The following is an excerpt from Learning Curve by Chris Evans, which follows the untold story of Loughborough University FC and focuses on their weird and wonderful approach to non-league football.
It doesn’t feel like non-league. Driving along the narrow driveway leading to the cluster of buildings and football pitches that make up the FA’s St. George’s Park, a feeling of anticipation washes over me. Whether it’s the setting itself or simply what it represents, there’s a distinctly regal atmosphere.
There are the tall gates, embossed with the Three Lions crest, that announce visitors’ arrival at England’s National Football Centre, the winding road that leads you past seemingly endless green fields at a pedestrian pace and, strangely, a herd of cows crowded a few yards away. It’s a combination of a country manor and a clandestine facility, set back from society to keep its secrets locked away from prying eyes. Perhaps the latter is exactly what St. George’s is – at least in the FA’s mind.
Trundling behind an ambulance snaking its way towards the collection of pitches, I try to drink it all in. Once I’ve seen the detail behind these high-security gates, no one can take it back.
I’ve never been to St. George’s before and I didn’t expect to make my maiden visit to watch a pre-season friendly involving two sides I have no affinity with. Yet somehow I find myself anxiously glancing at the clock on my car’s dashboard to make sure I don’t miss a minute of Loughborough University’s clash with the Nike Academy.
As I watch the back of the ambulance lurch over another speed bump, I peer towards the horizon for a hint of where the main St. George’s complex will appear. I don’t want to be late.
Today is the first match of a new season for Loughborough. It’s a campaign I’m following to get under the skin of one of the country’s most unusual football clubs. Not that many people recognise them as that.
The Scholars have been competing in non-league on and off since 1939, when a student team from Loughborough Colleges entered a wartime edition of the Leicestershire Senior League and lifted the title ahead of 10 other clubs. It made them trailblazers, as one of the first student teams in Britain to enter a senior FA league.
While Loughborough University – or Loughborough Colleges as they were known before the mid 60s – haven’t entered a team into each of the 76 seasons since their first great adventure, the university proudly led the way for others to follow.
Regular competitors in the Midland Premier Division since returning to the semi-pro ranks in 2007, Loughborough University are fast becoming a non-league staple. Albeit a bit of a novelty to the teams they come up against. While most teams playing in the ninth tier of English football are made up of a ragtag bunch of grizzled part-timers who juggle their day jobs with life on the pitch, the Scholars squad have more spare time on their hands. They’re all students and are part of what is as close to a professional football set-up as is possible at this level.
The starting XI’s elixir of youth and extra time on the training pitch aren’t the only things that make Loughborough stand out. After all, it’s not every day that a non-league side is welcomed to St. George’s Park to play a fixture of any sort, let alone a pre-season friendly.
The base for all 24 of England’s national teams, and professional outfits paying to hold training camps there, St. George’s’ state-of-the-art site doesn’t maintain its allure by throwing the gates open for just anybody. With 330 acres of space (most of which I feel like I’m driving through to reach my destination) packed with the facilities to give players and coaches the best grounding for success, it’s an impressive sight.
Pulling up in the car park alongside the pitch, I look across to the main body of the centre. The building’s glass exterior glistens in the sun and a stumpy signpost points towards the various football pitches, futsal hall and cutting-edge sports science facilities. It’s a huge contrast to the corrugated- steel stands with leaky roofs and cramped bars that normally greet you at a non-league match of this status.
I head towards the swarm of purple tracksuits that adorn Pitch Four. Having battled two hours of heavy traffic to reach the touchline, I must have looked like the antithesis of the fresh-faced footballers who are readying themselves for kick-off.
“Sorry I’m late. It was the, er, traffic,” I say, as I hold my hand out towards a tall twenty-something in Loughborough attire.
“No problem,” he replies with a grin. “Although you have just missed my best moment in football. We were doing a crossbar challenge from the halfway line and I did it first time.”
This is Mat Stock, Loughborough University’s football coordinator. Mat is the man charged with looking after me as I familiarise myself with the inner workings of the club’s unique set-up. So, not only is he contending with my poor timekeeping, but he’ll also be on hand to answer my constant stream of questions throughout the season.
A recent graduate, Mat works behind the scenes to keep the football operation running smoothly and has even found himself sitting on the bench as a backup goalkeeper in the past.
As we begin to chat about the team and the players I should be keeping an eye out for, a couple of familiar faces walk past in deep conversation. Norwich City Manager Alex Neil and his assistant Alan Irvine have a lot on their plates after the Canaries were relegated from the Premier League last season, and have chosen St. George’s Park as the ideal place to take stock and mastermind how to make an instant return to the top flight.
“Unfortunately, they’re not here to see us play,” explains Mat. “Norwich are here for a training camp and the US women’s football team are working here somewhere too.”
The catalogue of high-profile company doesn’t end there. Loughborough’s opponents are also familiar with a taste of the high life.
If the name wasn’t too much of a giveaway, the Nike Academy is a breeding ground for young starlets, funded by the multinational sports juggernaut. Made up of players aged under 20-years-old, the academy pick up lads who have been released from the sanctity of a top club and give them a route back into the professional game.
With a series of trials held globally each year to identify the world’s best unsigned talent, the Nike Academy’s squad list is brimming with potential. While a large proportion of the Loughborough players lining up tonight are students with little-to-no experience of being at a pro club, the Academy teamsheet boasts former representatives of Marseille, Lyon and Cardiff City.
The Academy’s players aren’t picked simply on past reputation though and count Ghanaian international Abdul Waris and Celtic midfielder Tom Rogic among their most successful graduates. In short, the Loughborough students have their work cut out tonight.
Mat tells me that preparation for the fixture has been a few days of intensive training and that this match is the next stage of a week-long slog to get the team ready for the start of the new season. Although the nature of university means that the first team can train several times a week during term time, it’s not so easy during holidays. With players scattered around the UK and further afield for the long summer break, it’s tricky to maintain much contact as the youngsters enjoy their time off. So fitness plans have been created for each individual and a few short bursts of training are being held, each punctuated by friendlies.
A trip to St. George’s Park has clearly appealed, with 19 players warming up for the contest with their illustrious opposition.
“How did Loughborough get this match?” I quiz Mat, as the sides ready themselves for kick-off. “Why aren’t you playing other non-league sides in the area like the rest of them?”
“Some of it is because of who we are and we have links with professional clubs or academies due to the work the university do,” he answers. “Although the Nike Academy used to train at the uni before moving to St. George’s Park, so we’ve got strong links with them.”
As the referee prepares to blow his whistle to start the match, manager Karl Brennan gives some final guidance to his players. Then with a shrill blast, we’re off.
Not surprisingly, all of the early running is made by the Nike outfit. Dressed in a slick white-and-grey kit, the Academy are well-drilled and zip a series of quick passes between their fluid forward line.
Korean Jae Heon Kim is the pick of the bunch and shimmies his way between midfield and attack with consummate ease. But despite his and delightfully named French winger Nassim L’Ghoul’s best efforts, they can’t pierce through a resolute Loughborough backline.
The long-haired L’Ghoul, or the ghost as the watching Loughborough supporters call him, slaloms in and out from the right wing, turning Scholars full back Toluwa Dada this way and that.
Considering their lack of training before the match, Loughborough are well-organised, with centre backs Danny Brenan and Joe Jackson showing unwavering solidity to repel the ball as it keeps coming back at them. Brenan is tall and dominant, but still maintains a youthful look that gives him away as a student rather than just another of the huge centre halves that have called non-league football home for longer than they can remember.
Loughborough’s best efforts to muster an attempt come on the counter-attack, as tireless forward Ben Ward-Cochrane ploughs a lone furrow up front; chasing long balls and flick-ons in the hope that one will drop for him in front of the Nike goal.
Openings keep appearing at the other end though. And with only minutes left of the half, a lightning-quick interchange releases Kim in the area. The diminutive Korean pulls the trigger, but the ball slams against goalkeeper Conor O’Keefe’s side netting.
More fast passing and L’Ghoul has space to fire away a shot. The lanky Brenan sticks out a limb and the ball flicks away towards O’Keefe’s near post. Caught off balance, the keeper leaps to his left and pads the ball out with his palms. Salvation, for now.
The threat causes a stir on the sidelines, as Loughborough’s bench give instructions to help their young hopefuls hold on. But the commands aren’t coming from the manager, who stands silently with his arms folded. While Brennan watches on, there’s another voice giving tactical advice to the youngsters out on the pitch. It’s the chairman, Michael Skubala. And he’s pacing around in the dugout.
Learning Curve by Chris Evans is available in paperback from Amazon HERE
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisEvansWrite
All photos courtesy of Simon Kimber