It’s becoming something of a cliche to say that we’re living in ‘unprecedented times’. However, English football is arguably facing its biggest crisis in a generation. The stark reality of financial pressure and the continued absence of fans is biting hard.
Fortunately, Lisa Fallon is well-versed in dealing with challenging situations. The London City Lionesses manager was the first woman to coach a men’s team in Ireland when she took charge at Lakelands FC in 2013.
Fallon’s appointment provoked some outdated responses from a few coaching counterparts, with one opposition manager telling his team ‘this lot turned up with some bird managing them!’ in a pre-match team talk. It’s a reaction the former Chelsea and Cork City coach took in her stride.
“When I was new and experiencing these things for the first time you can feel a little bit emotional about it, but what I quickly learned, through really good mentorship and through working with some really good people, was that that’s going to happen,” she says.
“You’re going to have to learn to deal with that and I did. Now, I look back on it and think, yes, it’s a story to tell, but it certainly wouldn’t be something that would derail me now. It says more about the person who says it and, from my own perspective too, it just doesn’t bother me anymore. It just doesn’t impact me.”
Fallon started coaching after her playing career, which included stints with Southampton, Gillingham and St Patrick’s Athletic Ladies, was cut short by injury. It’s an experience which the Dubliner, who was part of Michael O’Neil’s backroom staff during Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign, has used to inform her support for injured players.
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“I found it a really lonely time. It was difficult to be away from the team, to be separated, and if I was doing rehab pitch side, I sometimes found that even more difficult because I was seeing what I was missing,” she says.
“Particularly when you’re coming back from a longer term injury, it’s important that you have that support and that as a manager and coaching staff, we make sure that we have those regular touch points with players and that we keep them motivated, because it can be a long, arduous journey, and a lonely one.”
Fallon’s focus on psychology extends to all aspects of the game. Highlighting Sadio Mane’s goal in Liverpool’s game against Chelsea, in which the Malian chased down a poor pass he played to win the ball back and score, she stresses the importance of using setbacks to improve performance.
“I think mindset is a really key part of a player’s preparation and a manager’s preparation. It’s having that capacity to deal with setbacks, which invariably will come, particularly during games, and having that resilience and that mental capacity to take them on the chin and turn them into learning experiences.
“It’s about having that capacity to react and stay engaged, stay present in the moment and look forward as opposed to retrospectively. The time for reflection is after the game”.
The outbreak of coronavirus has provided another challenge for Fallon and her squad to deal with. Whilst a lot of coverage between the suspension of the 2019/20 season and the start of the 2020/21 campaign focused on footballers’ physical conditioning, Fallon’s primary focus on returning to training was the wellbeing of her coaching and playing staff.
“For me, the biggest thing was probably just making sure that people felt confident and had belief in the environment.
“That was a really key component of what we had to do before focusing on the football stuff. We had to make sure that everybody was in an environment where they felt looked after and that their welfare was at the centre of everything that we did.”
Fallon’s interest in mentality is long-standing. As part of her role in the Northern Ireland coaching setup, she was charged with preparing motivational videos for Michael O’Neil’s players, one of which was shown in the build-up to a game against Russia. It’s a tool she believes is well-suited to international football.
“It’s different for a club team because I think if you use them every week, they probably lose their value. You have to choose your moments. With international football, it’s probably the perfect environment to do them because there could be six months between games, so it’s easier to create a new story that is reflective of the moment that you are in.”
With experience of major tournaments, European competition and top-flight domestic football, Fallon recognises the role she can play in supporting fellow coaches.
“I’m more conscious now of offering support to up and coming coaches. It’s important that I share my experiences and try and help the next generation, so that they might not have to encounter some of the barriers that my generation has had to encounter. We have the opportunity to influence that change.”
Fallon’s message eptimosies the positivity which has characterised her career. It’s a mantra that should prove invaluable to both the Lionesses and English football at large, in the months to come.