This is an extract from ‘Learning Curve: Life inside one of Britain’s most unusual football clubs’, which is available to buy now on Amazon.
“When’s Steven Gerrard getting here?” asks a young fan to nobody in particular.
Dressed head to toe in a red Liverpool kit, the boy looks longingly towards the gap in the hedge that leads to Loughborough University Stadium’s car park, willing his hero to appear.
The question hangs unanswered for a few seconds before another member of the small group of children musters a reply.
“Steven Gerrard will be here in two minutes,” he announces, with all the conviction of an eight-year-old who has just told the perfect white lie to impress his friends. For a little while, at least.
But while you could forgive the childish chatter of youngsters expecting to see one of England’s most-capped footballers at a non-league ground in the middle of Leicestershire, tonight it seems that idea isn’t that far-fetched. In fact, as well as the hopeful infants, there are fans, photographers and match officials buzzing around, all keeping an eye out for Stevie G.
Loughborough University FC may only just have confirmed their place in next year’s Midland Premier Division, English football’s ninth tier, with a game to spare last season, but the student team are preparing to welcome Liverpool for a post-season friendly.
Of course, it won’t be Jurgen Klopp’s mob who are making their way out to play against a group of students. It’s the Reds’ Under-18 team that has made the trip to East Midlands to play tonight’s fixture – cue the clamour for a sighting of Gerrard, who is set to take charge of the Anfield outfit’s youth side next season.
The lack of stars on the pitch doesn’t seem to have deterred the locals though, who have turned out in force to get a glimpse of that famous Liver bird facing a team representing their town. Inside the ground, a swell of supporters snapping pictures and excitedly finding their seats in the main stand are creating a real sense of occasion. Out on the crowded terrace, a clutch of students dressed as hot dogs (as well as a solitary ketchup bottle for good measure) are raising smiles.
It’s not the normal way for a non-league team to bring the curtain down on a relatively disappointing season. But then, Loughborough University isn’t a normal football club. One look at the surroundings for tonight’s match would tell you that.
Despite their low status in the pyramid, the Scholars play their matches in a £4 million stadium that has still maintained the same box-fresh look it had when it opened in 2012.
The all-seater main stand is the focal point, towering several feet up above the clean, metal terraces that run alongside the pitch. Tagged onto the stand is a set of fully furnished conference facilities, doused in university purple.
To the left is a large, pine-coloured building fitted with wide glass windows that offer a glimpse into the Loughborough’s state-of-the-art gym. Ahead, more new builds clutter the horizon, while a large pile of sand signals that yet more facilities are set to spring from the ground in the near future. The perfectly mown pitch is in good shape too, despite the season’s hardships, and a tall electronic scoreboard completes the picture.
If somebody told any of tonight’s visitors that this was the heart of a training centre built for the youth teams of a nouveau-riche Premier League club, they’d probably believe them.
Instead, the ground is more used to hosting a team comprised principally of university students, as they go up against fellow Midland League heavyweights such as Heanor Town or Coventry Sphinx.
The ground isn’t the only way the club bucks the trend with the rest of non-league though. With two managers – one for non-league matches and another for British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) competition – and a team of sports scientists and nutritionists to help the players prepare for every single match, this is more of a professional outfit. Some people inside the university have even drawn comparisons to the way a top Premier League is forced to rotate their squad to handle the multiple priorities.
Fixture congestion has been an issue that has blighted the students since joining the non-league ranks in 2007. Earlier in the campaign, Loughborough were playing three matches a week, with league fixtures on Saturday afternoons and Tuesday evenings, as well as a university match on Wednesday. One week, the scheduling of a league cup match against local rivals Quorn meant students had to play two games in the space of six hours – all against the backdrop of studying for a degree at one of the country’s most-demanding education establishments.
Tonight is a chance for students to forget those pressures. The marquee match with Liverpool was announced a few weeks ago and the fervour has been steadily building ever since. And the prospect of bumping into a former England captain as part of the Reds’ contingent has triggered more than a few cursory glances towards the row of 10 empty seats with signs saying “RESERVED – LIVERPOOL FC” emblazoned on them.
While most of the crowd is on Gerrard watch, the next generation of stars set to grace Anfield are being put through their paces on the field. Surrounded by a large coaching team assembled from the club’s Melwood training ground, the academy team ooze energy and talent as they take part in a series of short drills.
On the other half of the pitch, the Scholars are being prepared for the big night by interim performance manager Alex Ackerley, who has been given the nod to take his place in the dugout because it’s a university rather than a non-league game. Ackerley, a former Loughborough student who has stayed on for another year to get some coaching experience, has only just taken up the post after his predecessor Michael Skubala became England’s new futsal head coach and elite performance manager.
At just 24 years old, Ackerley is joining a long list of impressive coaches who have taken charge of Loughborough’s student footballers. Back in the ‘60s, FA visionary Allen Wade led a Scholars team, including the likes of Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson and a host of soon-to-be pros, to the FA Amateur Cup quarter finals, while future Antigua & Barbuda national team manager Tom Curtis was also head coach before going on to bigger things.
Now, with first-team manager Karl Brennan watching on from the stands, Ackerley faces a huge challenge against Liverpool. But he’s in buoyant mood.
“Training has been going well,” Ackerley remarks on his way back to the dressing room.
“We’ve watched a video of how Chelsea played against them in an Under-18s match last week, so we’re going to set up in a similar way. Now all we’ve got to do is be as good as Chelsea – it’s that easy!”
If the students are going to cause an upset tonight, they’ll certainly have something to remember the occasion by. As a slew of cameras jostle for position to get the best touchline footage, another row of lenses are pointed towards the pitch from three temporary television gantries set up to beam a live feed for a Loughborough Students’ Union Media TV broadcast. They’re not alone either, with a Liverpool FC TV cameraman also on duty.
Despite all the furore, this isn’t the first time Loughborough have hosted one of the country’s big boys at their stadium. Since moving in five years ago, the student side have faced Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City, and gone up against future internationals including Marcus Rashford.
It’s part of the university’s unique allure that they are able to attract such illustrious opposition. Prior to re-entering the non-league ranks less than a decade ago (following a 35-year hiatus after dropping out of the Leicestershire Senior League in 1972), it was these friendly matches against the youth teams of the country’s professional clubs that set Loughborough’s football programme apart from any other university.
Over the decades, frequent visits from top Midlands sides, such as Notts County, West Brom and Aston Villa, became commonplace as an array of student XIs pitted their wits against players who were hoping to graduate into the Football League.
The players turning out for Loughborough’s opponents weren’t the only star turns on show, however. For the initiated, there were plenty of other prized assets to watch in the friendlies. The Scholars boast a former player list that includes Arsenal legend Bob Wilson, Wimbledon and Chelsea midfielder Lawrie Sanchez and five-cap England goalkeeper Tony Waiters. In more recent years, Football League pros George Williams, Bradley Pritchard and Robbie Simpson all kick-started their careers by pulling on Loughborough purple. Critically acclaimed Kes author Barry Hines even turned out for the university side as a full-back during his formative years.
As the 2017 vintage emerges from the tunnel to kick off against Liverpool, they make up no less of an eclectic bunch. The squad includes a youngster who turned down a professional contract at Chelsea to continue his studies and an Austrian exchange student who moved nearly 900 miles away from home just to be part of Loughborough’s football programme.
The players jog out onto pitch and are greeted by a loud cheer from crowd all around them. The dazzling scoreboard on the far side confirms the occasion: Loughborough 0 Liverpool 0. It’s time to show that attending a professional academy isn’t the only route to success on the football pitch.
For once, the Scholars aren’t the youngsters of the piece, as Liverpool line up with several 16-year-olds in their ranks. Although it’s hard to tell the age difference given the additional respect that the trademark Liverpool red grants the visitors, paired with the incredible physiques that British academies cherish. The home fans certainly don’t care and are baying for the students to strike an early blow when a through ball towards lone frontman Ben Ward-Cochrane draws an excitable roar within moments of kick-off, but the fast reactions of Liverpool number one Caoimhin Kelleher sees to the danger as the Irishman gets there in the nick of time.
The game soon settles into a rhythm, but not one that not many of the regulars have been familiar with this season. The blood-and-thunder high tempo that pours out of the non-league matches hosted at this stadium is forgotten, as the two teams take it in turns to play keep ball across the backline. Chances are at a premium, with a series of hard challenges enough to repel several Liverpool attacks.
Then, breaking down the right, Luke Trotman shows it’s not all hard work and industry in Loughborough’s ranks. The full-back, whose spell in the Football League with Luton Town might have ended differently if it wasn’t for injury, takes control of a bouncing ball and hits a dipping half volley past Kelleher and into the net. Cue mass celebration.
The locals can scarcely believe their eyes as the scoreboard clicks over to show that the hosts are ahead against the five-time European champions.
The Reds refuse to lie down and continue to probe in the final third, but time and again Loughborough get something on the ball to break up the attack. Then the blonde-haired Lewis Longstaff escapes down the right and fires in a low cross into the penalty area, evading everyone but Liam Millar, who takes one touch before pulling back to equalise. Only the ball doesn’t go in, as Trotman and O’Keefe somehow get in the way to clear the danger.
As the whistle blows for half time with Loughborough leading 1-0, the smiles all around the stadium tell their own story.
After the interval, the match resumes a similar rhythm and, given more time to play, Loughborough are enjoying the chance to show what they can do with the ball. Another neat interchange on the edge of the area sets Ward-Cochrane through and the striker pulls back a low centre into Matt Crookes’ path, where the student pulls off an audacious flick with his hind leg to turn the ball into the goal.
“Ohhhhh, what a goal!” purrs a Loughborough fan as the crowd jump up in celebration. “Who’s the Premier League side?” shouts another.
Down on the pitch, the players are huddled together in jubilation, while the exuberant Ackerley beats the air in joy. The struggling non-leaguers – a team made up of university students and Football League rejects – are on their way to a famous victory.
But first they need to dig in to protect their lead, as Liverpool flood forward in search of a goal. Substitute Herbie Kane narrowly misses from close range and O’Keefe turns round another effort that’s whistling towards the bottom corner.
The clock on the scoreboard continues to count down towards full time. Not long to go. Liverpool shot, saved. Defenders throw themselves in the way to block a further chance. Then comes the final whistle. It’s over, Loughborough University have beaten Liverpool.
A surge of noise goes up around the stadium as the players embrace. The cameras fill the pitch again to record the university’s glory and Ackerley is grabbed by a man with a microphone to do an interview for Liverpool FC TV. “We haven’t scored one goal like that all season, let alone two,” he says. “It’s been a great experience.”
Excitable chatter fills the touchline as Loughborough’s players bask in their unlikely glory. Then one of the players turns to an injured teammate who watched the game from the stand. “Was Gerrard here in the end, then?” he asks. “Oh, yeah,” the sidelined player replies mischievously. “I’m sure he was sat at the back of the stand in a hoody so nobody could tell it was him.”
His bombshell is met with a few sniggers. Until the myth starts to grow legs once again. “The trouble is,” says the player. “After all that has happened today, he could be telling the truth.”
Want to read more about life inside one of Britain’s most unusual football clubs? You can buy Learning Curve by Chris Evans on Amazon now.