BY RYAN FERRY
DAREN O’Dea has lived a remarkable life, rubbing shoulders with celebrities and dignitaries through the top tier sporting sphere.
It takes a certain type of individual to be head-hunted by Manchester United and work alongside Usain Bolt.
And yet with just an hour on the phone to the charismatic Raphoe man, it’s evident why he has enjoyed the success he has had.
There have been doors opened for him at opportune times, but O’Dea has never been fearful and is willing to see what the unknown might offer.
With a determined work ethic and an understanding of how to treat people in the correct manner, the 51-year-old has seen things that most of us can only dream of.
Before Christmas, he was working for FIFA at the World Cup and even got to attend the final.
A son of Nora and the late Noel O’Dea, sport has been a key part of Daren’s life from a young age.
“I was a jack of all trades and I would have given anything a go.
“My main sport would have been athletics. I started running for Finn Valley when I was 12 and went on to represent Donegal on a few occasions.
“It all started when I won the 800 metres at regional and county titles at the National School Sports, and then came third in Ulster and sixth in the All-Irelands.
“I still keep up my Finn Valley membership and did so when I was living abroad.
“I played football for Raphoe Town and got to the All-Ireland Final when I was at St Columba’s with Barry Patton, Niall McGonagle and Ollie Reid and those boys.
“I would have played gaelic too for Convoy, and I even won an All-Britain while playing for St Peter’s in Manchester in 2012. If it was a rugby field or a volleyball court, I would try it out.
“I got an athletics scholarship over to Florida Southern College and ran over there for a few semesters.
“I wore an Irish Universities vest once for the 400 metres hurdles which was about as high as I got to.”
While O’Dea enjoyed success on the sporting field and tracks, he also balanced that with an impressive workrate off it.
He had an interest in business that he wanted to pursue and was well able to network.
That said, the opportunity to work for one of the biggest sporting organisations in the world was still one that he couldn’t have predicted coming.
“I have been working in bars and restaurants since I was 14 and I went on to get a degree in Tourism Business Development from Magee.
“I went over to England and started working in Manchester, and I was attending an event for Man City after they had hosted the Commonwealth Games and were doing a lot of conference work.
“I got talking to a director of Manchester United at that, and I was subsequently head-hunted to become a business development manager in 2004.
“I had a broad remit, and was focused on Matchday packages and non-matchday, there were conference events, and I was feeding into the commercial team as well.
“Then the Glazers came in and there was work started on the stadium expansion at Old Trafford with the North East and North west quadrants.
“Things became more streamlined then but my role stayed the same.
“It was about getting in front of CEOs and MDs, people who could buy hospitality suites or host conferences and major events, and I would have been meeting people from large productions like X-Factor and things like that.
“I was still working on the business development end but for the final year and-a-half I was also involved in selling packages for the exclusive Centennial Executive Suite. They were the equivalent to the director’s box.”
O’Dea decided to branch out after his stint at Old Trafford, and soon began working with some well-known faces from a variety of sports.
“In 2009, there was an opportunity for voluntary redundancies going and I took that, and went on to set up my own sports management company, which looked after professional athletes off the field.
“I would have worked with football players like John Carew, Ashley Young, Chris Samba, Míchel Salgado, and George Boateng.
“I actually became George’s agent and helped him sort his last contract at Nottingham Forest. I got him his coaching badges through the IFA (Irish Football Association), and it was great to meet up with him at the World Cup where he was Assistant Coach with Ghana.
“It was a case of helping them with their money, purchasing property and long-term planning for life after football.
“I also would have worked with PACE Sports Management for ten years. My sister Grainne works with them, and Ricky Simms from Donegal is the MD, who I know since we were young and running with Finn Valley.
“I was basically chef de mission for Usain Bolt and his training group of around thirty when they would come to the UK every summer to compete around Europe.
“I would have been dealing with all their logistics such as hotels, training facilities and transport and everything else so that they could focus on getting the best out of themselves on the track.”
O’Dea was comfortable doing negotiations in a boardroom and he developed a reputation as a loyal man that these sporting stars could trust with their most intimate details.
“I was a rugby agent and would have dealt with some of the big Australian players who came over to play Rugby League like Brett Kearney, Manase Manoukafoa and Jamie Langley.
“I also went over to South Africa and started to work for Amadou Gallo Fall, who was the Head of NBA Africa.
“He was very busy meeting with people and investors as they tried to launch the first professional league on the continent, the Basketball Africa League (BAL).
“I wasn’t working for the NBA directly, I was working for Amadou, and like with the other sports people, I was helping to buy property, and setting up trust funds for his kids and things like that.
“For people like that, and rugby players, track athletes, and football players, their job is eat, sleep, train and repeat.
“I took care of anything that took the focus away from that, and leveraged my decent little black book built up over 15 years.”
O’Dea found himself all over the world with his clients and was able to enjoy a fine life.
However, it wasn’t always a smooth passage, and the outbreak of Covid-19 halted his working endeavours and he moved back to Ireland, where he is still based up to this day.
“Covid hit and I flew back from Johannesburg and into London.
“My dad was over with my sister in Oxford at the time and I took him home.
“I only packed an overnight bag thinking I would be back for two days but I ended up staying. No-one knew what to expect at that time.
“My game completely stopped and there wasn’t a lot happening in the world of sport, and I was just hustling really, trying to make a pound here and there.
“I suppose the other big thing that happened was that I met up again with my now partner, Éilís Lavelle from Convoy.
“We know each other over thirty years since when she was running for Ulster and Northern Ireland at the Tailteann Games in Glasgow and I was the team manager, so I decided to stay in Ireland.
“As we came out of lockdown, I got talking to an old contact Felix Brambilla, who is a Frenchman living in Miami.
“He runs a company called Overseas Network which is a major B2B2 luxury travel operator and he looks after VIPs. He has great contacts, and if someone wants to go to Yellowstone Ranch, he knows the owner and things like that.
“He said to me that he had two projects that might interest me. He was keen to expand Overseas Network into Ireland and the UK and felt that I could help, and Overseas Network was also going to be an official partner of FIFA and Matchday Hospitality at the World Cup in Qater.
“They dealt with the VIP hospitality exclusively for the American market, and if people wanted to go watch one of the games, they could sort out a box or hospitality, and organise transport, and hotels and experiences and things like that.
“With the geography of the World Cup taking place in one city, FIFA were able to run a cultural programme which was driven by Gianni Infantino’s (FIFA President) wife, Leena.
“I think in the past, FIFA had maybe been a bit reactive to this kind of thing but for this World Cup, they wanted to be proactive and have activities and a have a fully planned programme designed and organised for teams on off days, or the wives and families, or VIPs.
“I was Head of Guest Management at the Katara Towers, the official FIFA VIP Hotel and base, for two months which is the iconic hotel that you would have seen on TV.
“There were a lot of big names about. You had Infantino himself, and the likes of Peter Schmeichel, Mario Kempes, Lothar Matteus, Youri Djorkaeff, Roberto Carlos, John Terry and Robbie Keane to name but a few.”
People were tuning into Qatar every day to see the action, and it was certainly a busy period for O’Dea.
There wasn’t a huge amount of time for him to get out and about to the many attractions, but his clients enjoyed themselves and that was all that mattered.
“I did manage to spend my last night in Qatar in a traditional Bedouin camp in the desert, and got to see Doha from the sea on a traditional Qatari dhow boat, both of which had been built and organised exclusively for FIFA.
“It was very intense for me but it wasn’t for the guests.
“There were last minute changes and curve balls thrown at us that we had to deal with.
“It was the first time a programme like that had been run so we had to kind of learn as we went.
“I think in two months, I probably only had two days off but I have been about this business for long enough now to know how it works and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“The feedback we got was amazing and that was fantastic for myself and the whole team.
“We were very proud to be involved in a programme such as this and the first of its kind for FIFA.”
Of course, there was still time to watch some football and the action on the pitch was exciting.
There were shocks and twists and it will go down as one of the most memorable World Cups, and it had the Hollywood ending with Lionel Messi lifting the Jules Rimet trophy.
“I got to see a few matches. We were based in the FIFA office which was the nerve centre for it all really.
“I did make it to a few of the games. I am a Spurs fan for my sins so I went to England v Wales to see (Gareth) Bale and Harry Kane playing.
“I saw Brazil against Korea as well, and got to have a look at Son (Heung-min) in action.
“I was at the France v Morocco semi-final and the atmosphere was unreal at that.
“I don’t know if it came across on the TV but every time the French had the ball, the Moroccans were just whistling until they won it back. It was an amazing atmosphere.
“I was very lucky to be at the final as well with my business partner Mo Samba and Ricky Simms and it was a brilliant final.
“I remember the gasps in the FIFA office in the second game when Saudi Arabia beat Argentina, but I turned around to one of the girls and said I bet you a tenner Messi still wins the World Cup and that’s how it played out.”
The selection of Qatar as the host country was controversial due to their human rights record, the death of migrant workers in the lead-up to the event, and their position on LGBT rights.
There were protests in advance, but in general, the tournament ran smoothly, and O’Dea said there was no hostility in Dubai during the four weeks.
“It was run brilliantly to be honest.
“I didn’t get the chance to go out and about too much with the games, but when I did it was great.
“I went out for dinner one evening with some members of the FIFA team. One of those is gay and he was wondering ethically whether he should come to Qatar and if things would be alright but he had no hassle whatsoever.
“It was a pure celebration and there was very little violence that you’re used to getting at these tournaments.”
Overseas Network will also be involved with the Women’s FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this year.
O’Dea would love to head to the Southern Hemisphere and cheer on the Republic of Ireland team in their first major tournament.
However, it might not be possible this time around.
O’Dea has set up his own company, Odin Ireland, which sells itself on the premise of helping guests to ‘escape to a most enchanting reality’.
Things are going well for the Raphoe man, and he may be needed closer to home this summer.
“I am kind of torn. If I’m asked it would be a huge honour of course but I have started up my own company in Ireland now.
“We’re working with Failte Ireland and catering for deluxe and ultra-luxe guests who are visiting Ireland for vacations and events.
“Last year, when one of the legendary NFL quarter-backs and his wife came over to London and Paris, I helped to look after them.
“This week we have a father and son from the US coming over from the US for their vacation. They’re businessmen and they’re going to Iceland for five days and Ireland for five days.
“We’re working with them so they are going fishing with one of the best ghillies in Ireland at Dromoland Castle, and hiking in Glendalough, and they are staying in the Shelbourne Hotel, Glenlo Abbey and so on.
“It’s an important year for the business so I don’t know if I should be taking two months off.
“I’m very privileged to be in the position I am. I have been working in hospitality and with people for a long time and you have to be switched on.
“It’s hard work but it’s all about finding the right balance in life now for me, and I’m getting back running.
“Éilís and I are competing in our first adventure race in Wicklow in a couple of weeks and we might chance the masters for Finn Valley later this year yet!”
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