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