Lisa Fallon: I heard him say: ‘This lot turned up with some f**king bird managing them!’
The only female coach working in men’s pro football in Ireland on her battle for acceptance
Lisa Fallon celebrates with Mark McNulty and Achille Campion after Cork City’s victory over Dundalk in the 2017 FAI Cup Final at the Aviva stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
“It’s normal for me,” Lisa Fallon says as she reflects on her extraordinary career in men’s football. “In Cork City I’m completely normalised. The lads don’t make any exceptions for me. I don’t make any for them. I’m just a football coach.”
Yet Fallon has made history as the only female coach working in men’s professional football in Ireland. We need two hours to scrape the surface of her breakthrough before, on a snowy afternoon in Cork, we head for the ground where she is a first-team coach in the League of Ireland Premier Division. The new season begins this weekend with last year’s champions, Dundalk, playing the runners-up, Cork City. Fallon will take her place in Cork’s dugout after working her way up from a previous role as opposition analyst.
It is a milestone for women in football – and another step forward for Fallon on a journey which might see her become the first female manager of a professional men’s team in Ireland or England.
I have been lucky enough to interview Johan Cruyff in Amsterdam and to spend an afternoon with Pep Guardiola talking about football in London. Jürgen Klopp was a riot on the two occasions I interviewed him, in Dortmund and Liverpool, but I am as engrossed when the 42-year-old Fallon talks about football. Whether addressing her 12 years in men’s football, the multiple ways of playing 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 or the lessons she learned during qualifying campaigns for one European Championship and two World Cup for Northern Ireland, when she worked as an analyst for Michael O’Neill, Fallon is riveting company.
“John Caulfield is Cork’s manager,” she explains. “His assistant is John Cotter while Liam Kearney and I are first team coaches. This is my sixth season at Cork, looking after opposition analysis, and I’ve kept this role while moving into first-team coaching. I was happy doing opposition analysis, looking at how we set up against teams, and coming up with ideas to expose their weaknesses and nullify their strengths. But I love doing more on the pitch.”
If she were a man, Fallon’s CV, especially at international level where she helped Northern Ireland qualify for Euro 2016, would have earned her a coaching role at many clubs years ago. Yet it needed Cork City’s open-minded approach to help Fallon break the gender barrier. Only 20 per cent of coaches in women’s football are female. In men’s football, isolated female coaches are sometimes asked if they offer oral sex as well as tactical insights or, in the case of Imke Wübbenhorst, if she should wear a siren so her players can pull on their shorts before she enters the dressing room.
Wübbenhorst, who coaches BV Cloppenburg in the fifth tier of German football, responded coolly. “Of course not. I’m a professional. I pick my players based on penis size.”
Fallon and I enjoy Wübbenhorst’s reaction to a dumb reporter but women in football have to endure ridiculous stupidity. “Because it wasn’t easy,” Fallon admits, “nothing fazes me. I’ve heard it all before. You can’t take responsibility for what people say. But you can take responsibility for how you allow it to impact on you.”
Instead of stewing over insults, Fallon gained her Uefa A coaching badge before, last year, completing her Pro Licence. She has analysed opposition teams as exalted as Germany, who were in the same group as Northern Ireland at Euro 2016, and coached tough amateur clubs such as Sheriff YC, for whom she is currently the assistant manager in Dublin. Fallon stresses her positive interaction with these diverse footballers.
“I’m in the dressing room and at team meetings and players do not bat an eyelid. They engage with me, want my opinion and it’s great. You’d think if there was going to be resistance it would come from within: ‘Ah, we don’t want a woman.’ But if you bring value they want you there. Most of my challenges were comments from other managers who would say something that make you go: ‘Really?’
“There’d be references to all sorts or ‘get your tits out for the lads’ from the crowd. At Lakelands [another amateur men’s club she managed] an opposition manager’s door was slightly open. I heard him say: ‘This lot turned up with some fucking bird managing them!’ and they burst out laughing. I didn’t discuss that with my lads. I was like: ‘Guys, the pitch is narrower than I thought. I know we worked on overlapping. But if we can’t get the overlaps in, we’ll underlap them instead.’ It’s important that people who have given me opportunities can rely on me to deliver on match day and not be affected by snide comments.
“If I got a euro every time I was asked if I was the physio I could retire. There’s nothing wrong with being a physio – but, in a tracksuit, it’s like you couldn’t be in any capacity other than physiotherapy. That can work to your advantage. I was scouting in Europe for a Europa League fixture. I went to the club and was introduced to their manager. He said: ‘Ah, Miss Fallon, you must be the travel agent?’ I said: ‘Is it OK if I look at the pitch.’ He goes: ‘Of course, don’t mind us, we’re training.’ They were practising their set-pieces and so I utilised that knowledge.”
Fallon shrugs in amusement. “A football dressing room is a unique culture. It’s a tough environment – for lads too. But I have a responsibility to educate them. If they want to have banter, no problem. I established my red lines. If someone passes a funny comment that’s good. But if it’s close to the bone, I give them a look. I give guidelines without standing on a pedestal.
“It’s also an education for me. I couldn’t pick up the phone to another woman and say: ‘How was it for you?’ There’s no precedent. But I went in quietly, with no pressure from the managers who appointed me, and learned. I’ve been in dressing rooms and know what it’s like to be 2-0 down. I know what it’s like when jobs are on the line and you’re in a relegation battle. I know what it’s like when you’re one result from a league and cup double.”
Fallon has been steeped in football for 38 years – since she was a four-year-old running along the touchline with her grandfather who coached a local team. Her mother worked in a hotel in Lucan where the Irish team stayed and 12-year-old Lisa was awe-struck to meet Frank Stapleton and Ronnie Whelan. But professional football seemed beyond her: “I was gutted I wasn’t a boy because I couldn’t have those opportunities.”
She managed her first girls’ team aged 14 and played women’s football in England for Southampton and Gillingham. After injury ended her playing days, she became a reporter. “Radio reporting helped because you portray a picture to somebody who can’t see what you can. You have 40 seconds to give the right details while creating an atmosphere. You have to make good decisions, quickly, under pressure. I loved reporting – but it was never enough.”
As a reporter, Fallon’s tactical acumen was obvious. Michael O’Neill, then manager Shamrock Rovers, offered her work after being impressed by her incisive questions.
O’Neill’s team dominated possession in the League of Ireland and Fallon wondered, before a Champions League qualifier in Estonia, how they would adapt to having much less of the ball and, as Fallon says, “how would he organise their work rate, shape and discipline when they had so little time and had to travel? I asked him about a domestic winning run being affected by a European defeat. I thought they were obvious but, afterwards, he said: ‘Phew, where did those questions come from?’”
O’Neill invited Fallon to join Shamrock Rovers women’s coaching team the following day – and he allowed her to attend his training sessions and be on the bus before European games. “I’ll never forget going to White Hart Lane to play Spurs [in 2011]. The silence and that feeling of ‘God, what are we facing here?’ Rovers scored first but lost 3-1. I loved talking afterwards to Stephen Rice, who scored, and he said: ‘I’m disappointed we didn’t get something out of the game.’ That felt like real progress for our league.
“When Michael got the Northern Ireland job he talked to me in August 2012 about making motivational videos. I went to the Falls Road and to Sandy Row and filmed both places. It represented where some players grew up, the struggles they had. I needed to capture a national identity as that was my remit. What Michael’s done with Northern Ireland is amazing. But these were early days and I showed the imagery, showed the players training together. The underlying message was them united as a group. I sent it to Michael and I saw he’d downloaded it. I was shaking, thinking: ‘What have I done?’ But when he rang me he said: ‘You’ve nailed it. I’ll show it to them before we play Russia.”
She soon became an analyst for O’Neill but now, after five years part-time work with Northern Ireland, she wants to concentrate on her primary role at Cork City. She had also been given a job by Caulfield, her manager at Cork, after interviewing him – just as she was offered GAA analysis work by Dublin after another radio interview.
Fallon’s expanded role at Cork allows her to showcase her football knowledge in training and during matches. “I don’t see it as breaking ceilings,” she says. “I see it as my job. You have to be authentic. I’m not going to shy away from being a woman. But I’m not going to promote the fact I’m a woman. It doesn’t say you’re a female Uefa Pro Licence coach. It just says Uefa Pro Licence coach.”
Will we eventually reach a point where a female coach is accepted in the same way as a woman doctor? “I hope so. I had a male midwife. He was brilliant. He was the only male midwife in Ireland, and I was the only female professional football coach.”
Fallon has a 17-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son and, as she yearns for more change in gender perceptions, she smiles. “We’re getting there. Being female hasn’t prevented me from getting where I am now. Has it been tougher than if I had been male? Probably. You have to know more than you might need – because you stand out as female. But, once people see you as just a coach, it becomes normal. I have my challenging days but very little beats winning or seeing the lads lift a trophy. I feel ready for whatever comes my way.”