One of the constants at Grangetown Netball Club over the past twenty years, and one of the main reasons behind the club’s remarkable on-court success is club captain Vicky Rees. Earlier this month, I met Vicky in Saltburn (at the bottom of a hill that was a lot easier to walk down than climb back up) where she was able to reflect on her outstanding netball career, as well as looking forward to another Premier League season.
It is fair to say (because she actually said it herself) that Vicky is one of the smaller defenders in Prem 2, but height is relative, as she explained: “I joined Grangetown when I was thirteen, but I’d started playing netball at school when I was eleven. I’ve been this tall since I was ten years old... I just didn’t grow any more, but back then I was an absolute giant, and people kept saying to me that I should give netball a try.
“So the seed was planted in my head that because I was so tall I’d be good at netball or basketball, and as soon as I started secondary school I was on the lookout for the trial date. There were a lot of girls wanting to play netball, but I just took to the game straight away... I loved it, and as you’d expect, being so tall at that age, I was just stuck at either end of the court: goal shooter or goal keeper.
“I started badgering my Mum to try and find me a club to go to, because in those days you couldn’t just go and check on the internet or anything like that; so my Mum would phone all the leisure centres to see if there were any netball clubs, but it was really hard to get any information. I ended up joining Grangetown through a lady called Lindsey Teesdale, who used to play for Grangetown and now umpires in the local league; and she was also a PE teacher at Brackenhoe School, which is now King’s Academy. We played her team and she asked me to go along to Grangetown. I really wanted to play and although I lived in Acklam, my Dad would ferry me over, drop me off, then go for a run in the hills before coming back to pick me up!”
Having been used to playing alongside girls of the same age and similar experience, Vicky was now faced with a new and very different scenario, but one that she clearly relished. “When I started playing for Grangetown, there was no junior team. Gel [Williams] and Jeannette [Carroll] were still playing, and I think Julie Haley is the only other person who was there then, who’s still involved with the club now. I probably developed quickly because I was thrown straight into the adult league, so from the age of thirteen I played with the adults at Tilery Sports Centre in Stockton – although the league is now played in Eston. Through school and then through the club, I had regional trials, then county trials, and from when I was fourteen, I started playing County under-21 because at that time, there were no under-18, or under-16 squads.
“When I was at school, I played at centre or goal attack; centre just because I like to run around everywhere and be involved, and goal attack every now and again, which I enjoyed. At Grangetown, Gel was the goal shooter and the girl who played goal attack was just about to move to Germany, so whenever there was a space available that needed filling, I was just put into that position. Gel started training me as a goal attack and even though I always felt at heart that I was a defender, it was as a goal attack that I went for my England under-18 trial down in Loughborough.
“Although it was some time before there was a proper junior set-up at Grangetown, I do remember Jade’s [Stainthorpe] older sister Leanne [Reed] and a few friends from the local area started coming to the youth club and began playing a bit of netball. They only played for a couple of years and they never went that far with it but I suppose they were the first ‘junior’ team I remember. Then there was Kate [Williams] and Jill [Reah], who would come from Stokesley School with their PE teacher, and that was the first time there’d been anyone the same age as me in the squad, which was nice. And after them, the next juniors that really came through were Ria [Small] and Faye [Summerhill].”
As the number of players continued to increase, so the club’s ambitions grew, and competing in stronger leagues could only benefit the development of the squad’s younger members. “Northern League was the first non-local league that we played in as a squad,” Vicky recalled. “Gel and Jeannette were still playing; there was me, Kate and Jill, and Ria and Faye were just starting to come through, although they were obviously still quite young and inexperienced. They often used to come away with us, and every now and then, they might get a bit of court time.
“In that league we would travel to clubs in Manchester and in Yorkshire and places like that, and it did take quite a long time before we made it into the Premier League. There were two possible openings for us to get in; we tried through the regional route a couple of times - which is like the north east league that we still play in - and then through the Northern League. We missed out at the trials the first time we tried to get into Prem, but the second time we had a really good strong squad; we all felt quite confident about it, and everything just went our way that weekend.
Before Grangetown made that jump into the Premier League, Vicky had already had a taste of national netball having enjoyed a couple of Super League seasons with Team Northumbria, and it was very much an ambition fulfilled: “I got to a stage where I’d been to my England trials, and I’d been to a few other trials and I hadn’t got through... hadn’t made it over that final hurdle; so when I was around twenty-five, I remember talking to Gel and saying ‘this season I really want to push myself and go for Super League trials’. I didn’t want to look back on my career and think I almost got there; so I stepped up my training and Gel made a few enquiries and arranged for me to go up for a trial and that’s how things started with Team Northumbria.
“I had thought about trying to get into Super League a little while earlier, but it was never the right time. I was doing an MA after I left Uni, but lectures were on Tuesday and Thursday nights from six until nine every week, and unfortunately the times clashed with Super League training.
“The league had been established for a while, but the year I joined was the first year that Sky Sports had been signed on as a sponsor; and it was the first season the netball was televised, so it was a massive deal. So when the squad was selected, the coaches gave us this talk to us about the importance of the year and how televised netball was going to change the sport. It was a big thing, and it was nice to be involved at that stage....
“I must admit, if I was just starting out as an eleven year-old netballer say, the opportunities would be so much greater now. It’s good to see how much the game has moved on over the years, but I have wondered how different my career would have been if I’d been five or ten years younger. That said the fact that I got the whole Super League thing out of my system and was able to play at that level definitely makes me feel better, because if I hadn’t done that I would probably think more about the what ifs....”
Vicky is quick to acknowledge the massive impact that club founder and head coach Gel Williams has had, not just on her, but on the development and accessibility of netball for girls right across the region: “When I was thirteen and first joined Grangetown, there were some weeks when we just had seven players and that was it; and you look at where the club is now, and what we’ve achieved, it’s wonderful what Gel has done. She’s a workaholic; she’ll do anything and everything to make sure we succeed. For one of my trials she even got me one of those confidence CDs to listen to before bed, and also arranged for someone to come and give me a massage. She got me a post and a ball to practice my shooting, and would open the club at any time of the day for me to come down and put two or three hundred shots up. That’s just an indication of her commitment.”
Grangetown’s elevation to a national league was always likely to have a positive impact on the calibre of players wanting to come to the club, to enhance what was already a strong squad: “The team that got us into Prem 3 was very much a Grangetown squad, but once you’re on that national stage, it’s great to attract other players who either have to play at that level for their own development if they’re England fringe players, or even those who’ve moved into the area and want to play in a national competition. So we did start to draw in players of a really high standard.
“It is difficult though, because I do think there is a big north-south divide in club netball. I know of players of Super League level who’ve been told to go to certain universities if they want to progress in their netball career.... and that’s just the way it is; but it means that coaches in the north, people like Gel and those coaches over in Manchester, have to put loads of effort into attracting and retaining good players, but it’s just a fact that there are more teams in the south. More clubs means more competition and that inevitably results in better players.
“Recently however, we’ve actually managed to get girls from Trinidad and Tobago and Scotland to come to Grangetown. One of the things about having international players in the squad is that it inspires you to be better, to want to train harder and it’s great to have that support and experience on the court when you’re playing, it just lifts everyone really.
“Just a couple of weeks ago we took a team up to Glasgow and played a friendly against Scotland. We’re obviously not match fit, but they are because they’re preparing for the world championships. We were a little bit rusty at first, which is fine because we’ve got plenty of time to get things started before the new season, but we actually played really well. Gel’s idea behind the game was obviously to give us a bit of practice...and practice for them of course, but to have a chat with Gail [Parata, the Scotland head coach] about next season and how we can keep working together; and they’re really keen to stay involved....
“It’s also really important that our juniors see the Prem squad as an achievable goal. Obviously if someone who’s good enough comes from outside they wouldn’t be turned away, but I also think that a few of our own younger Grangetown players are now getting very close to being able to play at Prem level, which is fantastic, but we have to be careful of how we develop these girls.
“It is a really tough league; some of the shooters and defenders are huge and some of the games can get quite physical. So really you’ve got to be one of two things... the fastest or the strongest. If you’re neither of those, then in fifty-fifty situations, you’re not going to get the ball.
“We’ve got a really good defence though, with plenty of speed and strength and unlike some other teams, even our tall players are great athletes, mobile and agile. I’m probably most comfortable at wing defence to be honest – I prefer to be out of the circle. Often if the opposition has a really tall shooter, Katie [Walton] and Jenny [Mrozik] will play goal keeper and goal defence, and I’ll move out to wing defence. It’s just impossible really; if they’ve got someone tall who can hold, there’s not a lot you can do... sometimes I can’t jump as high as their arms!”
Grangetown produced some outstanding performances during the 2014/15 campaign, and a mid-table finish was a fair reflection of the excellent second half to the season: “We just didn’t have a good start,” Vicky admitted. “I don’t know why that was; we just didn’t. There were a few away games where we had a load of injuries, and players who weren’t available and we had just seven players. Most of us would have to play out of position and on one occasion we nearly beat a very, very good team. We were going there expecting to be hammered, certainly on paper we shouldn’t have won, but we almost did; and we came away from the game thinking ‘how did that happen?’ We didn’t have any of the Scottish girls that day, it was just seven Grangetown players and we played really well... it was amazing. And that gives you so much confidence when you go into games with a full squad; everything comes together, and obviously we went on to get those great results....
“I must admit I can be a bit of a bad loser. I don’t like to lose and I’m sure everybody else in the squad is just the same, but for me I am sometimes critical of my own performance, so maybe if we’ve won, although I’ll be chuffed to bits with the result, if I feel I haven’t played very well, I will spend time reflecting what I did... or what I didn’t do, and what I can do better. And then again if we’ve had a loss, but I feel that as a squad we’ve actually played well and that I was able to make a positive contribution to the performance, then that can make me feel a bit better... so I’m probably more critical of myself than anything else.
“We also analyse our performances as a team. When it’s an away game obviously we’ve got a long bus journey home. If it was a particularly bad loss then we’d probably not talk to each other for the first half of the journey, but once we’ve had a stop at the services and got our thoughts together, then we’d probably start to discuss things. Sometimes you can see things in hindsight that you just didn’t pick up during the game.
“And then when we come to training on the Tuesday, Gel will have a few points on the board with things that we need to work on, but it’s often difficult when you have different squads from game to game.
“But I definitely believe our outlook is professional. We probably do very similar things to the girls that play in Super League; the difference is that things are maybe just a little less prescribed at Prem level. In terms of attitude though, I would say they’re exactly the same. Everyone takes it so seriously; the physical and mental preparation and the training... it’s all at the same level or intensity.”
Vicky is equally serious about her role as club captain: “I used to think of the captaincy as just the team that I played in, but over the past few years as the club’s grown in size and stature it’s probably more a general thing now. I probably started to see it that way when some of the coaches like Ria, Faye, or Julie would ask me to come and do a presentation, a talk, go to an event, or do some coaching. I didn’t realise it at the start, but when I’m introduced to all these kids – ‘this is Vicky, the Grangetown club captain’ – you realise that you’re not just captain when you play the Prem games. I’ve never really got into coaching like some of the other players have, so I guess that being able to come along to these events is my way of giving a little something back.”
With the new season looming ever larger on the horizon, the ambition for Gel, Vicky and everyone associated with Grangetown’s elite squad is to get into Prem 1. “Reaching the top division has been our aim ever since we got into Prem,” Vicky acknowledged. “At the moment it looks like we’ve got the full support of the Scottish players as well, who do make a big difference when they come, although obviously we haven’t got them for every game. We’ll start pre-season in mid-July; the first game is at the end of September and it’s a home game as well.
“Gel has already got close links with the new Middlesbrough Sport Village and I know a couple of home games will be played there. It’s got stadium-style seating, so she’s hoping to get a lot of people there and plenty of coverage in the press, which will really help to raise the profile of the club. Hopefully we can have a good start to the season, and if we manage to reach the play-offs, then who knows?
“Obviously it’ll be tough, because there are new teams in the league that we don’t know too much about. I think one of the clubs that went up into Prem 1 last season has come straight back down again. They were amazing when they were in Prem 2, but lost nearly all their games last season. I don’t know if they’ve lost players, or it was just too high a level for them. We’ve got the team from Jersey as well, and they are a total unknown. As far as the other team that has been promoted is concerned, we did play against them in the play-offs, but that was two years ago, so anything could have happened since then….”
In just three months’ time, all the preparations will be complete, and the competitive action will be underway. I will be in the crowd for that first home game and will be hoping for just two things… firstly that Vicky Rees can lead her side to victory… and secondly I ever meet Vicky in Saltburn again, I don’t have to go anywhere near that hill….