Eye on the ball

With the Olympics coming up this year, Neil Tague profiles some of the region’s up and coming sports stars and asks what success is in store for them

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2015 wasn’t a vintage year for England in the major men’s team sports, with the national rugby union and cricket teams following 2014’s footballers in an unwanted hat-trick of group stage World Cup exits.

But away from the all-consuming hype and noise of the Premier League, there have been highlights and it’s about time those shining in the less heralded sports were given their due. The women’s national teams in the big team sports have all performed admirably. In cycling, gymnastics, boxing and particularly with a resurgent swimming team, there are hugely promising young sportspeople making a name for themselves – a lot of them from the north of England. And with many of our young sportspeople having the added motivation of 2016 being an Olympic year, we’ve picked out a few rising northern stars who just might make their big breakthrough over the course of the year.

AGE: 21
Lightning quick off the mark, classy centre Percival (pictured) made an impressive debut against Leeds in 2013 and went on to make a further 10 appearances for the Saints that year. In 2014 Percival continued his development, playing 18 times and scoring 136 points. Last season he added another 114 points as he cemented his place as a regular at Langtree Park. Keen observers of the game reckon Percival, accurate with the boot and a regular try scorer, has all the skills to go very far in the game. International recognition could come this year.

Big Issue North caught up with Percival for a chat. Here’s what he had to say.
What are your personal goals for the season ahead?
I want to put everything I can in to each game to make sure we have a chance of winning as much silverware as possible. I want to do everything I can to become a better player on and off the field and would obviously like to push for international recognition too.”

Are Saints stronger this season?
I think so. We have a lot of depth. Every year we believe we can win everything on offer and this year is no different. We are very confident going into the season, especially with the likes of Dominique Peyroux, Lama Tasi, Theo Fages and Jack Owens now on board alongside the balanced squad we have here.

Do you think you can push for an international position this year?
There are a lot of good centres in Super League to compete with but first and foremost I have to improve my game and play the best I’ve ever done each week to be in with a chance. It is definitely something I’m aiming for this year.

After England’s success against New Zealand, can they kick on and be a serious contender in the next World Cup?
Yes, definitely. Watching the series they looked a very good team and more than up to the challenge of beating anyone at international level. I really do hope they kick on and hopefully I can be a part of it one day but I know the England squad is very strong. They can certainly do really well in the World Cup.

Who have been the players that inspired you?
I’d certainly have to mention my brother Chris, who sadly isn’t here anymore. He made me a stronger player and I always looked up to him. Listening to the likes of our head coach Keiron Cunningham, Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long and Paul Wellens has inspired me to be better on and off the field too. But the bloke I have to mention though, the one who has inspired me a lot, is our captain Jon Wilkin. Seeing how he handles himself off the field and then on it is inspirational in itself. He is the one player I really enjoy being on my team and playing alongside. He’s also helped me through the years by giving me advice on the game and how to be better.

AGE: 20
With Charley Hull to the fore, women’s golf in England looks exciting, and Law heads the next crop of up and coming youngsters. She won her second consecutive English Women’s Amateur Championship in July 2015, winning
by a massive 16 strokes to become the first back-to-back winner of the crown in
20 years.

Having now joined the athletics programme at UCLA in California, Law’s following a route into the professional ranks most female pros haven’t, but the US college route has paid off for male counterparts such as Luke Donald.

She’s got an impressive CV already: in 2015 she reached the quarter-finals of the US Women’s Amateur Matchplay and placed fourth in the European Ladies’ Amateur Championship, she was part of the winning Curtis Cup team in 2012 and the defeated Junior Solheim Cup team in 2013, and has a stack of junior titles.

AGE: 20
If you tune in to the major track and field events, you generally don’t have to wait too long to hear commentators and track legends Steve Cram and Brendan Foster sigh about the lack of British contenders in middle distance events, at one time seemingly the exclusive domain of British runners. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll soon be sounding more optimistic.

Shirling is holder of the under-17s all-time British record for the 1500 metres, an impressive 3.44 minutes, and has
been recording decent times at 800 metres and 3,000 metres too. Now studying at St Mary’s University Twickenham and part of the Nike set-up, he’s been tearing up the winter cross-country circuit ahead of what will hopefully be a huge 2016.

AGE: 22
Don’t be fooled by his Bristol birthplace – Leaning was born in the West Country only by virtue of his Howden-born footballer dad Andy’s employment with Bristol City, and is as Yorkshire as they come. Hailing from the York area, he’s been with Yorkshire since age 15 and has been making a name for himself with the county Champions, being named by the Cricket Writers Club as the championship’s young player of the year for a 2015 season in which he made 902 runs at an average of 40.08.

Leaning is the fifth Yorkshire player in nine years to win that accolade, and three of the other four (Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Adil Rashid) have gone on to the England test team. Leaning, a stylish right-hander who has toured with the England under-19s and has spent this winter developing his game in Sydney under the tutelage of ex-Yorkshire and Australia star Phil Jaques, is tipped for the same destiny.

He names his goals for 2016 as “to get a thousand Championship runs, win my Yorkshire First XI cap and make a contribution in white-ball cricket”. Although he’s generally been happiest playing four-day Championship cricket, he says he loves all formats. Growing up, his inspiration was Kevin Pietersen, while the current player he looks up to most is Yorkshire’s finest, Root.

jack leaning

AGE: 16
Even Andy Murray didn’t win the Lawn Tennis Association’s national under-16 championship – but Jubb has, from an unseeded position as well. Following in the footsteps of winners including John Lloyd, Mark Petchey and Dan Cox, the Hull player triumphed in 2015.

He’s being mentored by Johnny Carmichael, who first spotted him aged five playing on council courts and is plotting a schedule including playing in more international under-18 tournaments and building up all-important world ranking points. For his efforts, Carmichael was named Aegon Coach of the Month in November 2015.

AGE: 20
With the exception of the supreme battler Rebecca Adlington, the British swimmers were the one part of Team GB that missed out on the medals at London 2012. That might change at the Rio Olympics. Adam Peaty has established himself as a world star already, and there have been promising performances across the team in the years since London.

A prodigy as a junior – he’s junior world record holder at both 200 metres and 400 metres – Guy showed signs of his potential in the senior ranks with some excellent performances in 2014, including two relay medals at the Commonwealth Games. He’s since picked up silver medals in both short and long course events, before becoming the first Brit in history to win the 200-metre freestyle in the World Aquatics Championships. For good measure, he anchored the 4 x 200 metre free team to victory in the relay too. Could this be the year Guy joins the likes of Adrian Moorhouse, Duncan Goodhew and Adlington as household names?

AGE: 19
One of the more tedious transfer sagas of 2015 was the “will John Stones leave Everton for Chelsea?” one. He didn’t, but even if the young England centre-half does move on in 2016, Everton have already returned to Stones’s former club Barnsley to recruit a potential replacement, Doncaster-born Mason Holgate.

Named as the Tykes’ young player of the year for 2014-15, 19-year-old Holgate is yet to figure for the Toffees’ first team, but has picked up six England under-20s caps and might follow precocious talents such as Stones, Ross Barkley and Brendan Galloway into the big time.

AGE: 23
There’s something of a gap in British cycling right now, with the medal prospects for Rio likely to come from old hands like Sir Bradley Wiggins, Lizzie Armitstead (current road race world champion, and a Yorkshirewoman) and Laura Trott. On the men’s side in the pro ranks, Team Sky has its own production line, supplemented by huge international signings Michal Kwiatkowski and Mikel Landa, but on the women’s side emerging teams like Podium Ambition and Giordana might step up to the plate.

Cumbria’s Ellie May Dickinson is among the Giordana juniors that did a fine job supporting leader Nikki Juniper to titles in 2014, while Leeds-based Shaw, winner of the prestigious Tickhill Grand Prix in August, is now moving into the top rank alongside storied team-mates such as Joanna Rowsell Shand. In 2016, her Podium Ambition team is stepping up to full UCI professional status and has its eyes on autumn’s Team Time Trial championship in Qatar.

Gabriella Shaw

AGE: 22
The north has an impressive crop of world boxing champions at present, with Liverpudlian super-middleweight Callum Smith tipped to join the likes of Tyson Fury – you may have heard some things about him – in 2016. But it’s also Olympic year, and Ashfaq is one of the crop of young British boxers hoping for medal glory in the 2016 Rio Olympics, building on the excellent record of Yorkshire in the 2012 games – an event in which fellow Leeds boxer Nicola Adams was one of the breakout stars.

Ashfaq competes at bantamweight, and bagged the silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
With fighters from the world’s finest boxing nations awaiting in Brazil, scaling those heights won’t be an easy task, but along with Liverpool middleweight Anthony Fowler, he’s among the Brits whose prospects are highly rated by fight
game insiders.

AGE: 19
Capped by England at four levels up to and including under-20, Oldham-born Zelem was signed by Liverpool from Manchester United in 2013 and has established herself in one of the country’s leading teams. Although the player Zelem described as her role model, England star Fara Williams, has now moved on to Arsenal, Liverpool Ladies have been busy in the transfer window, with England international goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain arriving, along with fellow international Laura Coombs, who has signed from Chelsea on loan.

Described as having two good feet and the ability to pick a pass as well as finish, Zelem made her senior debut for the Reds in 2014. She was named Liverpool Ladies Young Player of the Year and nominated for Womens Super League Development Player of the Year. With third place at the World Cup in Canada last year, England’s women achieved the best finish in a global tournament by any England side since 1966. Could Zelem’s generation go on to win it next time?

Katie Zelem

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