Millwall Lionesses, one of the oldest women’s football clubs almost folded last season due to financial difficulties. But now with a new board and coaching team a new era beckons. We caught up with the man in the driving seat Pedro Martinez Losa.

“When I was 5 I had a John Barnes t-shirt and also a Lothar Matthaus one which was unusual for a Spanish boy.”

Pedro Martinez Losa reflects on what inspired and motivated him as a boy. When you look at what he has achieved so far in his career which has seen him win three La Liga titles in a row, one Copa de la Reina, a Continental Cup, and an FA Cup final at Wembley, plus a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) regular-season shield as assistant coach and recognition coach of the year recognitions from the Spanish FA, it’s clear the passion he has for the game.

 

“Yes, I had a few youth coaches who inspired me including the one who gave me my first opportunity at Athletico (Madrid). I had a few role models as a player but it was more the coaches that guided and inspired me to the place I am now that were important to me.”

Although Losa loved the game, being involved and managing in women’s football was not what he had planned in his early career.

“Curiously, when I was still a player, I became the manager of the women’s team in my local town because the board had fired the coach and I became the manager for the last five games of the season. We did well and then I had a call from the President of Pozuelo Football Club in Madrid, which was where I was living at the time, to say that a new professional league had been started and they had decided to enter a team in the league and although they had a coach already, he wanted me to coach the team. I did refuse a number of times but in the January, he convinced me to take the job. So, it all started from there, followed by six years at Rayo Vallecano and then Arsenal. I always say that I didn’t choose the women’s game – it chose me because I found a way to go to the elite level which is where I had wanted to be but it was via that route.”

Having worked in Spain, USA and England Losa has seen first-hand the differences in women’s football and the investment it takes to create opportunities, develop players and for the women’s game to be taken seriously.

“They are obviously very different. Socially and from a playing perspective, it is more recognised in the US where traditionally the US national team has been the most successful in history with players like Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambach. Families will invest in training and being in academies to develop as players. This is the crazy reality if you compare the US with Europe – in Spain where it has been evolving a lot in the last 4 or 5 years, socially it wasn’t as acceptable say 10 years ago. For me this is the first part. In America, football – or soccer for them – is an opportunity. The families support them from birth, the national team, the academies and the role models… everything is there. Commercially, the girls make a lot of money not only from playing but commercially as well. So, the whole scenario is set up to push the girls to play. In Spain, which is probably the opposite end of the scale, there is no structure – now La Liga is creating up a professional structure but there is a lot of work still to do. Underneath La Liga, there is nothing else. Every club pretty much runs their women’s team how they want. Some clubs do well and some not so well but there is no project. In the middle, the FA in England is probably one of the countries that has been investing more in the women’s game, promoting it socially and to improve quality.

Since I arrived in 2015, I’ve seen for myself the direction of travel for the FA. Not only to the success of the English national team but also socially in how this is affecting every girl who wants to play football and their families are now supporting them. I think it is very important to try to link opportunity with football. So, in America, it’s very clear; if you play football, you get a scholarship. The parents then put some money in as they see it as an investment. The girls then think that they are doing the right thing. In Spain, they will play football for 10 years with no clear objective and I’m sure a lot of talent is lost. In England, I think we’re in the middle. It is developing as discussed as to how to take a girl who isn’t perhaps the best but who is a good footballer and how to give her the opportunity to earn a good salary”

Losa spent two seasons at Western New York Flash as assistant to Aaran Lines and his reputation was growing. At the same time Arsenal Ladies dominance in English football was not what it was and so they went looking for someone who could help take them on to the next level of professionalism. Losa took up the challenge and was appointed as Arsenal manager with plenty to do on and off the pitch for the start of the 2015 season.

Having arrived at Arsenal in September 2014, he oversaw the Gunners’ 2016 Women’s FA Cup triumph and won the 2015 WSL Continental Cup (League Cup), Losa left the club in October 2017.

“It was a fantastic three years; Arsenal is a lovely club where the main value is the way the club treat people. I always mention Ivan Gazidis; I was lucky that he was my direct boss with the general manager so I had a lot of contact with him. In other clubs you might not have that level of access but I was very privileged to share time with him and see a person who leads by example. I think that big organisations that lead in that way and allow people to develop to be the best version of themselves and that gave me the opportunity to develop as a coach, and gain my pro-licence. Every time you are able to interact with different people like Jordan Nobbs, Kelly Smith, Leah Williamson, Rachel Yankey, you pick up something from them. I also learned the particularity of the English game which I’d not experienced before. We managed to win trophies but also we managed to develop the club to a better level. I also experienced the pressure of being in a top club with high expectations – although I had experienced this before I felt it more at Arsenal.”

 

Women’s football is on somewhat of a roll with structural changes to the leagues – WSL 1 now being a professional league and the Championship (was WSL 2) semi – professional. This structure may seem familiar, and parallels can be drawn with the men’s game – Premier League and Championship.

“I think it is easy to criticise, but I think the FA is trying to put the systems, players and strategies in place that they believe are going to progress women’s football. Those organisations that change and are willing to accept change as a positive are the ones that are most successful. I see the FA very much as one of the organisations that is always evolving and that they want to do it right. Clearly it is easy to pick out one or two things but we have to bear in mind the big picture. I remember being in America hearing that there was a professional project in the UK in 2012. Now, in 2018, we are in one of the best leagues in the world in my opinion which is, I think, the real picture.”

One of the biggest criticisms of the Premier league is the number of foreign players that play in it which limit opportunity for English players which in recent years has been linked to why the national squad has not won a major competition for some considerable time.

“The FA have made it very clear: the objective of both the leagues is to help English teams but also to create opportunities for young players. I think the level of foreign players has to be controlled. There is a restriction from the FA that of 80% of players with international caps can be brought into a team. I don’t know how much of an impact Brexit is or will have since at the moment players can come with no problem but who knows… I think that no question, the investment has to be focused on producing English internationals and yes, too many foreign players are affecting the opportunities for young players. But is it also the number of games? I would not say that this is the only reason – in the Women’s Super League there are only 20 games. If a team like Arsenal loses two games, then you don’t have chance to win the league. It is difficult then for Emma Hayes, Joe Montemurro and Nick Cushing to put the young players in. Some are doing it and I was the one that put players like Lotte Wubben Moy, Anna Patten, Chloe Kelly, Carla Humphrey into the team. Nick Cushing has also been doing it in the last few years as well to give young players a chance. It is the route and it is what we will be doing at Millwall”.

Now at the age of 42 Losa has recently taken on the role of Director of Football with Millwall Lionesses. The Lionesses finished third in WSL 2 2017/18 season despite the club almost folding due to financial difficulties and being saved only by a crowd funding campaign. At the end of the season and with big changes in the women’s game going professional and restructuring of leagues (WSL and the Championship) Losa was left with only 2 first team players when he arrived at the club. However the lack of opportunity for home grown talent at the big clubs in WSL may have done him a favour with a number of young Arsenal players coming to Millwall along with ex Arsenal Development Manager Chris Philips who has taken up the role of manager.

“This is an historic club. I had a conversation with Vic Akers OBE who rang to say ‘congratulations and I want you to know that Millwall is an historic club with a lot of potential and it’s a great opportunity’. If everyone sees the opportunity and potential, then it must be there! Everyone was saying the same and I believe it! When you come to the club, the community and fan base is unbelievable. There is undoubtedly work to be done but the potential is incredible. I just have to do what I’ve have been doing in other clubs and to try to tailor to the needs here. The Board have made it clear that the problems that have happened in the past will not happen again. And importantly for me I’ve been given full responsibility and freedom to develop the club. I think this is a unique opportunity because if you go to bigger clubs, then there will always be more politics involved.

The reality is that we took charge of the club and we only had four players in the squad. We had one month to register the players or else we would lose the licence. To be honest, a lot of people in the club, have done an incredible job. I think we managed to assemble the squad really well and I’m very proud of the squad we have, they have fantastic potential but they are a very young team who’ve never played together…. a new manager… new everything. You can see it on the pitch for sure. We want to win the battle but we need to put the pieces in place first. If we can pick up a couple of good results then I’m sure we be very motivated. I think it is part of the process and we’re not happy about losing games as we don’t like to lose games. The way to do that is not just winning but also developing the ideas on the pitch and put in a good performance. If we win, then we did some things right. I want to make it very clear – it’s not that the result is more important but if you don’t win, there is no progress. You need to complete the circle of progress every week. The players will have planned to get a result, analyse, plan and start again. This is how you are then able to develop them as players.”

The role of football director and its interaction with the team manager has been well documented in sports media as to its necessity and how the role works in practice. One has to ask if Sir Alex Ferguson would have been as successful if he had not had the run of the club and if the installation of a football director at Manchester United is ruffling Mourinho’s feathers.

The role is most common in Europe and while there is often a grey area as to the details of the role it can relieve pressure on the manager by handling aspects away from day-to-day coaching allowing the manager to focus on what happens on the pitch. However there are many examples of tensions between Director and manager often due to remits of power of the two positions with regards to player recruitment and transfers.

Only time will tell how this will work out for Losa and Millwall as he looks to develop the club and create a culture that allows for progression and development of players coming through, especially given their limited funds to recruit.

Given how difficult it is for young players to breakthrough in WSL 1 as foreign players start to flood in, the approach Losa is looking to adopt at Millwall is a worthy one – at Arsenal Losa had a policy of making sure his young players at least got a game every 1 in 3 to try and develop them. Some may argue that this may have been what effected their results and his departure from the club however given that there is no relegation from the Championship this season one would have thought that Phillips would be using this to his advantage to develop all the players in his squad and a style of play and worry less about the opposition.

This approach may help to deal with some of the discontent on the terraces about players playing out of position and others to get their opportunity especially those who were outstanding last season and give both Losa and Philips some breathing space. From the outside it would appear there is some work still to be done in adopting Losa’s philosophies in practice.

“All we can is to put everything in place to help them which is what we have been doing. There was no sports science programme – now we’re providing a gym session for the players and in a short period of time, they will feel better. We’re also working on sports education in terms of nutrition, recovery and strategy. Now we are also looking at implementing video analysis and GPS technology. These tools will help the players to be at that level. Are they far off? Yes – because the big problem we have in this country is that development team football is not at the level required to compete even at the minimum level for senior football. So, yes, the girls have been competing at a level that bears no relationship to where they’re finding themselves now. But, they will learn – and they will learn quickly. This is what we want to do. I think that you need to experience the 90 minutes of the game as a player when you are losing, or when you are winning, if the opponent is much better or you are much better – it doesn’t matter, you need to be able to perform at that level. Hopefully we can give that experience to the 20 players in the squad. I think we have to find the strategies to ensure that no player is going one or two weeks without playing. This is one of the things we did at Arsenal.

We have clear targets for where we want to be. On the pitch, we want to be able to compete and be mid-table if we can. There is no relegation but we don’t want to be at the bottom of the table because that will not be beneficial for anyone. Off the pitch we want to provide any girl in Millwall or London who wants the opportunity to play football at any level. We want to provide strategies to link education and football – it could be a scholarship in America or here, coaching and helping them to get into that career.”

In common with the challenges the club has on the pitch, to achieve their ambition they will also need to overcome some financial challenges to support their ambitions. This is something that is not lost on Losa, understanding from his time at Arsenal the value of having a strong brand which encourages brand citizenship and financial support from organisations that feel aligned to the club and women’s football. The issue of finance has been highlighted recently by male players from their neighbours Crystal Palace with Wilfred Saha’s donating money to sponsor some of the Crystal Palace ladies’ players.

“It is something that crucially we’ve been discussing here. We have to sit down and say what it is that we have to offer. What benefit can we offer; what kind of market can we cover. We have three values that we want to promote and it can involve everyone at the club. At Arsenal we had Outward Class, Be Together and Always Move Forward. All behaviours were linked to the values. We have the same. Once you set up the values then you have to be able to sell how and why we are behaving in that way and what are the benefits so that we can try to link with different companies to create a partnership where we can work together.

The question of whether we should be funded by the men’s teams or whether we should survive on our own… I’m coming from a culture in America where women’s teams are professional and don’t need the men’s input. Maybe the culture and society is different. I think we should try to prove that pathway and not always want to be dependent on the men. Of course, being linked to a big club, especially a Premier League club, can help massively. I would like to think that we can generate our own resources. There are always initiatives that come and go such as Juan Mata where he has given part of his salary to help. I obviously understand why the players at Palace did it but I think we have to work together to create opportunities”.

Outside of football, business and commerce in the UK is getting to grips with equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace – with the best person for the job being employed regardless of gender. If you take time to look at the stats its clear some sectors and organisations are further ahead than others. Looking from the outside in I wonder how far the FA and football in England have come with regards opportunities for women as managers. And with a number of ex-players moving into high profile coaching positions across both men’s and women’s football immediately after qualifying, does it act as an incentive or demotivate those who are not fortunate enough to have played at a high level but who have spent a lot of time, have as much experience and are as equally qualified to try to get a job in coaching? Losa provided some interesting insight on this subject.

“Yes, I can see that. You want the best coach possible and you want the best professional. If you are filling the position just based on being female, then it is not what you what. Equality should start with the best person for the job. I understand what has happened in the past and I do support the female coaches and try to help them. At the same time, we have to try not to replicate the problem from the other side. The opportunities to get into the game are limited and what are these if you are not so experienced in the game but have spent a long time in education and getting qualified if the positions are not filled on merit. I think we need a balance. I did a study while taking my pro-licence about training workloads. One of the practical conclusions I proposed was that 1) all of the ex-players (male or female) who want to become a manager – because they’ve done nothing else other than football in their life so it is natural that they want to become a manager. They should have someone from the PFA to explain that whilst they can become a manager but you can be a marketing director, S&C (Strength & Conditioning) so we will give you the education because there is no doubt that they have experience in abundance. They have an advantage in that they will understand players better having been one. Let’s use that experience not only in management but also in other roles within the clubs.

If for example, both I and Kelly Smith speak to a group of girls, they will listen to Kelly. So let’s use that in other roles other than just as a manager. In the women’s super league, there are just 12 managers. So what are the rest of the people going to do? Are they just going to wait for someone to be fired so they can be the manager or would it be better to be the assistant coach or the general manager or the S&C coach? But to do that, you need the education. I think we need people to open their eyes to what are the opportunities”.

With this “project”, as Losa describes it, he really has his hands full with the challenges ahead. It is a worthwhile project, developing young women into professional footballers and reigniting the culture within one of the oldest clubs in Women’s football, winners of the FA Cup 1991 and 1997, Premier League Cup 1997, Premier League (S) 2009, Kent County Cup1997, 2007 and 2008, London County Cup 1998 and 1999, and who nurtured the early career of players such as Pauline Cope, Mary Phillip, Katie Chapman and former England Midfielder and coach Hope Powell.

We wish him and his team every success for the season ahead.

Paul Bailes
Editor in Chief