Agent Lee helps answer Norwich City's prayers
The football agent who answered Norwich City’s prayers by helping to bring star player and captain Grant Holt to the club, believes that faith and football is a winning combination. Keith Morris reports.
Lee Payne had a successful professional career himself with top clubs in both England and Holland and is now a FIFA-registered football agent, living in Norwich.
He helped to make possible leading striker Grant Holt’s move to Norwich City from Shrewsbury Town in 2009, and also his signing of a new three-year contract with the Canaries last May – a negotiation assisted by a little divine intervention, according to Lee.
“Holty’s contract was due for renewal and I flew from my home in Brazil to have a meeting with Norwich City’s chief executive David McNally,” said Lee. “The Canaries were at home on the Saturday before my meeting on the Monday. In my hotel room, I laid it before God in prayer and asked him to bless the situation and make it as easy as possible. Grant had had two tremendous years at Norwich, back-to-back promotions, two player of the year awards, top goalscorer and he wanted rewarding for that. There had been one or two players before who tried to renegotiate with Norwich and it had been a long drawn-out affair. Holty did not want that.
“Norwich were playing Scunthorpe United
and it was a beautiful day. I prayed that Grant would have a good game. By half-time he had scored a hat-trick and the crowd were singing ‘There’s only one Grant Holt’. At half time, Delia Smith
came onto the pitch to draw a raffle and it was a roll-over so there was a £1000 prize up for grabs. Delia puts her hand in and pulls a ticket out and she looks very surprised when she says ‘the winner is - Grant Holt’. It does not get any better does it,” said Lee.
“Grant donated the money to charity, got the man of the match award and I felt that God had answered all my prayers. We went in on the Monday morning and within a couple of hours we had negotiated a new deal. Obviously the fact that Grant had had an outstanding couple of years was great, but I felt God’s presence throughout that weekend and at the meeting. Grant was overjoyed,” said Lee.
“Grant is a tough guy but a special one and I like to think there might be an England call-up if he keeps on scoring goals. I pray for all my players that they will remain healthy and strong and spiritually in a good place. I think if players stay strong good things can happen for them.”
Football is in Lee’s blood, with a dad who was a manager of several top non-league football teams. But right from the start, he also felt God’s presence in his life despite the fact that his family, like him were not church-goers.
This belief helped Lee overcome setbacks to his football dreams as a teenager as he was in and out of hospital with asthma and a growth disease in his knee. By age of 16, he had been rejected by a number of football clubs he had trialled for, because of his poor health and low weight.
“I felt that God was still telling me to keep going with my dream,” said Lee, “although I did not really understand what the Christian faith was all about – it was just an inner feeling.
Age 20, Lee still had not broken through. He was working on a building site and playing semi-professionally under Barry Fry at non-league Barnet. But his belief kept him focused and on the right path.
“I was asked to play in a trial game by manager David Pleat for Leicester City against Newcastle United. I felt God telling me to play,” said Lee.
And it proved his big break-through as two days later all the headlines were “Newcastle sign 21-year-old wing wizard”. Newcastle paid a non-league transfer record of £125,000 for Lee and that was the moment his career took off.
“When I arrived at Newcastle one of the first people to talk to me was Gazza,” said Lee. “God had created a tremendous platform for me. Within a few weeks I was lining up against Manchester United who has Bruce, Robson, Hughes and Sharpe playing for them.
“God turns the impossible into the possible, coming from a building site to playing in a top professional team. I got rave reviews and felt I was just glorifying God.”
Lee was public about his faith in God but the reaction was mixed. “What I did not realise - because I was not involved in a church at that stage - was the spiritual warfare that I was going to go through over the next couple of years. The reaction to talking about God was incredible. I got a lot of ridicule – I was called Holy Joe.
“I moved on from Newcastle to Reading and I remember one game when at half-time the manager threw a teapot at me and said: ‘look son you better change your attitude, you are not putting your foot in any more, you are not on it and not playing for the team’.
“It really hurt,” said Lee. “I though that my faith was getting in the way of my career, I felt the pressure and started to drift away from God. I felt maybe I could do certain things, like having a drink with the boys. After a while I was unrecognisable – I had money, fame, a sports car and I began to lose my focus. My life started to escalate in the wrong way because I had lost my connection with the Lord.
“A Dutch first division team, BV Veendam, made an offer to buy me. I made the decision to go. It was almost like I was trying to run away from God – like Jonah in the Bible – because I was getting so much ridicule. Although there were some good times in Holland, it was the worst thing I could have done because the country was spiritually dead, churches were closing down. I lost my connection with God and was doing things I could never have imagined before,” said Lee.
Lee played top-flight football in Holland for five years, but between the ages of 26 and 29, Lee had eight operations that brought his playing career to an end.
“I felt angry with myself because I was going my own way,” said Lee. “My career was ending and I was going nowhere. I got to the point where I felt like committing suicide.
“I had played over 100 professional games and had some really good times, but I feel that if I had kept in harmony with the Lord I could have achieved so much more.”
Because Lee could speak Dutch he started scouting, becoming European scout for Harry Rednapp who was manager at West Ham at the time. From there, because he was watching so many young players, making the move to becoming a football agent was easy.
As an agent, Lee did some multi-million pound deals taking goalkeeper Ben Foster to Manchester United and Birmingham. He was responsible for bringing Jussi Jääskeläinen from Finland to Bolton where he has now played over 500 games. He also represented players such as Bulgaria international Svetoslav Todorov, goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, midfielder Stephen Ireland and Vicente Rodriguez, as evidenced by the signed players’ shirts hanging on the walls of his home in Norwich.
“I was making money and doing deals but it was driving me further from God,” said Lee.
Lee was invited to go to Brazil by his former Newcastle colleague, Mirandinha, and it was there he met and fell in love with future wife Christina, with whom he now has two teenage daughters, Larissa and Gabrielle.
It was around this time that Lee had an experience which changed his life forever.
Back in Europe, doing some transfer negotiations, Lee went into partnership with a businessman, who double-crossed him and disappeared with a six-figure sum from a successful deal.
Lee was mad and wanted to go after him and teach him a lesson. He went back to his childhood home of Luton to find schoolfriends who had become “proper villains”, according to Lee.
“They said to me, for £1000 we will get your money back but you need to tell us the names of his wife and children.
“I got back into my car and said to God ‘what is happening to me, why am I doing this. I cannot go down this road anymore.’ I was full of guilt and in my hotel room I felt I needed to rededicate my life to God. I felt He said to me to drop it – so I did. That day I asked Jesus to come back into my life and it was like the Prodigal Son in the Bible. I felt God welcoming me back and the guilt went away – it lifted a big weight off my shoulders.
“I wanted to ring Christina, who was back in Brazil with the girls. But I felt it was too much to say on the phone. Three days later I got back home and said to her, ‘I need to tell you something’. She said to me ‘I need to tell you something as well’. She went on to tell me that while I had been away the three of them had been watching a Christian missonary on TV every night and they all felt that they wanted to commit themselves to Jesus.
“I could not believe it, it was just incredible. It was almost like the day I decided to come back to God he has also touched my wife and children across the other side of the world.”
Ten days later the whole family were all baptised together at a Baptist church in Fortaleza.
“I can’t tell you how much God has blessed my life since that day,” said Lee. The family decided to come back to England, so they sold their ten-bedroom home and were in the position to help the local Baptist congregation put a new roof and new frontage on the church before they left.
After Lee’s experiences with Grant Holt in Norwich, they decided that the city would be the perfect place to come. The family has just settled into a house in Thorpe St Andrew and joined the Norwich Family Life Church in the city, where they feel really at home.
Lee wants to keep working in football and he has a dream of working with young players and helping get them off on the right foot, using some of his Brazilian experiences.
“In Brazil there are about six born-again Christian in their national team, players like Kaka and Lucio. The football role models in this country are often very poor in comparison,” said Lee. “And how many times have they won the World Cup?
“I know what some players still get up to. They play on Saturday and then go out and get drunk. It will take them Sunday to recover and on the training ground on a Monday they are still recovering. Brazilian players go home to their families after the game and then to church on a Sunday morning, so by Monday they are in great shape. Throughout their careers they have a peace.
“There is also a massive gambling culture in football in the UK, which I slipped into when I was younger. We keep hearing stories about players with crippling gambling debts. It can’t be doing players any good. Once you allow Jesus into your life and give him control you can eradicate all that negativity.
“A lot of our players are spiritually in a wrong place with crippling gambling debts or cheating on their wives or they are drinking too much. How can you prepare to play in front of thousands of fans with all that going on?
“The Brazilians have an inner confidence which comes from their faith. Zambia are another great example. As massive underdogs they have just won the Africans Cup of Nations against Ivory Coast. They were all praying in a circle on the pitch after their great victory on penalty kicks.
“I don’t think you can ever reach you true potential unless you are working in true harmony with God,” said Lee.
Lee believes that there are a growing number of Christians playing professionally in England, many of them from overseas.
“Hernandez gets down his knees to pray at Man United,” said Lee. “And David Luiz at Chelsea was recently pictured, laying hands on and praying for Fernando Torres on the pitch before a match.
“It is something that can only be good for our football and our culture,” he said.
“I still intend to continue working as a football agent,” said Lee, “but I hope to be able to use my experience to help young footballers both into the game and to a faith in Jesus and would like to link up with people and organisations with the aim outlook.”
Pictured top is Lee Payne with Grant Holt at Carrow Road and, above, Lee at his Norwich home.