I just hope that it won’t be too long before aspects of life that we took for granted will become possible again, although I feel certain the world that I’ve known for the past 55 years will never quite be the same again.
Life without sport seems so strange … gone is that weekend anticipation and excitement of live action, whether as a player or spectator. The occasional gem from yesteryear pops up on television, but there’s nothing like being out on the pitch, or the court, or watching on from the sidelines – and it’s ironic that the warmest April in many a year has coincided with the one time in most of our living memories that the cricket season hasn’t even been able to get underway.
I haven’t watched a great deal of live cricket since I retired from playing (due to popular demand) some 15 years ago; I still manage to catch up with old friends at an occasional Newcastle Thunder rugby league fixture, but my main interest since moving to Middlesbrough has become netball – and, in particular, Prem 1 club Grangetown.
My netball playing “career” was as short as it was embarrassingly bad, but from a 2014 “challenge” to have a go at being a goal shooter, I have graduated to providing match reports for the club’s elite squad. Less energetic, but I’ve definitely become a far better player since handing back my bib!
Grangetown’s rise to national prominence has been incredible. Consecutive promotions took the side into the top-flight of national club netball, but even the most optimistic wouldn’t have predicted a fourth-place finish in 2018/19.
There was a lot of confidence amongst the players and coaching staff that such a remarkable achievement could be replicated, but I was quite concerned that the second-season would be much tougher, with the other clubs having had the opportunity watch Grangetown and learn about their strengths and maybe spot one or two weaknesses.
The season started slowly with two home defeats, but a third-round win at Leeds Athletic finally got the proverbial ball rolling. There were some fantastic games and results over the subsequent months: hanging on to beat Hucclecote by a single goal after the visitors had launched a stunning final-quarter comeback; winning at Tameside for the second year in succession; outstanding results away at Hucclecote and Turnford; but none of the foregoing could match the sheer drama of the round 17 fixture at home to Academy, when Grangetown fought brilliantly to claw back a 17-goal deficit and draw a game they might even have won had the hooter not sounded with Niamh McCall about to set herself for a shot that everyone in the arena, with the exception of one reporter, would have converted.
The result left Grangetown in fifth position, with anything from fourth to sixth a possibility with one round remaining. Realistically I can’t see those final fixtures being played, but whatever is decided, the remaining games wouldn’t have any effect on the league title as Oldham had already deservedly retained the championship. At the other end of the table, one point separates the bottom two, which isn’t an ideal situation, but fortunately it doesn’t impact on Grangetown, whose individual and collective skill, determination and dedication has been amply rewarded by retaining their place as one of the country’s elite netball clubs.
At some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future, the club will get the chance to hand out an award or too; but in the meantime, here are a few thoughts from my spot on the side of the court – with the proviso that Grangetown’s (in fact every club’s) achievements are a team effort and singling out any one player does not reduce the contribution of every single member off the squad.
Player of the Season – Kyra Jones
What a privilege to be able to watch sisters Kyra and Ash play on the same side for the first time in the best part of a decade – two amazing athletes. Ash is just brilliant; she has made such a difference to the club and had another fantastic season; but Kyra’s experience, energy and sublime skill brought something really special to the crucial centre-court area.
Best Newcomer – Becks Thompson
Claudia’s injury left a big hole at the heart of the Grangetown defence, but Becks has had a superb first season. She’s one of the best athletes in the squad, and a relentless competitor; I still remember the way she got under Kathryn Turner’s skin in the game at Oldham – arguably the best GA in the division, but Becks wasn’t fazed at all.
Best Young Player – Annie James
It’s been great to see a number of local teenagers getting the chance of some court time during the Prem season, but I need to go down to Yorkshire for this award. Every time I’ve seen Grangetown face Leeds Athletic, this teenage shooter has showed composure and strength way beyond her years. Annie is as accurate as anyone I’ve seen in Prem and an outstanding prospect for the future Leeds Rhinos franchise.
Player Opposition Player
This is really tough because you might be basing your decision on less than an hour of an entire season, but I’ll narrow it down to two fine attacking players who were not only outstanding in their side’s respective wins on Teesside, but always seem to be a major influence in games against Grangetown: Emily Gulvin (Turnford) and Ally Thomas (Tameside).
And that’s just about that really. I have to admit that I had been considering stepping back from match reporting. It can be hard to actually enjoy a game when your constantly taking notes; the reports themselves usually take the best part of three hours and as the number of readers fell (I can see page views on my website), I began to wonder if it was really worthwhile given things I was having to deal with away from the club.
One thing this lockdown has done is to afford ample (perhaps too much) opportunity to reflect … on a lot of things – including just how much enjoyment I have had from being involved in netball. There are a number of things that Elaine and I want to do while time is still on our side and when we finally get the chance; but my life would be poorer without Grangetown and without netball, so all being well (and if required), I’ll be back on the sidelines next season and will look forward to see you all again very soon.