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The sports-reporter-turned-analyst for the Northern Irish football team

Lisa Fallon chats to The42 about her role in helping Northern Ireland create history.

Lisa Fallon pictured during a recent Northern Ireland pre-Euro 2016 training camp in Carton house.
Lisa Fallon pictured during a recent Northern Ireland pre-Euro 2016 training camp in Carton house.

Updated at 11.01

LATER TODAY, NORTHERN Ireland — who have a population of less than two million inhabitants — will make history by competing in the European Championships for the first time ever as they get set to face Poland at 5pm in their opening Group C encounter.

In what is being dubbed ‘the year of the underdog’ owing primarily to Leicester City’s Premier League title win, Michael O’Neill’s side are also among the most notable teams to have punched above their weight this year, and at 300/1, are considered one of the least likely sides to make an impact in the competition.

Yet despite people continuing to doubt them, the Northern Ireland side have gone over a year without losing a match. Indeed, the 2-0 qualifying defeat away to Romania (the same side that gave France plenty of problems on Friday night) in November 2014 was the only time they failed to pick up at least a point in one of their qualifiers.

And what makes this story even more incredible is that their current position is a remarkable contrast to Michael O’Neill’s early days at the helm, when the side managed just one win from his first 18 games in charge.

Moreover, many people have been saying of late that the expanded 24-team tournament gives countries ‘like Northern Ireland’ the chance to the participate, but this claim ignores the fact that they topped their qualification group, and thus, would have made it to France regardless of the format Uefa ultimately decided upon.

Some have gone as far as to dub the achievement a ‘miracle,’ given that it is a team entirely devoid of stars. Indeed, the squad features just four players who played regularly in the Premier League last season — Johnny Evans, Stephen Davis, Craig Cathcart and Gareth McAuley. The vast majority of the other 19 squad members involved are scattered across teams in England’s lower leagues.

Consequently, the North’s improbable success is widely regarded as a triumph of spirit and organisation over individual talent, while the team’s incredible run has been helped also by a dedicated, hard-working backroom staff.

Formerly a radio sports reporter, opposition analyst Lisa Fallon is one of the many people who have helped turn Northern Irish fans’ dreams into a reality. Though the Dubliner is eager to emphasise she has played just “a small part” in the success, explaining that the manager and the players deserve most of the credit, there is no doubt she is a highly valued member of the set-up.

During an interview with The Belfast Telegraph during the week, Craig Cathcart explained: ”We get little booklets on all the opposition players. Every player we get a little dossier on and areas to exploit and those are the small percentages that can really help.” Fallon is responsible for compiling these booklets, among other tasks.

The 39-year-old Lucan native has been a football obsessive since childhood, growing up in a family with links to the game (her grandfather Tony was a coach of junior football side Palmerstown Rangers). An accomplished athlete, she played for a number of clubs including Southampton ladies, in addition to winning a Dublin Senior B Camogie Championship with Round Towers Clondalkin after returning to Ireland.

During her time playing in England, she also studied Sports Science at Canterbury University and more recently earned a Uefa A coaching licence

Moreover, in 2013, Fallon became Ireland’s first-ever female manager of a senior men’s team when she was hired by Leinster Senior League side Lakelands FC.

The42 recently caught up with Fallon to discuss her analysis work with both Northern Ireland and Cork City, as well as her thoughts on football’s general tactical trends, her frustration at the way underage football is being coached in Ireland and how she switches off from life in football by watching more football…

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview Package Northern Ireland's Steven Davis celebrates after scoring his side's third goal of the game against Greece during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Tell us about the work you do for the Northern Irish team.

For Northern Ireland, I do some opposition analysis which largely focuses on individual players. I would film training and matches and provide whatever clips are needed to the coaches and even medical staff. I also make the motivational videos that the players watch before every competitive game.

I research and compile these Player Booklets that the Northern Ireland players receive on the Opposition Players.

Michael asked me to do them for the Euro 2016 campaign so the first one I did was for the game against Hungary in September 2014. I’ve done them for every game since.

So presumably you’ve been studying Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 opponents, Poland, Germany and Ukraine at great length?

Euro 2016 Soccer Poland Northern Ireland Poland's Robert Lewandowski is among the world-class players Northern Ireland will face this summer. Source: AP/Press Association Images

As soon as the draw was made, I would have started working on it.

How optimistic are you about the team’s chances?

There’s always room for optimism. Every game is 90-plus minutes. It’s 11 v 11 ahead of each game. I believe there are margins that can be swayed all over the pitch in every game. If you can get enough of those margins in your favour, you increase your chances of winning the game. It’s really that simple, or complicated — whatever way you want to look at it.

You have to understand your opposition. You have to understand everything about them. And only then can you understand how to beat them.

If you look back at the team over the last couple of years, they’ve got some really impressive results against big teams, notably Portugal, drawing 1-1 away from home. They beat Russia.

Any team is capable of beating any team on any given day. It’s just a question of whether everything that clicks into place. There are so many dynamics influencing everything that happens in a game. You have 22 players on the pitch, you’ve a referee, you’ve got the environment, all of those things affect every time that the ball moves. So there’s an awful lot in football that you can’t control, but if you know things that you can influence, you’re obviously going to improve your chances of dictating the outcome of the game.

So how important a role has analysis played in helping Northern Ireland reach their first-ever Euros?

Source: Jordan Singleton/YouTube

It’s important. There are probably many facets to the level of analysis that’s been done during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and collectively it has contributed to team’s success, but Michael (O’Neill) is meticulous in his preparations — he and the players have done an unbelievable job to top that group and get out of it.

Tell us about general tactical trends in the game at the moment.

Brazil Soccer WCup Belgium US The 2014 World Cup saw a shift in the way top-level international football was being played. Source: Matt Dunham

If you look at the way the game has developed — look at the World Cup in 2010 and 2014. The World Cup in 2014 there were 171 goals scored — that matched the record in France in 1998.

When you do a complete analysis of the 2014 World Cup, it was probably the fastest World Cup ever in terms of transitions and counter-attacks. Counter-attacks and fast transitions were the most effective strategy for teams trying to score goals. There was a real shift in that tournament. In 2010, the trend was that teams used two holding midfielders. In 2014, that changed and most teams were using one holding midfielder with the additional midfielder higher up the pitch. When transitions happened, they were happening further up the pitch and closer to the opposition goal, and you had an extra player to create overloads.

If you look at the games in Brazil, 21 of the 64 games were won by a counter-attacking team that had less possession than the team they beat. 34 goals in that competition were scored directly from transitions to attack — that’s a fifth of all the goals that were scored in the tournament, scored from a team winning the ball back, counter-attacking straight away and scoring. You can’t ignore that — that’s the way the game has gone. That’s the way the game has evolved and where we really saw that first and foremost (was) the 2014 World Cup.

It was a real shift in how teams were attacking and how they were defending — there was a change. Northern Ireland or Leicester City or anyone like that haven’t done anything revolutionary. They’re just mirroring a change in the evolution that’s happening in the game all across the world.

You work as an analyst for Cork City and have coached in the Leinster Senior League as well. How difficult is it to combine all these roles?

John Caulfield celebrates 7/5/2016 Fallon also works for John Caulfield as Cork City's opposition analyst. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Last summer, I had to step back from the other roles and just focus on the Cork City and Northern Ireland ones, because I knew at that stage what was coming. It can be a challenge when things overlap. But it’s just important that I manage my time and that I’m organised in advance of the fixtures.

My calendar is dictated by the games, so I know when the games are going to be. It’s really how up to me to make sure I have my preparation work done and that everything is ready. Both managers (Michael O’Neill and John Caulfield) operate in really high-standard environments and I do like that. But at the same time, it’s very important that I continually match the standards that they set.

Will it be particularly difficult to combine the two roles over the next few weeks with both sides in action?

It’s really just going from game to game. Cork City don’t play again until 24 June (away to Shamrock Rovers) after the League of Ireland break, and there’s some preparation work in Portugal and obviously the Northern Ireland games, but I’m completely organised, everything that has to be done is done, and everything that needs to be done over the next three weeks will be done.

Tell us a bit about your background. You were a sports journalist before getting more directly involved in football.

Lisa Fallon welcomes Jim Gavin Lisa Fallon welcomes the then-new Dublin GAA senior football manager Jim Gavin in 2012 during her time as a sports reporter. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

I always wanted to work in football. That’s always been the absolute constant in my life. Before I was working in analysis, I was working as a radio sports reporter, so I’ve always been close to the game. Now I’m probably on the side of it that I always wanted to be on. When I’d be sitting up in the stands reporting on a game, I wanted to be at pitch level.

Now I have my A (coaching) licence, I’m planning to do my pro licence next year. It’s just a question of continuing to work and getting as much experience as I can. So sometimes life just takes you on a certain road and you have to go with it. I got into the job I have now through my job as a radio reporter.

Is it true you were interviewing Michael O’Neill when he was Shamrock Rovers manager and he took note of your analytical prowess, and your current role essentially emanated from that chance meeting?

Karl Palatu  with Gary Twigg O'Neill initially met Fallon prior to a Shamrock Rovers-Flora Tallin Champions League qualifier in 2011. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Yes. I interviewed him before Shamrock Rovers played Flora Tallinn in the Champions League. At the time, Rovers would have been used to having high percentages in the game in terms of possession — 70 to 80 percent possession of the ball, and in Europe that was never going to be the case.

He’d have maybe three or four days to prepare the team from being so used to having the ball to their roles and the system and the shape and the discipline without the ball. I was asking him how much of a challenge that was and I suppose there were a few other questions on a similar vein to that. He liked those questions and he asked me did I have a coaching background, I told him I did, and really that’s where it went from.

Could you tell us a bit about the motivational videos you do for the Northern Irish team?

Michael O’Neill contacted me in August 2012 explaining some of the challenges facing the squad and he gave me a free reign to help generate a sense of togetherness and identity. It was a great challenge.

Do you know if motivational videos are particularly common in the game?

I think other teams do use them. But you have to be careful — you couldn’t use them every week for a League of Ireland team because they’d lose their value. International football is probably perfect for them because you might be only making six a year and the team has been together for a few months. You’re making everything really relevant to that particular game, so I would film the training sessions, the matches, anything else that’s kind of relevant to the preparation for that game — you have to pick the right music.

And it’s a responsible thing to do. Michael (O’Neill) plays it at the end of his team meeting before the game, just before they leave for the stadium.

(Michael O’Neill) says that they’ve made a real difference, and that’s something I’m quite proud of that he would hold them in that high esteem and see that they’d have some sort of a contribution. He’s really into them, so it’s great to be able to feel that they’ve made even a small difference.

Have you become more comfortable with them the more regularly you make them?

Northern Ireland v Slovenia - International Friendly - Windsor Park Manager Michael O'Neill has helped guide Northern Ireland to their first-ever European Championships. Source: Niall Carson

The big challenge is to make sure they’re not the same. Everyone of them has to be different and have its own story, its own theme, it has to be relevant to the game they’re playing and what you need out of the game. They have to be really specific and not repetitive. But from talking to the manager and being at training sessions, you kind of get a feel for what’s needed anyway. You know where you are in the group and you know what happened last time.

Again, it’s like opposition analysis — you just have to understand what’s needed. Everything has to be relevant.

Some people in football, often traditionalists, tend to be dismissive about the concept of having an opposition analyst and insist that football is ‘a simple game,’ ‘the importance of tactics is exaggerated’ et cetera. Do you encounter this attitude often?

At the top level of the game, opposition analysis is important and there’s no denying it. It would be negligent in this day and age not to have your homework done, particularly on your opposition at the elite level.

But you do have to strike the right balance. It can’t be all about the opposition. It has to be about your own team too. So I think the biggest challenge in terms of opposition analysis is not whether you do it or not, it’s finding the balance of how much of it you do and what’s right for your team. I think everyone at the elite level of the game is doing some sort of elite analysis.

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No professional manager worth their salt is going to go into a game blind.

Unfortunately, football is still considered by some as purely ‘a man’s game’. Have you ever encountered any difficulty as a woman in what is a predominantly male environment?

Soccer - UEFA European Women's Championship 2005 - Group B - Germany v France - Halliwell Jones Stadium Former France international Corinne Diacre now coaches the Clermont Foot men's team in Ligue 2. Source: EMPICS Sport

I’d be lying if I say it wasn’t a challenge because it is a challenge. My role, if I was a man, it would still be a challenge. The truth is men’s football is ‘a man’s game’. Women’s football is ‘a woman’s game’. But that’s not to say that women can’t work in men’s football and men can’t work in women’s football. It’s not like that anymore and I’m proof of that. And there are other women out there working in football — look at Corinne Diacre, who manages Clermont Foot in the French Ligue 2.

The principles of the game are the same regardless of who’s playing. My challenge is just to meet the standard of the managers that employ me. You have to face the challenges of the standard that you’re working at, and I just happen to be working in professional football.

My challenge is to meet the standards that are required for me to stay in my job — being a woman is irrelevant, because anyone who would be in my job would have to live up to that standard regardless.

How much football would you roughly watch on average on a weekly basis?

A large portion of my week involves watching football, it has to — I’d fall off the pace if I didn’t (watch it). It is important to have some down time and I do try to switch off, but I find if I say ‘right, I’m going to chill out this evening as all my work is done,’ then I’ll sit down to watch the TV and there’s a match on, invariably I end up watching the match. And that’s my chill-out time.

It’s a funny one because sometimes it doesn’t feel like work. If everything’s done and there’s no match on the TV, I might go for a walk or I might take in a Leinster Senior League game, or I might go and watch a kids’ match. I’m probably still watching football, it doesn’t necessarily have to be work.

What’s the best thing and the worst thing about your job?

The best thing is when you see your team scoring as a result of some analysis or the other team not scoring as a result of some analysis. They’re the moments I love. But they’re very private moments — no one outside the group ever really knows.

I can see it in the game, and it’s something that we might have worked on. You’re never going to say it, but they’re absolutely 100% my favourite moments in the game when you see something work.

The worst thing? It’s probably not being there. Because often when the team is playing, or when the best moments in a season happens, I’m usually in a different ground watching another team. So when your team scores a really important goal, and something like that happens, and there’s that elation, you’re quite often not there for it, because somebody has to be somewhere else watching for what’s coming up, and that’s the role of the opposition analyst.

For me, that’s definitely the hardest part, it’s a natural thing to want to be there. That’s why we all love football — to be there in those moments. And it’s really important that you’re not.

You’ve spoken in the past about your frustration about the manner in which young kids in Ireland are being coached in football. Where are we going wrong in your opinion?

I think kids’ football has become too focused on winning and not enough on teaching them how to actually play. They need to know how to play a game before you can expect them to fully understand how to win one.

The fun has probably gone out of it and there’s too much focus on being good enough and not being good enough. I also think there are too many agendas and there is too much politics in kids’ football, and another big issue is that we don’t have enough top-level coaches working at grassroots level.

You could do a 10-page interview on it — it’s a bottomless pit really. There are so many things and everyone has an opinion on it, so it’s hard to know where to start with it.

Eamon Dunphy among others has lamented the absence of street football in Ireland now that it’s no longer safe to play in these sort of areas. Do you think that’s another key issue?

Eamon Dunphy Eamon Dunphy and others have lamented the considerable decrease of 'street footballers' in recent years. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

If you think of any moment of magic, any game that’s won or lost, not within a system or a pre-worked off phase or a set piece, they’re produced by a player who has the ability to think about doing something and executing it and doing it. It’s within their brain. Where did they learn that creativity?

When you go to watch kids’ football and training sessions, it’s all structured, it’s all drills. They’re being told what to do. The art of one-v-one is possibly being coached out of the game — that ability to just go and take someone on.

When you play on the streets, that’s all you do. It’s loads and loads of one-v-ones. When you’re playing on the streets, certainly when I was a kid, you were never looking to pass or offer support behind the ball, or make a penetrative run. Instead, it was ‘take them on and could you score’. I do think that essence is probably gone from countries like ourselves and other European countries. And I just think sometimes less is more (with regard to coaching).

Have you thought about your future ambitions? Would you like to manage a team full-time one day?

At the moment, my ambitions are just to keep focused on the roles that I have and to do my pro-licence. I took a break from coaching in the Leinster Senior League this season because of the Euros and stuff like that. I’ve had some contact about getting involved again, but it has to be the right fit. Not just for me, but for the club as well, because I have to factor in the work that I do for Cork City and Northern Ireland, and those two roles are really important to me.

I’m only 39, so I probably still have plenty of football years left in me. I wouldn’t rule anything in or out, but I am really enjoying the roles that I have at the moment. I am quite fortunate in terms of being given the opportunity to be working at this level of the game.

I’ve worked for Michael O’Neill now since 2011 and for John Caulfield since around the same time. To have the opportunity to work at this level and get the experience I’m getting is not something you take lightly. You have to sometimes appreciate the moment that you’re in and it’s important sometimes to do that.

But football can change, as we all know, very quickly, and you have to sometimes appreciate the moment that you’re in rather than looking ahead.

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