Having opened the new series of Grangetown Premier squad interviews with club captain Vicky Rees, it is only right that vice-captain Ria Small is second in the proverbial firing line. Ria joined Grangetown almost two decades ago, and is not only an important and influential member of the club’s elite squad, she is also heavily involved in coaching and helping to develop the next generation of talented athletes.
The first thing I asked was how Ria would have reacted if she’d been told this time last year that Grangetown would be preparing for its first season in Prem 1?
“I would have been overwhelmed,” came the reply “Obviously going back into Prem 2, Gel [Williams, Head Coach] said she would be happy if we maintained a mid-table position. Promotion from Prem 3 was a step-up for the squad, but we’d played at that level before so we knew we’d be capable of being competitive. But if someone had said we’d actually end up being champions, I don’t think I would have believed them … little Grangetown … one of the top ten clubs in the country!”
The final and decisive fixture was away to a Clan side that had struggled during the season, and finished the campaign one position above bottom-placed Chester. The scoreboard suggested the game was very one-sided, but how did it feel to be out on court, knowing that with every goal, the Prem 1 dream was becoming a reality?
“We knew that Clan hadn’t been in great form, and we were the stronger side going into the game,” Ria admitted, “but if they happened to be at full strength it would have been a really tough test for us; so we worked really hard and prepared ourselves for their strongest squad.
“As it turned out, once the game got underway, we felt pretty comfortable, although the coaches kept telling us that the game wasn’t over and the win wasn’t in the bag; Clan could always come back. When we were out on court though, we were a long way ahead and we probably knew we were going to win from quite early on. It was a strange feeling because we’d had so many really close finishes during the season, but this was totally different and the last fifteen minutes were actually quite emotional because we knew the job was done.
“I admit that I cried at the end. It was just such a fantastic feeling to know that we’d be playing in Prem 1 next season. Everyone was buzzing and it was great to do it for the club, the area, and for Gel - even when I first started playing when I was 11; that was always her dream. Knowing that this squad had achieved that goal was just fantastic.
“I suppose the only disappointment was that the game was away, so we didn’t have much support; but a few people were able to make the long trip down, which was brilliant. We all wanted to go out afterwards, but we were all at work the next day and had to travel back!”
Despite losing two of the opening four fixtures (albeit to Turnford and Hucclecote who would finish second and third respectively), Grangetown then performed consistently well right through the remainder of the campaign, steadily climbing the table and spending a number of weeks in the top three. But was there a specific moment when the prospect of promotion really started to hit home?
“The table was so tight for so long, and it didn’t help that there were a couple of mistakes in the table which we didn’t know about until just before those final two games, and that changed things a bit,” Ria explained. “So really, for me, it wasn’t until we went to Chester for the second-last game that I knew that promotion was within reach. Until then, there had been three teams battling away at the top of the division, but when the Chester game came round, our fate was finally in our own hands. Before then I knew we had it in us as a team, and that if we kept pushing and training hard we could have a fantastic finish, but promotion never really felt in touching distance until right at the end.”
The team to miss out was Hucclecote, who had looked a fine side when becoming the only team to win at Grangetown all season. A strong-looking squad included several players who were part of the Severn Stars set-up; and Hucclecote’s form dipped after the start of the Super League season. “They were the hardest team we faced,” Ria acknowledged. “They had Sam Cook playing for them and she’s amazing. She is one of the best players in Super League, let alone in Prem.
“When I’m coaching, I keep telling the kids that netball is a team sport and one player doesn’t make all the difference, but when you’ve got a player of that ability and that level of skill, then they do make a difference. For me, she dictates the whole court, irrespective of where she’s playing or court restrictions.”
Grangetown did not have that level of Super League representation, but in Ria’s opinion, the bond formed by such a closely-knit squad was a major factor in the club’s success.
“This squad has definitely been more together than ever before … with everyone wanting the same outcome. From September to April we spend nearly every weekend with each other; team mates become friends, in some ways we’re almost like a family. We’ve all pulled together and we’ve all had the same goal. When Ash [Neal] and Hayley [Mulheron] have come into the squad, they’ve both been great; and even though they are used to playing at a higher level, there was never any hierarchy. Everyone was equal and treated exactly the same. The experience, leadership and skill level that both of them brought to the squad certainly helped us to take that next step.
“Having said that, as far as getting together for training is concerned, it can still be difficult when some of the girls are up in Newcastle and others are down here. It wasn’t that people weren’t training, they were just training differently, but everyone was pulling in the same direction; they took ownership of their fitness and worked so hard away from the club - and that was so important.”
It’s fair to say that “training” and “fitness” are actually two of Ria’s favourite words…
“In terms of fitness people call me a bit of a geek,” she revealed, “but it doesn’t really bother me. I do think that fitness can be a bit of an addiction, but I don’t think it’s a bad addiction to have. Of course, it can be if you push yourself too far and you do have to be careful. I listen to my body and take rest days, but I do spend a lot of time and money on my training.
“I have two personal trainers, Jemma Wesson and Jonathan Paisley (Jarv). They are both amazing; by far the best trainers I have ever worked with, and I feel that showed in my performances. We train at The Unit Gym which Jemma owns; it is an amazing facility and she has done a fantastic job with it!
“I do a lot of training outside the club; but for this coming season it will have to be even tougher. I was fit last season; I think that this was a reflection of the training I did in and out of the club and it showed in my game, but this season will be totally different and I’m well aware that regardless of where I was last year, I will need to be even better this time round. It does help that with my job I get six weeks off over the summer and having the time to train during the day makes a massive difference. I’m not saying I necessarily have to do more than I did last year, but the training has to be different … and smarter.
“I have continued with my sessions with Jemma since the season finished and also followed the programmes she sets me, which vary week to week. I started back with Jonathan (Jarv) a few weeks ago and even though I only had a week off when I went away for my birthday and I’d kept active, I thought I was going to be physically sick after that first session. I couldn’t believe how hard it was, but he said that was the way it had to be; things would have to be stepped up and would have to be different and I’ve certainly noticed the difference already with both my personal trainers.”
One of the Grangetown squad’s biggest strengths is its versatility, with many players able to play to a high level in more than one position. For Ria, that meant a season at centre or wing attack; but which position does she prefer?
“Although I played a lot more at wing attack last season, my preference probably would be centre just because I have more space and I find that easier than the restriction you have at wing attack. I enjoy the link that you form between defence and attack; centre is not just about being in an attacking position. As much as you still have to defend as a wing attack, there’s more pressure on a centre to work with the defence – but that’s great when you have a defensive unit as strong as ours.
“At the other end of the court, it’s been great to be linking up with Abbie [LeBrocq], our regular shooter. She’s been a massive asset to the squad. She’s a great girl as well as a great player; and she does make it easy as an attacker to feed her. With some shooters it can be hard to know exactly where they want the ball, their angles and things like that; but as the season progressed Abbie just got better and better, and that reflected in performances and results.
“Also I feel that playing with Ash [Neal] in attack has improved my game even further. When she’s on the court everyone’s game steps up a level!
“So overall, yes, I do enjoy both positions; but to be honest so long as I’ve got a bib and I’m in the starting seven; that’s my aim, regardless of what position I’m playing.”
So how would Ria assess her own performance over the championship season?
“I’d say I’m happy with how I played,” she reflected. “I feel like I stepped up to Prem 2; I started every game and I probably had more court time than I’ve ever had since we went into Prem.
“Everyone will tell you I hate coming off; I’ll keep going on at myself for days if I’ve been taken off for doing something wrong; but the feedback I’ve received was that the changes were to bring on the bench, and give some of the younger players game time, and not because I’d been playing badly. I’m not saying that I didn’t make mistakes, and there will always be areas of my game on which I can improve, but the feedback I’ve had has been good; overall I think I’ve been consistent and I’m pleased with my performance and contribution to the team.”
How much of a blow was the recent news that Team Northumbria have dropped out of Super League?
“I think Team Northumbria losing their franchise will definitely affect us, but I’m a strong believer in that everything happens for a reason. We definitely need the injection of some new players into the squad if we’re going to maintain our position in Prem 1. As much as I think the squad we have is strong and the girls are more than capable of playing in Prem 1, I do think we need to strengthen.
“As well as Northumbria, Leeds have no longer got their franchise, so for girls in this area who want to play Super League, the nearest clubs are probably in Manchester and Scotland; but on a positive note, we are starting to attract players now we are a Prem 1 club. Ash is definitely with us for next season, and that’s fantastic; she’s just a massive asset. So whilst the Northumbria situation isn’t ideal, we’ve got faith in Gel and the coaches that whatever has happened, we’ll keep attracting players and things will work out fine for us.”
As well as her contribution on court, Ria is part of the coaching set up and I was interested to know if there were any up-and-coming young players to look out for…
“I coach the under 16s and it is a strong and talented squad. Obviously I’m not involved in selecting who goes into the Prem squad, although I do discuss with Gel who I think is capable of moving to the next level; but hopefully there will be some girls who will get the opportunity to spend time around the squad in training this season, and possibly get the chance to travel. I certainly think we’ve got some great talent coming through the club.”
I noted how neatly Ria had avoiding mentioning anyone by name…
“I’m not giving away any names,” she laughed. “I think you’ll see as the season goes on, who really wants to push for Prem…
“Of course Catherine Hewitt made her Prem debut as an under 16 last season. She’s got a lot of ability, but she’s also mentally strong too – and that’s something I don’t think you can coach. It’s a very important part of the game though; Catherine’s got it, and that’s one reason why she’s doing so well. And even if we can’t coach mental strength, we can offer the girls the opportunity to be pushed to their limit. It’ll be a case of sink or swim; the players will be able to decide which one they do, and from that we’ll be able to see which girls have the potential to push for Prem.”
So what were their names again?
“I’m still not saying!”
Looking forward to next season then, what is the realistic goal?
“We are obviously going to go out and do our best and try and win every single game, but we’ve seen a lot of teams go up from Prem 2 and come straight back down, so the realistic goal would be to maintain our position in Prem 1 and finish as high as we possibly can. As a player, I want to see us be competitive and have good consistent performances week in week out. We certainly don’t want to become another of those clubs that works so hard to get promoted, just to be relegated after just one season.”
And on a personal level, to be in the starting seven…?
“Definitely. I work too hard outside of my netball training to not want that; and I think that any player who is happy to sit on the bench shouldn’t be involved in Prem this season. Everyone needs to be hungry and fighting for a position – that’s how you get the best out of the squad.”
Recently, Ria became the first member of the squad to be sponsored for the upcoming season. All the players make a huge commitment to the club – in terms of time and effort, as well as financially – and it was great to hear that the achievements of the clubs and its players are starting to be recognised.
“It was interesting really; we’d been at a tournament in Bury with the kids; Gel had sent a message to say that Te [Aroha Kennan, former Team Northumbria coach] was coming down with Lauren [Ngwira, Malawi international], so could I pop in and see them. It was quite late when we got back, but I went down to meet them and luckily there was a group of businessmen there, and one of them, Andy Dunbar, spent quite a while talking to Te and Gel about netball. After the rest of the group left, Andy stayed behind and asked what he could do to help. Gel said we were looking for player sponsorships and straight away he said ‘who do you want me to sponsor?’ And Gel suggested me!
“I’ve never had a sponsor before; it’s so exciting and I’m just over the moon. It takes one worry out of your mind and you can focus that much more on your netball; and it really helps to raise the profile of the club.
“Hopefully this is just the start…”
© Richard Kirby and Grangetown Netball Club 2018
Match photos © Sarah Raine
A few short weeks ago, Grangetown Netball Club’s elite squad gained promotion to the top flight of English club netball for the very first time, as a final-day victory against Buckinghamshire-based Clan secured the Mizuno Premier League second division championship.
It was an outstanding achievement for the club, which is based at Grangetown’s Youth and Community Centre just outside Middlesbrough; but despite now being the highest-ranked club in the north east, and one of the top ten clubs in England, the success has gone largely unnoticed outside netball circles.
Back in 2016, Grangetown suffered the disappointment of relegation to the third tier, through a play-off process which coincided with the European Championships; an event that cost Grangetown four regular players for the play-off tournament. It was a cruel blow, but instead of dwelling on how circumstances had conspired against the squad, Head coach Gel Williams took stock, recruited several talented teenagers, prepared well, and the hard work both on and off the court certainly paid off as the new-look squad – an exciting blend of youth and experience – returned to the play-offs in 2017, and swept back into the second division at the first time of asking.
The squad remained largely unchanged for the 2017/18 campaign, and after a couple of early defeats on the road, a series of impressive performances followed, with Grangetown gradually climbing into the top three. As the season entered its closing stages, Grangetown maintained their excellent run of form as their closest rivals faltered; and the win at Clan was enough to jump above Turnford and Hucclecote and take Grangetown to the top of the table for the very first time. The timing was perfect, and the winning margin of just a single point could hardly have been closer.
With the first game in Prem 1 just over three months away, now seems like the right time to review the successful championship campaign and look forward to the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead – and who better to discuss events past present and future than Grangetown’s club captain, Vicky Rees.
Firstly, how does Vicky reflect on the club’s championship and elevation into Prem 1?
“Last season exceeded all of our expectations,” Vicky admitted. “I think if you’d told me at the start of the season that we’d end up being promoted, I’m not sure I would have believed you. As a club, it has always been our aim to get into Prem 1 and play in the top division, but we didn’t get off to the best start last year. The first couple of games didn’t really go as well as we would have hoped, but then we really started to pick up and gel together.
“A couple of additions to the squad made a huge difference, but to be promoted as champions was more than I could have hoped for. It’s starting to sink in now, but I remember Gel and I spoke after the last game and she asked if I ever thought this would happen while I was still playing. We had a five-year plan to keep developing, bring players through and eventually get promoted into Prem 1, and to achieve that goal so soon – and while I was still part of the team – it’s just fantastic.”
The nucleus of the squad has been together for two years – and achieved two promotions. What are the squad’s particular strengths?
“I think if you asked what our major strength over the past couple of years has been, most people would say our defence. We’ve all played together for so long. Jenny [Mrozik] and I played in the circle for a long time, Genevieve [Slater] and ‘Billy’ [Katie Walton] play together for Ireland, and I think we just work really well as a defensive unit.
“But this year, players like Abbie [LeBrocq], Kate [Hill] and Ash [Neal] have helped the attack to come into its own as well, and with Ria [Small] having had such a great season, and Harriet [Baxter] joining the club, I now think we’ve got an excellent balance through the court; and being strong at both ends of the court has definitely improved us as a team.”
This season has seen Vicky moving further up the court with several notable performances at centre. Which position does she prefer – a defensive role, or centre?
“I love it at centre!” beamed the Grangetown captain. “I’d like to play more at centre if possible – just being able to do a bit more fitness work and position-specific training would be great. I think if a younger player is looking at how they can have a long and successful career at an elite level, it’s about being versatile … being able to play in a number of different positions. If you play one particular position and someone comes in who fits better in the squad than you, then you’re effectively out; but if you have the ability to perform well in different positions, it not only strengthens the squad, but obviously gives you the best chance of getting time on court, and that’s particularly true for the defensive unit that we just talked about. We’re able to use different combinations against particular players or attacking formations, and it’s good to have that variety.”
In the introduction, I touched on the 2015/16 relegation, at the end of season that had seen a number of Scotland and Ireland internationals representing the club. It was a bitter blow, but arguably the catalyst for the club’s remarkable resurgence. What does Vicky think?
“I think it [relegation] did make a big difference, but the extent of that difference has really only become clear over time. If you’d asked us after the play-offs, we’d all have said that relegation was the worst thing ever, but in hindsight it was a turning point in the club’s history.
“We had to look at different options, bring in new players and we’re now a complete squad with more depth than we’ve ever had. We’re all equal, and whoever happens to be on the bench is more than capable of coming on and playing a really good game. If you look at the Super League squads, there are twelve players and each of them can make a telling contribution, and that’s what we’ve been working towards. We can be more tactical, we can leave really good players on the bench, and bring them on at a certain point for a specific reason; and the opportunity or ability to do that is something that we’ve never really had before – but I think it’s brilliant.”
The new squad included a significant number of younger members, alongside the club’s most experienced players. Without the international pedigree, the squad that emerged was more stable and seemed to gel much better. For Vicky, was there a particular moment when she felt that the squad was really starting to show its full potential?
“It was probably a gradual process, but if I had to pick a turning point, it would be the way Abbie has developed as a shooter. To have somebody that tall [Abbie is 6’2”], who has become so reliable is really important. If you look at her stats, she’s a consistently high-percentage shooter, and she never seems to have a bad game. To have a shooter with that height and reliability for me was a definite turning point. We’ve become used to having a tall, increasingly strong and confident shooter, and when Ash joined the squad, all of a sudden everything came together.”
Having mentioned Ash Neal, the current Team Northumbria Super League captain, what does the Grangetown captain feel Ash has brought to the squad?
“Ash’s impact has been huge,” Vicky readily conceded. “The experience that she brings to the game is fantastic … you learn just from watching her, as well as playing alongside her. She’s a good leader on court too; she’ll help with positioning, particularly with Abbie, and they’ve built up a really good rapport – for instance Ash will give Abbie ‘the eye’ so she knows when the ‘bomb’ is coming in; and she’s able to pick out those passes where Ash looks one way and the ball goes the other. I’m sure Abbie’s ball-handling has improved as a result too; sometimes Ash will throw a bullet pass and I’ll think ‘oh no!’, but Abbie holds onto it, puts it up and in it goes!
“So yes, Ash is really important to us, and we’ve all really enjoyed having the chance to play with her, because she’s playing Super League and she’s got that little bit more experience of competing at a higher level, and she brings so much creativity with her attacking play. I think it’s something we have perhaps lacked in recent years, but Ash has brought that creativity into the squad – she’s definitely someone we can all learn from.”
Going back to the start of last season, and following the promotion gained through the play-offs; what were the realistic expectations before the first centre pass?
“For the first half of the season, there were definitely no expectations,” came Vicky’s honest assessment. “We were still a relatively new squad, and I suppose whenever you get promoted, the first aim is to stay in the division and consolidate your position at the higher level.
“But as the season progressed and we kept winning, we started to realise that things were not only going better than we had hoped, but there was actually a chance that we might get promoted again. For a while we were stuck in third position, and with promotion now being automatic for the top two rather than a play-off competition, it looked for a while like we might miss out; but the teams above us started dropping points and it wasn’t until the last couple of games that we knew that it was in our hands, and if we won at Chester and Clan, we’d go up.”
Earlier on, Vicky had mentioned ‘not getting off to the best start’, but the two defeats in the opening four games were away to Turnford and Hucclecote, the sides who would head the division right up until that closing week. So, whilst there may have been an element of disappointment at the time, hindsight would show that the club’s hardest fixtures were already out of the way by the end of the first full month of the campaign. Away form is so important to success at this level. The main constraints are availability, especially given the massive travelling distances involved, and for some clubs, the commencement of the Super League season can also have a significant impact on the make-up of the squad.
After those two early defeats, Grangetown would not lose another game on the road (winning five and drawing one) – “I hadn’t realised that!” Vicky exclaimed - and the fact that their squad remained stable (as well as performing consistently) throughout the season was a major factor in securing both promotion and the championship.
“When you look at the results of some of the other clubs you can see how inconsistent they are; beating a good team at home then losing to one of the poorer sides away. But yes, one of our biggest strengths is that we tend to have the same squad for our all our matches, so we’re able to maintain our performance levels and actually be almost as good away as we are at home. I think the fact that we’re able to commit to staying overnight is also really important; travelling down on a Saturday, making sure we have a good rest, getting to the venue with enough time to have a proper warm-up … and just having that time together; it all really helps.”
Looking forward then; where does Vicky feel the squad needs to strengthen to cope with the demands of Prem 1?
“Obviously, we will need to strengthen, and ideally, we’d probably like to add one quality to player in each third of the court. It’s not easy though,” Vicky continued, “because players of that calibre are either already playing Prem or are in a Super League squad and as we’ve seen, those players also have other commitments that can affect their availability for not just matches, but for training as well. But if you don’t go down that route, where are you going to find players with the ability to step up to that level? Really you do have to look to Super League, for players who can perform at the standard that you want.”
So, what will be the major challenges facing the squad over the upcoming months?
“I think possibly adjusting to a different pace. There was a difference coming up from Prem 3 to 2, so there’s bound to be another jump now that we’re going into Prem 1. It’s important that we adjust quickly to the pace, and to the fact that there will be more technical and creative aspects to the play, so we’ll need to be clever with the ball and learn to use our brains more on court.
“I also think we need to have more matchplay as part of our pre-season,” Vicky added. “We’ve always tried to build it into our programme, but it’s even more important this year, as we have to make sure we hit the ground running. That first game, whoever it’s against, mustn’t be a shock to our system. We have to be fully prepared to play at the speed, intensity and level required for Prem 1; we can’t afford to take two or three games to settle into the league.”
From a more personal perspective, how does Vicky feel about leading the club into uncharted, but undoubtedly exciting waters?
“I can’t wait! I’ve never been this excited to start pre-season … ever. It’s such a big deal for the club, and for all the players; I’m just really looking forward to it. Over the past couple of years, Gel and I have talked about a five-year plan, and all of a sudden, it’s here … we’ve done it; and I’m just really proud that we did it in ‘our time’. It’s really special for all of us to have the chance to play in Prem 1, and the timing couldn’t have been better with England winning the Commonwealth Games gold; that will give the sport such a boost.
“England actually won their final the day before we won the championship, and we watched a replay at 9:30 in the morning at the hotel before we went along to the venue to warm up for the Clan game. Some of us had deliberately not watched the game, and if I’m honest, I don’t think many of us were convinced England could win – although obviously we all hoped they would - but to come back in the way they did and win with a goal in the last second; it was amazing and it really motivated us. It was such a coincidence that such an incredible moment in English netball should happen a few hours before the biggest game of our careers … and yes, it was such an inspiration.
“Even the guy at the gym, who doesn’t really know anything about netball, was talking about England winning the gold medal; and friends of mine who know that I play for Grangetown were sending messages … it was amazing and has really raised netball’s profile. It’s not on the same level as football of course, but in terms of women’s sport, netball is definitely getting more recognition.
“We just need to keep spreading the word that we are now one of the best ten clubs in our sport in the country – how many other teams in football or any other sport can say that? Even within netball, there are thousands of clubs out there, but we’re one of the top ten; it’s a big deal, and something we are all incredibly proud of.”
Whilst there is understandably a focus to bring in high-quality experienced athletes to strength the squad, Grangetown is a club that prides itself on youth development, with several players having progressed through the ranks to earn the chance of a senior debut. The opportunity to play in Prem 1 must be such a positive target for the club’s aspiring youngsters, but how does Vicky view the state of the club from the point of view of junior development.
“I’d say we’re in a good place. Hannah [Raine] has been part of the squad for a couple of years now, and whenever she’s had time one court, she’s done really well; hopefully she’ll continue to keep developing and improving this season. Catherine [Hewitt] was understandably nervous before her debut towards the end of the season, but she didn’t show it; and when she came onto court she looked confident, shot well, and really got under the skin of her goalkeeper! She’s almost there … she just needs to train and play more with us; she’s so young, but she’s got so much potential.
“There are a few other youngsters coming through too, and hopefully, some will progress to play with the Prem squad. Our under-16s and under-14s both recently reached the national finals; the under-14s finished seventh in the country, which is amazing; so yes, they have a target to aim for, and hopefully coming along and watching the Prem games will help to inspire them.”
I thought I’d slip the next question in without Vicky noticing in the hope that she would simply continue giving full and frank responses. Who would have been her player of the season?
(I just need to add at this point that my nomination would have been Katie Walton, a fine athlete and commanding presence at the heart of the Grangetown defence, who had a fantastic season, most notably alongside her international partner Gen Slater.)
“It would be really hard to pick one player,” was the supremely diplomatic response (it was worth a try, though), “but I do totally agree with what you said about Katie.
“I can remember just before the start of last season, we were doing some matchplay in training, and I saw her do some things in the circle that I’d never seen her do before. It’s really hard to describe, and I’m not sure if it’s possible to put it into writing, but she was covering the ball that was about to be passed out; yet was able to get back and cover the ball that was about to be passed back in … and I’d never seen her do that before. So right from the start of the season, it was clear that she had improved, and was playing at a different level. I know she’s suffered a lot with her back in the past, but I don’t think she had as many issues in the past; maybe that’s made a difference, but she was moving so much faster and better around the court, covering different angles and passes.
“And when someone’s shooting, she’s also really good at being able to time her jump and actually tip the shot – very few players can do that. She’s got a huge jump. When we got tested, Katie jumped the highest of everyone. She’s also the fastest in the squad over short distances; she’s just a really powerful, strong athlete.”
I’m clearly more knowledgeable than I thought!
The final question was also the shortest: what are Vicky’s own plans?
“I hadn’t really made a decision about my own future,” Vicky explained, although she laughed (perhaps knowingly) at my suggestion that she may have retired had the club remained in Prem 2. “But the minute we got promoted, there was never any doubt that I would carry on playing. And it’s actually given me a new love of training. From a personal point of view, but also for the whole of the squad, when we get back into the gym, or whatever training we are doing, we have to do more. If we do the same as we did last season, we’ll still be at Prem 2 level; so, we need to do more – and I want to lead by example.
“I might be one of the older players on the court (Vicky was keen for Gen to get a mention at this point!), but going into that first game, I will have done everything I can to be the fittest and strongest I've ever been. I always think about what my opponent would be doing; and on those days when you don’t want to go to the gym, she’ll be working out, and that’s the mentality we need in Prem 1. I want to work hard, but I also want to learn more … about myself, and the other players in the squad; working on weaknesses and playing on strengths. And when the season starts, I know that we’ll have put in all the ground work and we’ll be ready to step up.”
© Richard Kirby & Grangetown Netball Club 2018
Photos © Sarah Raine
For years, the back pages of our newspapers have been dominated by football … sometimes cricket, and maybe occasionally rugby union; but rarely does a so-called minority sport grab national headlines.
Netball did just that in April this year, when the England Roses claimed the Commonwealth Games gold medal with a truly remarkable last-second victory over the tournament hosts and competition favourites, Australia.
All of a sudden, this group of elite female athletes (largely unknown away from their sport) were all over television screens, the internet and the press, as the country celebrated a quite outstanding achievement.
The profile of netball has never been higher, with international success being supplemented by the Vitality Super League, which is given such great coverage by Sky Sports. One step below the Super League franchises are the three divisions of the Mizuno Premier League, and a local club has recently secured promotion to Division 1 for the first time in its history.
Grangetown Netball Club is based a few miles outside Middlesbrough, and this promotion (as Champions of Division 2) has been the culmination of years of hard work and dedication from the players, coaches and volunteer support team.
Grangetown is now ranked within the top ten clubs in the entire country, and as well as the elite squad, there is a thriving junior section, with both the under 16 and under 14 squads competing in their respective national championships. 600 teams entered the under 14 competition – so for Grangetown to finish seventh just last month is not only a fantastic result, but it also demonstrates how well the club is building for a strong and successful future.
The Premier League season runs from September to March, with each club playing 18 games. The geographical spread of clubs is huge, and Grangetown regularly travel in the region of 4,000 miles to fulfil their nine away fixtures.
The 2018/19 Premier Division 1 league will include teams based in Leeds, Manchester, and Oldham – a far cry from last season when Grangetown’s “local derby” required a 300-mile round trip! The other clubs hail from Hampshire, Middlesex, Essex, Herfordshire, Worcester and Bristol.
Grangetown is now hoping that the north east will get behind the club and the Premier League squad as they fly the flag for local netball right across England; and a number of brand new and exciting sponsorship opportunities are being made available.
The Grangetown club captain is Vicky Rees, and members of the squad include the current Team Northumbria Super League captain Ash Neal, Ireland’s first-choice international defensive partnership Genevieve Slater and Katie Walton, as well as some of the region’s most promising youngsters, such as Catherine Hewitt, who progressed from junior age-group netball right through to her Premier League debut towards the end of last season.
Affordable sponsorship is a great way to promote your company or business, whilst making a huge difference to a squad of talented and dedicated athletes. If you are interested in being part of Grangetown’s amazing story, full details of prices and what each package contains can be obtained by e-mailing Head Coach Gel Williams at email@example.com.
For my part, I will be doing a number of in-depth player interviews and compiling full match reports on all the home games, and some of the away fixtures too. It promises to be a fantastic season – why not come along and be part of it?
There are certain sports that rarely grab any headlines outside an Olympic or Commonwealth cycle.
Despite being outstanding athletes right at the top of their sport, young women such as Kate Richardson-Walsh, Alex Danson and Maddie Hinch were largely unknown to the casual sports enthusiast – until that memorable day in Rio two years ago, when Team GB won hockey gold and they became household names overnight.
Netball is not an Olympic sport (another debate altogether), so it is the Commonwealth title that the elite English athletes have striven for since the sport was first included at Kuala Lumpur in 1998.
Sunday’s final between the England Roses and the all-conquering Australian Diamonds provided every bit as much skill, athleticism and drama as that Rio hockey final – a one-point victory being secured by England’s Helen Housby in the very last second of a pulsating final quarter. The celebrations that followed were fantastic to watch, and it was great to see a “minority” sport grab deserved media headlines.
For England’s Geva Mentor, at her fifth Commonwealth Games, it was a moment when years of dedication and hard work were rewarded with the ultimate prize; but on the same day, on the other side of the globe, Grangetown Netball Club created its own wonderful piece of history.
Relegated to the third division of the National Premier League in 2016, the club regrouped and returned to the second tier of English club netball at the first time of asking. The new-look squad worked hard during the off season and consistently proved themselves to be the fittest team in a hugely competitive division.
More than that though, it quickly became apparent that they were also one of the most talented sides, after a couple of early reverses were followed by a string of impressive victories.
The two teams that led the division for most of the season, Hucclecote and Turnford, both included a number of players from franchised Super League clubs and once their seasons started, so performances dipped; but Grangetown simply kept on winning.
At the end of the regular season, Grangetown had two unfulfilled fixtures (both previously cancelled due to adverse weather conditions), and the equation was simple. Victories away at Chester and then Clan would see the Teesside club promoted into the top division as champions.
Despite their opponents lying bottom and second-bottom respectively, hard-fought games were expected, but Grangetown were quite simply too strong. A reasonably comfortable win in Cheshire was followed by a comprehensive victory in Buckinghamshire, and the final hooter was the catalyst for more celebrations, as the girls in black and orange hugged and danced their way into Prem 1.
It was the biggest game in the club’s history and a massive achievement for Head Coach Gel Williams, club captain Vicky Rees and the whole squad.
Defensively, Grangetown were outstanding all season; Ireland internationals Genevieve Slater and Katie Walton, alongside Team Northumbria squad member Jenny Mrozik proved more than a match for almost every attack in the division.
Through the centre of the court, the experience of Vicky Rees and Ria Small was absolutely crucial in creating scoring opportunities for the attackers. Abbie LeBrocq developed into a confident and assured shooter, and once Team Northumbria’s Ash Neal linked up with the squad, the jigsaw was complete.
Harriet Baxter, Hannah Raine, Kate Hill and latterly Catherine Hewitt all made valuable contributions, and with a number of other talented young prospects coming through the ranks, an exciting future beckons.
For now though, it is time to reflect on a remarkable promotion season, which has seen Grangetown effectively become one of the ten best clubs in the entire country. In an area where team sport is dominated by football, it is actually a group of talented, dedicated and determined netballers who have brought success to the region – and that is something that really deserves to be celebrated.
Grangetown Netball Club’s elite squad are now just sixty minutes away from securing a place in National Premier League 1 after a comfortable 60-43 success at Chester on Sunday.
Despite a round trip of 300 miles, the fixture at the County Sports Club represents Grangetown’s “local derby”, and having beaten the league’s bottom club in the recent home fixture, it was a confident but focussed Grangetown squad that made the three-hour journey to Cheshire.
Head coach Gel Williams was forced into one change, as club captain Vicky Rees was unavailable for the game – a significant blow after Vicky’s outstanding Player of the Match performance in the home win over Chester. Her place in the squad was taken by Sophie MacFarlane.
Grangetown took to the court with Ash Neal at centre, and Harriet Baxter alongside Abbie LeBrocq in attack. Ria Small was at wing attack, and the starting seven was completed by the dependable defensive trio of Jenny Mrozik, Genevieve Slater and Katie Walton.
Grangetown held a five-goal lead at the end of the opening period, a good start, but not as dominant as they had been in the reverse fixture when they had led by 13 goals at quarter time. The advantage was increased by just one further goal by half-time. It had been a patchy 30 minutes, with some of the squad’s trademark flowing netball being interspersed with several misplaced passes and unforced errors.
In fact, some of the best attacking netball came from the hosts, who produced several superb moves down the length of the court for Evie Brereton to convert. In those moments, it was hard to believe Chester had won only one game all season; but Grangetown’s superior fitness and relentless defensive pressure forced a number of turnovers, and as the game progressed into its later stages, the visitors gradually eased further ahead.
The visitors were 12 goals to the good at the end of the third quarter, and that lead quickly increased to 20, but Grangetown’s intensity dropped during the closing minutes, and Chester’s efforts were rewarded with late goals that reduced the final winning margin to 17.
Ash Neal was named the official Player of the Match, but in a game where it was actually quite hard to pick one stand-out performance, I would have chosen Jenny Mrozik for a really strong sixty minutes at the heart of the Grangetown defence.
Home victories for both Turnford and Hucclecote saw Grangetown’s rivals end their respective seasons with 74 and 72 points, meaning that victory at Clan this weekend would guarantee promotion both and the Prem 2 championship for the Middlesbrough club .
Such a possibility would have seemed unthinkable back in May 2016, when Grangetown were relegated through the play-offs to Prem 3. However, the squad has bonded brilliantly, and the blend of experience and youth coupled with months of hard work in training has created what has been a winning formula during the 2017/18 campaign; and what a wonderful position for the players to have the club’s destiny in their own hands.
The fact that this Sunday’s opponents, High Wycombe-based Clan currently lie second bottom with five wins from their 16 games thus far will have no bearing on the outcome of the game. The huge distances the teams have to travel for away games means that squads are often depleted when on the road, but invariably full strength at home; and Clan have some talented and experienced players within their ranks.
That said, Grangetown have suffered fewer defeats – just three - than any other team in the division, and they have plenty of experience of their own: Genevieve Slater is the current Ireland captain, Ash Neal is an integral member of Team Northumbria’s Super League squad, and club captain Vicky Rees will be back for the trip to Buckinghamshire.
The players will be prepared, both physically and mentally, for the biggest game in Grangetown’s history. There will be no complacency, only a desire to display their athleticism and skill, and channel the excitement and nerves into a mind-set that allows them to deliver just one more high-quality performance … and achieve the win that would be a fitting end to an incredible season.
Grangetown completed their home fixtures in Mizuno Premier League 2 with a comfortable 53-38 victory over the division’s bottom club Chester on Sunday.
It was Grangetown’s eighth win from their nine home games, with the only defeat coming at the hands of a Hucclecote side which included several players from the Severn Stars Super League squad.
Hucclecote (from Gloucestershire) and Hertfordshire-based Turnford had been runaway leaders for virtually the whole campaign, but both have faltered recently – quite possibly due to players becoming unavailable due to Super League commitments. Grangetown, however, have maintained their run of fine form and with two games to be rearranged, they are closing in on the leading pair, who both have only one remaining fixture.
Although Grangetown will have to travel for those two outstanding games, their opponents (Chester on 8 April and Clan on 15 April) currently fill the division’s bottom two places. Both teams will present a difficult challenge on their home court, but the simple equation is that two wins would guarantee Grangetown’s promotion into Prem 1.
To be ranked amongst the country’s top ten clubs would be a remarkable achievement, especially given the fact that Grangetown played in Prem 3 last season, after having been cruelly relegated through the 2015/16 post-season play-offs when no fewer than five of the squad were unavailable due to international call-ups.
A new-look 2016/17 squad containing a blend of experience and a number of young faces gelled extremely well, and the club earned promotion at the first time of asking, albeit by the narrowest of margins in an incredibly tense end to the season.
With an almost unchanged squad for 2017/18, the realistic aim would surely have been to consolidate a place in the competition’s second tier, but after two defeats in their opening four games, Grangetown have suffered just one further reverse. They have arguably the fittest squad in the division – testament to an intense pre-season programme– and that strength, coupled with an unwavering determination has served the players well in a number of close games.
Katie Walton and Genevieve Slater are team mates at club and international level, and with Team Northumbria squad member Jenny Mrozik alongside the Ireland duo, Grangetown has a defence to rival any club in Prem 2.
Vicky Rees and Ria Small are two of the most experienced members of the squad, and both have led by example throughout the season. Both had fine games against Chester, with club captain Vicky rightly being named Player of the Match for an all-action performance (in attack but even more notably in defence) in the Centre role.
Abbie LeBrocq perhaps typifies Grangetown’s development as much as any other player. Since her arrival at the start of last season, Abbie has grown so much in strength and confidence. She is a real presence in the attacking circle and her 100% shooting success in yesterday’s brilliant opening quarter was another reflection of just how far she has progressed.
Harriet Baxter and Tasha Grylls have made telling contributions at Goal Attack, but the arrival of Ash Neal has made a very real difference. The Australian, who is an integral member of Team Northumbria’s Super League squad, is a superb athlete – skilful, incredibly quick, but calm and assured under the net. She has fitted seamlessly into the squad, and her presence on court seems to have a positive impact on all the players around her.
Netball is very much a squad game, and although they have not been regulars in the starting seven, Kate Hill and Hannah Raine have done really well whenever they’ve had the opportunity, and another of Grangetown’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of talented teenagers, Catherine Hewitt, gained some invaluable experience against Chester. Catherine is still only 15, but she showed no outward sign of nerves during an impressive fifteen minutes on court.
The result of Sunday’s clash with Chester was never in doubt after Grangetown raced into a 10-3 lead after just seven minutes. That advantage had extended to 20-7 at the end of a ruthless opening period, but to their credit the visitors battled hard, and lost the remaining three quarters by a total of just two goals.
Chester played some excellent netball in patches, deservedly won the second quarter by four goals, but made a few too many unforced errors as they tried to find a way back into the game. They looked particularly strong at each end of the court, their Goal Shooter and Goal Keeper both having really strong games.
But it was Grangetown, superbly led by Vicky Rees, who claimed the points. Having gained such a big lead so early in proceedings, Head Coach Gel Williams was able to shuffle her pack and give the whole squad some time on court; and although unable to replicate the level of first-quarter dominance, this was still an impressive squad performance, as well as being ideal preparation for those two crucial remaining fixtures.
Grangetown’s latest fixture in Mizuno Premier League 2 was about as far removed from a local derby as it is possible to get as their opponents, Sussex Thunder, made the 630-mile round trip from their Brighton base to face a Grangetown squad that has been in excellent form.
After ten fixtures, Grangetown were placed third in a very competitive division, having won seven games. In contrast, Sussex, who were promoted as Division 3 champions last season, occupied ninth position, with their only two victories coming against Ryland, and bottom-placed Chester, the only team yet to record a win so far this season.
When the sides met back in October, Grangetown returned from Sussex with a hard-fought and narrow 45-41 success, so despite being separated by seven places and 21 points in the table, the visitors were still expected to pose a serious challenge.
Grangetown were without Jenny Mrozik, but their Ireland defenders Genevieve Slater and Katie Walton were joined by a third current international as Scotland’s Hayley Mulheron made her first appearance for the club since the 2015/16 season, having recently been part of the Scottish Thistles squad that secured their place in the 2019 World Cup through the regional qualifiers.
Katie Walton GK Tish Biddolph
Hayley Mulheron GD Rebecca Miller
Gen Slater WD Ellen Franks
Vicky Rees C Beth Franks
Ria Small WA Chloe Spong
Ash Neal GA Sophie Jackson
Abbie LeBrocq GS Tess Waterfall
It was the visitors who made the brighter start, scoring from their opening possession. Katie Walton made an early interception, only for Beth Franks to win back the ball and set up an easy chance for Tess Waterfall.
A contact penalty on the tall Sussex shooter then enabled Vicky Rees and Ash Neal to exchange passes for the Team Northumbria goal attack to halve the arrears, and the pair then combined again to level the scores.
The next four goals were shared, with both sides making a number of errors, before Thunder moved into a three-goal lead. Firstly, Tess cleverly flicked a shot rebound to her attacking partner Sophie Jackson. Tess then plucked a high pass out of the air to score, before some great work from Chloe Spong reclaimed possession and created another chance that was successfully converted.
Tish Biddolph was unfortunate not to complete an interception, and Ash scored from the resulting restart. At the opposite end of the court, Tess used all of her 6’ 4” height and skill to gather a high ball and draw a contact penalty to maintain the three-goal advantage.
Grangetown replied with two quick goals, but then conceded an attacking penalty and despite intense pressure from both Grangetown defenders, Sophie was able to find the net. A lightning quick interception from Katie turned over possession and lovely interplay from Vicky and Ria Small set up Abbie le Brocq. Moments later Abbie scored with a perfectly flighted long shot, and once again the scores were tied.
Hayley Mulheron claimed a rebound, followed by an excellent interception and the home side edged in front for the first time, although Thunder were rather unlucky when the umpire blew her whistle seemingly for a foul on a Sussex player, only for Grangetown to be given possession from the restart after the ball bounced out of play.
Abbie found the net to make it 12-10; both sides then scored a goal apiece, but the advantage at quarter time was just one goal as Tess scored with the last play of the period.
Grangetown made a couple of changes during the interval, with Kate Hill coming on at centre, and Vicky replacing Gen Slater at wing defence.
Sophie Jackson brought parity to proceedings in the opening moments of the second period, however the next three goals all came from Grangetown. Hayley and Kate combined for Abbie to score, then Hayley’s superb catch set up some neat interplay between Ria and Ash Neal – Abbie once again finishing the move. The home side then took advantage of a Sussex miss to work the ball down court and Abbie scored at the second attempt.
Sophie’s next goal was cancelled out by a long effort from Ash, but Sophie duly responded with a successful shot from even longer-range. Abbie showed great strength under pressure from Rebecca Miller and, although Thunder replied, Ash ignored a shooting opportunity and flicked a clever pass to her left for her better-placed partner Abbie to find the net.
Sophie and Beth Franks then produced some excellent play to open up the Grangetown defence for Tess to bring the visitors back to within two goals; but that would be the closest Thunder came to catching their hosts.
Abbie scored twice, the second goal coming after a replayed ball penalty against the visitors. Importantly, that goal came against the Sussex centre pass, and when Ash floated the ball into the net after impressive interplay with Kate Hill, the advantage was now five.
Ash drilled a pass to Abbie, which was brilliantly taken, and the subsequent goal was the fourth in another unanswered spell. Grangetown were in sublime form; their attacking play was fluent and Sussex were being pressured right across the court whenever they had possession.
Another well-taken shot from Sophie Jackson made the score 28-20, but the next seven goals all went the way of the home side. The second of those goals saw Ria and Ash combine superbly to feed Abbie; Katie then picked off a Sussex pass, and Ria fired a ball right through the defence to find Abbie completely unmarked under the net.
A footwork call handed possession back to Grangetown, and even though some of the shooting was falling just short, all the rebounds were going the way of the home side, and Grangetown were in total command. The half-time hooter sounded, with Grangetown 14 goals in front, after having won the quarter 22-9.
Sussex introduced Kim Cook at wing defence and also made a change at centre, but unsurprisingly, Grangetown stuck with the same seven who had produced such an excellent period of netball.
To their credit, Sussex did make early inroads into the Grangetown lead, reducing the gap to eleven goals at one stage. One of the main features of the visitor’s play was the shooting of Sophie Jackson, who seemed to be able to find the net at will from almost any distance. However, the highlight of the opening few minutes of the third period came from Grangetown’s Kate Hill, who fired a delightful pass inside the Thunder defence for the onrushing Ash Neal, who caught the ball and calmly found the net.
Hayley, Ria and Vicky all played a part in turning over possession in mid-court, however the resulting shot from Abbie bounced off the ring of the net and was collected by the Thunder defence. A rare miss from Sophie turned into a perfect pass for Tess to score, but after Abbie had cancelled out the goal, Hayley got a decisive hand to the Sussex centre pass and her efforts were rewarded when Abbie converted the ensuing shot.
Another defence-splitting pass, this time from Ria Small, enabled Ash Neal to maintain Grangetown’s sizeable lead, and scorer turned provider as Ash found Abbie totally unmarked as the home side’s attacking movement attracted the attention of both defenders.
During a brief stoppage, Tess Waterfall was replaced by Lauren Pedelty, whilst Grangetown took the opportunity to bring on Tasha Grylls at wing attack. Lauren’s first involvement was a successful shot, but Thunder’s next attack saw Hayley block Sophie’s attempt, with Katie Walton grabbing the rebound. The ball found its way to Abbie who scored from long range.
Kim Cook did well to nudge the ball out of play, as Grangetown mounted another attack, but from the restart Abbie once again netted from distance. Thunder’s next goal came from Lauren, another from long-range, but Abbie repaid the compliment with the last short of the quarter; a fine goal that saw Grangetown reach their half century.
50-34 to the good, Grangetown shuffled their pack for the final period; Gen Slater returning to the court in place of Hayley Mulheron, Harriet Baxter coming on at goal shooter and Ria replacing Kate Hill, who had played particularly well at centre.
Beth Franks went back to centre for the visitors and immediately produced an excellent interception. Sussex were unable to make the most of the possession though, and Grangetown rattled off five quick goals to give them a lead of twenty – a figure that no one would have imagined possible after such a hard-fought opening quarter.
Rebecca Miller’s excellent interception came to nothing as possession was lost inside the Sussex half, and Harriet Baxter opened her account at the first attempt after collecting a rebound. Tasha Grylls then produced a lovely pass to find Harriet free under the net, but in a game which had seen some excellent shooting from distance, Lauren Pedelty was desperately unlucky to see a shot from right on the edge of the circle ruled out for an infringement.
By this stage the result was not in doubt, but Grangetown refused to relax their defensive pressure and some great work from forced Sussex into a long shot that was safely collected by Gen Slater. The ball went straight down the other end and Tasha fed Ash for another score.
The home side kept up the momentum right through until the end of the game and at full time, the score was 67-40 in Grangetown’s favour. There were excellent performances all over the court, with Sussex picking Ash Neal as their player of the match, and Vicky Rees picking up the award from the competition sponsors Mizuno. For good measure, I thought Ria Small was the best player on court, but in a fine team performance, Kate Hill also deserves a mention for her display at centre in the middle quarters of the game.
For their part, Sussex certainly didn’t look like a side languishing towards the bottom of the division during an opening period in which they more than matched their hosts. For me, their best player was Sophie Jackson whose link up play with Tess Waterfall during the first quarter was fantastic, as was her shooting throughout the whole game. However, as the match progressed, the strength and energy of the Grangetown defence really stifled Thunder’s attacking options in what was a fine performance and an important win for the home side.
Grangetown Netball Club’s first Premier League fixture of 2018 was a third versus first clash as Grangetown played host to current league leaders Hucclecote.
When the sides met down in Gloucestershire in the opening round of the 2017/18 season, Hucclecote ran out convincing winners; but after eight games, the teams had identical records of six victories and two defeats, with the Cheltenham-based club boasting a better ratio of goals scored against conceded.
Grangetown had been in fine form before Christmas, winning their previous four games, whilst the visitors were on a three-match winning streak, averaging almost 66 goals per game. However, with neither club having played a competitive fixture in over a month, predicting a winner was no easy task.
The hosts were boosted by the return of Ireland defenders Gen Slater and Katie Walton, both of whom had enjoyed excellent Nations Cup tournaments in Singapore during December. And with fellow defender Jenny Mrozik having been included within the Team Northumbria Super League squad, the defensive unit looked particularly strong; which it would surely need to be against such a free-scoring attack.
The second Team Northumbria player in the Grangetown squad, Ash Neal, was also available, however Hucclecote were able to draw on the services of no less than four members of the Severn Stars Super League squad: Samantha Cook, Ella Powell-Davies, Shona O’Dwyer and Rosie Allison.
The starting sevens were as follows:
Katie Walton GK Kellie Hull
Jenny Mrozik GD Sam Cook
Gen Slater WD Ella Powell-Davies
Vicky Rees C Lauren Brooks
Ria Small WA Shona O’Dwyer
Ash Neal GA Thea Thompson
Abbie LeBrocq GS Rosie Allison
The visitors made a bright start, and good interplay between the two shooters secured a goal against the Grangetown centre pass. A successful long-range shot from left-handed goal attack Thea Thompson gave Hucclecote an early advantage, but Sam Cook was then really unlucky when she put a foot out of play in attempting an interception. Ash Neal scored from the next play, and after Katie Walton claimed possession, an excellent pass from Vicky Rees allowed Abbie le Brocq to level the scores.
The next eight goals were shared between the teams; great movement and a fine feed from Ash set up Abbie, before Rosie Allison produced a clever dummy to draw away the Grangetown defence, allowing Thea to find the net with a looping shot. At 6-6, Ash’s feigned shot and blind pass found Abbie under the net, but when a speculative pass was picked off by Kellie Hull, Thea floated the ball to her attacking partner to bring the sides level once again.
Some neat interplay between Ria Small and Ash Neal saw the Australian find the net from long range. A goal against the centre pass followed; and Grangetown’s next attack saw a ball that was heading out of play bounce fortuitously back to Abbie off the post, but the chance was not converted.
Shona O’Dwyer then found Rosie with a looped pass, but after the goal, Thea Thompson was forced to leave the court, and was replaced by Yas Hodge-England. Ash netted, before a well-read interception by Sam Cook gave Hucclecote the possession from which they narrowed the gap to a single goal; and seconds later, the visitors tied the scores once again.
The final two goals of a pulsating opening quarter came from Grangetown, who led 12-10 as the hooter sounded.
Ria Small replaced club captain Vicky Rees at centre, with Tasha Grylls coming on at wing attack.
Hucclecote opened the scoring, then applied great pressure which resulted in a three-second penalty and a chance to bring parity to proceedings. Abbie then scored twice, and Grangetown’s next goal came from great work by Ria Small, who recovered the ball in the defensive third, and then supplied a bounce-pass to Ash, who duly fed Abbie for a simple finish.
Yas Hodge-England converted from long-range, before Rosie showed great strength to hold off the home defence and find the net. Katie Walton’s brilliant airborne interception claimed possession and Abbie’s long shot rattled the net ring, but counted. Abbie’s next goal left the scoreboard reading 17-15, but the next few minutes would completely change the course of the game.
Accurate shooting from Rosie and Yas was supported by some outstanding defensive work, with Sam Cook using her height and athleticism to claim two interceptions. Sarah Adams, who had come on at wing defence also cut out a Grangetown pass, and with Lauren Brooks and the livewire Shona O’Dwyer making the most of all the possession, Hucclecote scored no less than nine unanswered goals.
Ash broke the run with an assured finish, but literally seconds later, Rosie netted to preserve the seven-goal lead. The next four goals were shared, before Ash scored right on the half-time hooter and the teams left the court with Hucclecote leading 21-27 – a significant advantage given how close the opening twenty-or-so minutes had been.
It really was an impressive spell from the visitors, who took clinical advantage of every Grangetown mistake. Coach Gel Williams brought Vicky Rees back into the fray, with Kate Hill taking over at wing defence and Gen Slater replacing Jenny Mrozik. For Hucclecote, Laura Tildesley was introduced at wing defence.
The visitors missed their first shot of the third period, with Katie Walton securing the rebound. Not for the first time however, possession was surrendered and Shona O’Dwyer’s looped pass saw Rosie Allison score at the second attempt.
Ash Neal reduced the arrears before a lovely run attracted both Hucclecote defenders, freeing Abbie for Ria’s feed into the circle. A rare miss from the 6’2” shooter enabled the visitors to score next, but Abbie netted moments later, and Kate Hill’s long ball led to an easy opportunity for Ash. It was a vital score against the centre pass, which brought Grangetown to within five of their opponents, but once again, possession was carelessly squandered and Hucclecote took full advantage and quickly reeled off four more goals.
One of Grangetown’s main qualities is their fighting spirit, and they immediately replied with a four-goal burst of their own, with Vicky and Ria both making telling contributions to set up the shooters. Gen Slater’s interception was crucial to the fourth of those goals, another against the centre pass; but Sam Cook then produced another spectacular interception just as Grangetown were gathering some momentum.
The contest between Sam Cook and Ash Neal was one of the features of the game. Both Super League players were excellent throughout, two superb athletes, whose respective skills in defence and attack were to the fore throughout the game. Ash netted twice as Grangetown continued to claw their way back into the game. When Gen Slater’s pass set up her fellow Australian, the lead was down to just three goals, but the subsequent Grangetown centre pass flew disappointingly over the sideline, handing the initiative straight back to the league leaders.
Thea Thompson returned to the court to replace Yas Hodge-England, and Thea’s first involvement was to score with a perfectly-judged long-range shot.
Ash then threw a quite sublime blind pass backwards over her left shoulder, straight to Abbie. Another outstanding piece of defensive work from Sam Cook denied Grangetown the chance to narrow the gap, but Ash’s goal right on the hooter meant that Grangetown had actually won the quarter and Hucclecote would only take a four-goal advantage into the final period.
Harriet Baxter and Hannah Raine both took to the court for the last fifteen minutes. Grangetown scored the period’s opening goal, but a pass to a double-marked shooter was easily collected and Rosie Allison again showed great strength to net under pressure.
Vicky combined with Harriet for the shooter to score with her first attempt, a goal which was quickly cancelled out by yet another from Rosie. In Hucclecote’s next attack, there was a moment reminiscent of the film The Matrix as Thea leant backwards on the edge of the court, improbably managing to keep her balance and keep the ball in play.
The visiting goal keeper Kellie Hull latched on to a pass from Gen Slater, and possession was converted into a score that extended Hucclecote’s lead to seven. Still the hosts refused to back down, and as the clocked ticked into the final two minutes, a high-looping shot from Harriet actually reduced the arrears to three goals.
For a few seconds, it looked like the crowd would be treated to a dramatic conclusion, but a Grangetown error handed the ball to Hucclecote and the resulting goal effectively sealed the result.
It was perhaps fitting that one of the last bits of action in a high-quality and entertaining game was one last interception from Sam Cook. The final score was 48-54, a well-deserved victory for a fine Hucclecote side, but to their credit, Grangetown battled right to the final hooter and played some really good netball, but when they review the game, they will probably rue too much wasted possession and the concession of those nine consecutive goals in the second quarter.
Ash Neal was Grangetown’s best performer, but my player of the match has to be Sam Cook.
Round 7 of the Mizuno Netball Premier League Division 2 saw Buckinghamshire side Clan make the journey north to face Grangetown in what looked an intriguing clash. Both sides had identical records with four wins and two defeats from their opening six fixtures, but Clan were one position above their opponents in the table courtesy of a losing bonus point earned earlier in the season.
Grangetown were looking to record a third successive win, having followed up victory over The Downs with a great result away to Ryland. Clan’s recent record was arguably even more impressive, as they had won their previous four matches, including a notable win at Hucclecote in round 4.
The visitors included former Surrey Storm Super League player Katt Ainsworth within their squad, and Grangetown were boosted by the addition of Ashleigh Neal, an Australian shooter who has also had Super League experience with Surrey Storm and Hertfordshire Mavericks.
Katie Walton GK Sophie Short
Jenny Mrozik GD Jade Forbes-Wattley
Vicky Rees WD Ella Patrick
Hannah Raine C Natalie Brookes
Ria Small WA Katt Ainsworth
Harriet Baxter GA Suzie Liversedge
Abbie LeBrocq GS Chrissy Munro
The opening four goals were shared, before Grangetown gained the early initiative after a penalty was awarded against the Clan defence, although Sophie Short looked to have completed a fair interception. The shot was converted and the lead was doubled when Katie Walton and Jenny Mrozik played the ball out of defence despite strong Clan pressure. Ria Small looped a pass to Abbie LeBrocq and the shooter, who was celebrating her birthday, made no mistake.
Natalie Brookes fired a neat pass through the home defence for Chrissy Munro to score, and seconds later, the visitors levelled the scores. Abbie found space from the centre pass to score with a free shot from under the net, and Grangetown then forced a turnover which Harriet Baxter converted and when Abbie netted at the second attempt, Grangetown led 7-4.
Clan responded with a tremendous seven-goal burst, which began with a lovely long shot from Suzie Liversedge. Chrissy Munro scored twice as Clan drew level, before Grangetown twice gifted possession to the visitors, who duly took full advantage. At 7-9, Jenny managed to get a hand to a pass to allow Katie to complete the turnover. Ria fed the ball into the circle, but the ball was knocked out of play by Sophie Short. Strangely, possession was awarded to Clan, who scored the next two goals, the second coming from a great pass that found an unmarked Chrissy Munro under the net.
Grangetown finally broke the sequence, and when Katt Ainsworth was penalised for an early break from a Clan centre pass, Harriet made a great run, which attracted both defenders, and Ria’s long pass found Abbie free to score unchallenged. More good play by Vicky Rees gave Grangetown the chance to reduce the deficit to a single goal, but Clan ended the period strongly and they led 10-14 when the whistle brought an end to the opening quarter.
Gen Slater, who will be captaining Ireland in the upcoming Nations Cup in Singapore, was brought on alongside her international defensive partner Katie Walton for the second quarter. Jenny Mrozik moved to wing defence, and Vicky Rees took over at centre.
Great pressure from Vicky twice came close to earning a three-second penalty, but a time violation was called against Clan moments later, and Grangetown moved the ball down the court and Abbie’s long shot found the net off the far edge of the hoop. Clan quickly responded and when Chrissy Munro scored having claimed an excellent rebound, the gap was now five goals.
An off-the-ball penalty put Grangetown back under pressure, but Clan surrendered possession and excellent interplay between Ria, Harriet and Abbie resulted in an important goal. Clan reopened their five-goal advantage, but were unlucky to be penalised after another Grangetown mistake looked to have handed over the ball.
Grangetown tried to force the play, but Sophie Short easily picked out a long ball into the circle. Nice interplay between Natalie Brookes and Chrissy Munro followed as the High Wycombe side maintained their lead. At 14-19, Katt Ainsworth athletically kept the ball in play, but possession was surrendered, and a fine finish from Harriet reduced the gap to four.
Jade Forbes-Wattley was penalised after what looked an excellent interception. Harriet again took advantage, and following more good work by Katie Walton, two goals from Abbie meant that Clan now only led by one.
Some indecision in the Grangetown ranks led to a misplaced pass, but Clan’s attack broke down when an attacking pass was thrown wildly out of play. Clan did score next, but the goal was quickly cancelled out after Jade Forbes-Wattley and Abbie challenged for the ball, which somewhat fortuitously ricocheted off the post straight back into the safe hands of the Grangetown shooter.
There was just time for the home side to score one more goal, but it was crucial because it brought the sides level for the first time since the early stages of the opening quarter.
It had been a hugely entertaining thirty minutes of netball. Grangetown had shown their battling qualities to fight their way back into the game, whilst Clan will probably feel as though they had done just about enough to deserve an interval lead.
The visitors shuffled their pack at half-time, whilst Grangetown’s only chance was Ashleigh Neal’s introduction at goal attack.
The Australian made an immediate impact after Jenny Mrozik’s interception had turned over possession. Quick passing in and out of the circle gave Ashleigh the opportunity to register her first goal for her new club. Abbie missed her next shot, but regathered forcefully and found the net at the second attempt.
When Katie gathered a rebound at the other end, there was a sense that momentum was starting to swing towards Grangetown and with Ashleigh cleverly drawing a contact foul and converting the subsequent shot, the home side had suddenly taken a four-goal lead.
A superb interception by Jade Forbes-Wattley followed by Katt Ainsworth’s defence-splitting cross-court pass saw Clan open their account in the third quarter. Some great movement and a well-disguised pass by Ashleigh set up Abbie for an easy score, before Katt Ainsworth was penalised for what appeared another perfectly good interception; the Australian showing her understandable disappointment and being cautioned for dissent as a result.
Ashleigh Neal’s speed of movement and thought was quickly becoming a feature of the third period; she provided an injection of pace, but also a calming influence as the hosts gradually extended their lead. One perfect example saw Ashleigh feed Ria, her off-the-ball run attracted both defenders, allowing Ria to loop a pass to Abbie who was totally unmarked in front of the net.
Some fantastic work by Vicky Rees and Gen Slater managed not only to keep the ball in play, but also secure possession. The ball was moved down the court and the goal that followed made the score 33-25.
On Grangetown’s next attack, Ashleigh feigned to shoot, but instead fed Abbie who was perfectly-placed to further extend Grangetown’s advantage. Harriet netted from a rebound right on the whistle and after two tight and hard-fought quarters, Grangetown found themselves ten goals to the good with only one quarter remaining.
It had been a quite superb period from the whole Grangetown seven, but there is no doubt that the catalyst was the appearance of Ashleigh Neal. The result had been hanging very much in the balance at half-time, but just fifteen minutes later, the eventual outcome was effectively beyond doubt.
Despite a number of unforced errors and turnovers, there was no lack of endeavour from both sides in the closing quarter, but as the clock ticked towards the ten-minute mark, the size of the advantage had increased to fifteen goals, and afforded Grangetown the luxury of giving two more of their talented younger players, Tasha Grylls and Kate Hill some valuable court time.
There was still enough time for Ria Small to produce two sublime passes into the shooters, only for both chances to be squandered. To their credit Clan kept going right to the final whistle and had clawed back five goals by full time; the final score reading 47-37.
Katie Walton was named the Mizuno Player of the Match for another commanding sixty minutes at goalkeeper, but my vote would have gone to Ashleigh Neal, whose performance in that third quarter completely changed the course of the game. Overall though, this was a fine team effort from a Grangetown side that has gelled together really well and is producing a consistently high-standard of exciting netball.
Grangetown hosted The Downs in the fifth round of the Mizuno Premier League 2nd Division. With the season still in its early stages, Grangetown had won two of their opening four fixtures and, although the club lay in eighth position, only one point separated them from the top four.
The two defeats came against the sides filling the league’s top two positions in the lead-up to week 5, and with The Downs occupying third place, it could hardly have been a tougher reintroduction to the second tier for Grangetown following their promotion through the play-offs.
The Surrey side was relegated from the top flight last season, but travelled up to the north east with a record of three wins and one defeat, their latest outing being a comfortable home success over Sussex Thunder.
Three current England internationals, Ebony Beckford-Chambers, Rachel Dunn and Hannah Reid all represented The Downs on their way to international honours; and Grangetown can boast two current internationals of their own, with Genevieve Slater and Katie Walton (pictured below) both being named in the Ireland squad for the forthcoming Nations Cup in Singapore.
The starting line-ups for the game were as follows:
Grangetown The Downs
Katie Walton GK Lorraine Kowalewska
Jenny Mrozik GD Alima Priest
Gen Slater WD Fiona Bateman
Hannah Raine C Kate McGinley
Ria Small WA Mel Boodt
Harriet Baxter GA Neala Brennan
Abbie LeBrocq GS Abi Caple
The game started with Gen Slater and Hannah Raine both coming close to interceptions, before the visitors opened the scoring. A neat pass from Grangetown’s 18-year-old centre enabled Harriet Baxter to get the home side onto the scoreboard, before Harriet and Ria Small combined to give Abbie LeBrocq the chance for Grangetown to score against The Downs’ centre pass.
The Guildford-based side soon took advantage of a fumbled pass to restore parity and were slightly unfortunate when Mel Boodt was given offside after a collision with Gen Slater knocked her into the circle. The teams traded goals until a frenetic passage of play saw The Downs grab a two-goal lead. Grangetown turned over possession from their centre pass; only to be handed back the ball after a three-second violation. A speculative pass failed to find Abbie LeBrocq and Alima Priest’s long diagonal ball opened up the court and the visitors netted after a foul was called against Katie Walton.
Grangetown again conceded possession after a long pass went over the backline, only to receive the ball back after a footwork call against the visitors. Defensive pressure was forcing Grangetown into rushed passes and eventually it took some nice interplay between Harriet and Ria Small to set up Abbie for a straightforward chance.
With The Downs on the attack, Lorraine Kowalewska was penalised for obstruction at the opposite end of the court. It was a stroke of luck for the hosts, but the umpire blew for an early break from the resulting centre pass, and the visitors duly netted to maintain their two-goal margin.
It had been a closely-fought opening quarter, but The Downs had been slightly the better side and deserved their narrow advantage, however as the period neared its conclusion, Grangetown suddenly clicked into gear and scored six unanswered goals to leave the score 13-9 at quarter time.
Gen Slater fired a superb pass to Harriet, whose run attracted both visiting defenders. Harriet was able to feed Abbie LeBrocq who was totally unmarked under the net. An almost identical pass gave Abbie another free shot to level the scores, before Katie and Jenny Mrozik both claimed possession, firstly by intercepting a long pass, then regathering the ball after a shot rebounded off the ring.
Grangetown missed two shots of their own, but seconds later, Ria found Harriet free on the left of the circle, and the shot was duly converted. Three goals came in a frantic final minute; Abi netting three times, with the final goal coming literally seconds before the hooter sounded. The opening quarter had been entertaining, and Grangetown’s run of goals arguably belied how even a game it had been.
An unchanged Grangetown side then scored the first three goals of the second period, the third coming following an off-the-ball penalty against Lorraine Kowalewska, whose tussle with Abbie LeBrocq was one of the features of the entire sixty minutes.
Ria Small nearly pulled off a fantastic interception, but The Downs were denied a goal when great marking from Katie Walton drew a penalty. Unfortunately, the pass out of defence was dropped, and The Downs finally opened their account after nearly four minutes of the quarter.
The next four goals were shared, but Grangetown claimed a turnover after a long looped pass had been superbly caught by Katie Walton; it should have been an even contest for the ball, but as soon as the pass was in flight, there was only ever going to be one outcome. The ball travelled quickly down the court; Abbie netted, but the goal was ruled out. Abi Caple then scored from long range, before converting an easier chance from Neala Brennan’s cleverly disguised pass.
Abbie scored the game’s next three goals, but The Downs still looked dangerous, with centre Kate McGinley really coming to the fore with her ability to find space out wide and feed excellent passes into the attackers.
Lorraine Kowalewska did well to turn over possession and the subsequent goal reduced the margin to five, but she was immediately cautioned for what was seen as deliberate obstruction on Abbie LeBrocq, who had no trouble converting the shooting opportunity.
Yet again, as the quarter drew to a close, Grangetown’s outstanding fitness levels were very much in evidence. Another flurry of goals saw Grangetown go into the half-time interval 27-18 in front; it was a sizeable advantage, but one that the home side had worked incredibly hard to earn.
Hannah Raine was withdrawn during the interval, after putting in a really good shift at centre. Ria Small replaced Hannah, with Kate Hill being introduced at wing attack, and club captain Vicky Rees coming on at wing defence.
Although Grangetown scored first in the third period, following really quick interplay between Ria and Harriet Baxter, the quarter was essentially dominated by The Downs. Grangetown lacked the cohesion of the preceding half-hour, conceded far too many penalties, and the visitors were more than capable of converting the chances that came their way.
Vicky Rees and Ria Small combined to leave Abbie with an easy shot from right under the net to make the score 30-21, but the next six goals were all scored by The Downs, whose fightback was both quick and impressive. Grangetown eventually replied through the trusted Small-LeBrocq combination, but it was Harriet Baxter who really caught the eye towards the end of the quarter.
Her movement and link-up play were superb; she looked like she’d played alongside her team mates for years rather than just a handful of games; and as well as a number of excellent feeds into her shooting partner, Harriet also found the net on a number of occasions.
At the end of what had been a difficult quarter, Grangetown had managed to hold onto a five-goal lead. It was clear that there would be changes to the on-court personnel; and Gen Slater duly returned to the fray, with Vicky Rees and Ria Small combining in mid-court.
There are some talented youngsters in the Grangetown squad, but there is also a great deal of experience; and the final fifteen minutes was all about composure. The hard work had been done in the first half; a more than useful advantage had been maintained despite a strong third period from the visitors; now it was a question of remaining strong and focussed.
The first goal was created by Hannah Baxter, who took a ball from Vicky Rees and drilled a pass to Abbie at a pace she didn’t look like she was expecting. However, Abbie managed to keep her poise and once again found the net.
Katie Walton and Jenny Mrozik both played the full sixty minutes and had excellent games. They secured numerous interceptions and rebounds, and restricted the visiting attack to just five goals in the fourth period. In contrast, Grangetown recovered the fluidity they had temporarily lost in the previous quarter, and if there had been any nervousness, it certainly didn’t show as both Abbie and Harriet scored from close-range and longer distance in the closing moments of the match.
Kate McGinley, who was The Downs’ best player on the day produced one of the best passes of the afternoon to take both Grangetown defenders out of the game and set up a straightforward shooting opportunity, but Grangetown were relentless and the goal difference had reached double figures when the final hooter brought proceedings to an end.
The final score was 48-37. It was a tremendous performance from Grangetown, who showed real maturity to see out the game after The Downs had rallied so strongly. The visitors will be disappointed by the size of the defeat; and they showed enough to suggest they will be one of the division’s stronger teams. Katie Walton and Jenny Mrozik’s efforts in defence must be highlighted, but the player of the match was Harriet Baxter (below), who had an outstanding afternoon at goal attack.