Football writer Chris Evans has penned his first book, as he looks behind the scenes at Loughborough University.
Learning Curve takes us behind the scenes at the university and Chris has very kindly allowed NLD to print the opening chapter of the book.
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 finnd 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 on 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 rst 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 nest moment in football. We were doing a crossbar challenge from the halfway line and I did it rst 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. But the young and end the move – OK, his refusal to pass unless there really is no alternative – helps his opponents out on several occasions.
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 get 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.
Michael Skubala isn’t a typical chairman. In fact, he’s not really a chairman at all. Dressed in a purple and black Loughborough University polo shirt and baggy branded trousers, Skubala’s appearance instantly reveals his dirty secret: the job title is nothing more than a sham.
After all, a university doesn’t lend itself to a traditional football club model and is just a single strand in a web of organisation. Skubala may be registered as a chairman on the FA’s official forms, but his role is very different.
“I guess my role is like a director of football in a normal football club,” Skubala tells me when we first meet a couple of weeks after the Nike Academy match .
“My job title with the university is performance manager, and I look after the football programme and its four teams. The university is like the owner of the football club, I’m like the director of football, and then Karl is the manager for the Saturday team.
“I’ve got to manage the budget on one side, then coach when I need to. With so many teams and players in the programme, it’s important to get the right staff in and to make sure they understand what we’re doing tactically.
“I’m listed as the chairman with the FA because it gives me the autonomy and responsibility for what’s going on at the club. That’s how I would describe the club in a non-league sense, apart from most chairmen don’t really know how football works on the grass.”
The same certainly can’t be said of Skubala. At just 33 years old, he already boasts an impressive coaching CV that spans more than a decade. It’s a journey that started when, after being released by Nottingham Forest, the young mid elder turned to non-league for his kicks.
Stints at Hinckley United, Barwell and Rugby Town may have given him the game time that he craved at the City Ground, but Skubala knew by then that his real calling was on the touchline and he used the opportunities to hone his coaching abilities instead.
After taking his coaching badges alongside earning a sports science degree, Skubala soon found himself being called upon to coach his more senior teammates.
“I always knew I wanted to be a coach,” Skubala continues. “I realised quite early on that I wasn’t good enough as a player, so my attention changed. It sounds funny, but I probably started coaching when I was 18.
“By 22, I was helping the Barwell manager to coach the first team. He was more of a manager than a coach and I had badges, so I was asked to help out on the training pitch with the players, a lot of who were 29 or 30 and had played in the pro game.
“To do that was a real challenge and I had to earn the respect of the players a lot quicker than an older coach would have done. It was a great environment to develop in.”
But it wasn’t in non-league that Skubala got his first big break. Despite his own perceived lack of ability on the pitch, the academy reject’s footwork opened his eyes to a new world when he was called up to play for Great Britain’s university football and futsal teams. And after sampling the set-ups, it was coaching that pulled Skubala in again – with all roads leading to Loughborough.
“I’ve been here on and o for eight years now and came into this role two years ago,” says Skubala. “I was doing some stuff with Loughborough University’s football club before I moved to the FA to work on the national futsal programme. I still kept in with football by coaching the GB unis side. But it was futsal where I quickly progressed up the ladder.
“I came back to Loughborough to head up the futsal programme in 2012 and have helped develop 11 or 12 lads to become England players. I enjoyed bringing players on and the performance manager role here allows me to do something similar and transition players into the game higher up the ranks.”
Talking in soft tones, Skubala is considered with his answers. It’s a manner that’s not dissimilar to his coaching style, as he carefully picks his way around my questions to explain how Loughborough’s football structure works. All his responses are balanced and laced with information, and I start to feel like a promising fresher getting a personal induction to the club.
Loughborough’s football programme isn’t exclusively about the Midlands Premier Division side though. In some quarters, it isn’t even viewed as the top priority.
Aside from the non-league team, there are three other squads that fly the university’s flag: the firsts who turn out in the BUCS (British Universities and College Sport) Premier North Division and three other lesser-ability teams.
“The university has won the overall BUCS league 35 years in a row and we have no intention of losing that, so it’s important for the football team to do our bit to help the other sports too,” Skubala goes on to explain.
“We need to take BUCS seriously because the lads want to win things and we’ve got the university’s record to maintain, but it does make it di cult when you’ve got a team in non-league as well.
“Most weeks you end up playing fixtures on a Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, which makes things di cult. It means that some Midland Premier League sides could be playing our seconds. In fact, one team even played our thirds last season.
“We split the first team pretty much in two to avoid that happening.
There are 25 players in the first-team performance squad that plays Saturday, Tuesday, Wednesday and we try to run it like a Premier League team would: imagine having Champions League and Premier League games.”
It’s probably the first time a team playing a mind-blowing eight promotions away from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League has ever seriously been compared to Europe’s elite, but Skubala makes it all seem sensible.
Sure, Loughborough’s students aren’t playing anywhere near to the same standard as Sergio Aguero and the Premier League’s other multi- millionaires but they’re players who need their time managed all the same to make sure they don’t burn out. And with the extra complication of studying for a degree too, no time can be wasted.
Just like a pro club, players’ activity is closely monitored and Loughborough’s raft of sports science facilities and willing volunteers keep a close eye on the workloads of the entire squad.
I once witnessed a Football League manager sending his reserve team out around the stadium on a match day to tally down all the statistics of the starting XI to collect the data he needed to perform an in-depth analysis of their performance. There’s no such margin for error in Skubala’s ranks, with his selection backed up by the university’s extensive sports science and performance departments.
It’s clear that Loughborough is more than just a good breeding ground for academic footballers who want to combine studying with senior football; it’s a brilliant place to work in the back room too.
Out of the media glare of the higher leagues, Skubala’s role gives him a unique opportunity to build up experience in a professional environment. But in the lower reaches of non-league.
“I’d like to be a proper director of football in the future,” admits Skubala. “Then again, this is a great project and a great job to develop too.
“I’ve never had an interest to go into full-time football, but if I do the best job I can while I’m at Loughborough, then opportunities might open up that I can’t refuse. I wouldn’t compromise my life to have a tracksuit with a badge on it though – I’ve never done that and never will.?
“I’m a trained teacher and did that for a few years at the start of my career. I’d much rather go back into that than chase something that wasn’t really right for me.”
As the half-time whistle blows at St. George’s Park, Skubala’s teaching instincts are soon on show. The students have survived the Nike Academy’s onslaught to make it to the break at 0-0, but there’s plenty to learn.
While Brennan happily takes a back seat, Skubala’s the man to deliver this team talk. With no changing room close to the pitch, the huddle is taking place on the pitch – midway in the half that the Scholars defended so valiantly in the first period. There’s no hint of former Hull City Manager Phil Brown’s famous on-pitch dressing-down though. As with a lot of things at Loughborough, this is about education.
Hunched over a white, magnetic tactics board, Skubala begins to dissect the first half. It’s a detailed explanation including information on why certain things have gone right, where improvements can be made and how key players can get a little bit extra out of their performance. After each careful explanation, the performance manager looks up to find the players who are most impacted by what he’s saying, and engages in a quick question-and-answer session.
For most football fans, the half-time team talk is shrouded in myth. Legends of rousing speeches that motivate players and tactical tweaks that tip a match are thoroughfare for this, the most sacred of times. The reality, it seems, is quite different.
As the lecture continues, Skubala finally poses a question that seemingly can’t be answered by the group.
“Now, where’s Ozzy?” he asks. “Ozzy?” But there’s no response. As he surveys the players surrounding him, he finally spots his man.
“Ozzy! Ozzy!” calls Skubala, raising his voice in the direction of the near-empty dugout. “Ozzy, come over here. Do you understand what I’ve just been saying?”
Trotting over, tail between his legs, the athletic substitute joins the group, looking sheepish and deciding to accept the question as rhetorical. “You don’t, do you? That’s because you’ve been messing around over there rather than listening with the rest of the team,” Skubala scolds.
“Now come on in and listen, this is important if you’re going to come on.”
The reprimand is short and sweet: there’s more important things to dwell on and Skubala continues to chat through his thoughts. One-part coach, another-part teacher.?Despite the team talk, the second half doesn’t start as planned.
There’s not a lot that tactical information can do to stop forward Joe Kouadio skipping to the byline and fizzing a low centre into the six-yard box for Danny Brenan to deflect into his own goal. 1-0.
To the Scholars’ credit, the own goal doesn’t herald a glut of second- half strikes. They’re organised, resolute and close down Nike’s skilful forwards at every opportunity. The visitors even threaten, with the pacey Dasaolu causing panic as he revs up to top speed, only for any half chances to be snuffed out.
“It’s a promising start,” says Mat, as the final whistle blows and the slender defeat confirmed.
“Some of these lads might not be in the first team this season depending on the new intake of players, so they’ve done well out there today.”
This time, the players will be treated to the St. George’s Park dressing room for the full-time team talk, as they collect up the kit and head towards the sanctity of the complex’s central hub.
It won’t be the first time they’ll get to see what it’s like to be in a football academy this pre-season, with matches against Peterborough United and Charlton Athletic’s under-21 sides appearing on the schedule, alongside more expected fixtures to Midland neighbours Harborough Town and Redditch United.
Whether the players realise it or not, it’s a privileged upbringing for a student side that plays in non-league.
“It’s just part of being Loughborough,” Mat says, with another knowing smile. “We’ve got a lot of contacts and there’s a network of alumni all the way through the Football League, so opportunities come up.
“Some under-21 teams such as Charlton, who we’ll play in a few weeks, will come and use our facilities as part of their pre-season preparations, so we arrange a fixture as part of that. It’s the Loughborough way.”
Something tells me that this won’t be the last time I’ll hear that said throughout the season.
Learning Curve is available to buy here
Article: Chris Evans (@chrisevanswrite)
Images: Simon Kimber (@kimberphotos)