Over recent years, the on-court rise of Grangetown Netball Club’s senior squad has been nothing short of remarkable. The team now plays in national Premier League 2, and are therefore the second highest ranked club outside Super League in the whole of the north east – Hartlepool-based Oaksway currently lie seventh in Premier League 1. With just four matches of the regular league season remaining, I had the opportunity to discuss Grangetown’s progress with club vice captain and current Team Northumbria Super League squad member Ria Small.
The questions are in orange bold italics, Ria’s answers (which are thankfully much longer than the questions) are not....
How much has the club changed since achieving Premier League status?
A massive amount. I was twelve when I started playing – quite late – but even then I knew that Gel’s [Gel Williams, Grangetown Head Coach] aim... the club’s aim, was to be a Prem[ier League] club. To get to that level you had to gain promotion through different leagues, and we had to win the regional league to go forward to the play-offs. The play-offs are really nerve wracking; it a massive test of character for everyone involved on and off the court, both physically and mentally!
When we got to the Prem 3 play-offs, we were quite a young squad, although still quite experienced, and I just don’t think we expected how things turned out; it was a really tough weekend. As players, I don’t think we performed to the best of our ability, and I think we got beaten mentally as well, with the pressure that comes with the play-offs. We didn’t do well at all, and we came away feeling devastated: we’d had a chance, and we hadn’t taken it. But the next time we got to the play-offs we won all our three games to get into Prem 3, and although we probably wouldn’t like to admit it, that first experience probably did us good; it definitely made us stronger as players, and brought us together as a squad. We all wanted the same thing; the players as well as Gel and the coaches. So when we went back, we played really well and it was an awesome feeling; we felt like we really deserved to be in that league, whereas the first time we knew we still had a lot to work on.
We had a fantastic season in Prem 3: great games... tough games. We got through to the play-offs again, and this time I think we shocked ourselves. As individual players we all performed to best of our ability, and because we’d reached the play-offs the previous two years, we sort of knew what to expect; it was always our target to get to Prem 2, and it was fantastic to achieve it. It was definitely the highlight of my playing career.
It was great to be playing against teams that had come down from Prem 1, as well as all the other teams in Prem 2; it was a tough experience too, and definitely a massive learning curve for all the players and coaches. Prem 2 is a hard league. Some teams are better at home than they are away, and you obviously have to play to your strengths. There’s a lot of travelling - we’re the only team based in the north east and I think we travel further than any other club – but you can never think ‘oh we beat them last time’ because games are never the same home and away; and a lot of games go down to one or two goals. You’ve got your top four [Viper 10 Blades, Tameside, Premier Romans and Clan] but after that the table is really tight. At the moment we seem to be stuck in sixth or seventh position; but we’ve played most of the harder sides twice, and we’ve still got the bottom two to play.
Gel has done a fantastic job with the club and I can only see it going from strength to strength! She should be very proud of what she has built and achieved, and I have massive respect for her; she has made our squad what it is today!
Which is the strongest side in the division?
Although Viper Blades are currently top of the table, I think we all agree that Clan is the only team in the league that you watch and think ‘they’re class; they’re untouchable’. They’ve come up from the division below and they’re absolutely flying. They’re quick, great defence, they’ve got some very tall players, and you can just tell that they’re full of confidence. When we came up against Viper Blades, they hadn’t lost a single game, but we beat them. As a squad, it was our best performance of the season in my opinion. Their coach is involved in the England set-up, and you couldn’t help but notice the size of the girls when they arrived, but we never go into a game thinking we’re going to get beaten, even though we knew how tough it was going to be - in sport you need to be positive. We were the underdogs according to the table, but we had the advantage of being at home; it was a memorable day, and it was great to think that they’d done so well, but that we – up to that point – had been the only team to beat them. We play them away in our last game of the season, and I’m sure they’ll be a totally different side. Obviously these clubs have got a lot of Super League players, who make a massive impact to their squads, but below them, we’re all fighting to finish as high as we can - and it looks like it’s going to go right down to the last game of the season.
What were the expectations leading into the season?
Gel always has high expectations. Obviously we’ve got the link with Scotland this season, which has been massive for us as a squad and club. We’ve now got three international players in the squad – although they haven’t all played at the same time – and they’ve made a huge difference. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Gel’s aim is for us to be a Prem 1 club. This is what she has always wanted and, as players, we want to achieve that for her, the club, and ourselves - I would certainly love to play in Prem 1 before I retire – and I think Gel’s view is that anything is possible; we just have to progress as far as we can. Of course we look at the fixtures, and at the other teams in the division to see where we think we can pick up points, but we’ve never had a set position where we’ve looked to finish - just as high as we possibly can!
What was it like to play the Jamaican “Sunshine Girls” in the lead up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games?
That was great. I remember Lisa Stanley [Head of Netball at Team Northumbria] ringing me when I was at work and saying: ‘Just a quick question, I want to know if Grangetown would be interested in coming up [to Newcastle] and playing against Jamaica?’! I think it was that weekend, and I was almost lost for words. It was fantastic for the club and a wonderful opportunity for the players. I certainly didn’t realise that girls who looked so slim and slight could be that strong. I played at Centre and their Centre was tiny, but when we came into contact, I just bounced off her. You just couldn’t believe how strong they were. And the size of their shooters was unbelievable; it looked like they could just lift their arms up and drop the ball in the net! But again they were still so fast. They were a great team, and they didn’t hold back because we were a club team – the final score was 93-17 - but it was excellent publicity for the club, and great for us to have the chance to play against them, and see their skills and style of play at first hand.
How difficult is it to train together with the squad’s various work and family commitments?
I think that’s one of the things that we do struggle with; but when is anything perfect? It’s hard because we all have full time jobs, some of our players are mums, and there’s so much travelling, but there’s such a lot support from the partners and families of our players - it’s great! Obviously me and Marie [Ewing] are involved with Team Northumbria on Tuesdays when club training is on. We always know what’s been going on in training though, and we always try to have a run through before our Prem games. We’ll meet up and spend an hour going through things as a squad - nothing too energetic; just things like back lines, centre passes, and other technical stuff. Gel will often put on extra training sessions on an alternate night as well, so that we can come together as a full squad. Although it’s challenging when we all do different things then come together, there’s lots of talent, depth, versatility and encouragement within the squad; everyone works together and it’s a really positive vibe!
It’s hard for the Scottish girls as well, because we don’t get the chance to train with them, but players of that calibre can play alongside whoever comes into the squad, whether it’s an international player, or a club player- they are good enough to adapt their game. Also for the Prem squad, playing at the level we do, and with the experience and talent that we have, we should be able to play with whoever steps on the court whether it is someone you train with weekly, or not. I love the girls at Grangetown; although it may sound cheesy, it is like my extended family and I love being a part of #grangetownfamily.
What are your thoughts on the opening weeks of the season?
It was a difficult start to the season. Obviously everyone feels down when you don’t win, but it’s all about being positive, picking each other up and moving forward as a squad. We have had some fantastic wins so far this season, and both Vicky [Rees] and I are so proud of the girls in the squad.
When Gel got the link with the Scottish girls this was massive for us and has really benefitted the squad and club. I suppose you get highs and lows in any sport, and it’s how you deal with the lows and come out the other end really.
Has it helped that two of the three internationals are shooters?
Definitely. It’s true that we are struggling for shooters. It seems to be a problem across the North East, and it’s an area where we are looking to strengthen. There are some great juniors coming through, but we need to make sure we choose the right time for them to break into the squad. The step up from juniors to seniors is huge, and some of the girls have massive potential within the club. What’s great is that the Scottish girls are helping to improve the other squad players as well. Gemma [Sole], Jo [Pettitt] and Hayley [Mulheron] are really encouraging; they’ll ask us to try new things, they set different things up in defence and attack, so they provide more direction at the both ends of the court. There’s a lot of pressure on shooters in general, but the Scottish girls bring a really strong presence onto the court.
Jo was telling me that if the Scotland players shoot under 85% in a game, they have to do a really horrendous fitness session first thing on a Saturday morning. She said you just can’t afford to be shooting low percentages; you have to be in the nineties. It sounds tough, but they are international players and it’s great when you can have players with that mentality on the court.
As a spectator, it seems that the players sometimes get nervous when they’re in front during the final quarter, but there have been occasions when they’ve been behind, and produced their best netball in the fourth period. Is that a fair assessment?
I think there have been times when we’ve maybe got a little bit complacent when we’ve been ahead in the final quarter. I know as an attacker I sometimes do. You throw a pass thinking ‘I hope it gets there’, whereas when it’s neck and neck, or you’re fighting to get back into a game, you’re not in a situation to be able to take a chance; it’s in your head that every pass has to count - although this should be the case all of the time, even when we have the lead. But when you’re ahead, you might just try something like a long ball into the shooters because you’ve got that bit more confidence when you’re winning, but I do agree with you. A fortnight ago, we didn’t have a great match away at Premier Romans, but in the last quarter we played really well. Obviously games are always different, but I would say we do need to keep our momentum in the second half of our matches, definitely. I don’t think it’s down to fitness because everyone’s at a great level at the moment, so maybe it’s more about concentration and staying focussed when we are in the lead, maintaining it and moving forward!
How much post-match analysis is there?
We always get feedback from the coaches after the games, and obviously we’ve learned a lot about the other teams in the league from playing in Prem 2 for a number of years. As an individual, you can work out the strengths of your individual opponent within three or four minutes, and whilst we do go over a lot of things after each game, in an ideal world we’d be able to record the matches and use video analysis. We’ve got the facilities, but it’s hard to get someone to come along to all the matches – we have to provide a scorer and a timer for every home and away game, and you’re asking people to practically give up their whole weekend when travelling away. That said, I think the video analysis would be a real benefit to the Prem squad and it’s something hopefully we’ll be able to move forward with.
You play nine away fixtures during the season. Have you any idea how many miles you have to travel?
Do you know what, I haven’t got a clue? People will laugh at me because I just get on the bus, go wherever we’re going, and come back. I can’t remember which team we’re playing half the time! So I don’t know, but having spent seven hours going to Bristol a couple of weeks ago, and seven hours back, it must be a horrendous amount.
It’s 4,000 miles!
Oh my God!!
Actually after that Bristol trip, I had to go to Cardiff and back with Team Northumbria. I got back at five in the morning, had a shower, and then went straight to work. I didn’t get on, but it was a great win [48-34 over Celtic Dragons].
It must be hard not to be disappointed about getting on court?
Yes of course, especially with a win like that. I don’t think anyone would ever say they want to be sat on the bench - if you do you’re in the wrong sport! - but I think you celebrate the highs with the squad regardless of whether you’re on the bench or in the squad for that particular game. It was the first win of the season for us and everyone played fab!
What was it like to work with New Zealand’s Coach Development Officer, Lindsay Filiata?
It was fantastic! I met her on the first session she did this was with our U16 national squad, and I was immediately struck by her presence and her calming influence. She just let the girls play the game, didn’t complicate things, and that composure was transferred to the players. I learned so much from her. Just different ways of looking at things, tactical play, and court stuff, working with the shooters, and I think the whole club was gutted when she had to leave. She came and ran the regional bench with me, and we managed to fight back for a draw after being behind. She built an instant relationship with the players, and really made an impact with her calm attitude, and what she said to them at quarter and half time. I honestly believe her visit just came at the right time and gave the whole club a boost! We really, really want her back!