It has been a monumental year for netball and it started with a single winning goal; a goal that is seared into my memory forever.
It is 4am and I am plugged into BBC Sport, tethered to my laptop by my headphones. I am watching the game on my knees on the living room floor – my face inches from the screen. The adrenalin coursing through my body will not let me just sit on the sofa. There is too much at stake.
Never before have England reached an international netball final. Now, we are battling Australia for a Commonwealth Games gold medal – with a silver already guaranteed. This is uncharted, historic territory. Helen Housby sinks an unbelievable, final-second clincher, sending Twitter into meltdown and triggering a media frenzy the likes of which no one in netball has ever seen.
That night was a catalyst in the growth of the game certainly, but don’t tell me netball is “having a moment”. It is a phrase that has been repeated over the past year by journalists and commentators who have seemingly only just realised that netball exists. A “moment” suggests something fleeting, transient, as though enthusiasm for the sport appeared overnight and could dissipate just as quickly. But this is not true. Behind the very public boom of enthusiasm there are thousands of women for whom netball has always been – and will always be – part of the very fabric of who they are. It is hard to put into words what this painfully overdue recognition means to us, but we know this is so much more than a “moment”.
You have seen the pictures of the final. You know what happens next. The England team pile on top of each other, hugging, crying, shaking, and – on the other side of the world – we feel their joy, viscerally. I am not much of a crier but I burst into tears. To see the game I have adored for a lifetime showcased on the international stage, to see women wearing the red England dress finally lift gold in front of thousands, I am not sure I have ever felt pride quite like it.
Fast forward a year and the Roses are still riding the wave of that unforgettable final. The media response was ferocious – back-page coverage in every national paper, spots on BBC Breakfast, ITV News, The One Show, player profiles and in-depth features in Vogue and Grazia. England Netball signed sponsorship deals with Nike and, most recently, high-street retailer Oasis. The squad even took home two BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, solidifying their place in mainstream, prime-time consciousness.
The shift has been abrupt and monumental. Suddenly, everyone is talking about netball. With a home World Cup on the horizon this summer in Liverpool, the timing could not be better. But the journey to get to this point began long before that iconic final in Gold Coast.
My netball “moment” has been happening for 23 years. It has defined every stage of my life. The frozen Saturday mornings of my childhood, the lifelong allegiances formed at university, the countless evenings spent in various sports halls working on speed, technique and match play, the air shrill with whistles and laughter, skin tinged yellow by flickering tungsten.
The first thing I did when I moved to London – a 22-year-old northerner alone in a hostile city – was Google netball clubs. Poly Netball was the first search result and I have spent the past seven seasons playing for them – a club made up of the most brilliant, welcoming and talented women I have ever encountered. At 22 I had no friends in London, no money and no clue what I was doing – but I had netball. When everything in my life was strange and new and scary, the sports hall was a haven of instant familiarity. Friendships. In every major transitional period of my life, netball has been the constant. It is not just a hobby, it is a lifeline.
For seven months of the year we spend an hour, every Saturday, locked in battle. Seven versus seven. The rest of the world is shut out and we are bound by a single purpose – to win. When else in life are you afforded the luxury of 60 minutes with such a focus? No racing thoughts, no worries about work or money or family. The banalities of the everyday slip away, your only concern is to beat your opponent to the ball. The freedom of that is dizzying.
Nothing in this world beats the high of a close-fought victory. It sounds dramatic because it is. We take it incredibly seriously. There is no drinking on Friday nights before regional league games – which is always met with confusion by colleagues in the pub after work. “Netball? You’re playing netball in the morning? And you do it every week?” they ask, images of pleated skirts and static, loopy passing no doubt conjured in their minds. They cock their heads at me sympathetically as though it is a burden rather than the highlight of my week.
We are not the only ones. Grass-roots netball is booming – 2018 saw a 44 per cent increase in participation, with nearly 30,000 women playing on a weekly basis – and we weekend wonder women are the lifeblood of the sport.
Our squad is made up of highly ambitious, successful professionals who, despite long days in the office, train every week and give it everything.
Hattie Beaumont is our captain, and one of the hardest-working netballers I have ever played with. “Netball is a great way to keep incredibly fit, but an even better way to forget anything that might be on your mind,” Beaumont says. “When you’re playing, you’re always decision-making and problem-solving and there is no room to think about anything else.” As an account director at a busy advertising agency, this mental clarity and instant stress-relief is something she craves.
Kathryn Kendall is 46 and plays for Blossomfield Bees Netball Club in Solihull. We connected online after discovering that we were both having shoulder surgery because of recurring injuries – netball Twitter is a powerful thing. Her messages kept me afloat during my recovery and rehab, my longest-ever exile from the game.
Kendall says the shift in people’s attitudes has been palpable. “Until the gold medal last year, when I told people I play netball – and I do talk about it all the time – most of the responses suggested that it is a weird thing for an adult to do. But now, the usual reaction is, ‘Wow really? That’s great, I loved netball at school’. I have even persuaded friends and work colleagues to seek out Back to Netball sessions,” she says.
“A year ago, I would have talked about my frustration with people thinking netball is a game for little girls, that it’s a non-contact sport, that you can’t move with the ball, etc. But attitudes have changed hugely in the last 12 months and now, those kinds of comments are few and far between.
“TV coverage is helping to break down these stereotypes, but we still need more. We have got a long way to go before the sport is widely accepted like it is in Australia, but we are moving along the right path.”
Serena Guthrie’s incomparable tenacity and work rate made her a star at the Commonwealth Games. Her contribution was integral to England’s success and, as much as she is loving the recognition of the sport, she knows it has been a long time coming.
“It has taken us roughly five or six years to get to this point and we have worked our butts off to get to where we are now,” Guthrie says. “Mainly we have worked on our team culture and ourselves as individuals to give ourselves the best possible chance to be the best we can be as a team.
“Seeing how much the game has grown makes me burst with pride. It has been an honour to fly the flag with my team-mates during what had been a historical change in netball and female sport. For me, being a part of the netball boom and seeing the response from women, girls and men all over the country makes me just as proud as winning the gold medal last year.”
The boom Guthrie speaks of is the culmination of decades of hard work by women who have played, coached, beaten the drum and chipped away at the public and the media’s apathy bit by bit. This summer’s World Cup is set to be the most exciting international netball competition in the history of the game.
The demise of the historic two-horse race between Australia and New Zealand has blown everything wide open and for the first time we have no idea which two nations will make the final. England have the home crowd and the momentum, Jamaica have flair and fire, the African nations – Malawi and Uganda – are beating at the door, and Australia have a point to prove.
What is certain, though, is that this competition will establish netball’s legitimacy in mainstream understanding once and for all. The speed, athleticism and ferocity of the elite game will be everywhere – it will be impossible to ignore.
Then, the day after the final, Clare Balding will be hosting a Sport Relief celebrity netball match – the BBC presenter was tapping up Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag and Killing Eve fame at the Bafta awards this week to join one of the teams.
For me, my team-mates and the thousands of grass-roots netballers in the UK, the magic of the game has always been apparent. We have lived and breathed it for decades. If the rest of the world needs the influence of major sponsorship deals and mainstream media coverage to realise what we have always known, then that is understandable. But do not call it a moment, because, really, it is an awakening.