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.