From PC to Pan ... football computer games inspired new manager of Lewes FC Women

Fran Alonso ... from virtual manager to actual manager
Fran Alonso ... from virtual manager to actual manager

Computer games get a lot of bad press, but they could have sparked a revolution at one of Britain’s most forward-looking football clubs.

It was a love of football computer games that first inspired the new manager of Lewes FC Women to pursue the career in football that is now focussed on getting Lewes to the next level.

Growing up, Fran Alonso was hooked on playing football games on his PC. He said: “I would play ‘PC Futbol’, the Spanish version of ‘Football Manager’, every weekend.

“I would start on Friday and finish on Saturday evening; that’s more than 24 hours spent on screen. I was obsessed like lots of kids, but instead of using virtual currency to buy players, I played with real money. My friends and I would pay transfer fees of up to 10 Euros. It was all very exciting.”

Fran, 42, is still passionate about football and has now been a coach and manager for more than 15 years. In this time, he has worked with some of the best teams in the UK, including Premier League clubs Southampton and Everton. As well as, training their men’s teams, he has coached Southampton Women and Everton Ladies too. He has worked with influential football managers, such as the current Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino and top players like Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott.

But how did this young gamer make the transformation from virtual manager to actual manager?

Fran said hard work and determination helped him get there but it was a massive journey and he had to “completely change his life to follow his dream”.

Francisco Javier Alonso Lopez was born in Madrid on June 13 1976. He started playing football practically as soon as he could walk and spent his teens coaching football. When he wasn’t pitch-side, he was indoors on his PC.

Throughout his teenage years, he dreamt of becoming a real football manager but was told this was “unrealistic and stupid”, so he trained to work in local government instead.

His dad was delighted that his son had opted for a steady job and a secure future, but Fran felt unfulfilled in this role as he wasn’t living his dream and “wasn’t making a difference or changing lives”.

He lived for the evenings when he would go out and coach football. During these sessions he would try to persuade his young charges to develop their game and take football seriously so they could live the kind of life he wanted.

During one such coaching session, Fran made a decision to change his career after some teenage boys came to see him at the end of training. They told him: “You must be a manager because you have inspired us so much”. It was a decisive moment for the 20 year-old and he thought there might be something in what they said. Later that evening he decided to pack in his government job and follow his dream

His mum supported Fran’s decision but others were not so convinced. Despite what anyone else thought, Fran had now decided that his destiny was to become a football manager, “not for the money but to change lives”.

He wasn’t prepared to settle for an easy life but wanted to aim higher: “Being realistic is not oxygen for me. I had a dream of becoming a Premier League manager and was passionate about this goal. Even if I failed I knew I would enjoy the process.”

Francisco left for England and made his way to Bournemouth because he had a friend there. At this point he couldn’t speak English, didn’t have a job and no-one could pronounce his name so he became simply ‘Fran’. However, with his friend’s help, who translated at job interviews, he managed to get a couple of cleaning jobs because he was “very good at cleaning”.

When he wasn’t cleaning, he studied English intensively and worked as a volunteer and a football coach for Bournemouth Electric Under-15s. It was a difficult time because he started work early and finished late. He said: “It was hard. I worked from five in the morning to midnight most days. I was exhausted and didn’t have a car so I would cycle from place to place, crying with exhaustion in the rain. It was tough but I got through thanks to my determination and work ethic.”

Despite such a tough start, things started to pick up for Fran. His English improved and he was offered an elite coaching position and the company started to grow. However, the company was a victim of its own success and was sold off for a profit. Fran lost his job and had to start again.

He decided he needed “to go bigger” for the next job and applied to Southampton Football Club’s official charity, the Saints Foundation. The Foundation ran school clubs and a school of excellence for eight- to 14 year-olds and he got a job there as a football coach. At this time, he also worked as a referee for the Hampshire FA, a fitness instructor and a football coach at the sports centre where he had previously been a cleaner. Word soon spread about his enthusiasm, sense of humour and “unbelievable work ethic”.

In 2012 Fran got his first big break when Southampton signed Uruguay International Gaston Ramirez. According to Fran, Ramirez “couldn’t speak a word of English”, so the club offered Fran a short contract to translate for the new star and offer specialist coaching in Spanish. This was a gamble for Fran because he had to give up all his other jobs for the sake of a three-month contract, but, being Fran, he didn’t think twice and jumped at the opportunity as he knew this would bring him closer to his dreams.

Southampton, which was managed by Nigel Adkins at that time, were promoted to the Premier League. Much to the surprise of fans, Adkins was sacked, and replaced by Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino. Mauricio and Fran, both native Spanish speakers, hit it off and Fran was swiftly offered a place in Mauricio’s technical staff. The gamble had paid off.

Fran became the first technical support coach to help with the men’s training sessions. Under Pochettino’s leadership, and with Fran’s help, the team moved up the Premier League and won a place in the Europa League. Fran said he learnt a lot from Pochettino as he was, “a world class man-manager and master tactician”.

In 2014 Ronald Koeman became the new Southampton manager and Fran, who had developed a real interest in women’s football by this time, asked if he could use his free Sundays to help develop the women’s team. Fran described hearing a lot of negative comments in his career about women’s football and thought they were massively unfair: “I had heard a lot of men say that women’s football was not real football.

“They also said that if the players wore short skirts they would probably get more spectators, and there were even worse comments that I can’t even repeat. These kind of comments made me want to prove those guys wrong!”

Fran continued to work for Southampton under Ronald Koeman, as well as volunteering at Southampton Women. Under Koeman, Southampton had two fantastic seasons and the team managed once again to reach the Europa League. Then Koeman announced he was going to join Everton and Fran followed the Dutchman and joined Everton as Assistant Coach.

After a season and a half at Everton and again reaching the Europa League in their first season at the club, Koeman was sacked. Fran stayed on at Everton for eight more months, until the end of the season, under David Unsworth and then under former England manager Sam Allardyce.

Fran was considering what do next when he got wind of the vacancy at Lewes FC Women. He decided to apply for the manager’s job at Lewes FC Women because he was really impressed by the club’s equality campaign and passionate about women’s football.

He had also come down to watch Lewes take on Manchester United Women in December and had been really encouraged by the players’ performance and the atmosphere at the club. He also liked the way that the club was owned by around 1,600 owners and was run on very democratic lines.

He said: “The type of set-up matched my ambitions and we connected straight away.”

He wanted to work at Lewes because he could see that the team had potential: “The players are entering a brand new world and are still adjusting to the FA Women’s Championship. To improve they must be brave, take more risks and come to every training session. It will take time for them to get used to the new regime but I would like them to start dominating the game, especially as there is no risk of relegation this season, and they really are good enough to stay in this league, but this gives them the chance to be even better and focus on their playing.”

Fran faces his first home game at The Dripping Pan on Sunday, January 27. He has already introduced some new tactics and is certain that visitors to the London Bees match will definitely see changes: “They will see a team that is trying to play attacking football and they will be taking more risks: their priority will be to attack, not to defend and they will be pressing higher.

“We are in a developing phase, we may not win, but fans will be able to see a change in our approach.

“I expect the team to play with a smile on their face and to enjoy the process, but work really hard too. Hopefully we will see a successful team in terms of goals and a successful start to the journey. I believe it will be much more exciting, but of course that is just my opinion. Why don’t you come and see for yourself?”

The encounter will give spectators the opportunity to assess the women’s game for themselves and to meet the manager who followed his dream; a dream that has led him from his PC to the Pan. It may also reassure anxious parents that computer games are not always such a waste of time!