With one game remaining in the 2018/19 Prem 1 season, one or two finishing positions (including that of my club Grangetown) have yet to be finalised; but the championship and relegation places have now been decided.
On that basis, I’m taking the opportunity to have a look back at the past few truly memorable months. I must stress that no one has asked me to write this … but hopefully one or two people might just have a read.
The bare facts are that Oldham retained their status as champions with a convincing, albeit damp, victory over Grangetown last Sunday; whilst at the opposite end of the table, Worcester Reds and Premier Romans have been relegated to Prem 2.
Oldham have been the outstanding team of this (and any number of previous) seasons, and even though they were without a number of Manchester Thunder players at the weekend, the victory to seal the title was never in doubt. There is clearly a rich pool of talented athletes at the club; and they continue to set the standard to which clubs like Grangetown must aspire.
I saw both of Oldham’s victories over Grangetown, but impressive as they definitely were, the best performance I saw from any team this season came from New Cambell. True, their line-up that day included five of the current Saracens Mavericks squad (and Grangetown were missing their three Super League players), but collectively (and in a couple of cases, individually as well), they were just brilliant – the pace, movement, skill, vision, anticipation; it was a game that I will remember for a long time.
That match does highlight one of the issues with the Premier League (and Prem 1 in particular); the fact that almost half the season overlaps with Super League. This means that squad strength may well depend on the vagaries of the Super League fixture list and the willingness for coaches to release players for crucial games. I suppose the argument is that every club has 18 games to secure the best finishing position they can (or maybe to win enough games to stay up); and in addition, because the regular availability of the Super League stars can never be guaranteed, clubs know that they will have to have strength in depth to compete.
There must be a balance between short-term success (i.e. staying in Prem 1), and longer-term club progression through development pathways. This may have been Grangetown’s first season at this level, but what they have achieved has been nothing short of remarkable. No club has a right to stay in Prem 1, but to have secured two successive promotions and have a great chance of finishing as the fourth best club in the country suggests that Grangetown are giving themselves the best possible chance.
The club only has three Super League players – only one of which (Tuaine Keenan) joined this season. The majority of the Grangetown squad (which includes Ash Neal and Brie Grierson) have been together for the past three years, and have trained, played and grown as a group.
It has often been said that the current Grangetown squad is a blend of “youth and experience”. They can be easy words to churn out in a report; but when you look out on court and see a 23-year age gap between your oldest and youngest players, then the phrase has real meaning; and this season has been a genuine triumph for captain Vicky Rees (who isn’t that oldest player I hasten to add) and her wonderful squad.
It’s not easy to pick a performance of the season. The reason is that the best win was achieved without any of the Super League trio away to a strong Academy side. It wasn’t just Grangetown’s most notable victory; it was one of the results of the entire Prem 1 season.
For me though, there were 15 minutes that shaped what was to come – the opening quarter of October’s game at home to Premier Romans. It wasn’t the fact that the game saw Grangetown claim their first ever Prem 1 victory; it was the manner of the win … specifically the opening quarter.
Grangetown won the period 23-3 and were utterly dominant. History will relate that Premier Romans would struggle through the season, but up until that point, they had a 100 per cent record against Grangetown. That statistic was blown away in a quarter of an hour of exhilarating netball that almost certainly gave the girls the belief that they were not only in Prem 1 on merit, but they had the ability to make a real impact on the division.
I’m going to put my neck on the line with a choice for Grangetown Player of the Season. From my chair by the side of the court, the squad’s biggest strength has been its defence. There have been plenty of different combinations at goal keeper and goal defence (Katie Walton, Genevieve Slater, Jenny Mrozik, Tuaine Keenan and occasionally Vicky Rees), but every partnership has seemed to gel; and with Claudia Heath’s outstanding progress at wing defence, Grangetown has been able to make every team work hard for their opportunities.
At the opposite end of the court, any squad would struggle to cope without players of the calibre of Ash (who I’m sure will be a popular choice for Player of the Season) and Brie; but if their occasional enforced absence placed extra pressure on Ria Small (centre/wing attack) and Vicky Rees (centre), they certainly didn’t show it. Ria and Vicky are two of the longest-serving Grangetown players and it’s brilliant for them to have played such a significant role in the biggest season in the club’s history.
There are some really talented younger players within the squad who have also made valuable contributions whenever they have had the opportunity – including Alice Currie, Hannah Raine, Cathy Hewitt, Sophie McFarlane and Nicole Malloy. Ireland international Fran Duffy’s recent arrival will certainly boost the attacking potential next season, but my choice for Player of the Season is the one squad regular I’m yet to mention…
Abbie Le Brocq.
When she joined Grangetown, it was obvious Abbie could shoot, but there were times when her confidence was clearly affected when she was faced with stronger or more experienced defenders. Fast forward three years and Abbie has developed into one of the most reliable shooters in the competition. It has been wonderful to watch her progress, and to see her grown in strength and belief. She doesn’t allow herself to be pushed around; and when she finds her shooting rhythm, you simply don’t think she’s going to miss. She’s had a great season and if I had a vote (which I don’t); Abbie would be my Player of the Season.
I’m going to finish off with my “all-star” seven made up from players from other Prem 1 clubs. They are all players who I’ve seen this season, and all have been amazing. No Grangetown players allowed, and a maximum of two from any one club.
In the scheme of things my opinion counts for very little, but in a season where so much fantastic netball has been played by and against Grangetown, these are some of the athletes whose performances made me put down my pen and paper and simply applaud…
GK: Funmi Fadoju (New Cambell)
GD: Vicki Oyesola (Academy)
WD: Taylor Cullen (Oldham)
C: Beccy Hoult (Tameside)
WA: Georgia Lees (New Cambell)
GA: Chiara Semple (Turnford)
GS: Amy Clinton (Oldham)
And that’s pretty much it for 2018/19. Just one last trip for Grangetown … the short journey down to Leeds; but as an old ex-cricketer and volunteer reporter, this Prem 1 season has been one of the most enjoyable sporting experiences I’ve ever had; and I’m so grateful to Gel, Vicky and everyone at Grangetown for allowing me to get involved.
Click here and go to 53 mins to hear what Gel had to say about the fantastic win at Turnford, dropping in on Tuaine, Ash and Brie at Loughborough, and Sunday's upcoming game at Oldham
Grangetown Netball Club’s Premier League squad will be showing their skills away from the netball court by supporting a campaign to raise mental health awareness during 2019.
With two games remaining, Grangetown is currently ranked within the top four clubs in the country, after an outstanding first season in National Premier League division 1.
Over the next few months, the players will be joining forces with their match reporter Richard Kirby to undertake a series of sporting activities and even visit a recording studio to challenge the stigma around mental health.
Richard, who lives in Normanby, has shared his own experiences, and completed over 100 challenges to try and highlight the messages that it is fine to talk openly about mental health and to ask for help if you are struggling.
His challenges ranged from performing stand-up comedy to completing a marathon on a rowing machine, but also included playing goal shooter in a netball team. It was Grangetown that arranged for Richard to make his netball debut in 2014; and he has worked as a volunteer with the club ever since.
“Mental health does not discriminate,” Richard commented. “It can affect anyone at any time; but being able to find the strength to talk or seek help can make an amazing difference.
“Grangetown’s Prem squad has achieved so much on court over the past three seasons, and it’s fantastic that they are willing to help highlight such important issues.”
Grangetown captain Vicky Rees added: “It’s an honour to be part of Richard’s campaign to raise mental health awareness.
“For the past few years he’s been one of the club’s biggest supporters, raising much-needed funds and providing professional match reports; and the whole Prem squad are excited to be involved in supporting such a worthy cause.”
“We are absolutely delighted to be a part of Richard’s challenges,” agreed Head coach Gel Williams.
“You see footballers and other high-profile athletes getting involved in this kind of thing; but this is something new for us, and there’s already a real buzz within the squad.”
“The challenges will take the girls away from the netball court, from all the training, and allow them to come together to support Richard’s campaign and raise awareness of really important issues.”
Grangetown's Prem 1 squad stopped off on their journey down to Hertfordshire to watch three of their team mates in action in the Super League fixture between Loughborough Lightning and London Pulse.
Ash and Brie were part of the Pulse squad that lost a closely-fought match 56-51, with Tuaine being named Player of the Match for her performance at the heart of the Lightning defence.
Grangetown face Turnford in another tough Prem 1 clash later today, but here are some photos from yesterday's visit to Loughborough...
As if making her first start for Grangetown wasn't enough, current Ireland international Fran Duffy also made her Tees Sport Extra debut last night. Click below and go to 58 minutes to hear what Fran had to say after Sunday's game against Viper 10 Blades.
Tuaine Keenan and her Loughborough Lightning Super League team mates produced an outstanding performance to record a 65-60 round 6 victory over Manchester Thunder, becoming the first side to defeat Thunder this season in the process.
The result was all the more notable as it followed a heavy defeat at the hands of Team Bath in round 5 and Lightning are now in mid-table with three wins from six games.
Below is Tuaine with her defensive partner Vicki Oyesola, who Grangetown supporters will remember for her superb performance for Academy in the first round of Prem 1 in September.
Congratulations to Tuaine, Vicki and the whole lightning squad.
Click the button to hear a fantastic interview with Ria Small from BBC Tees Sport Extra on Tuesday. The Grangetown feature starts at 52:48 and Ria finishes answering her first question roundabout Wednesday afternoon!
Grangetown defeated Worcester Reds 59-52 to further consolidate 4th position in Prem 1. There are very superlatives left to describe a squad that has claimed two successive promotions and now won nine of their 14 games in the top division of English club netball. Ash Neal was named Player of the Match in a game that was watched by Gen Slater, who had flown over from Dublin to meet up with the squad.
Elsewhere, Grangetown's nearest rival Academy were beaten by Leeds and the "title decider" between Oldham and New Cambell went the way of Oldham, who now look almost certain to retain their status as the best club in England.
Grangetown return to action in a fortnight when the play host to third-placed Viper 10 Blades in what is the final home game of a quite extraordinary season.
If you click here and go to 56:08, you can listen to the interview with club captain Vicky Rees from last night's BBC Tees Sport Extra Show. Vicky reflects on the superb win at Premier Romans and discusses Claudia Heath and Hannah Raine's recent respective selection for the English Universities and England under 21 Nets squads.