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.