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.