Less than 50 days now until the Netball World Cup and the squad announcements have been coming thick and fast. I’ve read thoughts and opinions from plenty of people who have so much experience and knowledge of the sport; this blog therefore is by way of complete contrast…
Given what transpired in last year’s Commonwealth Games and January’s Quad series, it’s reasonable to suggest that the 15th World Cup is the most open in the tournament’s history.
If you believe in tradition”, there is only one likely final, with one almost certain winner; as Australia have appeared in the last seven finals, winning on six occasions. The “blip” came in 2003, when New Zealand lifted the trophy, but the Silver Ferns have finished runners-up no less than five times since losing out by a single point to the Diamonds in 1991.
Interestingly, there have been three single-goal victories (all by Australia) in the seven tournaments since a one-off game replaced a round-robin to determine the champions. One game was decided by two goals, another by three, so whatever happens, history suggests that the final could be a proverbial nail-biter.
The only side apart from Australia and New Zealand to have reached a final in the past 30 years is … actually it’s South Africa back in 1995. The Proteas’ 59-57 defeat of New Zealand in the first group stage ensured the Silver Ferns and Australian Diamonds were paired in the same second group and could not possibly contest the final.
The decisive goals in a thrilling finish (I’ve seen the video) came from Irene van Dyk (occasionally spelt van Dyck), a 6’4” shooter who would later become a New Zealand international. She retired in 2014 with 217 caps to her name and an international career shooting average of a remarkable 90%.
But I digress…
The fact remains that whether on past or recent form, or simply based on the quality of players at their respective disposal, New Zealand and Australia simply cannot be discounted – so what about England?
What the Roses achieved in the 2018 Commonwealth Games was pure theatre– the winning goal was one of the greatest and most emotive moments in any sport that I’ve ever seen. The victorious squad have given English netball such a huge profile; they are outstanding athletes, wonderful role models and definite contenders for the World Cup.
Tracey Neville’s squad is strong and looks well-balanced. The selection of Natalie Panagarry meant that (presumably) Iona Darroch missed out, which was a shame for Severn Stars’ young mid-courter, but based on the former’s versatility in attack and defence, Nat was probably the wise choice. My only change would have been to include Ama Agbeze ahead of an admittedly amazing talent in Fran Williams.
Whatever pressure the players may have experienced in Australia, it will be significantly greater when the girls take to the court in Liverpool. I accept that Ama may currently not be fully fit and her time at London Pulse hasn’t gone as well as she would have hoped; but we’re still seven weeks away from the start of competition and what Ama would bring to the squad surely extends way beyond what could have been a crucial contribution on court. The leaking of her omission from the squad was at best “unfortunate” (although “disgraceful” might be a more appropriate word); but Ama faced the cameras and spoke with all the dignity and passion that you’d expect from one of the country’s finest athletes and ambassadors…
Serena Guthrie has subsequently been named Roses captain. She is a strong character and I can imagine her being a powerful motivator. Every team will struggle at some point during a long and intense competition, and with plenty of experience around her, I suspect that Serena will be a positive source of inspiration in those difficult moments.
There’s no obvious reason to suggest the players won’t cope with the unprecedented (in netball terms) level of expectation, and they clearly have the class and ability to become world champions … but (and it’s a controversial but) I just don’t think this will be England’s year.
Before I expand on why, I will just say that Jamaica always have the ability to pull off a major surprise. To a certain extent they are the unknown quantity as they did not participate in the Quad Series, and they too have an impressive squad (including Jodi-Ann Ward who formed such a brilliant partnership with Sam Cook for Severn Stars in Super League). I sense that whilst they can turn over the best in the world on their day, the Sunshine Girls also tend to fine one team too good in the longer format…
Which brings me to South Africa. They too have an exceptional squad – I am a huge admirer of the outstanding Karla Pretorius, but the 12 selected by Norma Plummer is full of high-quality athletes, including Bongi Msomi, Maryka Holtzhausen (genuinely one of the nicest people you could wish to meet) and Shadine van der Merwe, who have all been plying their trade in Super League since the Quad Series.
In that series, South Africa pulled off what, at the time, was considered a shock win over England; they would have beaten New Zealand too, had netball’s equivalent of Alex Ferguson not been in charge of timekeeping. The Proteas clearly had a plan to play with an intensity and physicality to stifle the Roses attacking flair – and it worked. You could argue South Africa showed their hand too early, as Tracey Neville will surely have worked on a way to overcome similar tactics; but what if Norma Plummer can stay one step ahead?
Admittedly, England responded superbly to that loss by repeating their Commonwealth Games win over Australia. Clearly, there is so little to separate the top five squads, the strength and depth of each of which is guaranteed to be seriously tested; but in a competition that will surely be decided by small margins; what is the decisive factor is actually the coach?
I’ve tried to be objective, because I’m English and I obviously want to see what would be an historic England win; but from the admittedly limited amount of knowledge that I hope I have, I believe that Australia will be consistent enough to reach the final. Their opponents..?
I’m sure many will disagree, but I’m going to say South Africa…
Back in the 1970s, the FA Cup Final was arguably the biggest day in the sporting calendar. There might only have been two television channels (instead of the 800+ UK stations that are currently available), but two-thirds of them would spend hours vying to grab the attention of the viewing public with special programmes, features and cup final episodes of favourites such as “It’s a Knockout” and “A Question of Sport”.
It was a magical day that was about so much more than 90 minutes of football … or 120 minutes … actually there was even the chance of a replay back then. These were also the days before squad rotation and giant killings became football folklore; shocks even happened in the final … “Porterfield!!!”
Perhaps these are just rose-tinted memories of the excitement of a bygone age; football has changed … television has changed … I have changed; and the fact is that the prospect of watching the 2019 FA Cup Final was completely overshadowed by the final of another competition – to the extent that I didn’t even know Manchester City had battered Watford 6-0 until midway through the evening.
That other final was the concluding game in the 2019 Netball Super League season – Wasps versus Manchester Thunder.
Those with a passing interest in general sport will be aware that England are the current Commonwealth Games netball gold medallists, and that Liverpool will be hosting the World Cup in a couple of months’ time; but one step below the international game is a competition that is capable of producing action and drama that can rival any sport whose popularity ensures much greater mainstream media coverage.
Obviously interest in (or appreciation of) any particular sport is subjective and my opinion is of no more merit than the next person; but top-level netball will showcase athletes that possess all the following qualities: determination, dedication, fitness, teamwork skill, movement, speed, co-ordination, vision, strength, flair, agility, and grace…
Of course, the majority of the foregoing are essential components of the make-up of many an elite athlete in a team sport. For me one of the defining differences is the fact that all these attributes are displayed on a court whose area is far more restricted than pitches used for the majority of outdoor sports. That gives a real intensity to the players’ speed of thought and movement – an intensity that is further heightened by a three-second rule that guarantees the momentum of the action.
The other quality that makes netball stand apart from so many other team sports is that word “grace”. Don’t be fooled into thinking that netball is a non-contact sport; there is a genuine physical aspect to the game that requires players (particularly in the respective circles) to have real strength of both body and mind.
Yet running parallel is an ability to produce moments that, in a split second, can bring a crowd to its feet – and change the course of a game. Watching a player having the ability to anticipate a pass and the presence and skill to get in front of an opponent and claim a flying interception (whilst still being able to release the ball or stop quickly enough to prevent a footwork call) is an amazing sight. Athleticism and elegance combining in a way that I’m not sure is regularly replicated in any other team format.
On Saturday, in front of a packed Copper Box Arena, Wasps held the advantage going into the final quarter, but in one of those split seconds, I felt the momentum (and ultimately the course of the game) swung towards Thunder. Laura Malcolm somehow got in front of Jade Clarke, and got the slightest touch to the ball which, in turn, flicked Jade’s hand as it went out of play.
Manchester effectively needed to make (and convert) three centre pass turnovers to bring parity to proceedings, and after Laura’s first intervention, Thunder goal keeper Kerry Almond earned the benefit of a tight call against Rachel Dunn to claim possession from the baseline. Moments later, Laura deflected a Wasps pass straight into the hands of her goal keeper and with replacement shooter Ellie Cardwell showing nerves of steel at the opposite end of the court, the deficit was overturned and an 11-goal swing in those final 15 pulsating minutes was enough to take the trophy back to the north-west.
It was an outstanding finish to a superb game. Manchester goal defence Emma Dovey was the official player of the match, but I must admit my vote would have gone to Liana Leota at wing attack, whose movement, availability, distribution and circle feeds under ever-increasing pressure were ridiculously good at times.
One of Manchester’s football team had lifted the FA Cup and the back page headlines were already being written before the city’s netball club could celebrate their outstanding success. The majority of interest and focus will be on City’s completion of a domestic treble (and there’s no doubt it is a tremendous achievement), but elsewhere in the capital, the ladies of Manchester Thunder produced their own brand of sporting magic; and as far as my Saturday viewing was concerned (and with apologies to David Coleman, Brian Moore et al), I definitely made the right choice.
One of the symptoms of a number of mental health conditions – including the dysthymia from which I suffer – is the mind’s ability to find the negative in almost any situation and instil an objectively disproportionate but subjectively almost overwhelming sense of failure.
Consequently, now might be considered as perhaps not the best time to be writing this blog; but I actually think it’s the perfect time…
Essentially yesterday was intended to be a “road trip” to visit ten professional rugby league grounds in seven hours, with the “challenge” (for the hundred-and-somethingth time) being used to raise mental health awareness and (for the first time) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Gateshead Thunder’s debut season as a rugby league club.
As with any event of this kind, there had been plenty of planning … and Castleford, Wakefield, Dewsbury and Braford were all “ticked off” with a minimum of fuss.
I’d never been to in Castleford before, but Gateshead Thunder enjoyed a narrow win at “The Jungle” against Stuart Raper’s 1999 side in front of the Sky cameras – a result that gave the newly-assembled squad some real credibility given how strong Cas were that season.
My first ever Gateshead Thunder away game was at Wakefield. I stood in the corner of the ground, on the opposite side to the rest of the relatively small, but incessantly noisy Thunder Army, and watched as a likely defeat turned into an exhilarating victory with a last-minute try from Brett Grogan.
Dewsbury was a club that Thunder faced after the Super League adventure had ended. We played well there on a couple of occasions, but the home side were always just too strong.
I also stood on the Odsal terraces back in ’99, as the Bulls ran out comfortable winners. They had an outstanding squad and headed the division at the end of Super League IV, but lost out to St Helens in the Grand Final. Yesterday though, there was still as sense of euphoria around the stadium, after the club’s thrilling televised Challenge Cup win over Leeds Rhinos.
I’m sure the celebrations went on well into the West Yorkshire night, but judging by the number of plastic cups that were being cleared from the terraces, the alcohol had been flowing fairly freely during the 80 minutes as well.
The next leg of the journey was the 15 miles to Huddersfield. I’d heard on the news that the westbound M62 was shut, but was hoping that whatever the reason, the motorway would be back up and running when I needed to cross into Lancashire. The sat-nav said it would take 33 minutes to get to the John Smiths Stadium – it lied.
An hour and 15 minutes later I trundled into the car park and strolled into the stadium that had witnessed the first hat-trick to be scored by a Gateshead Thunder player. Deon Bird was the man who crossed for three tries 20 years ago … and it was fitting that I was wearing Deon’s original away shirt as I gazed out across the pitch.
Rochdale was only 15 miles away. The M62 was apparently still closed, but the sat-nav said an alternative route would take 66 minutes – it lied.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I was still (according to the ever-reliable technology) 57 minutes away, with stationary traffic queuing as far as the eye could see.
By then, it was a question of whether the car engine or my mobile would overheat first, and it soon became obvious that there was no realistic chance of reaching any (let alone all) of the remaining five grounds before offices would begin to close for the day; so I decided to turn the car round and head back east – a manoeuvre that I completed perfectly except for stalling on the uphill reverse section of my five-point turn.
As I drove home, I was just so disappointed. It’s hard to convey how I felt because the reality was that I’d simply got stuck in an unavoidable traffic jam. However I’ve always made a direct connection between whatever “challenge” I’ve attempted and the messages that it’s fine to talk about mental health or ask for help if you’re struggling … but how could I expect people to listen to those messages when I couldn’t even drive to ten rugby league grounds?
To many, it will sound trivial; but in my mind, at that moment, I’d failed.
And whilst I still can’t fully erase the feelings of failure that have accompanied me over the past 40 years, I am incredibly fortunate that since that first visit to my GP (some 15 years ago now), I have become able to speak openly about how I feel and equally importantly have the ability to take a step back and look at things with some objective clarity.
To me the admittedly simplistic connection between the challenges and talking about mental health has real validity. If I look beyond the initial sense of failure, there is perhaps a different message to take from the day…
Very few things in life are accomplished without some sort of effort. If we don’t try, we can’t realistically succeed. I didn’t reach all ten grounds … but I tried; and if I’d simply stayed at home, I wouldn’t have relived so many wonderful memories from years gone by.
Yesterday has reinforced the fact that there are always things in life that are out of our control – and even if it sounds naïve (or even contrived) the M62 simply reflected the reality of mental health recovery. It’s not easy, and sometimes there are setbacks along the way; but it’s so important to try … and keep trying … because you’re only ever one day away from a “better day” and one attempt away from achieving something amazing.
On the face of it, there is very little similarity between sitting down for lunch with one of the finest players in world netball and driving an old friend around various professional rugby league grounds.
There is a link, however, and it is simply to raise mental health awareness; to try and show that it is both fine to talk openly and honestly about such a difficult subject; and it is also fine to ask for help if you are struggling.
The message doesn’t come with any promises or guarantees. Everyone is different, and there are numerous mental health conditions with wide-ranging symptoms, the effect of which can contrast dramatically from person to person. Treatment can take many forms … and recovery lengths and levels can be equally varied; but however the future may unfold, the proverbial road must always begin with that first and toughest step.
It took me many years to have the self-awareness and strength to take that step; but the tears that fell down my face as I talked (for the very first time) to my doctor were undeniably a major turning point. Reaching the stage where I could write about the condition I have was another massively important moment. I haven’t “recovered”, but I am able to recognise I am very different to the person I was even a decade ago.
I’ve had such a lot of support, for which I am and always will be grateful; but I’ve also had to find reserves of strength that I didn’t believe I possessed to get to where I am.
Over time, I realised I wanted to do more to highlight the importance of being able to talk about the kind of things I’d fought so hard to hide since my teens. I am so glad I decided to attempt a series of what is now well over 100 “challenges” to raise mental health awareness … I have learned so much about myself and my condition, met so may inspiring people and (rather selfishly) been able to have numerous experiences to remember and cherish; but I’ve never lost sight of the underlying theme or message that has shaped so much of the past five or more years of my life.
Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours in the wonderful company of South African netballer Maryka Holtzhausen (along with my friends Becky and Clive); this coming Monday, I will spend the day with Chris Hood, a friend I met through rugby league and have had the pleasure of knowing for the best part of 20 years.
We’ll be looking to visit the grounds of 11 (although it may end up being 10) professional rugby league clubs in eight hours. Of course, the event carries the mental health message, but will also allow Chris and I to take an extended trip down memory lane as 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the debut season of Gateshead Thunder … a club whose history has been let’s say “turbulent”, but I’ve made a lot of friends through supporting the various incarnations of the club and this is my way of paying tribute to the original squad for what they helped to create.
It is also an opportunity to mention one of those players, Adam Maher, who is still in his 40s, but is battling Motor Neurone Disease. Adam couldn’t have been a top class forward without being blessed with great courage to match his ability – and he’s clearly going to need all that courage to face the hardest fight of all.
Adam will be in our thoughts throughout the day, but especially when we arrive at Rochdale Hornets, one of his former clubs…
I'm sure the conversations I had with Maryka will be very different from the ones I will have with Chris (and I expect Monday’s menu to be considerably less healthy too); but the fact remains that both days will only have happened because I asked for help...
The link remains simplistic – it is also still very powerful. Please don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling. It is fine to talk about how you are feeling; you are not alone and things can, and do get better.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve driven 440 miles to go out for lunch.
Actually, I can count the number of times on one finger…
The logical assumptions would be that any such trip would have to be in some way important or special; and both would be correct, as yesterday, I found myself strolling through the streets of Worcester (en route to Chesters Restaurant) discussing all things netball with one of the finest players in the sport.
Worcester is home to the Severn Stars Super League netball franchise; their captain is Maryka Holtzhausen, a South African international with 105 caps to her name (she is only the second South African to have reached the milestone) … and she had been kind enough to not only meet me, but to actually take time out of her day to go out for a bite to eat as part of my ongoing work to raise mental awareness.
As many of you will know, I’ve spent the past five-and-a-bit years undertaking all sorts of different “challenges”, all to try and show that it’s fine to talk about mental health and to ask for help if you’re struggling.
I wish there was a magic cure to the various conditions that affect so many lives, but whilst the road towards any level of recovery is likely to be hard, the “journey” (much as I hate the word) must always start with probably the hardest step of all. There are never any guarantees, but I’ve attempted all these challenges to prove that things can get better.
I’ve pushed myself to play (or at least try and play) various sports against some of the best this country has to offer; performed live stand-up comedy; sung live and in a recording studio; slept rough for a night; arranged to visit special places and meet some truly wonderful people … but this year is (almost) all about netball.
Through my involvement as a volunteer with Grangetown Netball Club (fourth-best in the country … have I mentioned that before?!), I have not only seen some fantastic sporting action, but have been lucky enough to meet some lovely people and even make some good friends. I’ve loved every minute and just felt that basing this year’s efforts around netball would be a positive thing to do.
Yesterday’s trip came about after six well-known netballers were chosen completely at random – my “challenge” being to try and meet them. As I have mentioned before, none of them had asked to be involved … and it would be (and still is) perfectly reasonable to assume that they might not want to spend any time in the company of someone they don’t know…
So, I would have to ask for help (from friends … friends of friends etc); but it’s fine to ask for help; and that albeit simplistic link with mental health remains as relevant and important to me now as it did when the challenges first began.
I am indebted to Becky Oatley, a former Stars defender and Wales international for arranging for me to meet Maryka – and for inviting Clive Jones along to make up the quartet round the dinner table. Becky won’t thank me for saying this, but she really is an inspiring young woman. I had met her once before, and it was wonderful to have the chance to spend a bit more time in her company.
Clive and I met for the first at the recent Wasps vs London Pulse game in Coventry; he has been incredibly generous and supportive, and it was great to catch up again.
The one person I hadn’t met before was Maryka, but I have to say it was an absolute privilege.
She is a charming and engaging young woman, with a humility that belies her ability and status as an elite athlete. We spoke at length about South Africa’s performances in the Quad Series and prospects in upcoming World Cup (which are extremely good I hasten to add), and during the meal the conversation covered many different aspects of netball, sport in general … even pottery got a mention!
It was such an enjoyable couple of hours, and very much a day to remember.
I’ve been so fortunate to have met Maryka and so many other amazing people over the past few years, but I still struggle to fully appreciate that those meetings only happened because I have had a mild, but chronic mental health condition for over 40 years.
During the last 15 of those years, I’ve been able to gain a better understanding of how my condition affects me, and what I need to do to cope with the “bad days”. With the love and support of those closest to me I have found the strength to be open about how I feel; yesterday I spent time with people who make a difference … I have to keep going and hope that one day I can do the same.
I’m now into my sixth year of trying to raise mental health awareness by undertaking various “challenges”. The definitive list of 100 covering 2014-18 includes numerous tasks relating to sports and (performing) arts that tested me physically and/or emotionally, as well as many meeting and visiting challenges that required a significant amount of planning (and often travelling).
Throughout the whole time, the underlying messages remained the same. It is fine to talk openly about mental health; and never be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling.
As many of you will be aware, training and preparation notwithstanding, the majority of the tasks on the list were designed to require me to ask someone (often someone I didn’t know) for help in order to turn an idea into reality. It took me over a quarter of a century to accept I had a mental health problem, and to find the strength to go and see my GP (someone I hardly knew…) and ask for help.
The comparison might seem simplistic, but I make no apology because, for me, it is such a powerful link. Fifteen years after I booked that appointment and broke down completely in front of my doctor, so much has changed.
I would never say I have “recovered” – in fact I’m not sure I will ever completely recover – but the mild, but chronic form of depression from which I have suffered since my teens is now fully accepted, better understood, better managed, and better controlled.
Yes, to a greater or lesser degree, I still suffer every single day; but the difference is that I recognise the symptoms; I can spot the obvious triggers (but don’t waste time trying to find the less obvious … because they might not even exist); I know my coping strategies; I know there are people I can talk to … however compelling the need to withdraw; and most importantly of all, I am strong enough to retain the objective clarity to realise the feelings always pass.
My “challenges” are not intended to suggest any miracle cure – because there isn’t one. To whatever extent an individual improves or “recovers”, it is a hard fight; it can take a long time; and there will be setbacks along the way. But (with a capital B), the moment you talk to someone – be it a friend, parent, colleague, teacher, doctor etc. – you have taken the biggest and toughest step; and that makes you amazing…
What I am trying to do is show that whatever the condition from which you suffer (or believe you may suffer), and however it manifests itself in your daily life, you are not alone. Your life, your circumstances and specific symptoms may be unique, but so many people will be able to relate to you in terms of how much you struggle.
People will listen.
People will help.
For 2019, my “challenges” will revolve around the sport of netball. I am lucky enough to work with Grangetown Netball Club (fourth best club in the country I’ll have you know) as a volunteer reporter. They are lovely people, and great athletes, playing a fantastic sport; and half of this year’s work will involve arranging events in which members of the squad will participate (and planning is already underway…).
The second part of the challenge is to meet six stars of the game chosen by three people who randomly picked two numbers each, which were then matched against a list of names numbered 1-50 (in no particular order).
I’m very much aware that means asking six people I don’t know to get involved in something they know nothing about. Hopefully the mental theme will make a difference, and maybe the past challenges will prove I’m serious about what I doing; but whatever the outcome(s), I’m definitely going to have to ask for help.
As far as mental health is concerned, netball is essentially no different to any other sport, or any walk of life for that matter: mental health does not discriminate and anyone can be affected…
Today’s world is very different to the one in which I grew up; issues such as body image, eating disorders, obsessive conditions, forms of stress, anxiety and depression (and the numerous potential triggers) et al are now very much in the public domain; but that in itself doesn’t remove the pain of the sufferer, or the stigma that sadly still exists.
Many of the above have some relevance within the realms of netball, but of course, they are not restricted to age, or gender, let alone an individual sport. I have chosen to raise awareness through netball simply because I love watching the sport, and I love Grangetown … but the underlying messages wouldn’t be any different if the sport was cricket or rugby league…
Essentially if just one person reads these blogs, sees the photos of the challenges, and is somehow empowered to talk about how they are feeling; then that justifies everything.
All of which brings me to the photo at the top of the page. The young lady in question is Rachel Dunn. Rachel plays netball for Wasps and England and is one of the finest shooters currently playing the game.
Rachel had drawn one of the six short straws mentioned earlier, but with support from Wasps’ photographer Clive Jones and PR/Media manager Rob Milne (both of whom I had also never met before), it was possible to spend a few thoroughly enjoyable minutes in Rachel’s company on Sunday… and even have a photo to prove it…
So the 2019 netball challenges are officially underway. There will be more blogs and pictures to come over the next few months, but even though the photos will be different, the message will always stay the same.
It is fine to talk openly about mental health; and never be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling.
Along with Grangetown head coach Gel Williams and podcast legend Andy Lamb, I drove down to Coventry yesterday to watch the Wasps vs London Pulse Super League clash … officially the furthest I have ever travelled to watch a game of netball.
The tickets had been booked towards the back end of last year, well before I had the idea of attempting some netball-related “challenges” to raise mental health awareness; but the visit to the Midlands offered an unexpected, but welcome opportunity to start the proverbial ball rolling…
The journey was relatively uneventful and we arrived at the Ricoh Arena just after two o’clock. I’d paid for parking in advance, but it was a bit of a worry when the barrier worked using electronic registration number recognition – and my car hasn’t been washed since … well since the last heavy downpour. Thankfully, the letters and numbers were still decipherable through the layer of grime, and my faithful old Corsa trundled under the barrier and into an empty space.
From what I saw, the Ricoh Arena looks a magnificent complex – befitting the quality of sport being played particularly by the netball and rugby union sides. We peered into the arena and saw that the under-19 fixture between Wasps and Pulse was underway. Sadly the stewards would not let us in to watch, but Pulse claimed a notable scalp with a one-goal victory.
I thought I spotted a familiar face amongst the Pulse squad, and at the risk of being embarrassingly wrong, I went to say a quick hello. Thankfully, I had the right person, Funmi Fadoju; England under-17 captain, New Cambell Premier League defender and without doubt, one of the most talented athletes of her age I have ever seen.
Happy to report she is a charming young woman too, and as I wrote in my report after New Cambell’s win at Grangetown in January; remember the name, because Funmi is a star in the making.
After Andy departed to do his media stuff, Gel (armed with her free Mother’s Day Prosecco) and I found our seats and watched the two sides warm up. The whole set-up, both on and off the court, was so professional, and it was great to see so many families with young children coming along to cheer on their team.
With Grangetown (fourth best team in the country by the way) players Ash Neal and Brie Grierson in the London squad, Gel and I were two of a small number of Pulse supporters in the four-figure crowd; but whilst Brie started at wing attack, Ash (somewhat surprisingly) had to wait until the final quarter before being introduced.
For the opening few minutes, the teams appeared fairly evenly-match. Pulse even netted against a Wasps centre pass to take a 7-5 lead; however 11 of the next 12 goals were scored by the home side and, for me, the game was essentially over as a contest by the end of the first quarter.
Pulse battled away, but Wasps were simply the better side and drew further away over the next three periods to record a comfortable 67-35 success.
Bearing in mind, I’m no expert; here are a few thoughts on the game…
The majority of Pulse goals came from Chiara Semple at goal attack. Defensively, Wasps coped really well with the three players used at goal shooter; and it would have been interesting to see if or how the dynamic of the game might have been affected by moving Chiara to shooter, and bringing on Ash at goal attack alongside Brie, who did really well at wing attack.
As a totally biased aside, that combination would also have gone down very well with the Grangetown fans in the crowd!
Another player I have seen in Prem 1, Oldham’s Taylor Cullen, had a tough afternoon marking Bongi Msomi (who had a huge influence on the game and was deservedly named player of the match); but Taylor stuck to her task really well and I thought she had a pretty good game. I was also impressed by Fionnuala (Fi) Toner; a fine player who is as brave and tough as they come.
Wasps played some fantastic netball, but as I’ve just indicated Bongi Msomi was simply outstanding. Rarely have I seen such speed of movement –especially her changes of direction. Bongi was so clever at creating space for herself, and had great vision with her circle feeds; she also delivered the “no-look” pass seemingly at will, a clear sign of the understanding there is within the Wasps attacking unit. Simply a joy to watch.
Rachel Dunn and Jade Clarke were excellent in the circle and in mid-court respectively. Rachel had to show plenty of strength and skill in what was a great battle with Loreen Ngwira, but as soon as she had ball in hand, the goal was almost inevitable. Jade’s work-rate was phenomenal, but what Gel and I thought was fantastic was that she had the class to bring Bethany Dix straight into the game when the youngster came on for what I assume (judging by the loudest cheer of the day) was her Super League debut.
I also want to mention Tamsin Moala, a familiar name to anyone who follows north east netball. Tamsin enjoyed a fine spell at goal attack, and I just loved her shooting style. To my untrained eye, it looked like she gave the ball plenty of air, but time after time the ball dropped (seeming vertically) straight down into the net. I had the chance to meet Tamsin after the game … she reads my articles … forget what I said earlier; Tamsin you were my player of the match!
As far as “meetings” go, it was good to spend some time with photographer Clive Jones, and to meet Wasps PR and media manager Rob Milne. Both helped arrange for me to spend a few minutes in the company of Rachel Dunn – one of the six netballers selected at random for me to meet as part of my netball “challenges”.
On a day when the players’ mothers were in attendance and there was a throng of young fans wanting selfies with the Wasps stars, it was so kind of Rachel to spare a couple of minutes to talk to me and have a photo taken.
She was actually aware of the challenge, and I must say she was lovely; so thank you much Rachel, it was great to meet you.
As well as being able to catch up with Ash and Brie after the game, I also had the pleasure of chatting to England captain Ama Agbeze – she took a real interest in the work that I was doing, and spending some time in her company was a wonderful way to end the visit.
Eventually, we made our way back to the car park and started the long journey … to the exit.
We drew up alongside another car at the barriers, but just as my number plate somehow passed the recognition test for a second time, the adjacent barrier remained horizontal and the adjoining sign was illuminated by the words “Not Paid”. The driver clambered slowly from the vehicle to be greeted by cheers from three Middlesbrough-bound adults who frankly should know better…
And that’s just about it. Three hours later, I was at home having a first sip of a chilled Viognier (such sophistication…); but at the end of a thoroughly enjoyable day spent in great company, I have to finish with the same short, but massively important message that has flowed through so many blogs, articles and interviews over the past five years.
It is fine to talk openly about mental health; and however daunting it may seem, never be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling. You are not alone…
On 7 March – in precisely 6 days –I will reach the milestone (of sorts) of being 20,000 days old.
10,000 days came and went without me noticing back in 1991, and the likelihood of reaching 30,000 (the date for your diary is 23 July 2046) is frankly minimal, so I might as well get the bunting out for the “big 20,000”.
I’ll probably have to make the decorations myself … I’m not sure the high street card shops do a roaring trade in balloons and banners for this particular occasion; and fire officers have already warned me not to even think about putting candles on a cake.
Probably best to keep it low key then…
Would have been a big cake though…
So as of today, I am the ripe old age of 19,994 days old … 19,994 days and 19.992 nights (I stayed up all night once back in ’82). My mind should be overflowing with memories from so many days; so how come I’ve forgotten so much?
If I could somehow add together all the random memories that float around inside my head, how many days would they add up to?
Is it wrong to feel almost “cheated”?
I want to recall so much from when I was a child … all the times I spent with my wonderful grandparents and relatives who have long since passed away … more moments from my teens … things I’ve seen, experiences I’ve had. Surely those memories must exist somewhere, but how do you retrieve them?
Have I tried so hard to block the darkest moments from my mind, that some of the happier times have just faded away completely? I have some photos, but do they trigger “real” memories, or just images of what my mind wants me to “remember”?
I look at the picture of me when I was 13, and even though the features are undeniably mine (and I wasn’t responsible for the haircut), I actually feel like this and other parts of my life were lived or experienced by someone I no longer recognise.
I don’t want to change the things that have happened in my life (even the “bad” things), because ultimately they all led me to Elaine … I don’t want to be a teenager again … all I want is the ability to remember; to get some sense of the person I was … the boy who shaped the man I’ve become.
And maybe then I can think about that cake.
Following on from yesterday’s blog which revealed that Grangetown Netball Club’s amazing Prem 1 squad will be getting involved in raising raise mental health awareness over the forthcoming months, I have one further netball-related “challenge” – and I’m definitely going to need to ask for some help.
Within the 100 challenges I completed between 2014 and 2018 were a number that came under the general heading of “meeting” … meeting someone: someone born on the same day as me, a primary school classmate, an Olympic gold medallist, a punk legend, a Coronation Street actor, my local MP, someone who has had a no.1 record, a Rio 2016 medallist – and so the list goes on.
Arranging to meet someone you either don’t know or haven’t seen for 30 or more years can take a huge amount of planning, and often a considerable amount of driving … whilst the actual meeting might take anything from a couple of hours to a matter of minutes.
That said to have the opportunity to spend any length of time in the company of someone who has achieved something remarkable, or someone with whom you have any sort of past connection is genuinely special… moments that can create lasting memories (and in some cases even friendships).
And when someone who (as an example) can show you a small case containing an Olympic gold medal would rather talk about your reasons for wanting to raise mental health awareness, than their own incredible exploits on the track … well that is the very definition of humbling.
So, on the basis that Grangetown Netball Club’s Prem squad will be helping me to try and show that it is fine to talk openly about mental health and ask for help if you’re struggling, I thought it would be a nice idea to maintain a netball theme for the 2019 version of this kind of challenge: “to meet six Super League or international netballers”.
Not just any six though … I could do that by attending almost any Grangetown Prem 1 fixture. To make it a proper challenge, six names will be picked at random from a list of 50 outstanding athletes (although it could have easily been 100 or more), and my task is then to try and arrange to meet them at some point during 2019.
On the right is the alphabetical (by first name) list – there are four current players from each Super League team, a few overseas-based internationals and a couple of high profile former internationals.
There are some obvious problems. There are no Super League clubs anywhere near Middlesbrough … some of the players are based abroad … and perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is that meeting me is likely to be at the bottom of anyone’s “to do” list – but I suppose if it was easy, then it wouldn’t be a challenge.
I have asked Becky Oatley (who I have already had the pleasure of meeting), The Netball Show (Andy Lamb) and Courtside Comments if they would pick two numbers each between 1 and 50. I have used a random number generator to shuffle the list, so they would have no idea who they were selecting.
In numerical order, these are the six numbers that were chosen: 7, 21, 24, 37, 42 and 46 … and with a suitably dramatic drum roll, the corresponding players (to whom I apologise unreservedly in advance) are: Maryka Holtzhausen, Tamsin Greenway, Kathryn Turner, Rachel Dunn, Lindsay Keable and Maria Folau.
The serious aspect to all of this is that I will not be able to arrange anything without asking for help. I’ve suffered from a chronic form of thankfully mild depression for over 40 years, and I wouldn’t be coping anywhere near as well as I do if I hadn’t gone to my GP … and asked for help.
To some degree I am affected every single day by my condition, but I’m loved, supported and most of the time, I’m strong enough to fight. My life changed the day I first spoke to my GP: please never be afraid to ask for help…
In 2004, I was formally diagnosed with a form of depression (now recognised as dysthymia) from which I had suffered since my early teens … in 2011, I first opened up about my condition and how it affects me … then, in 2014, I began a series of over 100 challenges to raise mental health awareness; to show that it is fine to talk about mental health, and to ask for help if you are struggling.
Those messages remain every bit as relevant and important in 2019, and after five years of pushing myself, emotionally and physically (from performing stand-up comedy to rowing a marathon and plenty in between), I will continue sharing my experiences, trying to raise awareness and challenging stigma … but now I will have the support of Grangetown Netball Club.
Mental health does not discriminate. It can affect anyone, of any age, at any time … and no one is immune. You might feel embarrassed or ashamed; you might feel that no one feels the way you do, that no one will understand, or you might think that no one will listen; but whatever the situation, however hard it might be to find the strength say those first words, there’s no need to feel embarrassed, you are absolutely not alone; and you need to know that people will listen, and people will help…
Back in 2014, I asked Grangetown Netball Club if they would help me complete the challenge of “playing goal shooter in a netball team”. They did help. I played. I was rubbish … but everyone was so welcoming and supportive that I stayed in touch, and now write match reports and articles on behalf of the Premier League squad, who have developed into one of the best club sides in the whole country.
You might think there is no link between me missing shot after shot on a netball court and struggling with a mental health condition, but when I approached Grangetown and when I first sat down in front of my GP, it was to “ask for help”.
The connection might seem simplistic … but for me it’s incredibly powerful.
Netball is a fast, exciting team sport, with those at the top of the game being some of the finest athletes on the planet. Grangetown Netball Club’s Prem 1 squad is flying the flag for elite women’s sport in north east England, and it is wonderful that they are willing to get involved and support raising mental health awareness.
The plan is to see if various individuals or clubs would be willing to arrange a handful of “challenges” involving me and some of the Prem squad; it could be netball-related, it could be any other sport (for example a penalty shoot-out against a professional goalkeeper…); it might even be in a recording studio!
Whatever the challenge happens to be, the aim as always will be to show just what can be achieved by asking for help; then use blogs, photos and videos to highlight and reinforce the all-important messages. If you are struggling, you don’t have to suffer in silence; it’s fine to talk about mental health (whether to a friend, relative, teacher, colleague, GP…), and asking for help is not only a sign of amazing courage, it is also the first step on a road that can lead to really positive outcomes…