Kiko Rodriguez is a football agent, and one of the founders of DRN Sports Management. He is also the father of current Burnley player, Jay Rodriguez. I had the pleasure of speaking to Kiko where we discussed a multitude of things, from the importance of determination in a footballing career, becoming a footballing agent, being a father to a Premier League footballer and how Coronavirus has impacted it all in it’s own strange ways.
We’ve got a lot to talk about, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to start at the very beginning. Your parents and siblings were born in Spain, but you were born in Burnley, what made you the exception?
“Yeah, that’s true. My Mum and Dad were originally born in La Coruña in Spain, but they came over in the 50’s to work”.
When you were growing up, did you always have a dream of playing football and making a career in the footballing world?
“Yeah, my Dad liked to play a bit of football and I decided I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I wanted to play football too, but unfortunately it didn’t happen in the way it should’ve”.
Everybody at a young age has their footballing role mode, who was yours?
“When I was growing up there was players like Hugo Sanchez, I’m not sure if you’ll remember them but players like Socrates in the Brazil squad too. Then you had the English and Spanish squads which I always favoured when I was younger. But when I was a little bit older it was the players like Eric Cantona, they were the ones with a little bit of edge about them, so I’d say I used to like watching him”.
When was it you found yourself seriously getting into football and eventually playing in non-league?
“Well, to start with I was at school in Burnley playing in school teams. I played for Lancashire, and when I played at school I actually played with Andy Payton. But when we got to about 16, he carried on, and he was more serious and more dedicated than what I was. Whereas I went to Burnley. The first time I went there, did I take it seriously? Possibly not. Then I got invited again to Burnley when I was 21, but I had just had Jay, so I was working and at that time I was working and playing football part-time, which is what I ended up doing.
Going from what you said there about not taking it seriously when you were younger, as an agent now, how often do you see other young players who’s heads maybe aren’t in it and don’t take it seriously enough?
“Well, when I was younger, I always thought I was going to be the next best thing. But obviously no one was ever just going to give it to me, but at the time I just thought that’s what I know and that I was the best player at my school, so I’d be fine. But you’ve got to work hard at it. You don’t just get it given to you, and I learned that the hard way.
“But these days, I feel sorry for these lads because they’ll go to a school of excellence or an academy as a 10-year-old, and by the time they get a youth policy, they could’ve spent 8 years at a club, and they can get released. That’s where I feel sorry for them, because they feel rejected.
“We take a few scholars on when they’re at second year level, and people always ask me why. Well, why not? I’m not going to just take them on when they get a five-year deal and make loads of money. The side we look at is what happens when they get released. They feel like they’ve let themselves and their family down, and it’s all just down to the opinion of that club that they’ve been released from.
“There’s people out there, who really want these young lads. And unfortunately, they can’t all be professional footballers, because there’s millions of them. But sometimes they have to be honest with themselves in that regard. Even if they can make it into non-league and climb the ladder that way, then so be it, but don’t give up.
“But yeah, there are a lot of players out there that do feel rejected, and it’s not fair really. Just because they’re not good enough for that club doesn’t mean they’re not good for anywhere else”.
Like you’re saying, there are lots of examples of talented players who get released and go on to play at a really high level because they never gave up, do you have any examples of players in that mould at DRN Sports Management?
“100%. We’ve got two young lads who got released from Fleetwood, one was a first-year pro, and the other was a second-year scholar who got released, and they both now play non-league football. Of course, they were initially upset when they were released. But when we sat down with their parents and the players themselves, they understood and went in with the mentality of “if I’m good enough, people will come and get me”. And that’s what I’ve told them too, enjoy your football and perform like you can and people will come get you”.
“And that’s a fact. There’s another kid in the same team who got released from Fleetwood as well, I don’t look after him but he’s a quality player. Maybe in a year or two, fingers crossed we’ll see him in the (English) Football League.
“It just depends on how these players develop as well, sometimes a club can’t afford to keep these players to see them develop. For example, we had another player at Burnley, who was there from 10 years old, until he was 20. There was a mutual agreement there and he was released, and he’s signed for Sunderland now on the verge of being in the first team. So, it’s all a matter of opinions really which might take these players down a different path”.
For those out there who maybe don’t know who DRN Sports Management are, how would you describe it to them?
“First of all, we’re a business like anyone else, and we’ve got to survive like anyone else and do it properly. But when we first started it, our first few years we worked really hard and had a lot of youth players. Now we’ve got players in the English Premier League, English Championship and in Scotland, okay our Premier League players aren’t in the first team, but they are up there.
“But when we sign players on, we don’t just sign them for a quick pay tomorrow, we’re in it for the long haul. When they’re having good times, fine, and when they’re having bad times, we need to work even harder.
“But mainly, when we take these players on, and they got let go from a club, it doesn’t mean we’re going to release them. Because we don’t. We just have to work harder. But we’ve got to be honest with them as well, we can’t promise players that we’re going to get them into a football league, we can’t promise that. But what we can promise is that we will work hard and see where we can get them a fit.
“Nine times out of ten, the players and the parents that we work with are realistic. But you’ve got to look at Jamie Vardy, and Ian Wright. Players like that, yes Ian Wright was a long time ago, but he was non-league and look how he did it, he was spotted and he wanted it. He could’ve given up once he got to non-league and thought “well I’ve been released when I was a kid, so I’ll pack it in” but he didn’t, and look at where that got him. Of course, Vardy is a massive example as well, and I’m not saying that they’re all Jamie Vardy’s, but Jamie Vardy didn’t give up. That’s what I say to them, don’t give up your dream.
Did you always plan on becoming a football agent after your footballing career?
“When I was playing football, I worked in this industry for 25 years for the same company, so I was working in a factory, made my way up that way and I ended up staying there for 25 years. I was in a good job, good living and married at 20. We had Jay at 21 and Joseph when I was 26, so that was pretty young.
“But I was playing football, and as they were growing up, they started playing football, so I ended up following them and working at the same time. But it wasn’t really until Jay became a professional footballer, and he signed with an agent. So, one day I was working like anybody else, and he’d came home and told me that he signed with an agent and that the agent wasn’t charging him. I’ve just said, that’s great, no problem and went off to work. Two years down the line he gets done over by a fair bit of money.
“Then as a parent you’re thinking, is it my fault? Why didn’t I check it? But unfortunately, that’s life. So, in 2012, Jay started looking for a new agent and I said to him that I wanted to meet him next time, before you even sign anything because we’re not going down that road again.
“If you’d have asked me in 2012, I’d have said that I don’t like agents at all, but obviously now I work with them and there are a lot of good ones out there, and some really nice people. But in 2014, myself and DRN who are solicitors based, we got together because I’d known the owner of the solicitors for a long time, and he’s football mad. So, we got together and said shall we try an agency? At the beginning I thought, this won’t be as easy as we think, and it wasn’t to be fair.
“So we set it up, got a few players and we worked really hard at it. We had to get into clubs and build relationships. People always said to me that it couldn’t be that hard because Jay plays football, but it doesn’t work that way. The main thing for me was thinking how many more footballers out there were getting done over, and that’s what really motivated me to do it”.
How would you describe your day-to-day roles at DRN?
“Well with our players, what we’ll all try to do is to look after things such as their mortgages, their pensions and their cars. Some footballers for some reason will go out and get a mortgage for example, and they’ll get charged a load of money. But there’s no reason for them to get charged like that, they should be charged like anybody else. So that’s when the solicitors’ side of things come in. And of course, we’ve then got the financial backing to help them out with their mortgages.
Would you say that in that case, DRN are more a more attractive agency to the younger players who may need more guidance with these things?
“Yeah, because with the younger players we get the odd one or two who call us up looking for help with things like their cars. So, we’ll try and help them, but obviously this is something that their parents can do as well, but sometimes they’d just prefer us to do it. We do it anyway, even though we don’t gain anything by it, and we don’t want any finances for it. Because at the end of the day it’s about working together.
“But we’ve had another few who come to us and they say, will you have a look for an Audi? And we just say, are you serious? You’re 18 years old, and you’ve got a 12-month contract. Some of them just say “yeah I know but I want an Audi”. Well I want a Bentley but I can’t afford it!
“We say to them, look don’t go down that road. Buy yourself a decent car that you can afford because what happens at the end of your 12-month contract if you get released?
“We try and calm them down in that sense. But often their parents are very sensible as well, and they’ll see the sense. I learned it with Jay when he was a first-year pro, he actually drove his mum’s car for a good 12-months until he got a decent deal. And the way we look at it is once you get that good deal, not a problem, buy what you want. But remember not to over-spend because football is a short career”.
Would you say that because you had played at a good level in football, that you influenced Jay and Joseph to pursue a career in the game?
“Yeah, but I always just said to them not to do what I did. Because I wasn’t a bad player, I just didn’t take it seriously. I always just thought well Burnley will offer me a five-year deal, so I’ll be alright. And if they don’t then Coventry will offer me a big deal, so not to worry. But that never came. And when it did come, I was earning more working and playing football part-time, and by then I was married and we’d had Jay.
“When it comes to Joseph, people always ask me why he’s not playing football. When Joseph was 16, he was a lot better than what Jay was, and he’d had trials with Burnley and Bury. But when he got to 17, he turned round to me and said that he wanted to take a trade up because he didn’t want to just do that for the rest of his life. We backed him with that just as much as we backed Jay, and now he’s got a cracking job and he’s enjoying his life.
“We backed our kids up in whatever they did. Even if Jay had turned round to us at 21/22 and turned round to us and said that he wanted to pack in the football to become a builder, then so be it. But the hardest part to explain to them was to not go down the route I did with not being serious enough”.
You mentioned that you thought Joseph was a better player at 16 than Jay was, did the fact that Jay went on to have such a successful career surprise you in that case?
“I’m not surprised now, no. But when he was maybe 16-18, I actually was surprised because he was very small, and people always said to me that he’d never make it because he was small and skinny. But to be fair to Burnley, the Academy Manager at the time said to me, well he’s got a footballing brain and we can work with it.
“I learned that side of it. If he is small, so what? If he can play and read the game then they can teach him, and at the end of the day, he’s going to grow eventually and he’s going to build up. And that’s what happened when he was about 20 years old.
“So, in that respect yeah, I was a bit surprised. But at the end of the day, he works hard, he trains hard and he gives it his all. That’s all you can ask of a footballer.
Has the last year or so been different for yourself and DRN in terms of how things operate on a day-to-day basis?
“It has, it’s been really hard for us because we can’t go and watch games. We were able to go and watch a few non-league games. We watch non-league as much as we watch professional football, because it’s very good, it’s very entertaining and there are some cracking players out there. But obviously that’s stopped now because their league stopped.
“We’ve struggled with watching games, yeah. But to be fair to the non-league, they’ve started streaming games on YouTube. Some clubs have started charging £6 or £7 for them too, and I’d much rather give those clubs that money than paying £15 for a Premier League game. So. I’ve enjoyed watching the games on YouTube, but it is different. You want to be out there, watching the game and talking to people and ultimately finding new players.
“But with our work, in regard to contracts, we’ve still managed to do well with players. The players have done well too, some have been released and they’ve moved on to other clubs, some have had to go into non-league and they’ve accepted it. In that sense we’ve done okay”.
You said that you’re watching a lot of non-league at the moment, what football would you typically be going out to watch in normal circumstances?
“Normally we’d be watching in the English Championship, a few games in the youth level too in the second and third tier, and we watch some Under 23 games too because they’d play on a Monday or Friday. We’d typically watch non-league on a Tuesday night too, but at the weekends we would watch in the Championship, League One and League Two.
“I would go and watch Jay on a Saturday afternoon to be fair as well. Not every weekend, but I always still try to watch my son”.
What’s the plans for DRN in the immediate future?
“Well, we’ve managed to get ourselves a few players in the last couple months, typically under 18’s just by talking to them and watching them on YouTube as much as we can. We want to take some more players on like that because we want to get contracts, as long as they themselves and their parents want contracts.
“We’re not saying we’re going to guarantee to get them clubs for one minute, but what we can do is ask. We can promote them and try to get them somewhere. Our job is so easy, if a footballer is performing. Simple as that. But it’s when they get released, we’ve got to work hard for them, we’ve got to be realistic and see where they can go.
“I want every player to be a professional footballer, I want them to hit the top and I want it for their parents as well. Because we’ve been in that situation as parents when Jay was in the youth team, when he was 16, he got that two-year youth deal and I was so excited, but come the second year I was thinking, what happens if he gets released? I know what some of the parents are going through.
Lastly, do you have any other avenues you can see yourself exploring in the footballing world, or are you happy doing what you’re doing?
“If you had asked me this 18-months after we started DRN, I’d have said I need to find something else because it was very hard. It really was. Answering that question now, I’m going to carry on doing this. Because I do get a buzz out of when there’s a player, and we find him another club. Of course, the player then needs to go and perform and as agents all we can do is open a couple doors, but when they get a contract you do get a buzz out of it, because you’ve played a part in it. Even helping them with a financial issue, it makes me want to stay a part of it.
“We do want more players and we do want a bigger calibre of players, I’ll be honest. But we’re not forcing it, we’re just trying our best to see what comes and see how we can work with it. What we don’t want is hundreds of players because we can’t look after them, and it’d be unfair. But with the players we’ve got now, we can look after them and we can add a few more. We’ve got a few more agents on board with us now too that have joined up with us too. I’m happy doing this”.