Net worth

Can England’s netball team build on its Commonwealth Games success – and the growing popularity of the sport – to win the World Cup, starting in Liverpool this week? Rising star Fran Williams answers

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Netball is having a moment. Previously dismissed as the pastime of schoolgirls, the skill and athleticism on display in the professional game are finally attracting well-deserved attention. Netball is now the UK’s fastest growing team sport, pulling in thousands of new participants and spectators every year.

It helps that England’s national team, coached by Tracey Neville, is bloody good. At last year’s Commonwealth Games the Roses took gold after beating world champions Australia 52-51 on their home soil.

“More and more people are starting to recognise the speed, physicality and endurance required.”

The team’s success Down Under had a ripple effect at home. Recent data from YouGov revealed England’s Commonwealth win inspired more than 130,700 new participants in the sport, while Walking Netball, a slower version of the game targeted at older players, has had a 106 per cent year-on-year increase in participation, with 81 per cent of players completely new to the sport.

Fran Williams, one of England’s youngest players, is hoping this month’s World Cup tournament, taking place in Liverpool, will keep the netball flame burning among the sport’s grassroots.

“We really want to hit the country and show them exactly how good England Netball is and how good netball is as a sport,” she says. “We want people to be involved and excited by the competition. We want to get the country falling in love with netball.

“I think more and more people are starting to recognise the speed, the physicality and the endurance required in netball, and showing that in the World Cup with all the different international teams there will only highlight that. There’s so much to play for but the physicality and the intensity of the games is going to be higher than ever.”

Williams, a defender who plays for Superleague champions Wasps, is part of a new generation of netball players who are able to pursue the sport full time. Previously players have often been forced to choose between or balance jobs or coaching with a career on the courts, but an increase in funding by Sport England and commercial partners, combined with a spike in interest in the sport, has meant players like Williams are able to train and play full time.

“Even though I knew some people were on full-time contracts it wasn’t widespread, so I never grew up saying I could be a netball player, because those opportunities just weren’t as obvious and there weren’t as many of them, whereas now I am hoping that I am part of the first generation of people who are starting careers as professionals,” says Williams.

“I really hope that young girls can say they want to be a netball player knowing that there’s the potential to support that ambition. That’s something I am a big advocate of and I’m very grateful to all the girls who have played for England and represented at club netball before, who maybe haven’t been able to be as professional as they deserved but carried on working hard so I can now enjoy that.”

But Williams’s contract at Wasps hasn’t stopped her from furthering her studies off the court. She is currently a student at Birmingham University, studying part time for an economics degree.

“I’m definitely not your typical student,” she says. “I get up really early and go to training, or go to my lectures and then go to the gym at lunch, and then go back to the library to catch up on studying that I’ve missed, and then I often go to training in the evening. I definitely can’t be going out partying every night.”

Scotland’s Hayley Mulheron has witnessed a huge shift throughout the course of her netballing career. Mulheron has played for the national team for 17 years and at the time of writing has 114 caps. When she first started playing with Scotland the team played just three games a year, against England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Mulheron now plays for Northumbria, having signed her first full-time contract after 16 years as a netball player and giving up a career in the police force
to pursue the sport.

“I have travelled all over the world [with netball],” says Mulheron. “My first World Cup was in New Zealand in 2007. Since then we have gone from strength to strength. We have travelled to Samoa, Barbados. A lot of players are getting the opportunity to play netball full time now. I never thought I’d see that in my career.”

Like Williams, Mulheron is passionate about encouraging women to take up her sport. She coaches in schools through the Sirens for Success programme and gives talks to young girls about the importance of exercise, and says one of the biggest highlights of her career is watching how she and other players can inspire young girls to take up netball.

“Girls are often disengaged with exercise and they often have confidence issues. Girls typically drop off from playing sports between the ages of 11 and 15, and there are a lot of girls who simply aren’t active enough.”

This month’s World Cup, on 12-21 July, is good news for Liverpool. A city that has gained a reputation for putting on crowd-pulling events has another opportunity to shine, with
an opening ceremony set to take place in the M&S Bank Arena this Friday. Produced and directed by Culture Liverpool, the ceremony will feature dance, music, projections and pyrotechnics, with a parade led by “Lady Liverpool”, portrayed by local artist Jennifer John.

John will welcome the 16 competing nations, which include Australia, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Sri Lanka, by singing Across the Universe by The Beatles. The arrival of the netball team will be accompanied by a soundtrack of covers of famous Liverpool songs, such as Ferry Across the Mersey, Twist and Shout, and The Story of the Blues – set to a South American, dubstep or Caribbean beat.

Fans who missed out on tickets can watch games streamed live on a giant screen at the tournament’s official fan zone at Chavasse Park within Liverpool One. Entry to the park is free, but viewers are advised to arrive in good time as capacity is limited.

Matches will also be broadcast live on Sky Sports for every day of the tournament and BBC will also show every game free to air across its TV and digital channels from day four onwards.

Williams, speaking to Big Issue North from a training session in Manchester, says spirits among the England squad are high, with the team looking forward to playing in front of a home crowd.

“We are really looking forward to being in Liverpool,” she says. “I was there for a competition in January and it is such an exciting city. There’s so much to do.

“I’m going to really enjoy being by the docks and there are some really cool cafés and restaurants. I know Liverpool has lots of things planned with fan zones and big screens, so hopefully the city is going be ready for all the fans coming in too.”

For those thinking about taking up netball in the wake of the World Cup, Williams says: “My main advice is to just enjoy it. Enjoy the whole World Cup experience. Enjoy any opportunity you ever get to play because the reason I dedicate so much time and sacrifice so much to be a netballer is because I enjoy it so much. Whenever you are training just remember that the reason you are playing is to have fun.”

Main image: England Roses’ Helen Housby in action against the Uganda She Cranes during the Vitality Netball International Series match at the Echo Arena, Liverpool. (Nigel French / PA)

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