On Sunday morning, the England netball team won gold at the Commonwealth Games. In the final against the world number ones, Australia, Helen Housby – the youngest player on the team – scored the winning goal in the last second, giving the team their first major world title and securing netball’s place in today’s headlines. Jubilant pictures of the 12 players are printed in every newspaper this morning and everyone, from Holly Willoughby to Olympic heptathlon gold medallist Denise Lewis, is offering their congratulations to the women and their coach, Tracey Neville.
“What a moment. It’s a dream as a player and I’m living it as a coach through the eyes of these players,” said Neville of the win. “It was a remarkable performance – I think we could have won by more and taken the game in the first quarter, but they’re World Champions and we’ll take any win.” While she is ecstatic with the Commonwealth results, it’s clear from these comments that she has much bigger plans for her team.
Neville, sister to the ex-footballers Gary and Phil (the latter of whom manages the England women’s football team, despite some rather sexist historical tweets), started her netball career at age 14 playing at county level across Manchester. She went on to play for England and, after a knee injury forced retirement, became the team’s head coach in 2015. Since she began her tenure, England netball has started to offer full-time contracts to their players and the sport saw a 13,100-person rise in participation across all ages and levels in 2016. Neville reportedly keeps her eye on the young players rising through the Australian league and poaches them for her national team as soon as they’re ready – or not.
Nearly every woman played a version of netball when they were young and so it’s seen as a school sport – a game for little girls
Netball isn’t often mentioned when we talk about England’s greatest sporting achievements, yet we agonise over the traditionally male games of football and cricket. Why? As usual, it comes down to money. Sponsors are reluctant to invest their money in women’s teams, sports channels rarely feature women’s sports as a headline event and the national press fill their pages with match coverage only in exceptional circumstances. Netball has been an Olympic-recognised sport since 1995, but has never been played in the games because it “lacks inclusion” – ie there isn’t a men’s team.
Perhaps the reason netball isn’t supported as much as it could be is because we don’t take it seriously. Nearly every woman played a version of netball when they were young and so it’s seen as a school sport – a game for little girls. But if you saw the teams going head to head at the Commonwealth Games, you will have seen how quick, exciting and physically taxing a game of netball can be. And, while it is officially a non-contact sport, there’s nothing juvenile about it.
Things are different over in Australia and New Zealand, where netball is seen as a major sport. Many of our own players choose to build their careers through their lively national leagues, rather than stay in the comparably stagnant world of UK netball. If anything, netball Down Under is proof that, with just a little bit of support, it can be just as popular as the men’s sports.
And there is one example of a women’s sport thriving in the UK. Since Team GB won the hockey gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016, the sport is “bigger than ever” and 80,000 tickets have already been sold for the upcoming World Cup in London. Perhaps, after their big win, the same will happen for national netball at the next big tournament – the 2019 World Cup, held in Liverpool. Thanks to determined hard work and careful management by Neville, the Roses have firmly asserted themselves as worthy of attention. Let’s give it to them.