Grangetown Netball Club returned to Premier League action after the Christmas and New Year break, with a home fixture against fourth-placed Worcester Reds.
Both teams had lost their final fixture of 2015; Grangetown away to the Reds’ local rivals Ryland, whilst Worcester were on the wrong end of a narrow reverse against Kent County. One week earlier, Grangetown had defeated the Kent side, so everything pointed to a close encounter at Middlesbrough Sports Village.
The Reds arrived on Teesside with the best defence in the division, having conceded just 346 goals in their ten fixtures—a better record even than the unbeaten league leaders Tameside.
Grangetown went into the game without captain Vicky Rees, injured centre Jill Reah, Scottish international shooter Jo Pettitt, and the Republic of Ireland duo Jan Hynes and Genevieve Slater, but this enabled coach Linzi Filiata to hand a first Prem start to Tasha Grylls, who had celebrated her sixteenth birthday the previous day. Tasha took her place on court at goal attack alongside Scottish Thistle Gemma Sole, as Grangetown looked to improve on their seventh position in the table.
The visitors were quickly into their stride, scoring the game’s first three goals, before Gemma Sole registered Grangetown’s first success.
Grangetown produced a number of excellent defensive interceptions, with Katie Walton and Lesley Mouat prominent in the opening period, but on a number of occasions, hard-won possession was given away, and with Reds’ goal attack Lucy Heardman in particular looking composed in the circle, the home side were unable to get back on level terms.
A superb long shot from Gemma Sole brought the score to 8-9, but after great defence from Jenny Mrozik had forced the turnover, Grangetown were unable to capitalise, and three quick goals extended Worcester’s lead to four at the end of the first period.
The Reds’ momentum continued into the second quarter, and they scored ten of the next thirteen goals to take their advantage into double figures. The visitors were dominating the centre of the court; their movement and the passes into the circle were outstanding at times, and both Lucy Heardman and Kelly Hull were making the most of their shooting opportunities.
Following an injury time-out, Grangetown made changes, with Ria Small and Marie Ewing swapping positions to centre and wing attack respectively, and Tasha Grylls being replaced by Faye Summerhill. It had been a tough baptism for the teenager, against an experienced and uncompromising defence, but Tasha is both a gifted young athlete and a very exciting prospect, and she will have gained a great deal from the experience.
In the closing minutes of the half, Grangetown narrowed the gap slightly, as they produced their best netball of the opening thirty minutes. The final goal of the second period was a flowing move that swept the full length of the left-hand side of the court, and resulted in Gemma Sole converting her sixteenth goal, with the half-time score reading 17-25 in favour of Worcester Reds.
The visitors made the perfect start to the third quarter, scoring five unanswered goals. Grangetown’s effort could not be faulted, with Lesley Mouat, Jenny Mrozik and Katie Walton, who was having an outstanding game at goalkeeper, again forcing interceptions or errors, but with the hosts trailing by thirteen goals, it was hard to foresee anything other than a comfortable victory for Worcester.
But this Grangetown squad lacks nothing in character, and they produced an almost irresistible passage of play to score five consecutive goals of their own. The momentum was broken by a Reds’ injury time-out, but Grangetown responded to the subsequent concession of a couple of quick goals with another tremendous five-goal burst.
It has been an amazing fifteen minutes, memorable not only for some wonderful attacking netball by Grangetown, but also for two spectacular athletic interceptions from Worcester goal defence Rachel Sweet.
With the gap now down to six goals, Marie Ewing and stand-in captain Ria Small were instrumental in dictating play driving Grangetown forward in the final period. A fortunate rebound off the post allowed Gemma Sole to open the scoring, but a missed shot and a harsh-looking three second penalty enabled the Reds to extend their lead to seven.
Grangetown’s comeback was far from over however. Gemma Sole netted four times in quick succession, before recently-introduced Sarah Sainty rounded off a lovely move with her first goal of the afternoon to make the score 33-35.
Unfortunately, that was as close as Grangetown came to producing what would have been a stunning result. There was still time for Katie Walton to round off a tremendous personal performance with yet another interception, and Gemma Sole to score her thirty-third goal of a thoroughly entertaining and occasionally physical encounter; but in the end, Worcester Reds held on to record a hard-fought and deserved 37-40 victory.
After the game, Scotland shooter Gemma Sole reflected on the afternoon’s events: “We knew they were going to be physical,” Gemma admitted, “and they really brought it to us, but we’re physical and strong too. The girls have been doing a lot of training, and strength and conditioning work. They’ve built really strong bodies, so we handled that aspect of the game well.
“It was refreshing to see a lot of different combinations tried out today too, and all the players who came on made a real impact.
“The last two quarters were amazing,” she continued. “Personally I didn’t realise that the deficit had grown that large. There would have been times when we might have lost our heads, and that would have been game over; but the fact that we pegged it back to three goals at the end shows just how far the girls have come, not just physically, but also with their winning mentality, and it’s brilliant to be a part of it.”
For Worcester’s Cathy Bedney and Laura Gale, it had been a long, but hugely rewarding trip.
“We travelled up yesterday;” Cathy explained, “it’s a long way to come, but it’s a fantastic facility and it was nice to play in front of a vocal crowd as well. It’s always hard playing away from home, but we got off to an excellent start. Grangetown made some really good tactical changes in the second quarter, which had an immediate impact, and we were a little bit on the back foot going into the third quarter.”
“That’s probably the first time we’ve flowed in attack right from the outset,” Laura agreed, “although Grangetown’s changes worked and did interrupt the flow that we had. I thought their wing attack [Marie Ewing] was outstanding; the way that she moved the ball around; she was definitely Grangetown’s main playmaker into the attack. And their shooting was good for most of the game too, so we couldn’t rely on getting a rebound if we’d lost possession.
“During the second half, I think their attack flowed better than ours. They seemed to find each other really easily; we’ve got a really strong defence and our goals against record is excellent, but there were times when their players just made the game look really easy.”
“They made a lot of changes in attack,” Cathy added, “and each new partnership seemed to work well, which kept our defence thinking and meant we could never settle.”
There had been a number of excellent performances amongst the visitor’s squad, with Lucy Heardman perhaps being the pick, and Laura Gale was quick to praise the efforts of her team mate: “Lucy was immense at goal attack. She almost seems to come from behind the player to collect rebounds; she’s certainly not in the dominant position to get the ball or win a penalty, but she was fantastic today. There have been games when our shooting percentages have been lower than we would have liked, but today our shooting was spot on, and it just gives the rest of the team so much confidence when they know the ball is going to go in almost every time we get to the circle, so I think both Lucy and Kelly Hull deserve a lot of credit.”
“And I thought that Rachel Sweet made a real impact at goal defence,” added Cathy, “which is probably her natural position in this league. And bringing Laura [Gale] back on for the last quarter helped us to drive forward and dictate the space much better after Grangetown had come back into the game.”
Grangetown return to Prem action in a fortnight, with a long journey down to Dartford in Kent, to face Telstars.