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From radio reporter to head coach - the rise of Dubliner Lisa Fallon

The new London City Lionesses boss on working under Jim Gavin, breaking barriers in football and the start of a new adventure in England.

Lisa Fallon was this week announced as the new head coach of London City Lionesses.
Lisa Fallon was this week announced as the new head coach of London City Lionesses.
Image: DOUG MINIHANE

THERE ARE NOT many Irish coaches who boast as impressive a CV as Lisa Fallon.

An ex-footballer and sports science graduate who had stints at Gillingham and Southampton before injury cut short her playing career, coaching had long been a passion, having taken charge of her first team around the age of 14.

In 2013, she became the first woman to manage a men’s team in Ireland — amateur side Lakelands FC — while she also had a stint coaching at Sheriff YC.

Though coaching was always her top priority, in these early years, she also worked as a sports reporter for 98FM and in more recent times, she has been involved with a Northern Ireland side that reached the last 16 of the Euros, a Cork City team that did the double and Jim Gavin’s history-making Dublin GAA side.

In that time, the Uefa Pro Licence holder has also emerged as a well-regarded pundit in RTÉ’s soccer coverage, and currently plans to continue with this role when her schedule allows it.

Fallon left her position as first-team coach at Cork City last year to take up a role as game analysis and strategy coach at a Chelsea team that were a point behind Women’s Super League leaders Man City with a game in hand before the coronavirus pandemic hit and the season was ultimately cancelled.

On Wednesday, she was announced as the new head coach of London City Lionesses. An independent breakaway club from Millwall Lionesses, the team were only founded in May 2019 and sat fourth in the Championship before the campaign came to a premature end.

It’s been quite a journey already for the Dubliner, who is currently the only Republic of Ireland-born head coach working in the top two divisions of women’s or men’s football in England. She describes this latest appointment as “a seminal moment in my career,” while club chairwoman Diane Culligan hailed her “excellent pedigree in football”.

She will work alongside another acclaimed coach. Melissa Phillips spent five years as Women’s Team Assistant Coach at the University of Pennsylvania – one of Penn’s most successful in their history — and joins as the Lionesses’ number two.

Once I was aware of the opportunity, and I had a conversation with Diane and the board, it was something that was certainly of interest,” Fallon tells The42. “During those conversations, dots seemed to connect and I certainly could relate to the vision and the ambition that the club have.

“Somewhere in my gut, it just felt like it was a really good move and the timing felt right. When I spoke to my family, everyone was really supportive and felt it was a good move. Once those boxes were all ticked, it just made sense to give it a go.”

The Lionesses are a rare example of a high-profile English women’s club not affiliated with a men’s team. Writing in The Guardian last year, Suzanne Wrack also noted: “Every player is full-time and they have a Nike custom kit, access to psychologists and nutritionists, Triple S communications (who work with Toni Duggan, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Southgate among others) run their PR and every player has private medical care.”

lisa-fallon-welcomes-jim-gavin Fallon pictured with Jim Gavin in 2012. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Fallon is among those excited by the club’s potential.

“You don’t know what the sky is, that’s the beauty of professional sport,” she explains. “Every year, you see new times, you see new world records, you see faster fitness times, players are covering more ground, that’s the great thing about human performance, it seems to be infinite in terms of its ability to progress.

“I just see working with this team as being no different. It’s a young club. The board have really good vision.

“What really excites me is the opportunity to build something. I’ve spoken to all the players and they’re a really good group. I’m genuinely excited to work with them and everybody at the club.

“It’s an exciting project and I’m really interested to see how far we can go with it and what we can do.

“I want it to be a team that the supporters enjoy watching and they feel passionate about and come out in numbers to support.”

From Lakelands to Dublin GAA, Fallon says every step she has taken has been an invaluable one.

“Every single environment is a really important part of the journey, because each environment challenges you in a different way and asks different questions of you.”

And as a rare enough example of someone who has coached at a high level in both men’s and women’s football, does she see much difference between these two entities?

“The staple of the set-up and how you prepare your team is the same. That level of professionalism, the work that goes in behind the scenes for each training session, all of those core elements of professional football are exactly the same when you’re at that level of professional sport.

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“What’s different is the people — in every environment, the people are different. So, have there been subtle differences working in men’s and women’s football? Yes, I certainly have found that. The different environments require you to draw on different skill-sets, because they’re different groups of players. 

That [difference] stretches not just to personnel and personalities, it relates to physiology. You can’t treat a female athlete the same way you would a male athlete, because they’re physiologically different and it’s very important that you do treat both differently.”

Fallon has certainly benefited from the variety of roles she has undertaken, working with some of the most renowned names in Irish sport. One such example was Jim Gavin, with the Lucan native opting to step away from her Northern Ireland role to combine jobs with Cork City and Dublin GAA in 2018.

“Jim is an incredible manager. I learned so much from him and the environment he created, but also the players and the rest of the coaching staff — Jim, Michael [O'Neill], John [Caulfield], Aaron Callaghan [Fallon also had a stint as Head of Player Development & Recruitment at Bohs], there are so many great managers that I’ve had an opportunity to work with and you learn from everybody. Everybody has their own unique way of doing things. There’s also a lot of similarities, I’ve found, but subtle differences too.” 

Lisa Fallon 4 Fallon spent six seasons at Cork City as part of the coaching set-up. Source: Peadar O'Sullivan

And is there a specific trait the renowned likes of Michael O’Neill and Gavin share?

“Attention to detail and level of preparation, for sure. It’s uncompromising. But when you’re at that level of the game, that’s a given. You can’t compromise on preparation, preparation is everything. But all of them had different personalities and thought processes, and what I got most out of it was having to adapt to work with each manager and understand how they saw the game, so that I could bring value to their set-ups.”

Having broken down barriers for women’s coaches in Ireland, Fallon now faces a different challenge, as she attempts to navigate the precarious world of football management in England. Her predecessor, Chris Phillips, departed after just six games, with the club fourth in the Championship, and head of player development John Bayer was in charge on an interim basis prior to the 43-year-old coming onboard.

Yet having largely worked as an opposition analyst and first-team coach in recent years, Fallon is optimistic she can handle the added challenges that a head-coach role brings.

From being part of management teams, you have an element of managerial responsibility as part of your function within that group. I’m just going to be true to myself, true to who I am. I have my ideas about what I want to bring to the table, but I think it will be consistent with who I’ve been all along. It’s just a slightly different role, but ultimately the function remains the same — that’s to prepare the players as best as possible, so that they can go out and perform to their maximum. That fundamental part of it just doesn’t change and it’s the same with staff. I want to make sure I support the staff as well as I can, so that everything comes together for us when we go out to play a match.” 

Her coaching career has continued on an upward trajectory essentially since dreaming of this path as a kid, when she was inspired by the little-known late-1980s TV show ‘The Manageress.’ Fallon, though, is keen to credit the contribution of others in her success story.

“Unless you get the opportunities, you can’t show what you can do and challenge yourself in different environments. The biggest factor for me has been the people that have given me opportunities.”

michael-oneill After being impressed with Fallon's intelligent questions during an interview, Michael O'Neill subsequently hired her to be on the backroom staff with Northern Ireland. Source: Presseye/William Cherry/INPHO

She plans to commute between her home in Dublin and London for this new job and emphasises the importance of family as a new chapter unfolds.

“[The biggest challenge is] to just keeping going, giving my best, giving as much as I can. That’s all I can do and all I’ve ever tried to do. I just want to be someone that my family and kids are proud of, and to justify the investment that other people have put in my career development.

Also, it’s very important that I, as a coach now, have that opportunity to give other people opportunities and help to develop them. That’s a real privilege. It’s not something I’ll take lightly at all.”

And having made significant strides in a traditionally male-dominated sport, does she have any words of advice for other women aiming to follow suit?

“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Surround yourself with really good people and people who believe in you and want you to push on.

“I think we can get hung up on the fact that it’s female or male — at the end of the day, it’s just about doing the job. If you get an opportunity, just focus on that, not the sideshows. 

“I can only speak from my experience, but the opportunities have come and I believe that they will continue to come.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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