On defence

While women blaze trails through traditionally male sports, men wishing to play female-centred games such as netball can still be the subject of ridicule

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The sound of whistles and squeak of skidding trainers echo around a Manchester sports hall. As they power through one of their intense two-hour training sessions, the Spartans resemble any other netball team aiming for the top. The only difference that might mark them out as novel? All their players are male.

Men’s netball has mushroomed in popularity since London’s Knights became the first all-male team to form in 2018, with Manchester’s Spartans among the leading squads in the country. Glistening with sweat and clad in a “GA” bib, denoting the position of goal attack, Spartan Ross Mizen credits its rapid rise to increased visibility.

“With livestreaming, people are watching men playing netball and realising this isn’t a joke,” he explains between gulps of water. “You’re no longer being asked, do you wear a skirt?”

“Despite all the prejudice he’s faced, he’s never given up. His dream is to represent his country at netball.”

In 2020, the Manchester Spartans became the fourth men’s team to form in England, after five likeminded lads – including team captain Caswell Palmer, who has represented Jamaica at international level – got tired of having to travel to Yorkshire to play at the nearest club, the Northern Titans. Today, they boast 22 players – whose ages range from 15 to 60 – and are aiming to be the powerhouse of men’s netball in the North. Camaraderie and competitiveness are thick in the air.

“Watch that footwork,” commands head coach Michelle Gilkes, warning that anybody not up to snuff will be penalised with 20 burpees. It’s an understatement to say everybody here is netball obsessed. Supporters are streaming a women’s Superleague game from the sidelines and, in between hydration breaks, the blokes either eagerly enquire about the result or caution: “Don’t tell me the score! I’m watching it later.”

Even so, you might wonder if there was any reluctance in first trying something so resolutely associated with women. Like many, Olly Lancaster was introduced to netball via his wife in a fun mixed tournament in her workplace, before unexpectedly becoming smitten with the sport.

“It’s the speed of it and it’s very tactical,” he says of its appeal. “When you watch the women in the Superleague, they make it look very easy, but they’re incredibly well-drilled – so it really isn’t.”

The oldest member here, 60-year-old Danny Williams, initially approached netball with scepticism.

“My wife ran her own club and I used to sit at home moaning that it was netball first, the kids second and me third,” he remembers. Then, 20 years ago, she challenged him to play in a mixed game.

“I scoffed: ‘Netball? Yeah right!’ But I went down and absolutely loved it – and haven’t stopped playing since.”

He’s far from alone. There are over 5,000 males of all ages currently playing netball in England at school, social club and competitive levels, according to estimates from the England Men’s and Mixed Netball Association (EMMNA), which was established in 2019 by a group of volunteers to develop the sport in England and create a pathway for men to play at grassroots, national and international level.

Above: Spartans’ captain Caswell Palmer. Main image: James Firminger, with the ball (Stephen Gaunt/Touchlinepics)

Although men have played in mixed teams for some time, it was the success of Knights London that put the male game in the spotlight. Apart from the big four – Knights, London’s Giants (which won the 2021 inaugural Men’s and Mixed Netball Association National Championships), Spartans and Northern Titans – there are a plethora of all-male squads in development around England, at club, youth and university levels. There are even army teams – perhaps the ultimate signifier of how men’s netball has lost any stigma it may once have held.

Crimson faced and out of breath at the end of a game, Spartan Simon Perry – whose interest in the sport was piqued by driving both his daughters to practice and watching them play – recalls witnessing a men’s netball team appear on a 1990s’ TV sports panel comedy show when the players self-deprecatingly donned skirts.

“They were mocking themselves, so it was destined to fail, but men’s netball is a lot more professional now,” he says.

The high-profile success of women in traditionally male-dominated sports has also helped change attitudes, says Lancaster.

“We’ve benefited from the reverse, where it’s normal for blokes to play netball in the same way it’s normal for women to play rugby and football. And we’re proud to say we’re men who play netball,” he adds to a chorus of approval from his teammates.

Yes, there’s still the odd punchline directed at them, but they take it in their stride.

“You get the occasional comment of: ‘That’s a girl’s sport,’” says Ryan Allan, president of EMMNA and one of the players who helped set up London’s Knights. “But we don’t mind that because we champion the fact it’s a female-led sport and will continue to be that way. But there’s definitely space to have the men’s game and the mixed game sitting alongside that. It’s a different spectacle.”

Netball originated in the 1800s as a female alternative to basketball, considered less arduous and therefore more “feminine”, and all involved are keen to ensure that the burgeoning men’s cohort doesn’t detract from the women’s game. Last year, England Netball partnered with EMMNA to help grow the men’s game in England.

“We’ve been embraced with open arms,” says Allan, who points out both the Spartans and Knights played against the women’s Superleague at the pre-season Rise Again festival. “The women’s Superleague have felt the benefit of us offering them extremely competitive games in preparation for their season starting.”

A mutual advantage is that increasing male participation is crucial to World Netball’s intent for the sport to be included in the Brisbane Olympics 2032, with the International Olympics Committee only adding new sports played by both genders.

Fairness in women’s sport is currently a hot-button issue, but Spartans chairman Frances Campbell Miller – who also manages sister women’s team Flava – regularly sends her best players to train with the men, and says the genders are evenly pitched.

“The guys usually have the height and jump advantage, but the girls have the speed and agility and strategy to overcome that,” she explains. If anyone can persuade boys to try netball and overcome the toxic masculinity that sometimes kicks in around puberty, it’s her. Before the Spartans take to the court today, she spots two 16-year-old boys playing basketball and dragoons them into giving netball a go.

In England, the sport is offered to children as a mixed game until the age of 11 – a target of EMMNA is to create opportunities for boys aged 11-16 to play. Spartan Tom Noakes coaches netball at primary school.

“Just last year, there was a boy who trained with us, played on the school team, and came to the out-of-school club and then as soon as he hit 11, I wasn’t allowed to play him,” he recalls. “It was horrible to say to him: play basketball if you want to carry on. Now he doesn’t play anything, and it’s a shame we’re not quite there yet where we can say: here’s the club to go to now.”

Towering at 6ft 3ins, it’s something that James Firminger has experienced firsthand. The youngest of the Spartans at 15 years old and their star goal shooter, having recently secured a place on EMMNA’s first national squad, the Thorns, he grew up watching his mum Bernardine play netball. He showed a natural aptitude for the sport from the moment he first picked up a ball aged nine. Yet he was mercilessly bullied by schoolmates, and even considered giving it up to escape the relentless taunts. His passion for the game ultimately won out, but he was devastated when he hit age 11 and had no outlet for it. He even took his umpire’s exam just so he could remain involved in some capacity.

“They introduce it to boys in primary school, then cruelly take it away,” says his mother Bernardine. “We spoke to his secondary school and they said unfortunately they couldn’t offer it. That’s so wrong. Imagine telling a girl she can’t play football.”

In desperation, she contacted Manchester’s Spartans. Now they travel 28 miles from Burnley twice weekly to be here.

“These guys love it as much as he does,” says Bernardine, gesturing to the squad. “Until James came here, I’d never seen men play to this level – and it’s something else. Having a boy, I never dreamed I’d be a netball mum – but I’m glad I am. Despite all the prejudice he’s faced, he’s never given up. His dream is to represent his country at netball – that’s starting to become a reality.”

Women’s netball is rarely covered by the media, even though England are among the best in the world, so spectators may be surprised that it’s an exciting sport to watch. It’s completely different from basketball: no forgiving backboard to assist in shots, once you have the ball, you can only take one step, and you only have three seconds before you shoot or pass. Seeing the Spartans athletically charge around the court, the Cool Runnings-style novelty of watching men play netball soon wears off and you appreciate the skill involved. They mark each other like shadows and the ball – pow, pow, pow – swiftly cannonballs from person to person like a curled-up Sonic the Hedgehog pinballing through the Casino Night Zone. The culture around men’s sport often gets a bad rep, so there’s also something quietly transgressive about 14 trailblazing lads quietly challenging gender norms simply by doing something they love.

Grabbing a towel, Perry says: “We’re not shy about the fact we come here to become an elite men’s team, but for me, it’s bigger than that now. It’s about giving lads an opportunity. They get to the age of 11 and their chance to play in primary school stops. But now, especially with the presence of men’s netball on social media, it’s increasing the number of opportunities that will help break down barriers and improve the overall standard and quality of the game.”

They’re already starting to see the tectonic plates shift. Lancaster recalls: “At the Rise Again tournament, there was a little boy – probably aged six or seven – who walked past us and his mum went: ‘That’s the Manchester team. You could play for them one day.’

“Ten years ago, he couldn’t have had that aspiration so it’s nice he can now.”

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