Loughborough Lightning seek instant return to National League North in promotion push

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Emily Jacobs of Loughborough Lightning plays the ball under pressure from Alex Dicks of Northampton Town during the FA Women's National League Division One Midlands match between Northampton Town and Loughborough Lightning at Fernie Fields on January 14, 2024 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)

As you drive into the University of Loughborough Campus, home to women’s football side Loughborough Lightning, you get a feel for the state-of-the-art facilities that some Women’s Super League teams can only dream of.

It is built on a history of producing legends within women’s sport — specifically women’s football — including Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze, Mary Earps, Ellen White… The list of England legends goes on.

This is not your average University side. An interview with manager Charlie Baxter, and players Zynia Delglyn and Hannah Plumb, gives us a closer look at Loughborough Lightning.

We proudly represent Loughborough University as part of the Loughborough Lightning Family. Our campus is the home for world class female sport. The Lightning Family includes Netball, Cycling, Rugby and Wheelchair Basketball.

Charlie Baxter, Loughborough Lightning head coach

Charlie, a Loughborough alumnus, joined the team as head coach in January 2023. He came with a background of eight years in women’s football, having previously worked alongside current Manchester United Women’s manager Marc Skinner at Birmingham and within the setup at Ipswich Town.

Charlie is proud to proclaim that ‘elite sport goes hand-in-hand with an elite education’ at Loughborough University.

“[There is a] dual pathway that trains those enrolled to be the best on the pitch, and off it. It really is a way of life — a family and a network to lean on in the future but it’s not for everyone. There is pressure associated with representing the Loughborough brand that students have to manage.”

Hannah Plumb in action for Loughborough Lightning Women FC. (Photo by Andy Smith)

Players Hannah Plumb and Zynia Delglyn share their thoughts

A quick introduction to Zynia and Hannah, and I realise these students are different from when I was at university in 2006. They aren’t dancing all night at traffic light parties, living off junk food, or staggering home late on student night.

“No, I’m usually in bed by 10pm, I can’t say we’ve taken part in that,” Hannah said when asked about late-night parties. “We’ve done a few socials and the team spends most of our time together.”

Zynia supports this ethos stating it’s all about ‘train, recover, study, repeat’. They’ve had to work so hard to enrol at Loughborough but they know it’s only the beginning.

Loughborough Lighting Women FC was established in the 2021/22 season. They are currently top of the FA Women’s National League Division One Midlands, with talk of promotion in the air.

Zynia Delglyn in action for Loughborough Lightning Women. (Photo by Andy Smith)

“It’s been a year of transition after relegation last season, multiple player and staff changes, and a new progressive approach is helping remind players of the role they play here both on and off the pitch but yes, we want to play football back up a league,” Charlie explained.

Zynia admitted the team ‘always knew’ what their goal was for the end of the season — promotion.

When asked about settling into life in a senior team Hannah said: “It’s the first season for both of us in senior football, we are playing bigger players, it’s different football, a different game. I feel like we’ve grown into it, and looking forward to the second half of the season.”

Professional facilities at Loughborough Lightning

The facilities are as professional as those using them. Charlie said it’s a draw to get players in.

“The facilities help attract talent. We have an outdoor 3,500 seater stadium, indoor sports halls, all-weather pitches, a 50 metre swimming pool, and state-of-the-art gyms. Our success as a team is based on annual enrolment and local recruitment unlike other teams, they have to meet the criteria, and fit the ethos of what we are building here.

“I’m also keen to ensure players think about their future so being able to ask what can football give them. If it’s access to our education facilities through a sports scholarship, then that’s a bonus.”

We provide playing opportunities for players who are undergraduate or postgraduate students from Loughborough University. Scholarships are available to our talented student-athletes. Additionally, we also operate like a traditional football club with players who might enter the team via a talent event, our player development pathway, or a recruitment strategy.

Loughborough Lightning celebrate a goal. (Photo by Andy Smith)

Students’ wellbeing is also key here. Players juggle studies, training, and part-time jobs to keep afloat financially.

“Yeah, both of us have jobs. I’ve got two different jobs,” Hannah said. “To be fair, it’s quite easy to balance, especially with an online job.”

Zynia added: “We are lucky enough to get our kit and our gym memberships are covered as well by the club. So that’s helpful.”

Players are also mindful of mental health, and here they have access to a wide range of support. The team have access to strength and conditioning coaches, psychologists, physiotherapists, performance analysts, and nutritionists to help them achieve their goals.

Discussions about ACL and health

“We all know people who’ve done it, even been on the pitch when they’ve done it,” Zynia said when asked about the concerning number of ACL injuries in women’s football. “You see someone go down, they hold their knee and you know it’s a year out. You always think, that could be you.”

Hannah added: “We do stuff specifically to work on avoiding it, changing directions, strengthening the muscles around your knees in the gym. It’s something we’re conscious about but working against. I’ve just bought some of the new Nike football boots to see if they help.’

Research into injuries including ACL injuries, is a big drive at Loughborough.

“We get an email a day from a research department within the University asking if we’d like to take part in a study.”

The fact that they are in such an incredible position to help shape findings and reduce these career-pausing injuries is not lost on Hannah: “Being an athlete you do have to be mindful of the future. A lot of players are suffering injuries at the grassroots level and it’s delaying their progress within the sport. If we can help be a part of finding ways to minimise it, then we will.”

Elite sporting environment

There’s no doubt that Loughborough offers players selected for the team the chance to be elite. But they clearly have to arrive with that mindset already. Prepared to build on it with hard work, commitment, and determination. There’s no easy way to the top, and players studying and playing football here are giving themselves the best chance for a career in football. And, if that doesn’t happen for any reason, a secondary career to bring them stability in their future.

The environment here is reminiscent of the US university setup. Many young players flock to for experience, and an education. You want to strive for better just being around the head coach Charlie. He is clearly passionate about the future at Loughborough Lightning Women’s FC. And when you have exemplary students leading your team out, who can blame them.

The whole staffing team works hard to ensure these players are prepared for each match. Their first 2024 fixture against Solihull Moors ended 2-2 with a last-minute equaliser for the Moors. Loughborough will be hoping their dedication can take them all the way to promotion with a few less last-minute surprises, and unearth a lioness for the future. Surely then, they’ll allow themselves a night out to celebrate.

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