In the days after Ben Stokes' astonishing century in the 2019 Ashes Test at Headingley radio phone-ins invited listeners to tell them where they were and what they were doing when cricket's famously flimsy logic was being trashed once again. There was no shortage of callers but Luke Sutton, the former Somerset, Derbyshire and Lancashire wicketkeeper-batsman, was not amongst them. Although Sutton was in Leeds that Sunday afternoon, he was doing something much more important than witnessing one of the best innings in the history of cricket. He was helping a young man make sense of his suddenly troubled life.
While the rest of England watched the Test Sutton was sitting on the balcony of Nile Wilson's flat, talking to the 23-year-old gymnast and quietly suggesting ways in which he might go about things. It was a tricky undertaking. On the positive side Wilson was a successful athlete who had already won an Olympic bronze medal. Having vlogged since he was 15 he was also exceptionally skilled in the use of social media and was listed by The Times at No. 37 in the table of the UK's biggest online influencers. Set against these factors and the prosperity that went with them was the fact that Wilson's mental health was deteriorating. He had grown increasingly unhappy with the demands of celebrity and what he saw as the responsibility of producing content for over a million subscribers on YouTube.
Wilson derived joy from little except going out and getting drunk with his mates, and on the Saturday of the Leeds Test he had got into a fight with his father, Neil. Hung-over and fragile, he needed an honest friend with whom he could talk about his problems and so Sutton turned up at his apartment on the Sunday afternoon. Except that Luke Sutton is not only Wilson's friend; he is his agent.
The story of how he kept Wilson company as he found a way through his problems makes up two chapters in The Life of a Sports Agent: The Middleman, which was published last autumn and was Sutton's second book in little over a year. The first, Back from the Edge, was a raw account of his own struggle to achieve good mental health and overcome long-term problems that had manifested themselves in alcohol-dependence. To a degree, therefore, he was well-placed to help Wilson, albeit he is careful never to lay down the law. "I had felt everything Nile was feeling and had made all the same mistakes," he writes. "I had once been as confused and lonely in my own head as he now was in his." The pair eventually spent a week in Sutton's house in Ibiza, pottering around "like a little married couple", living quietly and talking.
It worked. Gradually Wilson came to see that his life encompassed far more than sporting achievement and an online presence. Sutton ends the chapters musing on what Wilson might achieve in gymnastics yet also reassured that any success will have far firmer foundations than previously. But such thoughts are probably not the stuff people expect to come across from someone in Sutton's profession. Where are the deals? Where is the cut-throat promotion? Where is Mr 10%?
You're managing young, very talented sportspeople and helping them to cope with highly pressurised situations. And I have to be the person in their lives who tells them the truth
The answer to such questions is that there are deals and promotions in The Middleman but they are subordinated to the themes of compassion, love and support. The stereotypical image of an agent fades and is replaced by Sutton's much broader duties of care to a group of clients that includes the former hockey player, Sam Quek, and the gymnast, Louis Smith. Naturally, there are a host of cricketers. James Anderson and Haseeb Hameed have been on the books of Sutton's company, Activate, and he now looks after the affairs of Dom Bess, Peter and Tom Moores, Sam Northeast, Saqib Mahmood and a group of younger players. To each he brings a thoughtful awareness of the perils of fame and an understanding that while things may seem to be going well as far as coaches and colleagues can see, the player may be struggling and saying nothing.
"As an agent of course you get involved in discussions about sponsorship deals and playing contracts," he says. "There's a very financial, transactional side to it but ultimately you're also managing young, very talented sportspeople and helping them to cope with highly pressurised situations. And I have to be the person in their lives who tells them the truth. I always tell them I'm going to say it with love and I'm not the sort of person who goes around banging down doors and screaming and shouting but I'll tell it to them straight. If they don't want to hear it, I still have to be the one to tell them."
Most people who have read Back from the Edge understand that Sutton is well-placed to advise his predominantly young clients as they try to cope with the emotional polarities and absurd reality of professional sport. There was a time when he had to cope with some difficult truths, all the more difficult, perhaps, because he was informed of them when a patient at the Priory in 2011. Sutton writes of his time in the acute psychiatric hospital in stark prose, its style blessedly free of any intervention from a professional journalist. Readers should be grateful for this. A book already haunted by demons does not need another ghost. The Middleman is also all his own work, although the second book is a more considered effort, one that offers a justification of Sutton's current profession.
"They were very different experiences," he says. "There was a therapeutic aspect to the first book but this one explores different areas of sports management and I took care in organising the material. The first was baring my soul and the second was more opinionated because I do feel strongly about the roles of the sports agent. I wanted to give an insight into that world."
And yet nothing could have prepared Sutton for the text James Taylor sent him at two o'clock in the morning on April 7, 2016: "Hey bud, I need to talk to you." Behind the bland words was a crisis that will touch Taylor's life for ever. Less than 24 hours before sending the text he had been sitting in the dressing room at Fenner's, suffering acute pain and watching his heart seemingly trying to beat itself out of his body. Within a week arrhythymogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC) had been diagnosed. It is a disease of the heart that is often first identified by pathologists. Had Taylor not been a super-fit sportsman he may well have died but further exercise was ruled out. He had just established himself in England's Test team and now those days were over.
Sutton does not dispute the observation that the biggest crisis in Taylor's life also allowed his agent to develop his own career. Yet perhaps it is that such brutal reflections are best considered over four years after the events being recounted. In the spring of 2016 Sutton was preoccupied in organising the announcement of Taylor's retirement, making arrangements for his financial security and setting up his tentative return to cricket in the media. There was really no playbook that the agent could follow but none of his professional duties was more important than being there for his mate, talking to him for hours beyond counting and sharing his tears.
"I wasn't prepared in the slightest for what happened, so I guess in hindsight it did move me forward a great deal," he says. "And if anyone asked me to name the biggest accomplishment of my management career I would talk about my experience with James when his career ended.
"There was no warning. This atomic bomb arrived in this young man's life and everyone was wondering what to do. There were many times when I worried whether I would be able to guide him to a place of stability, happiness or closure. When we did get there I realised how great the weight had been. James and I still talk about it a great deal and he read the chapters about him before the book was published. It's still a huge thing for him to deal with."
But his experience across a range of sports has taught Sutton that he cannot carry the burden of personal responsibility on anyone's behalf. He frequently talks about players "owning" their decisions whether they are moving from one club to another or going out on the razzle. Agents like Sutton can make the picture clearer but they cannot make a client see what is revealed.
"I'm dealing with exceptionally talented people and it's not my job to tell them what to do," he says. "I can offer advice and a steer but giving them that level of personal responsibility creates a healthy dynamic. They've got to own their decisions as I have to own mine and that's part of their development. I'm not commander-in-chief."