One of the main reasons for the all age on-court success at Grangetown Netball Club is the dedication of head coach Gel Williams and the rest of her coaches, along with all those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to support the development of local netball. Faye Summerhill is one of those who gives their time to developing the club’s promising and talented youngsters, but Faye is also an integral member of the club’s Prem 2 squad; and in the lead up to a vital clash with Manchester-based Dominoes, I had the chance to talk with Faye about her netball career.
“I started playing when I was eleven,” Faye recalled. “Gel scouted me from a primary school competition; I was singled out because I was tall I think, and I was just told to put the ball in the net! From there Gel used to pick me up and ferry me about, because even though I only lived in Eston, which is five minutes away from the club, my family didn’t have a great deal of interest in sport, so Gel had to come and physically collect me, Ria [Small], and another couple of girls.
“It’s been great growing up with Grangetown. I’ve never wanted to leave—never even thought about it. I couldn’t imagine my life without Grangetown to be honest—without wanting to sound cheesy or corny—I just wouldn’t know what to do with my time and, although I do sometimes moan about the amount of time I spend here, I wouldn’t change it for the world!”
Although Faye is rarely seen on match day without her goal shooter bib, she has also played in defence during her time with Grangetown, and even had a spell at centre in a very successful university side: “I have changed positions throughout my career and, if I’m being totally honest shooter maybe isn’t my favourite position,” Faye admitted. “I think I prefer the excitement and challenge of defending. As a shooter you’re expected to score, whereas in defence, although you will stay with your player and try to get interceptions, a really big flying interception always gives you a buzz—and gets a response from the crowd too: you don’t particularly get the big cheers when you score, because that’s what you’re expected to do.
“When I joined Grangetown I was always a goal attack or goal shooter. I stayed as a shooter as I progressed with the senior team—there wasn’t a junior team at the time, although Ria and I were also involved in the Northern League squad. I got a bit of court time with the seniors, and they helped me massively. A lot of the seniors are now coaching; like Gel, Jeanette [Carroll], Kate [Williams], who’s just come back after having a baby, and Julie [Haley]; all those people brought me on so much when I played with them, and now it’s nice that they’re working with me from a coach’s point of view.
“I suppose I’ve drifted between attack and defence. One year I played in both positions—before a game I’d have to ask Gel: ‘Do you want me to practice my shooting, or am I in defence? —and even last season I played goal keeper in a couple of games... when I wasn’t injured!
“But recently we’ve unfortunately had a few shooters leave who would have been in the running to be Prem shooters this season. They were in the Prem squad last year; they might not have had as much court time as they’d have liked, but we had a Trinidad & Tobago international shooter here full time last year, so it was obviously tough to get a start. I was coming back from injury, and I fought really hard to get my position back; maybe they just didn’t want to fight? It’s just one of those things; you can’t expect to be given your place in the team on a plate.”
The injury to which Faye was referring was the second of two serious problems with her ankles. “It’s been quite a battle at times, she conceded. “I’m being encouraged to have an operation, but I’m trying to avoid it. Personally I don’t think you’re ever the same player after an operation. I could be wrong, but for now I can still play at Prem 2 level without having surgery. I am heavily strapped, which I don’t like. I’d worked really hard to strengthen my ankles, and it’s only relatively recently that I’ve started wearing a brace—but it was either do that or have an operation.”
Grangetown has always had a core of long-serving players; and the reward for their collective dedication came with promotion to the third division of the National Premier League. “It was amazing to be part of the whole experience,” Faye smiled. “It was a long time coming. We’ve always been an up and coming club. We still are; we’re the fastest growing in the north east. There had always been the one big club [Oaksway in Hartlepool] and everyone had fed that club, but we encourage our players to stay with us, because it creates better competition for the region, rather than having just one big ‘super club’. So we always had to fight to qualify for things, and one year we won Regional and Northern League in the same season, and it was all with the same group of girls.
“We’d grown as a squad; we went to the Prem 3 play-offs, but we didn’t get through the first time. Our performances were poor, but it gave us the kick up the backside that we needed. We trained hard, we got stronger and we pretty much walked the play-offs the following season. We went straight from Prem 3 into Prem 2, and hopefully we can now make it into Prem 1—that’s my aim before I have to retire!”
The elevation to playing netball at a national level understandably resulted in a number of changes at the club, but the competition was something that Faye welcomed: “It’s been tough; you have to fight for your position and obviously we began to attract better players, so if you wanted to be on the court then you had to be prepared to earn the right. You were always aware of that but before Prem 3 we’d always had a reasonably settled squad. You were never totally comfortable, you still got benched, but you knew there was only a certain number of girls to pick from, because at that time we weren’t attracting the new players. Now we’ve got Super League players wanting to play, we’ve had internationals from Trinidad and Tobago and Scotland, so you are conscious that if you’re not performing there’ll always be someone knocking on the door to take your position.
“As far as the training is concerned, there was a bigger focus on strength and conditioning than ever before. A few of us—a few of the squad, I can’t really say ‘us’ because I’m not one of them!—are fitness fanatics, so they were always keen on their own individual fitness; but when we progressed into Prem 2, we had to do more strength and conditioning and more team-based netball specific work. We’ve had different coaches, and different instructors along the way, and it’s been really good. I’ve enjoyed the challenge.”
It’s often quite difficult to try and objectively assess your own skills, but Faye has the hand-eye co-ordination that can make difficult ball handling appear effortless at times. “Technically I feel I’m quite strong. When Ria and I were juniors, there wasn’t a specific session for us, so we’d spend quite a lot of time throwing the ball against the wall, or between ourselves, so one strength would be in pass execution, and another keeping the ball in play in difficult situations. I remember in one of your reports that you wrote that I’d kept the ball in on the side and managed to get it to Gemma [Sole] under the post; so it’s skills like that I’ve tried to develop from being a teenager.
“I also try to be a target as much as possible. It’s been difficult playing with a number of different goal attacks—sometimes it seems like I’ve played with someone different each game!”
Two of those goal attacks have been current Scottish internationals Jo Pettitt and Gemma Sole, but irrespective of her attacking partner, it was fascinating to listen to Faye talk frankly about the pressure of being a shooter in Prem 2.
“I do feel enormous pressure,” Faye readily admitted. “It’s always been my belief that the goal shooter should be the priority shooter; the one to look for to score all the goals and have the high percentages. It’s been hard to maintain that position as main shooter when we’ve got top class international goal attacks coming into the squad, and sometimes I’ve let it get into my head and affect me....
“It’s always more obvious when you’ve had a bad game as a shooter. Although you might throw a bad pass in the centre of the court, or miss an interception, it’s not as obvious as if you miss a shot. Some of our games have been decided by one or two goals, and that shot that didn’t go in really does haunt you for the rest of the night. It’s worse on long journeys home on the minibus. You’ve got a lot of time to think about the shots you’ve missed that have probably been the difference between a win and a loss. If you saw how disappointed the girls are on the journey home after a defeat; it’s awful. It’s just because we are so passionate about winning; we are so competitive. It’s not so bad if we know we’ve been beaten by a better team; you take that on the chin like you do in any sport, but when you know you can beat the team you’ve just lost to, then as a shooter, the missed shots do go round and round in your head, and you think ‘if I’d just done this, or if I’d just done that....’
“When they [Gemma and Jo] step onto the court, you do feel like it’s a shared position now, because there have been games when I’ve been all too aware that I was the only regular or experienced shooter. But when we have the international girls, it’s been great because even though we don’t train together, they talk you through games and we can try and work on things during the game, so rather than just the shooting, it helps me to focus on different tactics.
“So I suppose I do feel relief when they’re on the court. You know they’re willing to put the shot up; sometimes I’ve played with shooters who don’t want to put the shot up... sometimes I’ve been like that myself, so I suppose that does ease the pressure. Having said that, I’m really critical of myself. I want to be the top shooter, so when the Scottish girls played, I think was giving myself that extra pressure rather than it actually being there, but recently I’ve definitely started to relax and my game has probably improved as a result.
“I think we all are very critical of ourselves, but that’s what helps to make a good athlete. I always want to be the best I can be, and in that regard Jo and Gemma have been a massive help—and I appreciate everything they’ve done for me... and the club—but I’m always going to want to be the shooter that’s scoring all the goals. That’s no reflection on them, or anybody else for that matter. I just want that for myself, so that people still have that belief in me... belief that I can still do a job.”
The pace of a netball match is relentless, with every pass or shot having to be made within three seconds; but how much goes through Faye’s head in those three seconds?
“Not a lot,” she laughed. “It’s when the ball’s approaching that I’m assessing the court; so when I’ve actually got the ball, I should already know what I want to do. As a shooter you’re always looking up the court, so you should be seeing where your wing attack is moving, if your centre’s coming through, or where the goal attack is in relation to you; so when I’ve actually got the ball, I don’t ever really panic. I’m more likely to panic if I’m trying to get free and I can’t, but I’m confident in my passing skills and execution so it’s not something that worries me at all.”
“If I’m lining up a shot, it’s hard if the opposition are allowed to obstruct or contact, and the umpire isn’t giving the foul. There have been times when I’ve let that sort of thing get in my head; I’m thinking about that rather than the shot and that’s often when I miss... when I let myself be affected by outside influences. But on the good days, all I’m thinking about is getting the next rebound, and scoring with my next shot.
Well within the allotted three seconds, Faye had continued: “My mental strength has definitely improved since we got into Prem 2. I was injured for the majority of last season and that gave me the motivation to get back on the court. And even when I thought I was fit, Jilissa [Allan] played over me and I will admit that I was really upset. Don’t get me wrong, she was the Trinidad and Tobago shooter, and a fantastic player who totally deserved to be on the court, but I was frustrated because I’d worked so hard to get myself fit and I wanted it so much.
“So going into pre-season I was really up for this season because I’d missed so much netball. Prem 2 wasn’t too different to Prem 3, the leagues are still relatively new, and teams are still finding their level. The umpires are definitely allowing more contests and 50/50 challenges though, and the games are becoming more and more competitive. I really enjoy the physicality. It’s an important part of the game and I enjoy a good battle! As you’ll have seen it’s a lot more physical inside the circle rather than outside when it’s easier to run about freely. It can be quite testing at times, and sometimes you feel quite hard done to as a shooter, but you’ve just got to get on with it, and try and get the ball back....”
Finally, Faye took time to consider her toughest opponents, and look forward to this Sunday’s home encounter with Dominoes: “Funnily enough the defenders playing for the top teams haven’t really bothered me. Tameside and Viper 10 Blades both had quite young goal keepers, and I’d play against them all day long. There’s a girl who plays for Premier Romans; she’s not technically or tactically very good, but she’s a wind up merchant who likes to play up to the crowd—she might not be the toughest opponent, but I certainly remember her!
“They’re all really different and there hasn’t been a game when I’ve thought ‘I can’t get away from her; she’s just got be boxed off completely’—it’s all about trying to adapt your game to the goalkeeper you’re up against.
“If she travels this weekend, the Dominoes goal keeper is a good player; we had a good battle last time. When we played them away, we had a shocker; some of the Scottish girls got stuck on a train and, with other injuries, we had just the bare seven. It was just one of those games, but we're all up for this weekend, and want to make sure we have a really strong win.”