What do Wayne Rooney, Romelu Lukaku and the Lewes FC Women’s team have in common? They’ve all been coached by Fran Alonso. The 42 year-old has swapped life in the Premier League to take up a managerial role at Lewes FC who are part of the FA Women’s Championship, and are the only club in the world to pay their male and female players the same wages. Prior to the first game of his tenure, we sat down and spoke with Fran about his ambitions, experiences and philosophies.
The East Sussex club find themselves currently sitting 9th in the FA Women’s Championship, alongside teams such as Tottenham, Manchester United and Leicester. Whilst simultaneously competing with such prestigious teams, Lewes FC have also been pioneering the push for equality in football, through their campaign Equality FC which has become known across the country. The campaign supports the equal pay of both their men’s team and their women’s team, making them the only club in the world to do this. So much so, it was a major factor in Fran’s decision to join the club.
The Spaniard said, “I’ve been following Lewes for two years now and when I first heard of Lewes it was because of Equality FC campaign they ran, which for me is great to see. I’ve been in women’s football for similar reasons for 5 years volunteering alongside my work in the Premier League. Whilst I was volunteering, I was almost doing two full time jobs, just because I have a real passion for women’s football. I heard some comments at the time that I didn’t like and I wanted to put everything I could to help and share my knowledge from the men’s game into the women’s game.”
“When the opportunity came I had a chat with the chairman and a couple of the board members and when they told me the ambitions they had for the club, and the views how they see this club in the near future and the long term future I knew straight away that it was the club for me. So although at the moment its second tier of Women’s football, the ambitions of the club match my own ambitions and I’m very happy to be here.”
Fran’s coaching history has seen him work alongside Mauricio Pochettino during his time at Southampton, and Ronald Koeman when the Dutchman was in charge of Everton. During his time at these clubs, not only was Fran involved in training the first team squads, but he undertook voluntary work for the Women’s teams at these clubs.
“At that time I had to combine two full time jobs. So I was at the training ground until 6 or 7 at Southampton and Everton, and then when I got home I was working on the Women’s team, preparing training sessions doing the training sessions and preparing for games.”
“I do what I love so for me there is no difference, the only difference is that I can now focus on one team, so hopefully this will be even better for me as all my energy and effort can go towards Lewes”.
It was clear to me that Fran was a man of ambition and someone who is confident in not only his own managerial ability, but also the ability of his players, who have struggled to this season in the FA Women’s Championship. The side had failed to win in their previous 8 games prior to Alonso’s appointment and at the time of the interview. Since then, Lewes have managed to pick up important victories against Millwall Lionesses and Crystal Palace.
“With one draw and seven defeats, it’s tough. On players mind, on players confidence and player self esteem. So when we came here the first thing was to make them believe they are good enough, because they are. We are working in a very different way to how they worked previously so it takes time.”
“For the way we play some players are perfect, some players are not as perfect. So it will take time to get the team playing how we want and with the certain individuals that we want.”
“I think the reaction from the girls has been very very positive, of course the big test is the game and then we will see how quickly they are assimilating our concepts, our philosophy, our playing style which is very detailed.”
Without wishing to reveal too much of Lewes’s game plan for the season, I wanted to get an understanding of the style of play Fran was aiming to implement.
“Our playing style is centred around positional play, as we like to have the ball most of time. We are not obsessed with possession, but we are obsessed with not wanting the give the ball away because when we give the ball away then we have to defend. And sometimes you have to sprint back 80 metres and we don’t want to do that.”
Alonso made it clear that his goal was to have the side to be comfortable in possession and playing attacking football, stating that “if I have a player in one position who is very good at defending but not very good at attacking, and another one that is very good at attacking but not good at defending, then we will pick the player who is better at attacking. Because we aim to have the ball most of the time, of course the opposition might be better and we will have to do some defending, that’s football.”
We spoke more about how players have to prove to him that they deserve to be a part of the team and that every player has a blank slate. It became apparent how much of an impact Pochettino and Koeman had on his tactical perspective. Alonso worked with the Argentine before his switch to North London in 2014, and stayed at the club through Koeman’s tenure and stayed with the Dutchman during his time at Goodison Park.
“Especially these two guys, they changed my life coaching wise. With Pochettino I had the opportunity to go do some meetings with him as a translator, so I was in one on one meetings. I got to see for a few players how he changed their career, you just need to see the stats. When Pochettino came to Southampton, how many international players did they have? 2? And when they left how many did they have? About 7 or 8. So he changed the life of so many players.”
“And then Ronald Koeman, with all his playing career at Barcelona with Johan Cruyff, one of the best managers ever who brought this positional play to Spain and created Barcelona’s “Dream Team”, so obviously Ronald knows this perfectly because he was first playing and then coaching with them.”
“The way I work and my training methodology is nothing to do with the way they work. But of course I took so many concepts and in terms of man management, they are two of the best I have ever seen. They are so good.”
At the time of the interview, a whirlwind of rumours began to emerge following Mourinho’s departure from Manchester United, with Alonso’s former colleague Pochettino being heavily rumoured to succeed him. One of Fran’s former players, Wayne Rooney, recently reinstated his belief that Pochettino should one day be stood in the dugout at Old Trafford, and it seems that Alonso agrees that the Argentine is fit to manage any club in the world.
“I have no doubt that Mauricio Pochettino is one of the greatest managers in the world. I have no doubts about that. That means he should be managing one of the best teams in the world. If Tottenham are going to get there with him, that’s a possibility because you can see Tottenham consistently are in the highest positions in the Premier League, with a lower budget than other teams so you can see the impact he’s making there. If Mauricio is given the chance at another club, I know that he will do well.”
To get an understanding on why these two coaches were so significant in his coaching development, Fran spoke more on the necessary characteristics that a great manager should have. “It’s a question that every single manager will answer in a different way, for me what might make a good manager, might be bad for another manager. In my opinion, I like the players to trust me, I am very enthusiastic, I care so much about them, I’d like them to see me as an inspiration as my best skill is my work ethic. Everyday I work so, so hard, as hard as I possibly can. Some players can see that, and they react the same way.”
“Tactical knowledge is important, but for me what’s more important is the way you teach the game. If you can make the complicated things simple for players to understand, if your training helps to pass the message to the players, without needing to stop and explain, stopping the player’s intensity”.
“For me if players switch off in training, they switch off in games too. So how you are able to pass the message through exercise on the pitch, to teach not only a philosophy of play but also a playing style, so we spend hours and hours here, as all the coaches are planning sessions to get the best out of our players.”
“That for me makes a great manager, someone who is able to make the difficult things easy for players to understand”.