Charlton liaison officer Tracey Leaburn on teaching Ademola Lookman to cook, Ricky Holmes changing lightbulbs and life as a footballer’s wife

BY RICHARD CAWLEY

richard@slpmedia.co.uk

Tracey Leaburn has plenty of fond memories from her time as Charlton Athletic’s player liaison officer – and a bond with players and managers that lasts well beyond their stay in SE7.

Ademola Lookman was a surprise visitor to her home in June. The 20-year-old – sold to Everton in a deal believed to be in excess of £8million in January 2017 – ended up staying and chatting for a couple of hours.

Last month Ben Amos, who spent the previous season on loan from Bolton Wanderers, and his girlfriend sent Leaburn a bouquet of flowers.

It tells you her input and help is appreciated.

Leaburn’s role can be anything from finding a home for a new signing to making sure they don’t get hit with any outstanding payments when they move out or organising player appearances.

Leaburn helped Lookman, a raw teenager when he was plucked out of local park football by Charlton, settle into a new apartment.

“I won’t put a player into an apartment if they don’t know how to cook,” she explained. “I help the U23s with it now also. Ademola was sharing a place with another player and I took them food shopping and showed them how to cook.

“People have to remember that some of these lads are 18 years old and have just moved out from home.

“I’m a mum and I do treat them like my sons – it’s just now I’ve got 25 of them! I teach them the value of money, which is important. They’ll ask me if something is a good price – they trust me because they know I’ll look out for them.

“Players come round to my home for dinner and sometimes we have 12 of them for a BBQ. Everyone mucks in to help.

“When Ricky Holmes was giving his flat back he had taken out all his furniture and I realised a couple of his light bulbs must have gone. The landlord can call an electrician out for that and you get charged. Ricky drove and got some and then had his sister on his shoulders to replace them because there was nothing to stand on. They were wobbling about as they tried to do it. It was typical of him, really down to earth. My motto is that you have got two arms and two legs – do it yourself. I help players move furniture in. Why pay a removal company if you can do it? “I love my job. Every day is different. There are not many jobs where you do something for people and they are so appreciative. A lot of my friends work for companies and don’t enjoy it. I have been really touched when, for example, I received a lovely card and bottle of wine from Russell Slade thanking me for my help.

“A lot of the time you can be working 24/7, especially when it is the transfer window. One of the key parts is making sure that new signings have as smooth a settling in process as possible. I’ll be in contact before they arrive at the club to get a feel of exactly what properties they might need to move into.

“If they are foreign then there is a lot more to do as you need to get them a national insurance number, car insurance, bank account – they have literally just arrived here with a suitcase.

“I’ve really worked on my links with estate agents so that from arriving to going into an apartment will be within three or four days.

“I deal with all player appearances – the requests come in from the club, community trust and anything else from the wider community. We get some special ones. For example we had a gentleman who was passing away and it was going to be his last game away – we arranged for him and his son to go on the coach with the first team, sit on a table with Jacko [Johnnie Jackson] and the manager. All the players signed a shirt for him. It was a very emotional experience for everyone. The players do a lot of good things and we can’t always video them or make it public knowledge – it wouldn’t be appropriate.

“We had a request from a carer to go and visit a fan who has supported the club for many years who was passing away. I went with a player and literally two hours later he had passed away. The carer said afterwards: ‘He was waiting for his Charlton to come’. I was crying my eyes out. It really makes you realise the influence players have.

“People say your job sounds brilliant….but there is another side to it. If a player’s child is sick, it’s midnight and they don’t know the hospitals and don’t speak English then I will help them by attending with them. Players know I am at the end of the phone whenever they need me.

“The job is about confidentiality and going that extra mile. They quite often won’t have family here.”

And Leaburn has more history in the game – because she is married to a former footballer. Carl Leaburn had 11 years as a pro for Charlton, playing just shy of 350 games, before moving on to Wimbledon and QPR.

The couple have been together 23 years, married 19 of them, and have a daughter, 19, and a son, 14, who is on the books of a Premier League club.

They count former Charlton manager Chris Powell and his wife as their best friends along with Paul Mortimer. Garth Crooks, Michael Bennett and Andy Ansah are godfathers to their children.

So did she count herself as a WAG (wives and girlfriends) – the modern tabloid expression for the partners of footballers? “I never saw myself as one,” she said. “I wasn’t that interested in the football. I never really watched Carl. If I went to a game I ended up in the bar with friends having a glass of wine!

“I remember a fan going up to him and saying: ‘Do you know your wife didn’t come out to watch your second half?’. He said: ‘Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me’.

“I was a manager at Pineapple Dance Studios. Saturday was our busiest day. Carl would say ‘I don’t come to your job and cheer you on’ – so I knew he understood.

“My dad brought me up to know the value of money. I can easily have Primark or Prada – it doesn’t define me.”

The higher you go up the football pyramid, it seems the more a player’s every whim is catered for – a distancing from the real world.

“When I met my husband he had boxfuls of mail that he had not opened. Players get everything done for them because clubs want them to focus on football. There should be a line somewhere. It’s a difficult one.

“I can always hear Carl on the phone to players, they are ringing him for advice. He is so sensible, so honest. He just gives them the truth. If ever I’m in a situation where I’m unsure, I’ll go to Carl for advice.

“If my son ever does make it as a professional footballer, I would want someone to look out for him too.

“You get that whole footballer thing – that they can afford it., but it doesn’t mean they should be taken advantage of. I’m the first one to see it from my husband’s view – you are a long time in retirement. It doesn’t last forever.

“Carl never moved from the area.

He didn’t need to. But now you get players throwing you their keys and saying: ‘I’ve got to go T, I’m off for six months – feed my fish’.”

Leaburn helps plan charity events at the club. She lost her dad – plus best friend Janice St Fort, Rio Ferdinand’s mum – to cancer.

As well as being in the process of organising a second PSA testing day at The Valley – which helps to diagnose prostate cancer early – she is part of a team of Charlton staff riding to Amsterdam on June 7. Leaburn said: “It is to raise awareness, there is no other reason to get on a bike – trust me! I park it away and then don’t look at it again until the following February.”

You can donate by going to www.justgiving.com/fundraising/tracey-leaburn1

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