Ex-Brighton, Charlton and Millwall keeper John Sullivan: Portsmouth was worst thing that happened to me - and the best. Life after football is earning $1m a year in Las Vegas

Occasionally an American lilt is discernible, slight yet unmistakably prevalent over the course of the conversation.

Thursday, 3rd February 2022, 4:08 pm
Updated Thursday, 3rd February 2022, 9:51 pm

This is a different John Sullivan.

The goalkeeper whose career spectacularly imploded at Fratton Park no longer exists, marooned for eternity on the runway tarmac at Heathrow Airport.

As a 26-year-old, he turned his back on football and, clutching a five-figure Pompey contract pay-off, headed for Las Vegas seeking a more fulfilling existence.

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That was July 2014, a lifetime ago for Sullivan.

Today the ex-Brighton, Millwall and Charlton player is ranked 36 out of the 20,000 real estate agents which operate in Vegas, in terms of sales volume.

His income has exceeded $1m for three successive years, while the young family are to move into a new $3m house in October, once construction upon their 18,000 square feet of land has been completed.

Indeed, Sullivan and his life are barely recognisable from the West Sussex-born keeper who made seven Blues appearances seven-and-a-half years ago.

John Sullivan walked out on football following a disappointing Pompey spell - and became a real estate agent in Las Vegas. Picture: Barry Zee

‘I’m no longer in football, I barely watch it any more, I forget I was even a footballer, so I get to speak freely now,’ he told The News.

‘For me, there was always life after football. Going to Pompey was the worst thing which ever happened to me – and the best thing which ever happened to me.

‘It showed me that probably this wasn’t for me any more. My career was done.

‘At Pompey, I wouldn’t say I always saw eye-to-eye with David Connolly. He was also having a lot of conflict with the management team and probably overstepped the mark a few times through frustration.

The Sullivan family. John with wife Nicole and four-year-old daughter Maxwell

‘But I respect him as an athlete, as a professional, his ability was unbelievable and he was in impeccable physical condition.

‘So there Connolly was at Pompey, playing with run-of-the-mill average League Two players.

‘Some like Jed Wallace, Ricky Holmes and Sonny Bradley went on to the Championship, yet the majority of us were absolutely nowhere, let’s be honest about that.

‘People ask “Why did you retire so young?”. Well, it’s because I wasn’t that good.

John Sullivan pulls off a save in Pompey's 1-0 Fratton Park defeat to Fleetwood in September 2013. Picture: Barry Zee

‘It takes a lot of guts to stand up and say that compared to my friends I am pretty good, but compared to other footballers I’m pretty average and run of the mill.

‘My numbers don’t lie, I played 72 games in my career, which is not a lot, especially considering I was a pro for 10 years.

‘It is clear that I probably wasn’t good enough to be a number one, simply because around 10 managers made that decision. It wasn’t one manager’s opinion, it was 10 of them at different clubs.

‘I was a number two because I never proved myself as a number one. Looking back, that’s how I would see myself, just a good number two goalkeeper, always great around the training ground, training my heart out every day, and never late.

‘I would be okay for 5-10 games, like I was at Wimbledon, but, for a sustained period, I never really proved myself. I also never really had the opportunity.

‘I don’t think Pompey knew who they were signing. They didn’t do their due diligence on me – and I didn’t do my due diligence on them.

John Sullivan is frustrated after conceding against Cheltenham in a 2-2 draw in September 2013. Picture: Joe Pepler

‘Maybe they saw me playing one game for Wimbledon, where I had a very good 11-game streak, and said: “We need a goalie, John played well at the end of the season, get him”.

‘The reality is, it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you are assembling a new squad of 15-20 players with a very inexperienced manager, which Guy (Whittingham) was, it was a recipe for disaster.

‘As Andy Awford said when my contract was paid up after a year at Fratton Park: “It didn’t work out, did it”.’

After the intervention of fan ownership prevented Pompey’s liquidation, Guy Whittingham was challenged to recruit an entire playing squad in the summer of 2013, with ambitions of conquering League Two.

A dozen players were recruited as free agents, among them Sullivan, the Charlton keeper who had starred on loan at AFC Wimbledon during a remarkable fight which saw them remain in the Football League.

Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood was lined-up to stay at Fratton Park, yet instead opted to join Blackburn, prompting Whittingham to turn his attention to Sullivan.

The former Brighton apprentice would lose his place following an opening day 4-1 defeat to Oxford United in August 2013, with Phil Smith replacing him.

Smith himself would last four matches before he was also axed, with Sullivan finding himself back in the side before the month was out.

His seventh – and final – Pompey outing was an infamous display in a 4-2 defeat at York in September 2013. At the end of the season, he walked away from football.

Sullivan added: ‘I had been on loan at Wimbledon. We needed to beat Fleetwood on the last day to stay in the Football League, with the owner promising to take us to Vegas if we succeeded.

‘Well, we won 2-1 – and the owner gave each of us an envelope with $500 each. Off we went.

‘We visited a nightclub called Pure in Caesars Palace and the first person I met is now my wife, Nicole was my waitress that night. I fell in love with a girl who lived in America.

‘A year later, I was on my way to Heathrow to join her in Vegas, when I stopped off at Fratton Park to have the final year of my contract paid up, I had my bags with me.

‘It wasn’t a lot of money, some £50-60,000. By the time I landed in Vegas, it was in my bank account and I was officially retired at 26.

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‘As a footballer, it feeds our ego, people ask for your autograph, you’re made to feel more important than you really are. For me, a nurse and a doctor is way more important than a footballer.

‘I didn’t love being a footballer. Admittedly, I loved the early few years at Brighton and Millwall, but that changed when I started going on loan to places like Yeovil.

‘You’d play with a great group of lads, but live in an awful hotel, miles away from your family. It’s cold and the training facilities are dreadful.

‘When I went on loan to Cambridge United, I was living in a cold, dark house with other footballers and the bed sheets were still on from the goalkeeper who had left earlier that day.

‘We put footballers on pedestals, like they are gods, but they’re just normal people who happen to be decent at football.

‘For me, no longer being a footballer doesn’t make any difference to my life, I’m still me. I was ready to leave the game, I was okay not being a footballer any more.

‘A lot of people are too prideful to admit that. I’m not too prideful, I will admit when I am ready to move on – and I was.

‘Footballers know nothing else, though, so it’s hard to make a career in England. When you have that safety net as a footballer and don’t have any education, it’s really difficult to go into something different.

‘In my last year at Pompey, I was making £1,000 a week, which, in the grand scheme of things, is a lot of money. In football-terms before tax, however, it’s not.

‘In America, I made more than $1m last year – and in 2022 I’m working towards the $2m mark.

‘There are opportunities outside football, but when you’re stuck in England and everyone sees you just as a player and not anything else, it’s tough.

‘When I told my parents I was going to retire and move to America, their response was “This is crazy, are you sure?”. They thought I was making a mistake.

‘Now they look at my life – and admit I made the right decision!’

Sullivan works for Vegas-based Huntington & Ellis real estate agents, although is effectively self-employed.

Operating as an independent contractor within the company, he receives no salary, instead earning a living entirely from commission.

On Sullivan’s own payroll are two personal assistants and two agents, directly paid for by himself.

Business continues to flourish, with the 33-year-old last month recognised as generating the most income at Huntington & Ellis for a fifth-successive year, beating off strong competition from 71 other agents.

‘There are 20,000 real estate agents in Vegas – I was number 36 last year,’ he said.

‘I sold 151 homes, while the average agent sells two homes. My goal this year is to sell 204 homes. I have a big whiteboard in my office with 204 written on it, which we tick off each time we make a sale.

‘Real estate is a very tough career. I spend 4-5 hours a day cold calling, trying to get business, but, unlike football, now I never get too high or too low.

‘If someone on the phone says “Yes, I will meet with you”, then that’s great. If they say “You’re an idiot, get off the phone”, I don't get too low.

‘It’s a job which teaches you how to deal with rejection, which is something we face every day from our wives, our kids, our bosses.

‘As a journalist, you probably reach out to players and say “Do you want to do an interview?” and they replay “No”. That’s rejection. Then some people, like myself, will say “Yes”.

‘Rejection is part of life. I know that for every 60 people I talk to, one will sign a contract. My goal is to stick to 30 people a day for every two days and I can get a contract signed.

‘In my best year in football, which was at Millwall, I made around £100,000, which is a lot of money for any young kid.

‘My first year in real estate, six-and-a-half years ago, I knew nothing and failed my exam seven times, yet made $211,000. At that point, I knew that if I did things correctly, I could create a life for my wife and daughter.

‘I have huge aspirations, huge goals. It’s great to have goals which you don’t think are possible in your wildest dreams, but it’s something to shoot towards – and I try to do that every day.

‘I now have 13 properties in America and am building a portfolio with a goal of 100 properties here in Vegas. I’m trying to retire by the age of 45-50.

‘Without all that happened in football, I wouldn’t be in the position I now am – and I'm very grateful for that opportunity.’

Golf is Sullivan’s sporting focus these days, taking up membership at the swish Southern Highlands Golf Club & Las Vegas Country club a year ago to indulge in his new favourite pastime.

No longer living as a professional sportsman, somewhat inevitably he has put on weight during the last few years, although the recent decision to hire a new trainer has swiftly paid dividends, shedding a stone over the last three weeks.

Sullivan’s aim is to return to the footballing weight he left behind when flying out to Vegas for a fresh adventure in the summer of 2014.

He added: ‘Not one day since I left football have I missed it, not one day. I haven’t even kicked a football for seven years.

‘My daughter Maxwell is now four and wants to start playing golf and football, so I’m probably going to start taking her to places at weekends.

‘I play a lot of golf, I’ve got seven season tickets for the Las Vegas Raiders American football team and four season tickets for the Vegas Golden Knights ice hockey team. Football is probably my fourth or fifth favourite sport these days.

‘I still catch the Premier League over here every Saturday morning, but the game has gone. Managers get sacked so quickly, players are diving around and throwing hissy fits, there’s the rules of VAR, and the crowd are throwing stuff.

‘I left at the perfect time.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Goalkeeper John Sullivan made seven appearances during an ill-fated spell with Pompey in the 2013-14 season. Picture: Joe Pepler
John Sullivan has reinvented himself as a real estate agent with Vegas-based Huntington & Ellis. Last month he was named their most successive agent for a fifth-straight year