worked from a kitchen table and we had no money.
“We started with cricket. We were fortunate to look after cricketers like Brian Lara. Pakistani cricketers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were good to us. That’s how we started. We have always been travelling and we’ve been lucky in our lives. And then we went into football.
“I think they [Akram and Younis, Stellar’s first two clients] realised we knew what we were talking about. We were genuine and I think they decided they wanted to come with us. It was very good for them and very good for us.”
Stellar Group have cemented their name in football and one of the biggest deals completed by the agency was Bale’s move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid in 2013.
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has a reputation of being a tough negotiator and Barnett gave his views on the north London club’s chief.
“It was hard [negotiating for Bale’s transfer]. One thing about Daniel Levy is he’s very honest and very straight, so I think you don’t mind,” he explained.
“I think we’re tough. I think I knew what we were doing. As long as you know the person is honest with you, keeps his word, it makes life a lot easier. It was a hard negotiation, but not bad or evil or anything like that.”
Bale has won four Champions Leagues, three FIFA Club World Cups, two UEFA Super Cups, La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup during his time in Madrid.
Despite his contribution to Real Madrid’s success in the last decade, the former Tottenham man doesn’t get much respect from a section of the press in Spain.
He is also accused of not speaking Spanish, which Barnett took no time to dismiss.
“He speaks Spanish very well. Certain journalists, and quite a lot of them in Spain aren’t very good at their job, they don’t study enough and they write for the sake of it,” Bale’s agent stressed.
“Mostly incorrectly, and I don’t know why. I think the standard is pretty low. They want to write things that aren’t true and if they don’t want to verify them, then it’s fine.”
The representative also made clear his client isn’t impacted by what is written in the press.
“Nothing a journalist writes impacts Gareth. Lies and fake news never bother him. People shouldn’t take too much notice of it,” he added.
“It’s quite simple. You read what some of these journalists write and then you look at what Gareth has achieved. And you choose yourself, which one you wish to believe.”
When discussing Daniel James’ failed move to Leeds United, Barnett also gave some insight on what happens behind the scenes in transfers.
The 22-year-old signed for Manchester United from Swansea City before the start of the season and arrived at Old Trafford months after his deal to join the Whites collapsed on deadline day of the 2019 winter market.
James had put the disappointment behind him and made sure his performances in the final months at Swansea were not impacted.
“I think people have to realise that each person is different. He [James] is clever, he knows how it is. Some deals work out, some deals don’t,” the agent said.
“At that time, it just didn’t work out for many reasons. You can’t blame anybody. He knows that if one door closes, another door opens. That’s why he has people like ourselves and we are good at that. We make sure everything is good for him and we’re good at that.
“It’s not just about transferring from one club to another. It’s making sure his life is okay.
“It’s very important. The agent’s job is not just the glamour side that everybody thinks it is. It isn’t. It is looking after your clients, making sure that everything is right for the player.
“By the time the player retires, everything is done for him so that he can live the rest of his life the way he wants to live. That’s the most important thing as an agent. That’s a full-time job. I think a lot them don’t understand that.
“There has to be a tremendous amount of trust between the client and the agent. That must never be destroyed. Everything must be straight. The agent has a very important role to make sure everything is right and it’s a big responsibility. That’s beyond anything else.
“At the end the day, the client knows his agent will be there for him and that’s important because the club will only want him while he’s still there, while he’s still useful to them. After that, they don’t care.”
At times, there’s suggestions of agents trying to push players to certain clubs and that has been the case with regards to rumours linking Atletico Madrid’s Saúl Ñíguez to Manchester United on a few occasions.
“Somebody like Saul doesn’t need anybody to push him. He’s so good and everybody knows that and they know a lot of clubs want him. But he’s already at a very big club. He has a very good relationship with Atletico Madrid and Atletico fans,” said Barnett.
“Every good player is linked with another club. Some agents may want to do that and if they need the press to do something, then they are not very good at their job. It’s journalists trying to write things. It may be true or may not be true, but it’s something we as an agency at Stellar don’t really get involved in.”
Aston Villa star Jack Grealish admitted this week he thrives on being targeted by opposing fans, just like Cristiano Ronaldo. Barnett backed the 24-year-old for an even brighter future ahead.
“I think Jack has a wonderful future. I think he’s the most fantastic player. He has a great future. It’s all ahead of him. He’s got everything to become a really big star,” he said.
The role of an agent requires them to focus on various tasks related to their clients and out of that, there’s one thing that really pleases Barnett.
“With Stellar, we start with very young players when they are 18 years old, when they are starting up in their career. It’s very rewarding when you see them reach the heights you think they can and we’ve been a part of that,” he stressed.
“The success they get on and off the field is very rewarding. It’s a great feeling that when a player gets to the end of his career and is happy and has everything he wants. We know then we have done our job.”
When quizzed if an agent plays a crucial role in a player’s career, Barnett said: “The most important thing, aside from being good at footballer, is to choose an agent. Every player needs an agent. What they need is a top agent. Somebody that has a track record, proven, and they need someone who they can rely on to work for them.
“I know a lot of people think their family can do it. With all due respect, 90 percent of those people can’t. It’s a very professional world and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. In my opinion, you need a professional agent.
“Not just to do contracts, but to make sure the player is well looked after, everything that goes around with it is correct and handled properly.”
For more than two decades, Stellar Group have brokered deals and have been rewarded and recognised for the work they have done. One such piece of recognition came last year when Forbes named Barnett the ‘Most Powerful Sports Agent’ in the world.
“I feel very proud. David and I started from nothing from a kitchen table. We built a business and we built it through reputation and reliability,” Barnett added.
“People come to us because they know what we can do and I think that’s the most important thing. It’s a great honour and that’s something I will remember for the rest of my life.”
There are a handful of super-agents in football, and Barnett, along with Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola, are three who belong in this category. The former revealed he shares a good relation with the latter two.
“I am personally friendly with them. I am very close to Mino Raiola. We are very good friends and we speak a lot on the phone. I am also friends with Jorge Mendes,” he said.
“Over the years, we have grown a lot. It’s come out of mutual respect of what they can do and how they work. I’ve only got good things to say about both of them.
“We [Stellar Group] are not just involved in football, we are involved in other sports. We are in America, where we have NFL business, which is going very nicely, and we also have track and field in America as well. So, we are expanding into America and hopefully that’ll grow.”
Just as there is more focus on players, managers and clubs, fans are equally important for the sport and Barnett has a message for them.
“Football fans, don’t believe everything you read and understand that a good agent looks after their players, and players need to be looked after. We are not against everything and we are not as bad as people think we are,” he concluded.