It takes a talented athlete to come to a new (and newly promoted) netball club, to quickly settle in both on and off the court, and be able to play so consistently well that she becomes a regular in the starting seven…
Claudia Heath is undoubtedly a talented athlete.
Her performances at wing defence have been outstanding during Grangetown’s quite remarkable debut season in Prem 1; but aged just 21 Claudia is also one of the younger members of the squad.
In fact, Claudia was a relatively late starter in netball terms: “I didn’t play netball until the end of primary school, when I was around 11 or 12. I loved all sports, and up until then I did a lot of athletics and played football too. I come from quite a sporting family; my Dad [Billy] played professional football and he is currently the manager at Alfreton Town [who play in the National League North].
“I think I was picked out to try netball because I was so tall for my age. I thought I’d give it a go and everything just happened from there really…
“I grew up in Hull and I played at a club there until I was about 14, when I joined Leeds Athletic; and I played for Leeds until I moved to Grangetown.”
That must have involved a lot of travelling?
“It did, but my parents have been brilliant. They’d take me all over the country to games and trials. They’ve always been so supportive…
“But when I left school, I went to Uni in Leeds. I love the city, and it was the place where I really wanted to go to study. Obviously that made things easier with the netball, but even though I’ve got a lot of good friends at the club, I felt it was time for a change at the end of last season…”
It was clear that Claudia was about to explain how she joined Grangetown; but that was actually the next question on my professionally-compiled list. Every time I do an interview, half of my questions seem to get answered before I get the chance to ask them; but I did the honourable thing … interrupted and asked anyway.
Claudia it’s back over to you…
“Brie [Grierson] told me about Grangetown. And I also knew Abbie [Le Brocq] from Team Northumbria, and they both spoke highly about the club, so I thought I’d come along and see for myself. Gel [Williams] was so lovely. Everyone made me feel welcome, even before I’d officially joined, so the decision to come to Grangetown was a no-brainer for me.”
Claudia has also gained international honours, having represented England at U19 and U21 levels; the highlight being a tour to Jamaica with the U19s. I was interested to know if any members of the squad had progressed into Super League: “Amy Carter is at Manchester Thunder. There’s Iona Darroch down at Severn Stars, and Amy Clinton who’s just joined Loughborough. They’re all doing really well.”
So do you have Super League ambitions of your own?
“Maybe in the future. I’m in the third year of my PE degree at the moment, and I’m going to do a Masters in social work after that, so I always knew that this year in particular was going to be really difficult; and I’d have to concentrate hard on my studies to make sure I do well. So as far as netball is concerned, whilst I’m still doing a lot of training, I wanted to make sure I had the right balance between course work and sport, but also be relaxed enough to really enjoy my netball – and that’s certainly the case with Grangetown.”
So how does a typical week look?
“Most days I’m training at seven in the morning, before doing a full day at college, then more training on an evening, either with the Uni squad, or with Grangetown on a Tuesday. This week I’ve got to go down to Cardiff for a day too, so that’s another early start. I usually get the chance to relax a bit on a Saturday, before Prem on the Sunday.
“So I don’t have a lot of spare time, but I think I’ve got the balance right, and I’m having such a great time at Grangetown!
“Like I said, everyone made me feel so welcome, and I felt part of the club right from the beginning. I’m happy with how I’m playing; I certainly don’t feel stressed out on court - in fact I’m loving every minute!”
Is wing defence your preferred position?
“I do love playing there, but for most of my career I played at goal keeper or goal defence. It just happened that there were a lot of defenders in the Uni squad, so I took the chance to try and push forward, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
“We’re lucky at Grangetown because we’ve got so much strength in our defence; it doesn’t matter which combination is out on court, Tuaine [Keenan], Billy [Katie Walton], Jenny [Mrozik], or Gen [Slater] when she was here, they are all fantastic players, and I feel confident whoever is on court behind me.
“Of course it was a blow when we lost Gen at Christmas, but we’re all looking forward to seeing her again after she’s had her baby. A Grangetown baby … it’s so exciting!”
For some reason, wing attack seems to be a particularly strong position in the majority of Prem 1 squads, but of all the players that Claudia has faced during her time with Grangetown; does one in particular stand out?
“Yes. It was Georgia Lees, who plays for New Cambell and Mavs [Saracens Mavericks] in Super League. She was definitely the toughest opponent I’ve faced; she was so quick, and so agile; I was in awe of her really.”
If you haven’t read my report on the New Cambell game, I can confirm the young lady in question most certainly is that Georgia Lees!
Although that game ended up as a heavy defeat, there have been very few set-backs during what has been a quite remarkable season. The best news of all is now that Grangetown are mathematically safe from relegation, even Head Coach Gel Williams is confident that just one more win will guarantee survival…
But in Claudia’s opinion, what has been the squad’s best performance?
“The win away at Academy was definitely a highlight. We went down to London, a five or six hour journey, without our Super League players, to face a side that is always challenging near the top of the table – and we came away with the win.
“We worked so hard and deserved the win. The result was probably seen as a massive shock though, and maybe it made some of the other teams sit up and take notice. Obviously we’re stronger with Ash [Neal], Brie and Tuaine in the squad, any side would be, but we showed that we can perform without them; so it’s probably that performance that really stands out.”
You’ve still got to visit your former club before the end of the season; how do you look at the final few fixtures; and what are your plans going forward?
“I’m looking forward to going back to Leeds, but we’re going there for the win. We don’t just want to finish mid-table after all the work we’ve put in; we all feel that we’re capable of finishing fourth, so we’ve got to make sure we maintain our performance levels for the final few games.
“As far as next season is concerned, I definitely want to stay at Grangetown – I’ve enjoyed this season so much. I don’t know if there’ll be many changes in the squad, but even though we’ve had an amazing season, every squad will be looking to improve and that’s what we must try to do as well…”
At this point, the extremely poor phone signal was lost for the third (and final) time, and with our conversation at an end, I was absolutely certain of two things.
Claudia Heath: talented athlete … unreliable phone.
Grangetown’s final home fixture in Prem 1 ended in a 50-68 defeat at the hands of Viper 10 Blades.
The Blades went into the game in third position, one place and six points ahead of a Grangetown side that had lost just once in six games, but were missing influential wing defence Claudia Heath through injury, and Ash Neal, Brie Grierson and Tuaine Keenan due to Super League commitments.
Viper 10 Blades were without a couple of players who had featured for Surrey Storm the previous evening, but travelled north having produced one of the results of the season to defeat New Cambell in their most recent away game.
Grangetown Head coach Gel Williams was able to hand a first start to Ireland international Fran Duffy, and she was the pick of a Grangetown side that produced a battling performance, but were beaten by a well-organised Blades squad that capitalised on any errors and shot confidently and accurately throughout the game.
Jenny Mrozik and Hannah Raine played from the start and both made telling contributions, as did Sophie McFarlane and Nicole Malloy when brought on from the bench.
It is a hard task for a Premier League coach to guarantee consistent opportunities and regular court time, but it says a lot about the depth and spirit within this Grangetown squad that every player can make a positive impact whenever a chance is presented.
Grangetown’s home campaign ended with five wins and four defeats, but after a season-opening loss against a strong Academy side, the only teams to have travelled to Grangetown and won are the three above them in the table: Oldham, New Cambell and Viper 10 Blades.
To those five home wins, Grangetown have added a further four on their travels. With three further away games still to be played, there is a possibility that the club’s away record could match the results at home, which would a rare and notable achievement at this level.
Vicky Rees and Ria Small, captain and vice-captain respectively, have set the highest standards and led by example all season. They will have their sights set on a top-five finish, but whatever happens between now and the end of the campaign, Grangetown have exceeded all expectations and enjoyed an outstanding debut year in the top flight of English club netball.
All photos by Sarah Raine
Alice linked up well with her attacking partner Abbie Le Brocq to reduce the deficit, but Tameside scored again following a perfectly-weighted pass from Dom, which just evaded the onrushing Tuaine Keenan.
The teams then traded goals as well as a series of errors, and it took a lovely piece of interplay between Abbie and Alice to hand the former the chance to bring the scores level.
Twice Elzabeth Cardwell got a hand to the ball to knock it out of play, but from the second restart, Abbie netted from distance to give Grangetown the lead. Alice cancelled out a goal from Ally, before a sweeping move across court and back resulted in Ally bringing parity to proceedings once again.
Brie Grierson’s lovely flighted pass set up Alice for the next goal, but the quarter’s decisive moment came with a brilliant piece of intuitive skill from Tuaine who intercepted a short pass from a feigned shot to secure possession. Alice scored from distance to open up a two-goal lead – an advantage that the home side would not relinquish.
Grangetown piled on the defensive pressure to force two more errors, Alice and Abbie finishing off the respective moves and Grangetown led 13-9 at the end of the quarter.
It had been an entertaining, but quite tense opening period between two very good sides. Tameside made the better start, but with Grangetown upping their defensive intensity and applying pressure throughout the court, they probably deserved the early advantage.
Early in the second period, Beccy set up a chance with an excellent feed, but the shot was missed and quick precise passing from Tuaine, Claudia and Ria Small took play down court, and Abbie scored an important goal against the Tameside centre pass following a penalty awarded inside the circle.
Nice movement and interplay between Abbie and Alice was replicated by Beccy and Brogan Slicker for the visitors. In the space of a couple of minutes, Tuaine and Vicky Rees both turned over possession, and with Claudia producing yet another tremendous performance at wing defence, the Tameside attack was briefly blunted.
From 16-11 Grangetown quickly took their lead into double figures with good feeds and clinical finishing at one end complementing the outstanding defending at the other.
Tameside eventually got back on the scoresheet, after Brogan brilliantly kept the ball in play after an initial shot had bounced off the ring of the net.
The visitors scored again after what looked a clear foul on Brie was called the other way, and assured finishes from both Tameside shooters reduced the deficit to seven – the last of those goals coming from a lovely long pass from Kelsie; Brogan making no mistake from the subsequent feed.
However, an overthrown pass was gratefully collected by Tuaine; possession was squandered but then superbly reclaimed by Brie who got a hand to a mid-court pass and deflected the ball straight to Claudia.
Alice duly converted, but after Beccy and Alice combined nicely to cancel out the goal, Grangetown had the benefit of a fortunate call from the umpire who blew for an off-the-ball foul against Tameside just as a wayward pass was about to hand possession back to the visitors.
Grangetown didn’t take advantage though, both shooters choosing to pass when seemingly well-placed to take a shot, and they were made to pay as Tameside turned over the ball, and Brogan netted from Beccy’s feed.
Ria’s bullet pass was collected and converted by Abbie, but Brogan scored from long-range to made the score 29-22 as the half-time hooter sounded. The seven-goal advantage meant that Grangetown remained in the ascendency, but Tameside had shown plenty of quality in the opening half an hour, and the result still felt in the balance.
Katie Walton came on at goal keeper for the third period, and her first touch was to pluck a pass out of the air to claim a turnover. Tuaine made an interception from Tameside’s next attack, with Abbie scoring from the subsequent passage of play, but nice vision from the increasingly influential Beccy allowed Ally to convert from close-range.
Grangetown wasted possession after Katie had claimed a rebound, but the whole team was maintaining their defensive intensity, the result being a three-second call against the visitors. The ball went out of play from the penalty, but Abbie was first to react and a quick exchange with Ria set up another goal.
Brie’s long pass then split the defence for Alice to score the first of two quick goals. Katie then forced an error and made another interception, but on both occasions, errors cost Grangetown the chance to further extend their lead.
Aurnia Barlow, who had come on at goal shooter for Tameside, scored well under pressure; Beccy’s cleverly-delayed feed handed Tameside another opportunity and three more quick goals brought the difference back to seven.
In fact, Tameside missed a golden opportunity to further reduce the arrears, but Tuaine claimed an all-important rebound to hand the initiative back to the home side. From their next possession, Tameside broke quickly out of defence, but the final pass was anticipated by Tuaine who completed an interception that was far more difficult than the Loughborough defender made it look.
After Grangetown scored three unanswered goals, Claudia was penalised despite taking what looked like a brilliant mid-air catch, but Katie’s equally superb tip on the resulting shot denied Tameside a goal right on the hooter, and with one period remaining, the home side led by ten - 42-32.
Grangetown shuffled their pack for the final quarter, with Vicky returning at centre in place of Ria, Jenny Mrozik coming on at goal defence, Tuaine moving to goal keeper and Katie returning to the bench after a quite sublime cameo.
With Brie injecting real pace into the Grangetown attack, the home side gradually drew further ahead. Jenny and Vicky both made a positive impact in the closing minutes and with Grangetown having passed the 50 mark, Fran Duffy was introduced at goal attack.
Fran duly opened her account at the first time of asking, but perhaps fittingly, the possession that led to the goal was secured by Claudia and Tuaine, both of whom had been excellent throughout the whole game.
The game ended in a 55-40 victory for Grangetown. The margin of victory was perhaps greater than had seemed likely during what had been a closely-contested first half, but hard as Tameside fought, and as well as they played for long periods of the game, they couldn’t match the pace and intensity of a really cohesive Grangetown squad.
Ria and Vicky have led by example all season, the attacking pairing of Abbie and Alice is getting stronger with every game, and Brie, as always, made a massive contribution;; but this win was built around the defence, with all the combinations providing a stern test for a quick and mobile Tameside attack, expertly marshalled by Beccy Hoult.
Tuaine Keenan was rightly named Player of the Match, and the result strengthens Grangetown’s fourth- position with just five games remaining in what is rapidly becoming a quite remarkable season.
It has been quite a while since the last interview with a member of Grangetown’s Prem squad, but this first offering of 2019 features the shooter who goals have helped to secure successive promotions and a current top-five position in Prem 1 – Abbie LeBrocq.
Usually, these articles start off with the same old question: When did you start playing netball? I wanted to come up with a new, different, exciting way of opening the conversation; but I’m very much a creature of habit; so…when did Abbie first start playing netball?!
“I first started at school when I was about twelve. Not by choice though; I was made to play … they needed someone tall!
“I was actually a swimmer up until that point, but by the time I was fifteen, I’d stopped swimming and was concentrating on netball. My first club was Harrogate Phoenix, but when I started at Queen Ethelburga’s School, they advised me to move to Leeds Athletic, and then I joined Grangetown at eighteen.”
Abbie also represented Yorkshire Jets at under 17 and under 19 levels, as well as Team Northumbria under 21s. She played alongside current Grangetown team mates Claudia Heath at Leeds and the Jets, and both Brie Grierson and Tuaine Keenan were in the Jets’ Super League squad when she was playing under 19s.
Abbie has already mentioned her height (she stands 6’ 2”), and whilst Grangetown supporters have only seen her in the goal shooter and goal attack bibs, I wondered if she had ever played in any other position?
“In year 7 at school I was actually a goal keeper. It wasn’t until I joined Harrogate [Phoenix] at fourteen, that I was given a chance to shoot. I’m comfortable at goal shooter, but I do enjoy having the chance to play at goal attack … it’s nice to be able to run around the court every now and again!”
Abbie’s educational pursuits took her from her Yorkshire home to Newcastle, so what prompted a new university student to travel to Middlesbrough for club netball? And just how easy was it to fit in to a new club?
“I was training at my old school, during the summer before I went to university, Gel [Williams] happened to be there, and Te [Aroha Keenan] took me over to speak to her. Grangetown had just been relegated to Prem 3 and I think a few players must have left the club; Gel said they were looking for a new shooter and it all went from there really.
“I found it really easy to fit in at Grangetown. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming and there was a nice vibe around the club. Everyone wants you there, and wants you to do well. We’re playing in a strong division, but we’re not put under loads of pressure, and that actually helps us to go out and play our best netball.”
Interestingly, during a number of previous interviews and conversations, several players had singled out Abbie for the extent that her game had developed and improved during her first two full seasons – both of which ended in promotion – but how does Abbie assess her own progress?
“I’m so much stronger physically. I go to the gym a lot more and all the strength and conditioning work has definitely helped. The coaches are great and they’ve certainly played a big part in developing my game, and out on court, it’s been great to play alongside Ash [Neal], Brie and Ria [Small]. I particularly love watching Ash and Brie play together; how they think, move, and combine. All three of them understand my game and how I move in the circle, and they just feed so well … they’ve made a big difference.
“And training with the Team Northumbria squad when I was in the under 21s helped a lot too. You learn so much when you’re on court with girls like Brie, Claudia and Chiara [Semple].”
Watching on from the sidelines, I would add that Abbie has also grown massively in confidence over the past two-and-a-bit seasons. There were occasions early in her career at Grangetown when experienced defenders were able to affect her performance, deny her easy opportunities or pressurise her into missing shots.; but watching the talented, but relatively raw teenager blossom into a strong and assured young woman on court has been both fascinating and fantastic.
Of course, netball is a team game, but any successful side needs someone dependable in the circle, and in my opinion, Abbie simply has to be one of the best shooters outside Super League…
Looking back at the end of last season, it must have been a wonderful feeling not just to secure promotion to Prem 1, but to do so as champions. How does Abbie reflect on that win at Clan?
“It was great … I got to play goal attack!
“I think it was important knowing that we would go straight into Prem 1 if we won that last match. We didn’t have to worry about goal average or anything like that; it was all in our own hands. From what I remember, we were always in control of the game, and everyone was so happy afterwards. The atmosphere on the way back was fantastic; and it was lovely that some supporters were able to make the trip too.
“I did find all the travelling difficult at first, but I’m starting to get used to the long journeys; I even look forward to them – although it definitely helps when you’re winning!”
Being promoted twice at the first time of asking is remarkable, but competing in Prem 1 was always going to present a new set of challenges. How big is the change from Prem 2 to Prem 1?
“It’s a massive step-up. So many Super League players are at Prem 1 clubs. You do see the odd one or two in Prem 2, but most of the Prem 1 squads have two or three, or maybe more. Every game you know you’re going to be facing a big name … the players are so much stronger, which is why I needed to get stronger too. It can be quite scary at times, but we’ve done well so far.”
A slight understatement perhaps?!
“Although it can be quite daunting to go up against a really top player, it’s good to push yourself, and know that if you play well, you can get your shots in and compete with some of the best players in the country.
“Sometimes as a shooter, it can be hard not to let the defender get in your head. I’m lucky that I’m tall and there aren’t many players who can tip the ball when I’m shooting, but I still get nervous. I just have to remember all the hours of practice I’ve done and take confidence from knowing that I can shoot.”
Just as a spectator, it has been enjoyable to see so many outstanding players out on court, but from the perspective of someone who is right in the middle of the action, do any players stand out in particular?
“Chiara Semple is one of the best I’ve ever played with or against,” came the immediate response. “I’ve always admired her; the way she carries the ball, the skill she has. I’ve learned a lot from her and we’re also very good friends. She plays in the same position as me though, so if I had to pick someone I’ve played directly against, I’d probably say Razia Quashie.
“She plays for Mavericks in Super League and recently made her England debut, but she was in the Academy side in our first game of the Prem 1 season. She really was very good. Solid and so strong, you just couldn’t move her – she was actually moving me; and it was so hard just trying to stand my ground next to someone so strong.
“She played at goal keeper and Academy also had Vicki Oyesola at goal defence. Vicki plays alongside Tuaine at Loughborough Lightning, and I actually came up against her in a university game earlier this week. She’s such a good player too, and Vicki and Razia are probably the best defensive combination I’ve faced.”
Grangetown have certainly exceeded all realistic expectations this season – some of the performances have been brilliant to watch. I was interested in how Abbie assesses the squad’s progress, and whether such a run of almost uninterrupted success can actually feel slightly surreal?
“I think it was really good that I joined the club in Prem 3, so I’ve seen at first hand how we’ve progressed. We’ve had the same close core group with players like Vicky [Rees], Ria, Katie [Walton], Jenny [Mrozik] and Gen [Slater], and we’ve just got better every year.
“I was maybe a little sceptical about Prem 1,” she continued, “it is such a big jump, but although it does seem a bit surreal to see Grangetown sitting in the top five, we’ve worked incredibly hard to be where we are. We’re all so happy for Gel too. She’s put so much into the club, and it’s great to see her reaction whenever we win.”
The club’s main aim at the start of this season was to do well enough to preserve Prem 1 status. I personally thought the win away at Academy just before Christmas was the moment when “safety” was guaranteed. I can completely understand that the players and coaches would be more guarded though, but the recent win at Premier Romans was Grangetown’s seventh in twelve games.
No club has been relegated with seven wins and with Worcester and Premier Romans well adrift at the foot of the table, I’m totally comfortable that Grangetown have more than fulfilled their pre-season ambition … and much more besides. With that in mind, I finished this thoroughly enjoyable chat with yet another stock question … this time about netball ambitions.
“Actually, right nowI don’t have a lot of ambitions in netball,” Abbie readily admitted. “I’m due to graduate next summer, then I’m going to do my Masters in Law after that. I’ll have a lot of work to do, and managing my netball and training and netball around my studies will be quite challenging; but I love playing at Grangetown and I’ll definitely be back next season … if they’ll have me!”
I think they might, Abbie!