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The ex-player turned agent is shaking up the football industry.
Most millennials have had multiple careers, sometimes all at once. Ex-footballer turned agent Michaela Gooden takes this to new levels. Over the course of her career, she played at Fulham, had a brief stint at Millwall, jetted off to America on a scholarship, then returned to England to play for Fulham again. She also spent this time working as a stylist, before eventually deciding to become an agent. Impressive is not even the word.
Michaela grew up in Putney in southwest London, the oldest of four children. She supports Arsenal and has always been surrounded by football, mostly thanks to her family. “I had lots of older cousins and they were all boys,” she says. “In order for me to fit in I had to be involved in what they were doing.”
A lack of funding in girls’ football — a persistent problem today — meant Michaela had little choice but to play with the boys. “I remember being at the same ability if not better than a lot of boys growing up,” she smiles.
She joined Fulham in 1998 and stayed for nearly a decade, a time she describes as the best of her career. “I was at Fulham from nine to 18 years old,” she says. “It was honestly the best football I’ve played. I had the best girls. It was just amazing.” She realises now the profound impact that time had on the rest of her career. “I think subconsciously, I would compare my first time at Fulham to anywhere I would go, and expect that and more.”
After leaving the Cottagers she spent a year at Millwall, before setting off to the States on a football — sorry, soccer — scholarship. She attended a number of colleges, the first being Louisburg in North Carolina and the second being UTM in Tennessee.
For a young Black woman going from cosmopolitan London to a small, predominantly white town in Tennessee must have been a complete culture shock. “UTM was a small university in the city of Martin which was in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “I think the only people of colour were a few guys on the football team, then myself and my friend, who was from Mexico.” She had a similar experience on the field. “A lot of the players I played with hadn’t actually left Tennessee, so they were shocked to see a Black player from England. They didn’t think Black people lived in England.” Michaela admits homesickness started to creep in. “I think this is when my love for the game started to die down.”
Like any good athlete, Michaela took the challenge on the chin, moving back to England and briefly stepping away from football. When she did return, it was back where she started, at Fulham. But her second stint at the club didn’t shine quite like her first and, slowly, she realised a painful truth: it was time to move on.
During these four years at Craven Cottage Michaela was also a stylist — with vastly different salaries to those in the men’s game, women footballers having second careers was not unusual at the time. Her plan was to work closely with athletes, but this also didn’t quite pan out. “It didn’t really work in the styling industry,” she says. “Because the only way you can actually work with athletes is if you become a personal shopper, and that wasn’t really for me.”
Where most people would have run out of steam, Michaela’s ideas kept coming. Thoughts of teaching or coaching popped up. Then, after months of research, she landed on being an agent. “I found out that there weren’t many females that were agents,” she says. “There’s a few who were doing quite well, but apart from that a lot of them are players’ parents. So that just drove me a bit more. I wondered: why aren’t there more women in this industry?”
Entering 2020, Michaela started her new career at Magna Sports Management. Her mission is to make key changes in an industry dominated by men. Becoming an agent may sound easy, but buying the badge is the easy part; the real work comes from networking — with players, their parents and their coaches. No two days in the life of a football agent are the same, but their bread and butter is attending games and seeking out players, though Covid-19 has moved this process online.
When faced with challenges, where does Michaela go? “There’s no support groups for agents, but that’s a good idea. I’m definitely going to start reaching out to other women agents.” She hasn’t been in a bidding war over a player yet, but she’s up for the challenge. “It’s a very dog-eat-dog industry,” she says. “I don’t mind that. It’s a competition — I’m an athlete at heart so I see it as a game. It’s friendly competition. I wouldn’t take it too personally.”
A big part of Michaela’s role is signing her players into deals with brands — but she has a semi-controversial opinion on which ones. “You hear so many players get the Nike or the Adidas deal,” she says. “But let’s try to create something that’s also still relevant to football. Let’s try and think outside the box, do something a bit original and different.” She still wants the Adidas and Nike deals, but to explore different avenues as well, to shake things up. One thing Michaela has enjoyed in recent years of both men’s and women’s football is the players using their platforms to speak on important issues. “The players I sign, I’m going to encourage them to speak up,” she says, in a tone reminiscent of Suge Knight’s ‘Come to Death Row’ speech. “Like look: you have a voice, so why not use it?”
So what does the future hold for Michaela? “My five-year plan consists of having a solid roster of players, holding seminars and helping the next generation of women break into the football agent industry,” she says.
Changes are needed, not only in women’s football but also in the options available to players after they’ve retired. “After five years we’ll do another interview,” says Michaela. “And we’ll be like remember when we manifested that?”