A few short weeks ago, Grangetown Netball Club’s elite squad gained promotion to the top flight of English club netball for the very first time, as a final-day victory against Buckinghamshire-based Clan secured the Mizuno Premier League second division championship.
It was an outstanding achievement for the club, which is based at Grangetown’s Youth and Community Centre just outside Middlesbrough; but despite now being the highest-ranked club in the north east, and one of the top ten clubs in England, the success has gone largely unnoticed outside netball circles.
Back in 2016, Grangetown suffered the disappointment of relegation to the third tier, through a play-off process which coincided with the European Championships; an event that cost Grangetown four regular players for the play-off tournament. It was a cruel blow, but instead of dwelling on how circumstances had conspired against the squad, Head coach Gel Williams took stock, recruited several talented teenagers, prepared well, and the hard work both on and off the court certainly paid off as the new-look squad – an exciting blend of youth and experience – returned to the play-offs in 2017, and swept back into the second division at the first time of asking.
The squad remained largely unchanged for the 2017/18 campaign, and after a couple of early defeats on the road, a series of impressive performances followed, with Grangetown gradually climbing into the top three. As the season entered its closing stages, Grangetown maintained their excellent run of form as their closest rivals faltered; and the win at Clan was enough to jump above Turnford and Hucclecote and take Grangetown to the top of the table for the very first time. The timing was perfect, and the winning margin of just a single point could hardly have been closer.
With the first game in Prem 1 just over three months away, now seems like the right time to review the successful championship campaign and look forward to the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead – and who better to discuss events past present and future than Grangetown’s club captain, Vicky Rees.
Firstly, how does Vicky reflect on the club’s championship and elevation into Prem 1?
“Last season exceeded all of our expectations,” Vicky admitted. “I think if you’d told me at the start of the season that we’d end up being promoted, I’m not sure I would have believed you. As a club, it has always been our aim to get into Prem 1 and play in the top division, but we didn’t get off to the best start last year. The first couple of games didn’t really go as well as we would have hoped, but then we really started to pick up and gel together.
“A couple of additions to the squad made a huge difference, but to be promoted as champions was more than I could have hoped for. It’s starting to sink in now, but I remember Gel and I spoke after the last game and she asked if I ever thought this would happen while I was still playing. We had a five-year plan to keep developing, bring players through and eventually get promoted into Prem 1, and to achieve that goal so soon – and while I was still part of the team – it’s just fantastic.”
The nucleus of the squad has been together for two years – and achieved two promotions. What are the squad’s particular strengths?
“I think if you asked what our major strength over the past couple of years has been, most people would say our defence. We’ve all played together for so long. Jenny [Mrozik] and I played in the circle for a long time, Genevieve [Slater] and ‘Billy’ [Katie Walton] play together for Ireland, and I think we just work really well as a defensive unit.
“But this year, players like Abbie [LeBrocq], Kate [Hill] and Ash [Neal] have helped the attack to come into its own as well, and with Ria [Small] having had such a great season, and Harriet [Baxter] joining the club, I now think we’ve got an excellent balance through the court; and being strong at both ends of the court has definitely improved us as a team.”
This season has seen Vicky moving further up the court with several notable performances at centre. Which position does she prefer – a defensive role, or centre?
“I love it at centre!” beamed the Grangetown captain. “I’d like to play more at centre if possible – just being able to do a bit more fitness work and position-specific training would be great. I think if a younger player is looking at how they can have a long and successful career at an elite level, it’s about being versatile … being able to play in a number of different positions. If you play one particular position and someone comes in who fits better in the squad than you, then you’re effectively out; but if you have the ability to perform well in different positions, it not only strengthens the squad, but obviously gives you the best chance of getting time on court, and that’s particularly true for the defensive unit that we just talked about. We’re able to use different combinations against particular players or attacking formations, and it’s good to have that variety.”
In the introduction, I touched on the 2015/16 relegation, at the end of season that had seen a number of Scotland and Ireland internationals representing the club. It was a bitter blow, but arguably the catalyst for the club’s remarkable resurgence. What does Vicky think?
“I think it [relegation] did make a big difference, but the extent of that difference has really only become clear over time. If you’d asked us after the play-offs, we’d all have said that relegation was the worst thing ever, but in hindsight it was a turning point in the club’s history.
“We had to look at different options, bring in new players and we’re now a complete squad with more depth than we’ve ever had. We’re all equal, and whoever happens to be on the bench is more than capable of coming on and playing a really good game. If you look at the Super League squads, there are twelve players and each of them can make a telling contribution, and that’s what we’ve been working towards. We can be more tactical, we can leave really good players on the bench, and bring them on at a certain point for a specific reason; and the opportunity or ability to do that is something that we’ve never really had before – but I think it’s brilliant.”
The new squad included a significant number of younger members, alongside the club’s most experienced players. Without the international pedigree, the squad that emerged was more stable and seemed to gel much better. For Vicky, was there a particular moment when she felt that the squad was really starting to show its full potential?
“It was probably a gradual process, but if I had to pick a turning point, it would be the way Abbie has developed as a shooter. To have somebody that tall [Abbie is 6’2”], who has become so reliable is really important. If you look at her stats, she’s a consistently high-percentage shooter, and she never seems to have a bad game. To have a shooter with that height and reliability for me was a definite turning point. We’ve become used to having a tall, increasingly strong and confident shooter, and when Ash joined the squad, all of a sudden everything came together.”
Having mentioned Ash Neal, the current Team Northumbria Super League captain, what does the Grangetown captain feel Ash has brought to the squad?
“Ash’s impact has been huge,” Vicky readily conceded. “The experience that she brings to the game is fantastic … you learn just from watching her, as well as playing alongside her. She’s a good leader on court too; she’ll help with positioning, particularly with Abbie, and they’ve built up a really good rapport – for instance Ash will give Abbie ‘the eye’ so she knows when the ‘bomb’ is coming in; and she’s able to pick out those passes where Ash looks one way and the ball goes the other. I’m sure Abbie’s ball-handling has improved as a result too; sometimes Ash will throw a bullet pass and I’ll think ‘oh no!’, but Abbie holds onto it, puts it up and in it goes!
“So yes, Ash is really important to us, and we’ve all really enjoyed having the chance to play with her, because she’s playing Super League and she’s got that little bit more experience of competing at a higher level, and she brings so much creativity with her attacking play. I think it’s something we have perhaps lacked in recent years, but Ash has brought that creativity into the squad – she’s definitely someone we can all learn from.”
Going back to the start of last season, and following the promotion gained through the play-offs; what were the realistic expectations before the first centre pass?
“For the first half of the season, there were definitely no expectations,” came Vicky’s honest assessment. “We were still a relatively new squad, and I suppose whenever you get promoted, the first aim is to stay in the division and consolidate your position at the higher level.
“But as the season progressed and we kept winning, we started to realise that things were not only going better than we had hoped, but there was actually a chance that we might get promoted again. For a while we were stuck in third position, and with promotion now being automatic for the top two rather than a play-off competition, it looked for a while like we might miss out; but the teams above us started dropping points and it wasn’t until the last couple of games that we knew that it was in our hands, and if we won at Chester and Clan, we’d go up.”
Earlier on, Vicky had mentioned ‘not getting off to the best start’, but the two defeats in the opening four games were away to Turnford and Hucclecote, the sides who would head the division right up until that closing week. So, whilst there may have been an element of disappointment at the time, hindsight would show that the club’s hardest fixtures were already out of the way by the end of the first full month of the campaign. Away form is so important to success at this level. The main constraints are availability, especially given the massive travelling distances involved, and for some clubs, the commencement of the Super League season can also have a significant impact on the make-up of the squad.
After those two early defeats, Grangetown would not lose another game on the road (winning five and drawing one) – “I hadn’t realised that!” Vicky exclaimed - and the fact that their squad remained stable (as well as performing consistently) throughout the season was a major factor in securing both promotion and the championship.
“When you look at the results of some of the other clubs you can see how inconsistent they are; beating a good team at home then losing to one of the poorer sides away. But yes, one of our biggest strengths is that we tend to have the same squad for our all our matches, so we’re able to maintain our performance levels and actually be almost as good away as we are at home. I think the fact that we’re able to commit to staying overnight is also really important; travelling down on a Saturday, making sure we have a good rest, getting to the venue with enough time to have a proper warm-up … and just having that time together; it all really helps.”
Looking forward then; where does Vicky feel the squad needs to strengthen to cope with the demands of Prem 1?
“Obviously, we will need to strengthen, and ideally, we’d probably like to add one quality to player in each third of the court. It’s not easy though,” Vicky continued, “because players of that calibre are either already playing Prem or are in a Super League squad and as we’ve seen, those players also have other commitments that can affect their availability for not just matches, but for training as well. But if you don’t go down that route, where are you going to find players with the ability to step up to that level? Really you do have to look to Super League, for players who can perform at the standard that you want.”
So, what will be the major challenges facing the squad over the upcoming months?
“I think possibly adjusting to a different pace. There was a difference coming up from Prem 3 to 2, so there’s bound to be another jump now that we’re going into Prem 1. It’s important that we adjust quickly to the pace, and to the fact that there will be more technical and creative aspects to the play, so we’ll need to be clever with the ball and learn to use our brains more on court.
“I also think we need to have more matchplay as part of our pre-season,” Vicky added. “We’ve always tried to build it into our programme, but it’s even more important this year, as we have to make sure we hit the ground running. That first game, whoever it’s against, mustn’t be a shock to our system. We have to be fully prepared to play at the speed, intensity and level required for Prem 1; we can’t afford to take two or three games to settle into the league.”
From a more personal perspective, how does Vicky feel about leading the club into uncharted, but undoubtedly exciting waters?
“I can’t wait! I’ve never been this excited to start pre-season … ever. It’s such a big deal for the club, and for all the players; I’m just really looking forward to it. Over the past couple of years, Gel and I have talked about a five-year plan, and all of a sudden, it’s here … we’ve done it; and I’m just really proud that we did it in ‘our time’. It’s really special for all of us to have the chance to play in Prem 1, and the timing couldn’t have been better with England winning the Commonwealth Games gold; that will give the sport such a boost.
“England actually won their final the day before we won the championship, and we watched a replay at 9:30 in the morning at the hotel before we went along to the venue to warm up for the Clan game. Some of us had deliberately not watched the game, and if I’m honest, I don’t think many of us were convinced England could win – although obviously we all hoped they would - but to come back in the way they did and win with a goal in the last second; it was amazing and it really motivated us. It was such a coincidence that such an incredible moment in English netball should happen a few hours before the biggest game of our careers … and yes, it was such an inspiration.
“Even the guy at the gym, who doesn’t really know anything about netball, was talking about England winning the gold medal; and friends of mine who know that I play for Grangetown were sending messages … it was amazing and has really raised netball’s profile. It’s not on the same level as football of course, but in terms of women’s sport, netball is definitely getting more recognition.
“We just need to keep spreading the word that we are now one of the best ten clubs in our sport in the country – how many other teams in football or any other sport can say that? Even within netball, there are thousands of clubs out there, but we’re one of the top ten; it’s a big deal, and something we are all incredibly proud of.”
Whilst there is understandably a focus to bring in high-quality experienced athletes to strength the squad, Grangetown is a club that prides itself on youth development, with several players having progressed through the ranks to earn the chance of a senior debut. The opportunity to play in Prem 1 must be such a positive target for the club’s aspiring youngsters, but how does Vicky view the state of the club from the point of view of junior development.
“I’d say we’re in a good place. Hannah [Raine] has been part of the squad for a couple of years now, and whenever she’s had time one court, she’s done really well; hopefully she’ll continue to keep developing and improving this season. Catherine [Hewitt] was understandably nervous before her debut towards the end of the season, but she didn’t show it; and when she came onto court she looked confident, shot well, and really got under the skin of her goalkeeper! She’s almost there … she just needs to train and play more with us; she’s so young, but she’s got so much potential.
“There are a few other youngsters coming through too, and hopefully, some will progress to play with the Prem squad. Our under-16s and under-14s both recently reached the national finals; the under-14s finished seventh in the country, which is amazing; so yes, they have a target to aim for, and hopefully coming along and watching the Prem games will help to inspire them.”
I thought I’d slip the next question in without Vicky noticing in the hope that she would simply continue giving full and frank responses. Who would have been her player of the season?
(I just need to add at this point that my nomination would have been Katie Walton, a fine athlete and commanding presence at the heart of the Grangetown defence, who had a fantastic season, most notably alongside her international partner Gen Slater.)
“It would be really hard to pick one player,” was the supremely diplomatic response (it was worth a try, though), “but I do totally agree with what you said about Katie.
“I can remember just before the start of last season, we were doing some matchplay in training, and I saw her do some things in the circle that I’d never seen her do before. It’s really hard to describe, and I’m not sure if it’s possible to put it into writing, but she was covering the ball that was about to be passed out; yet was able to get back and cover the ball that was about to be passed back in … and I’d never seen her do that before. So right from the start of the season, it was clear that she had improved, and was playing at a different level. I know she’s suffered a lot with her back in the past, but I don’t think she had as many issues in the past; maybe that’s made a difference, but she was moving so much faster and better around the court, covering different angles and passes.
“And when someone’s shooting, she’s also really good at being able to time her jump and actually tip the shot – very few players can do that. She’s got a huge jump. When we got tested, Katie jumped the highest of everyone. She’s also the fastest in the squad over short distances; she’s just a really powerful, strong athlete.”
I’m clearly more knowledgeable than I thought!
The final question was also the shortest: what are Vicky’s own plans?
“I hadn’t really made a decision about my own future,” Vicky explained, although she laughed (perhaps knowingly) at my suggestion that she may have retired had the club remained in Prem 2. “But the minute we got promoted, there was never any doubt that I would carry on playing. And it’s actually given me a new love of training. From a personal point of view, but also for the whole of the squad, when we get back into the gym, or whatever training we are doing, we have to do more. If we do the same as we did last season, we’ll still be at Prem 2 level; so, we need to do more – and I want to lead by example.
“I might be one of the older players on the court (Vicky was keen for Gen to get a mention at this point!), but going into that first game, I will have done everything I can to be the fittest and strongest I've ever been. I always think about what my opponent would be doing; and on those days when you don’t want to go to the gym, she’ll be working out, and that’s the mentality we need in Prem 1. I want to work hard, but I also want to learn more … about myself, and the other players in the squad; working on weaknesses and playing on strengths. And when the season starts, I know that we’ll have put in all the ground work and we’ll be ready to step up.”
© Richard Kirby & Grangetown Netball Club 2018
Photos © Sarah Raine