Grangetown Netball Club recorded their first ever away win in National Prem 1 with an outstanding 50-44 victory against Tameside on Sunday.
To put the result into some sort of context, and to give some indication of how far this Grangetown squad has progressed, their last visit to Tameside was in 2015/16 (Tameside’s Prem 2 promotion season), when Grangetown were comprehensively beaten 70-29…
Tameside finished fourth in last season’s top division, and yesterday’s result not only consolidated Grangetown’s recent 74-28 success against Premier Romans, it gave the strongest indication yet that Vicky Rees and her squad are more than capable of being competitive in what is a high-quality league.
The depth of that squad was tested at Tameside as Grangetown were without Brie Grierson and Abbie LeBrocq; but despite losing the second and third quarters, Grangetown still had the strength, belief and ability to dominate the final period. The player of the match award was given to Alice Currie, who replaced Abbie at goal shooter and produced an outstanding performance on her Grangetown Prem 1 debut.
After four games, Grangetown currently lie fifth in the table, their two victories following defeats in the two opening rounds. It is interesting to note that those losses came against Academy and New Cambell, two of only three sides with a 100% record – the third being last season’s champions, Oldham.
The girls are back in action this Sunday, when they play host to Worcester Reds, who claimed their first win of the season with a 64-46 victory over Premier Romans over the weekend. The Reds have had a tough start to the campaign, losing heavily to Viper 10 Blades on the opening day and then having to face Oldham and Academy.
Academy and Premier Romans therefore provide some indication of the respective form of the sides that will clash this Sunday. The losses to Academy were by almost identical scorelines, but Grangetown’s 46-point winning margin over Bristol-based Romans was far more emphatic than the Reds. That said, the Romans may have been able to put out a stronger squad against Worcester, after being without a number of regular players for their trip to Teesside.
Everything therefore points to a fascinating encounter when elite women’s team sport returns to Grangetown Youth and Community Centre this Sunday. Can the home side make it three wins on the trot, or will Worcester’s greater experience at this level be enough to secure the points..?
Why not come along and find out? The game starts at 12:30, and admission is free!
The third round of fixtures in Mizuno Premier League division 1 paired newly-promoted Grangetown with Premier Romans.
The Bristol-based club travelled up to Middlesbrough having suffered defeats in their opening two Prem 1 games, and with Grangetown also looking for their first win of the season, the importance of the match was obvious. Both teams had already played a strong Academy side; Grangetown lost by 18 goals at home, and Romans were on the wrong end of a 21-goal away defeat, results which suggested a close encounter.
The starting sevens were as follows:
Katie Walton GK Chantelle Wopara
Genevieve Slater GD Hannah Payne
Vicky Rees WD Alice Galliene
Ria Small C Rebecca Reed
Brie Grierson WA Rebecca Green
Ashleigh Neal GA Morganne Dunn
Abbie LeBrocq GS Darcie Dunn
Grangetown got off to the perfect start, immediately turning over possession from the Romans’ centre pass. Abbie LeBrocq opened the scoring at the second attempt – the first of eight unanswered goals for the home side.
Katie Walton, Vicky Rees, and Ria Small all completed interceptions in those early minutes, and flowing passages of play through the court coupled with some great feeds into the circle presented the shooters with a string of opportunities.
The movement of Brie Grierson and Ash Neal caused the visiting defence plenty of problems, with the pick of those eight goals coming from a pass which Ash feinted one way and delivered the other – Abbie making no mistake from under the net.
Darcie Dunn finally got the Romans’ on the scoreboard, but with the visitors having to reshuffle their squad following the temporary loss of Chantelle Wopara, Grangetown continued to dominate and scored the next seven goals.
Gen Slater’s brilliant interception was followed by an equally impressive pass to Ash down the Grangetown left; the ball was knocked out of play, but Abbie scored from the subsequent restart.
Romans’ centre Rebecca Reed drilled a lovely pass into the circle and Darcie converted what had been the visitor’s best move of the quarter, but the next three goals showcased the range of skills that Ash possesses – a step and feed to Abbie, a long-range shot following a touch to a Romans’ pass that led to a turnover, and sublime link-up play with Brie … all within the space of a couple of minutes.
The hooter sounded with Ria feeding Abbie to make it 23-3 – an outstanding quarter from all seven Grangetown players. For their part, Romans produced some fine approach play, but suffered from a number of misplaced passes and a few too many errors.
The pattern continued into the second period, but this time Grangetown scored eleven goals without reply. Ash declined a shooting chance to feed her partner. Abbie netted and within seconds the tall shooter had further extended Grangetown’s lead.
A promising move down the Romans’ left ended when Katie showed great anticipation to claim another interception, Ash converting the subsequent scoring chance. Another composed finish from last season’s Team Northumbria skipper took Grangetown to 30, before an unlucky held ball call against the visitors handed possession back to the hosts.
It had been a breathtaking display of defensive pressure and attacking flair from Grangetown, but it was Premier Romans who scored three of the next four goals; the second coming after an outstanding catch in the corner of the court by Rebecca Reed, who followed up by creating another chance which was converted after a scrappy exchange in the Grangetown circle.
Hayley Bunt, on at wing attack for the visitors fired a fine pass for another Romans’ score, but their next attack saw Katie Walton hold onto an overthrown shot and in the blink of an eye the ball was down the other end of the court and Abbie had scored once again.
At half-time, Grangetown held a 42-8 lead. As a contest the game was over, but despite making a couple of changes, it was important for the home side to maintain the same level of focus for the final two quarters.
Jenny Mrozik and Hannah Raine came on for Grangetown at goal defence and centre respectively – Jenny’s first contribution was an interception that resulted in Abbie further extending the lead.
Brie was penalised for contact when she looked to have completed an athletic interception, and Romans took full advantage during a spell of six shared goals. Abbie then brought up the Grangetown half century, and although the visitors were converting more opportunities, it seemed that whenever they scored, Grangetown cancelled out the goal within a matter of seconds.
The confidence that was flowing through the side was typified by Brie and Ash, whose understanding, movement and skill were wonderful to watch. More intricate interplay led to another goal for Abbie. Vicky got a touch to the restart, with Grangetown quickly turning over possession for Ash to float another shot straight through the hoop.
Jenny needed all her height to pluck a Romans’ pass out of the air, but equally good work from Chantelle regained possession and Darcie’s goal brought the third quarter to a close – Grangetown now leading 61-17.
One of the five changes made by Grangetown saw Catherine Hewitt given an opportunity to get fifteen valuable minutes of court time. The final quarter was a much closer affair, with only two goals separating the sides. That may have been due in part to Grangetown losing a bit of intensity, but it also says a lot for the will and determination of the Romans’ players to keep battling despite being on the wrong end of such a heavy defeat.
The final score was 74-28, a memorable performance and a fantastic way for Grangetown to record their first ever victory at this level. Shortly after the end of the game, Gen Slater, one half of Grangetown and Ireland’s defensive combination had this to say.
“I think we played very well today, but there are still some areas we definitely need to work on. I do think we’re starting to produce more good plays with fewer bad ones, which is really positive, but we got a little bit complacent – we were up by quite a lot – so we tried a few different things and forced it a little bit more than we normally would.
“I thought we were good for maybe twelve minutes in each quarter, but that still leaves three minutes where we need to pick things up. We stopped running towards the ball, got a bit lazy; and when you are playing in a tougher competition that’s when you’re going to get intercepted…
“There were some amazing passages of play though. I just love being able to watch our attack – Brie and Ash just work so well together - and obviously Abbie and Ria too."
And to concede just eight goals in half an hour?
“It’s pretty good isn’t it? Some of us defenders are getting quite old too! I thought our goal defence was amazing though – did you see her for three quarters? Unreal...!!”
From the Romans camp, former England international and multiple Super League winner Clare Elsley was philosophical, but equally positive about the future.
“We were hoping to come here and take the win and the points, so obviously it’s huge for us to have lost by that amount. We’ve got a lot of things to work on, but it’s still only round three, so the season is far from over. We’ll learn from today. I’m sure you’ll encounter a different team in the return fixture, and it should be a much better game.
“We’ve got girls involved with the Welsh squad, our Super League players were at Fast 5s yesterday; and with the lack of players travelling up, we hadn’t really played in this combination before. We lost a player to injury and then we were down to seven, which left us with little in the way of options.
“That said, it’s the same for every team, there are no excuses, and Grangetown were simply better on the day.”
Official Player of the Match
My Players of the Match
Ash Neal (Grangetown) and Rebecca Reed (Romans)
Grangetown Netball Club played their first ever game in the top division of English club netball as they hosted the Middlesex-based Academy at Grangetown Youth and Community Centre this afternoon.
For Head Coach Gel Williams and those who have worked tirelessly both on and off the court for so many years, it was the realisation of a dream; but in many respects this is where the hard work really begins as Grangetown seeks to establish itself amongst the top-ten clubs in the country.
Academy travelled north having finished a more than creditable fifth in Prem 1 last season, and would clearly pose a huge challenge to a Grangetown squad that featured a number of additions to the group that lifted the Prem 2 championship earlier this year.
The Ireland international duo of Katie Walton and Gen Slater started at goal keeper and goal defence. Club captain Vicky Rees and her vice-captain Ria Small filled the wing defence and centre positions. Ash Neal, so influential during the promotion campaign, was at wing attack and the attacking partnership comprised last season’s regular goal shooter Abbie LeBrocq alongside Brie Grierson, who played for Grangetown back in 2016/17 and was a member of the Loughborough Lightning 2017/18 Super League squad.
On the bench were defender Jenny Mrozik, teenage shooter Catherine Hewitt, and two new acquisitions; Claudia Heath, who has had Super League experience with both the former Leeds and Northumbria franchises, and Nicole Malloy, who has played in Prem 1 with both Tameside and Oaksway.
The visitor started as follows: GK: Halimat Adio, GD: Vicki Oyesola, WD: Danielle McFarlane, C: Celyn Emanuel, WA: Phoebe Cadogan, GA: Cara Hodgkinson, GS: Rochelle Powell
Brie Grierson scored the game’s opening goal with a long shot from the right-hand side of the circle, but Academy quickly established a lead with an unbroken sequence of five goals. Leading 1-2, Celyn Emmanuel’s high pass into the circle was tipped out of play by Katie Walton, but Rochelle Powell netted from the restart. Grangetown missed two shots on their next attack, and Celyn then produced some neat interplay with Cara Hodgkinson and the goal attack duly extended the lead.
A high feed into Rochelle was safely collected and an excellent long-looping shot made it 1-5. A similar pass from Brie to Abbie LeBrocq wasn’t converted, but an excellent interception by Vicky Rees and some great handling by Brie resulted in a Grangetown goal.
Abbie netted twice to further reduce the arrears, the second goal coming after Katie had made a superb interception. Rochelle then scored for Academy following a well-gathered rebound, and more misses from the home shooters allowed the visitors to extend their lead once again.
A bounce pass by Ash Neal to Ria Small led to a chance for Abbie. The shot was missed, but possession was immediately recovered. Brie moved well to create some space; Ash delivered a perfect pass and Brie converted. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding between the Grangetown attackers resulted in another missed opportunity and Academy quickly took advantage.
Grangetown squandered possession as a misplaced pass bounced out of play, but Katie’s interception reclaimed the ball. Ria found Abbie totally unmarked and the home shooter made no mistake.
Brie scored the next two goals - the second following Grangetown’s best passage of play in the opening period – to level proceedings at 8-8, but a brilliant running interception and one-handed pass by Celyn led to the goal that separated the sides as the hooter sounded.
In what was quite a physical quarter, Grangetown has been guilty of too many errors, but there looked to be signs that the squad was starting to settle into the pace of the game.
Sadly, despite the promise Grangetown had shown in those closing minutes, Academy completely controlled the second quarter and won the period 7-21, to take a commanding 15-30 lead into the break.
After a series of turnovers, Phoebe Cadogan fed Rochelle to score a valuable goal against the Grangetown centre pass. The break was quickly consolidated, and when the home side lost possession from the ensuing centre pass, the Academy attack again made Grangetown pay for the error.
Abbie turned down a shooting chance, choosing to pass to Ash, who in turn fed Brie to get Grangetown back on the scoresheet. A long-range effort from Rochelle made it 9-14; the five-goal lead quickly becoming seven as Academy benefited from a three-second call against Grangetown, followed by a footwork penalty from the hosts’ next possession.
Long-looping feeds into Rochelle were proving a profitable tactic for Academy; the precision of the passing, coupled with the strength and accuracy of the shooter were posing plenty of problems for the Grangetown defence and soon after, Jenny Mrozik was brought on to replace Katie Walton.
More changes followed, with Claudia Heath and Nicole Mallow both coming on for their Grangetown debut. Nicole and Ash produced some neat interplay for last season’s Team Northumbria captain to score, but four more unanswered Academy goals further extended the visitors’ advantage.
Halimat Adio, Vicki Oyesola and Danielle McFarlane were proving to be a tough, uncompromising defensive unit, and Ash was moved to shooter in an attempt to try and regain a foothold in the game. Grangetown were unlucky when Ria’s pass saw Ash sandwiched between the two defenders, but no foul was called and Academy’s quick and precise transition led to another goal.
Nicole was even more unfortunate to be penalised for a replayed ball, after similar-looking incidents had been ignored. Academy found the net from the resulting possession and a fine long shot from Cara completed the first-half scoring.
Academy shuffled their pack at half time with a couple of positional swaps and Razia Quashie and Sophie Nicholas being introduced at goal keeper and wing attack respectively. Likewise, Grangetown swapped things around, with Abbie returning at goal shooter, Ash moving to goal attack and Brie to wing attack.
The opening six goals of the quarter were shared. Grangetown’s approach play looked to have quickened, but the shooting was still inconsistent and Academy were far more clinical under the net, with Rochelle finishing off a lovely move down the left-hand side of the court involving Sophie and Cara.
Cara then got on the scoresheet herself with a goal against the centre pass, and although Ash cancelled out the score, Academy netted again after Claudia was harshly penalised following what looked an excellent interception.
An Academy touch out of play was missed by both umpires and the award of possession to the visitors was met with a mixture of dismay and amusement from the Grangetown players. Academy responded by moving the ball down court and Cara netted with a shot that rolled round the ring, but dropped to make the score 22-38.
An excellent pass into the circle bisected the Grangetown defenders and Rochelle continued her excellent form with another good finish. Ash then drilled a pass to Abbie and the shooter scored at the second attempt as the quarter ended just as it had started, with six shared goals as Academy took a 26-44 lead into the final period.
Vicky and Ash exchanged passes for the Australian to score at the start of the last period, and lovely skill from Brie set up Abbie to find the net. A rare miss from Rochelle followed, but after a flurry of penalties, Academy finally scored at the third attempt.
Sophie produced a fantastic aerial interception to set up another Academy attack, and two more goals brought up the half century for the visitors. An intelligent pass from Brie found Abbie in space and the shooter looked to be growing in confidence as she found the net. Cara then did really well to run round and gather a loose bouncing ball inside the Grangetown circle. Another feed to Rochelle … another goal.
To Grangetown’s credit, they now began to play their best netball of the entire game; a sure sign that the squad will lack nothing in fitness and determination during the season. Long shots from Ash and Abbie were followed by what looked a great interception from Claudia, yet again however, another shrill blast on the whistle denied Grangetown the chance to maintain their momentum.
At 38-58, Ash showed amazing reactions to take a clean catch right in front of her face to turnover possession. Abbie’s subsequent goal was her final contribution, as the teenager Catherine Hewitt was brought on for her first taste of Prem 1 netball.
The game ended with two great goals involving Brie and Ash – surely the combination between the pair will be an important factor throughout the season.
The hooter sounded to bring proceedings to an end, with Academy deservedly running out winners 42-60. Grangetown could have no complaints about the result, but their efforts in the opening, third and final quarters were undone by a second period which was totally dominated by the visitors. Vicki Oyesola and Halimat Adio were particularly influential, especially during that all-important second quarter, but Rochelle Powell’s shooting accuracy allowed Academy to play with real confidence and freedom, and she would be my choice as player of the match.
After the game, I spoke with Vicki Oyesola and Vicky Rees and this is what they had to say; firstly, from the victor’s perspective: “I think it was a really good performance from the team. We didn’t have the strongest start, but we were able to make changes at the right time and we did well for the rest of the game.
“The squad was slightly depleted today, but the players that we had really stepped up to the plate and we managed to get the right result.
“It’s a tough league and there’s such strong competition, but I’m confident we’ll have a good season. This is our longest away trip and it’s good to have been able to come up here, play well, and get that first win.”
And now the Grangetown captain: “Obviously we’re not happy with the second quarter – I think we lost it by something like fourteen goals – but I thought we competed well for the other three quarters.
“I don’t think we can be disappointed overall; we just let ourselves down in that second period. Having said that it’s great to be able to try new combinations; we’re just trying to get used to the pace and flow of Prem 1 netball; and I think there were some positive signs, especially in that final quarter.
“To be able to play our best stuff when we’re exhausted and our concentration’s going is really encouraging; and given this was our first game at this level, I don’t think anyone looked out of place and that’s a really good place for us to be.
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
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
For years, the back pages of our newspapers have been dominated by football … sometimes cricket, and maybe occasionally rugby union; but rarely does a so-called minority sport grab national headlines.
Netball did just that in April this year, when the England Roses claimed the Commonwealth Games gold medal with a truly remarkable last-second victory over the tournament hosts and competition favourites, Australia.
All of a sudden, this group of elite female athletes (largely unknown away from their sport) were all over television screens, the internet and the press, as the country celebrated a quite outstanding achievement.
The profile of netball has never been higher, with international success being supplemented by the Vitality Super League, which is given such great coverage by Sky Sports. One step below the Super League franchises are the three divisions of the Mizuno Premier League, and a local club has recently secured promotion to Division 1 for the first time in its history.
Grangetown Netball Club is based a few miles outside Middlesbrough, and this promotion (as Champions of Division 2) has been the culmination of years of hard work and dedication from the players, coaches and volunteer support team.
Grangetown is now ranked within the top ten clubs in the entire country, and as well as the elite squad, there is a thriving junior section, with both the under 16 and under 14 squads competing in their respective national championships. 600 teams entered the under 14 competition – so for Grangetown to finish seventh just last month is not only a fantastic result, but it also demonstrates how well the club is building for a strong and successful future.
The Premier League season runs from September to March, with each club playing 18 games. The geographical spread of clubs is huge, and Grangetown regularly travel in the region of 4,000 miles to fulfil their nine away fixtures.
The 2018/19 Premier Division 1 league will include teams based in Leeds, Manchester, and Oldham – a far cry from last season when Grangetown’s “local derby” required a 300-mile round trip! The other clubs hail from Hampshire, Middlesex, Essex, Herfordshire, Worcester and Bristol.
Grangetown is now hoping that the north east will get behind the club and the Premier League squad as they fly the flag for local netball right across England; and a number of brand new and exciting sponsorship opportunities are being made available.
The Grangetown club captain is Vicky Rees, and members of the squad include the current Team Northumbria Super League captain Ash Neal, Ireland’s first-choice international defensive partnership Genevieve Slater and Katie Walton, as well as some of the region’s most promising youngsters, such as Catherine Hewitt, who progressed from junior age-group netball right through to her Premier League debut towards the end of last season.
Affordable sponsorship is a great way to promote your company or business, whilst making a huge difference to a squad of talented and dedicated athletes. If you are interested in being part of Grangetown’s amazing story, full details of prices and what each package contains can be obtained by e-mailing Head Coach Gel Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For my part, I will be doing a number of in-depth player interviews and compiling full match reports on all the home games, and some of the away fixtures too. It promises to be a fantastic season – why not come along and be part of it?
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.
Grangetown completed their home fixtures in Mizuno Premier League 2 with a comfortable 53-38 victory over the division’s bottom club Chester on Sunday.
It was Grangetown’s eighth win from their nine home games, with the only defeat coming at the hands of a Hucclecote side which included several players from the Severn Stars Super League squad.
Hucclecote (from Gloucestershire) and Hertfordshire-based Turnford had been runaway leaders for virtually the whole campaign, but both have faltered recently – quite possibly due to players becoming unavailable due to Super League commitments. Grangetown, however, have maintained their run of fine form and with two games to be rearranged, they are closing in on the leading pair, who both have only one remaining fixture.
Although Grangetown will have to travel for those two outstanding games, their opponents (Chester on 8 April and Clan on 15 April) currently fill the division’s bottom two places. Both teams will present a difficult challenge on their home court, but the simple equation is that two wins would guarantee Grangetown’s promotion into Prem 1.
To be ranked amongst the country’s top ten clubs would be a remarkable achievement, especially given the fact that Grangetown played in Prem 3 last season, after having been cruelly relegated through the 2015/16 post-season play-offs when no fewer than five of the squad were unavailable due to international call-ups.
A new-look 2016/17 squad containing a blend of experience and a number of young faces gelled extremely well, and the club earned promotion at the first time of asking, albeit by the narrowest of margins in an incredibly tense end to the season.
With an almost unchanged squad for 2017/18, the realistic aim would surely have been to consolidate a place in the competition’s second tier, but after two defeats in their opening four games, Grangetown have suffered just one further reverse. They have arguably the fittest squad in the division – testament to an intense pre-season programme– and that strength, coupled with an unwavering determination has served the players well in a number of close games.
Katie Walton and Genevieve Slater are team mates at club and international level, and with Team Northumbria squad member Jenny Mrozik alongside the Ireland duo, Grangetown has a defence to rival any club in Prem 2.
Vicky Rees and Ria Small are two of the most experienced members of the squad, and both have led by example throughout the season. Both had fine games against Chester, with club captain Vicky rightly being named Player of the Match for an all-action performance (in attack but even more notably in defence) in the Centre role.
Abbie LeBrocq perhaps typifies Grangetown’s development as much as any other player. Since her arrival at the start of last season, Abbie has grown so much in strength and confidence. She is a real presence in the attacking circle and her 100% shooting success in yesterday’s brilliant opening quarter was another reflection of just how far she has progressed.
Harriet Baxter and Tasha Grylls have made telling contributions at Goal Attack, but the arrival of Ash Neal has made a very real difference. The Australian, who is an integral member of Team Northumbria’s Super League squad, is a superb athlete – skilful, incredibly quick, but calm and assured under the net. She has fitted seamlessly into the squad, and her presence on court seems to have a positive impact on all the players around her.
Netball is very much a squad game, and although they have not been regulars in the starting seven, Kate Hill and Hannah Raine have done really well whenever they’ve had the opportunity, and another of Grangetown’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of talented teenagers, Catherine Hewitt, gained some invaluable experience against Chester. Catherine is still only 15, but she showed no outward sign of nerves during an impressive fifteen minutes on court.
The result of Sunday’s clash with Chester was never in doubt after Grangetown raced into a 10-3 lead after just seven minutes. That advantage had extended to 20-7 at the end of a ruthless opening period, but to their credit the visitors battled hard, and lost the remaining three quarters by a total of just two goals.
Chester played some excellent netball in patches, deservedly won the second quarter by four goals, but made a few too many unforced errors as they tried to find a way back into the game. They looked particularly strong at each end of the court, their Goal Shooter and Goal Keeper both having really strong games.
But it was Grangetown, superbly led by Vicky Rees, who claimed the points. Having gained such a big lead so early in proceedings, Head Coach Gel Williams was able to shuffle her pack and give the whole squad some time on court; and although unable to replicate the level of first-quarter dominance, this was still an impressive squad performance, as well as being ideal preparation for those two crucial remaining fixtures.
Grangetown’s latest fixture in Mizuno Premier League 2 was about as far removed from a local derby as it is possible to get as their opponents, Sussex Thunder, made the 630-mile round trip from their Brighton base to face a Grangetown squad that has been in excellent form.
After ten fixtures, Grangetown were placed third in a very competitive division, having won seven games. In contrast, Sussex, who were promoted as Division 3 champions last season, occupied ninth position, with their only two victories coming against Ryland, and bottom-placed Chester, the only team yet to record a win so far this season.
When the sides met back in October, Grangetown returned from Sussex with a hard-fought and narrow 45-41 success, so despite being separated by seven places and 21 points in the table, the visitors were still expected to pose a serious challenge.
Grangetown were without Jenny Mrozik, but their Ireland defenders Genevieve Slater and Katie Walton were joined by a third current international as Scotland’s Hayley Mulheron made her first appearance for the club since the 2015/16 season, having recently been part of the Scottish Thistles squad that secured their place in the 2019 World Cup through the regional qualifiers.
Katie Walton GK Tish Biddolph
Hayley Mulheron GD Rebecca Miller
Gen Slater WD Ellen Franks
Vicky Rees C Beth Franks
Ria Small WA Chloe Spong
Ash Neal GA Sophie Jackson
Abbie LeBrocq GS Tess Waterfall
It was the visitors who made the brighter start, scoring from their opening possession. Katie Walton made an early interception, only for Beth Franks to win back the ball and set up an easy chance for Tess Waterfall.
A contact penalty on the tall Sussex shooter then enabled Vicky Rees and Ash Neal to exchange passes for the Team Northumbria goal attack to halve the arrears, and the pair then combined again to level the scores.
The next four goals were shared, with both sides making a number of errors, before Thunder moved into a three-goal lead. Firstly, Tess cleverly flicked a shot rebound to her attacking partner Sophie Jackson. Tess then plucked a high pass out of the air to score, before some great work from Chloe Spong reclaimed possession and created another chance that was successfully converted.
Tish Biddolph was unfortunate not to complete an interception, and Ash scored from the resulting restart. At the opposite end of the court, Tess used all of her 6’ 4” height and skill to gather a high ball and draw a contact penalty to maintain the three-goal advantage.
Grangetown replied with two quick goals, but then conceded an attacking penalty and despite intense pressure from both Grangetown defenders, Sophie was able to find the net. A lightning quick interception from Katie turned over possession and lovely interplay from Vicky and Ria Small set up Abbie le Brocq. Moments later Abbie scored with a perfectly flighted long shot, and once again the scores were tied.
Hayley Mulheron claimed a rebound, followed by an excellent interception and the home side edged in front for the first time, although Thunder were rather unlucky when the umpire blew her whistle seemingly for a foul on a Sussex player, only for Grangetown to be given possession from the restart after the ball bounced out of play.
Abbie found the net to make it 12-10; both sides then scored a goal apiece, but the advantage at quarter time was just one goal as Tess scored with the last play of the period.
Grangetown made a couple of changes during the interval, with Kate Hill coming on at centre, and Vicky replacing Gen Slater at wing defence.
Sophie Jackson brought parity to proceedings in the opening moments of the second period, however the next three goals all came from Grangetown. Hayley and Kate combined for Abbie to score, then Hayley’s superb catch set up some neat interplay between Ria and Ash Neal – Abbie once again finishing the move. The home side then took advantage of a Sussex miss to work the ball down court and Abbie scored at the second attempt.
Sophie’s next goal was cancelled out by a long effort from Ash, but Sophie duly responded with a successful shot from even longer-range. Abbie showed great strength under pressure from Rebecca Miller and, although Thunder replied, Ash ignored a shooting opportunity and flicked a clever pass to her left for her better-placed partner Abbie to find the net.
Sophie and Beth Franks then produced some excellent play to open up the Grangetown defence for Tess to bring the visitors back to within two goals; but that would be the closest Thunder came to catching their hosts.
Abbie scored twice, the second goal coming after a replayed ball penalty against the visitors. Importantly, that goal came against the Sussex centre pass, and when Ash floated the ball into the net after impressive interplay with Kate Hill, the advantage was now five.
Ash drilled a pass to Abbie, which was brilliantly taken, and the subsequent goal was the fourth in another unanswered spell. Grangetown were in sublime form; their attacking play was fluent and Sussex were being pressured right across the court whenever they had possession.
Another well-taken shot from Sophie Jackson made the score 28-20, but the next seven goals all went the way of the home side. The second of those goals saw Ria and Ash combine superbly to feed Abbie; Katie then picked off a Sussex pass, and Ria fired a ball right through the defence to find Abbie completely unmarked under the net.
A footwork call handed possession back to Grangetown, and even though some of the shooting was falling just short, all the rebounds were going the way of the home side, and Grangetown were in total command. The half-time hooter sounded, with Grangetown 14 goals in front, after having won the quarter 22-9.
Sussex introduced Kim Cook at wing defence and also made a change at centre, but unsurprisingly, Grangetown stuck with the same seven who had produced such an excellent period of netball.
To their credit, Sussex did make early inroads into the Grangetown lead, reducing the gap to eleven goals at one stage. One of the main features of the visitor’s play was the shooting of Sophie Jackson, who seemed to be able to find the net at will from almost any distance. However, the highlight of the opening few minutes of the third period came from Grangetown’s Kate Hill, who fired a delightful pass inside the Thunder defence for the onrushing Ash Neal, who caught the ball and calmly found the net.
Hayley, Ria and Vicky all played a part in turning over possession in mid-court, however the resulting shot from Abbie bounced off the ring of the net and was collected by the Thunder defence. A rare miss from Sophie turned into a perfect pass for Tess to score, but after Abbie had cancelled out the goal, Hayley got a decisive hand to the Sussex centre pass and her efforts were rewarded when Abbie converted the ensuing shot.
Another defence-splitting pass, this time from Ria Small, enabled Ash Neal to maintain Grangetown’s sizeable lead, and scorer turned provider as Ash found Abbie totally unmarked as the home side’s attacking movement attracted the attention of both defenders.
During a brief stoppage, Tess Waterfall was replaced by Lauren Pedelty, whilst Grangetown took the opportunity to bring on Tasha Grylls at wing attack. Lauren’s first involvement was a successful shot, but Thunder’s next attack saw Hayley block Sophie’s attempt, with Katie Walton grabbing the rebound. The ball found its way to Abbie who scored from long range.
Kim Cook did well to nudge the ball out of play, as Grangetown mounted another attack, but from the restart Abbie once again netted from distance. Thunder’s next goal came from Lauren, another from long-range, but Abbie repaid the compliment with the last short of the quarter; a fine goal that saw Grangetown reach their half century.
50-34 to the good, Grangetown shuffled their pack for the final period; Gen Slater returning to the court in place of Hayley Mulheron, Harriet Baxter coming on at goal shooter and Ria replacing Kate Hill, who had played particularly well at centre.
Beth Franks went back to centre for the visitors and immediately produced an excellent interception. Sussex were unable to make the most of the possession though, and Grangetown rattled off five quick goals to give them a lead of twenty – a figure that no one would have imagined possible after such a hard-fought opening quarter.
Rebecca Miller’s excellent interception came to nothing as possession was lost inside the Sussex half, and Harriet Baxter opened her account at the first attempt after collecting a rebound. Tasha Grylls then produced a lovely pass to find Harriet free under the net, but in a game which had seen some excellent shooting from distance, Lauren Pedelty was desperately unlucky to see a shot from right on the edge of the circle ruled out for an infringement.
By this stage the result was not in doubt, but Grangetown refused to relax their defensive pressure and some great work from forced Sussex into a long shot that was safely collected by Gen Slater. The ball went straight down the other end and Tasha fed Ash for another score.
The home side kept up the momentum right through until the end of the game and at full time, the score was 67-40 in Grangetown’s favour. There were excellent performances all over the court, with Sussex picking Ash Neal as their player of the match, and Vicky Rees picking up the award from the competition sponsors Mizuno. For good measure, I thought Ria Small was the best player on court, but in a fine team performance, Kate Hill also deserves a mention for her display at centre in the middle quarters of the game.
For their part, Sussex certainly didn’t look like a side languishing towards the bottom of the division during an opening period in which they more than matched their hosts. For me, their best player was Sophie Jackson whose link up play with Tess Waterfall during the first quarter was fantastic, as was her shooting throughout the whole game. However, as the match progressed, the strength and energy of the Grangetown defence really stifled Thunder’s attacking options in what was a fine performance and an important win for the home side.