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Lightning Strikes In FA Cup

Loughborough Lightning 3-0 Sheffield (Women's FA Cup Round One)

I’m running late but England are just about to win the T20 World Cup and become the first male side in history to hold both white ball gongs at the same time (Australia women have also achieved this feat). It’s not been easy watching, as we stumbled towards target at the MCG following a few early wickets lost against Pakistan, but Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali have steered us back on the right path.

So much so, I can leave my house with England needing less than a run a ball from the final three overs of the match, after switching the TV on standby fully confident that we’ll finish the job, I’ll listen to the rest in the car.

It’s women’s football today, I’m off to Loughborough University for an FA Cup first round match between Loughborough Lightning and Sheffield FC, famously known of course as the oldest football club in the world. The women’s team were only formed as recently as 2003, after merging with Norton Ladies.

Today’s hosts, well they were formed at first as an independent women’s football club in 2002 as Loughborough Foxes before merging with the University, in recent years their nickname ‘Lightning’ has formed a programme that has not only seen the football team develop stronger, but the netball, cricket and rugby union teams all provide England internationals, in fact no fewer than six players from the Lightning played in Saturday’s agonising Women’s World Cup Rugby Final defeat against New Zealand, the facilities here are on a world class level and the development of some of our nations finest ever athletes have a lot of gratitude to housing their skills at this very magnificent place.

It's actually my first flesh viewing of any serious level women’s football since 1994 when I watched England beat Belgium 6-0 at the City Ground. I like many middle-aged men have become more interested in the game since the remarkable achievements of the England team in winning the Euros during the summer, but have always kept an eye locally on results, working in the East Midlands press in recent years it’s been brilliant to see the growth of the game in these parts alone and I have hopefully helped in some small way by trying to publicise clubs like Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Mansfield Town amongst others.

I leave at 11:30am for a 1pm kick off and I’m driving through the villages of Bunny, Costock and Hoton on the A60 as England are announced as world cup winners in the cricket.

A slight dampness in the air, the sun is shining with a chill, I’m driving through Loughborough town centre, navigating its cut throughs before heading down the New Ashby Road and towards the entrance of the University, where there’s a barrier down and not letting me through.

The Venue

“Can I help you” shouts the Security Guard… ‘I’m here for the football’ is my reply. “Straight over the roundabout, next left into the car park” I pull up at a leafy spot and walk towards the Stadium, signposted Holywell Sports Complex, I walk past a Beach Volleyball Court before I view the back of a large new looking stand with a small turnstile to its left.

A side gate is open and I spot a couple of young lads looking out onto the pitch, “Do I have to pay to get in” I cry, ‘Are you a student?’ is ones reply. ‘If not it’s £4’. I hand over some cash and ask “Where can I get a coffee?” to be told “through these doors and up the stairs.”

It’s a modern centre, and although not one I’ve previously been to, is one I’m well aware of on the men’s non-league circuit, Loughborough University currently going well in the United Counties League, every club and player which plays here are always seemingly impressed with the facility.

I’m up the stairs and through some doors into a long fresh looking bar area with plenty of seating, glass windows overlooking a stunning looking pitch down below, you feel like you’ve arrived in the Directors lounge of a plush football academy, seats outside of the doors to give you an elevated view, the pitch carpet like, immaculate, flat, a scoreboard to the left already lit up, Lightning 0 Sheffield 0. I ask the barman for a coffee after a quick pit stop, an Americano without milk, another member of staff has just nipped out to fetch some.

The Game

Loughborough are currently bottom of the National League North, which is the third tier of the women’s game, whilst Sheffield, a former Premier League side, are a division below after relegation last season, themselves mid table in the Division One Midlands and well adrift of the promotion chasing pack.

I cast eye on the warmups to see if anything stands out, Lightning look sharp, well drilled, professional, Sheffield a little more relaxed in demeaner, not as fluent, not as intense, not as serious, perhaps? A bit more Sunday league, one of the subs is wearing her own coat.

The game starts after a minute’s silence impeccably observed for those fallen heroes of World War II. The Last Post played through the tannoy as both teams are circled on the halfway line, Loughborough in lilac, Sheffield in red.

It’s the home side who start strongest, they knock it about well, comfortable on the ball, they are happy to go from left to right and back, whilst Sheffield fail to really get a foothold with any sort of possession.

Katie Middleton is right wing for Lightning, she’s my all-time favourite Nottingham Forest player, I’ve never seen her play previously, but she was one of the faces that played a significant part in the Reds stunning kit launch for the 2020/21 season at a series of locations including Nottingham Castle and the Old Market Square. Significant because it was the first real time the men and women’s team had collab’d in such way, a decision which I felt helped boost interest in the women’s game (ahead of the Euros), the same season the club would host Derby County and Manchester City in front of record attendances at the City Ground.

With her new club, Middleton looks a star asset, getting the ball she’s willing to take on her full back, perhaps lacking the out and out initial burst of pace that could see her play at the very top, but a decent footballer at the level and certainly a main threat on every Lightning attack.

Another player threatening is Georgia Stevens in attack, she’s strong, solid and powerful, a nuisance, the Sheffield defence struggle to deal with her and as she races on to a through ball on ten minutes it bounces to Monique Robinson who slides in the opening goal.

At the other end Sheffield come close from a corner, a header bounces off the bar, but whilst I feel that they are never out of the game, one mistake can let them back in, I feel it’s Loughborough’s to lose, who are much the better side.

Middleton getting space down the right then finds Stevens who almost takes the roof of the net off with her strike, from the edge of the box she blasts home a second with Lightning well in control at the break.

The Score

At half time I feel much more impressed with the music than I am at most men’s games, a lot more modern, up beat and dance orientated, a bit of Beyonce & Dua Lipa, then suddenly The Last Post starts playing again, the young girl in charge racing to her phone in the engine room to stop its continuation, obviously her shuffle settings weren’t supposed to include that one for a second time today.

Sheffield make a sub for the second half and I’ve not written them off just yet, but next goal is crucial to how this game will go.

It is however, much of the same, no change in who’s on top as Loughborough look too strong for their visitors, a rare Sheffield corner offers a chance to pull something back with little more than an hour played, but as the ball is cleared to the edge of the area, Katie Middleton receives possession, and runs, and runs, and runs.

Middleton has stretched box to box leaving defenders in her wake, gaps opening up she plays in Nicki Russell who’s in on goal with just the goalkeeper to beat and it’s three. A rapid, ‘lightning’ attack, created by not only my favourite player, but in my opinion, the player of the game.

More late chances came and went for Loughborough who have the ball in the back of the net through Middleton, only for the lineswoman, to rule out for offside, the home side enjoying themselves towards the game’s conclusion, an impressive performance to see them safely into round two.

The Stars

Whilst the blonde haired Middleton with number seven on her back was the one who shone beyond, exciting the crowd every time she got the ball jinking in and out down the wing, I was impressed with Monique Robinson in the centre of midfield who kept things ticking whilst equally as composed in possession, Abbey Hateley at right back looked a very good player indeed for Lightning.

Georgia Stevens put in a real shift up front whilst her replacement Amelie Johnson shown some neat touches too, their centre halves rarely tested, eased through their ninety minutes at an enjoyable canter in the sun.

For Sheffield, best player by far was their captain Brooke Smith who reminded me a little of Millie Bright, the England centre half who did so well in the Euros. Smith a blood and guts defender, throwing herself into every challenge, blocking, heading, kicking, her instinct to spot danger essential in keeping the score down, what I really liked is that every clearance was big, no messing, just get f*cking rid!

Right back Pip Cassidy also impressed in doing the simple things well, left winger Moriah McIntosh arguably their best player going forward, seen little of the ball, but when in possession looked neat and potentially like the outlet they needed to feed to keep them in the game. She weren't used nearly enough.

The Verdict

You can’t help compare the women’s game with the men’s but I don’t think that’s always fair. Whilst we see obvious differences in that men’s football is more powerful, fast and thunderous, the girl’s game itself is slower, less chaotic, potentially more about technique, certainly more about the improvement that is gradually being made every time these girls take to the pitch, more about building the game on its own growing foundations laid in recent years to levels unprecedented, and that alone is an exciting thought for the sports future.

Whilst there’s still a lot to be done, there’s still a lot we can do to evolve the game further. Loughborough Lightning themselves advertising for a Head Coach paying between £32-42k per year… There’s a lot of male coaches in this country who I believe can help these girls and the women’s game in general improve to levels never previously achieved. I get the feeling with increased professional coaching starting now along with the continuation of those foundations already in place, in twenty years time they’ll be as much quality and interest in the women’s game as there is in the men’s, and that can only be a good thing for the sport of association football as a whole in this country, which will be able to benefit more and prosper in the commercial, educational and employment aspects that will keep driving the game forward towards continued success.

The Teams

Loughborough Lightning: Kiya Webb, Abbey Hateley, Emily Sharpe, Lauren Taft, Hope Strauss, Jorja Patterson, Monique Robinson (Alice Wood 87), Ella Powell (Megan Harper 71), Katie Middleton, Nicki Russell, Georgia Stevens (Amelie Johnson 79).

Sheffield: Not provided

1pm Kick Off. Sunday 13th November 2022, Loughborough University Stadium, Loughborough (att 75).

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