Commonwealth Games: Tracey Neville: Netball: Natural successor to family business

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The Independent Online
IF THE news that her twin brother Philip had been discarded from Glenn Hoddle's World Cup squad was one of the worst moments of Tracey Neville's life, then her appearance in England's colours at the Commonwealth Games promises to be one of the best.

While Philip and elder brother Gary, both defenders with Manchester United, have pursued sporting careers under the brightest of public spotlights, 21-year-old Tracey has been quietly establishing herself as an international netball forward, or goal attack.

Since making her England debut two years ago, she has won 13 caps and hopes to push that number to 20 in Kuala Lumpur. "The Games will be the first proper championships I've taken part in," said Tracey, her Mancunian accent intact despite spending nearly three years at university in Bristol studying to be a primary school teacher. "I am looking forward to it but I won't know what it's really like until I get there."

It would be remarkable if any family could boast a richer vein of sporting talent than the Nevilles. Both Tracey's brothers were gifted cricketers - "they were good enough to have been internationals if they hadn't joined United" - while she also excelled at hockey, tennis and badminton. Her father, whose own football career was curtailed by an untimely teenage bout of appendicitis, is the commercial manager at Bury, while her mother, a former local league netball player and a child prodigy footballer until the authorities banned her at 11, is the First Division club's secretary.

"We are all naturals I suppose. We all seem to be good at every sport we play," said Tracey. "None of us are giants and at 5ft 8in I am quite small for netball. I do a lot of weight training and I suppose my main assets are speed and strength."

That and having a family as supportive of her career as she is of theirs. "My brothers like to come and watch, but sometimes it can be a bit embarrassing if they are spotted. When we played the West Indies in Sheffield, they were sitting with my mum and dad and just got mobbed."

One suspects, however, that the embarrassment of having to choose between United and Bury should the clubs be drawn together in the FA Cup would be far greater. "Ooh heck, I don't know what I'd do if that happened," she laughed.

Events in Kuala Lumpur are rather more on her mind at the moment. She and the other 11 members of England's squad have been training in a heat chamber to prepare for the humidity. "The idea is to make us feel sweaty. It's important to keep drinking throughout, in fact they want us to drink so much that we'll weigh more after a match than before the start."

The Games will not be Tracey's first visit to Malaysia. "I went out at Easter to test the conditions. The facilities were nowhere near finished and the air conditioning and water in the competitors' village were off for eight hours each day. We are going to spend 10 days acclimatising in Singapore before the Games, and I think we are going to need it."

The format for the netball competition sees the countries split into two round-robin groups of six. The group winners will meet the runners- up from the other pool in the semi-finals with the winners contesting the final. According to the latest calculations, England are ranked fourth in the world. "Australia are the favourites," Tracey said. "They are No 1 in the world but they've lost this year to Jamaica so we'll have to watch out for them as well. The other real dangers are probably South Africa and New Zealand, who beat us in a recent Test series."

In essence, the Games represent the start of an intense 12-month period, which includes a tour to the Caribbean and culminates in the World Championships next August in New Zealand. "I am putting my studies on hold until after then so I can concentrate on netball," said Tracey. "I've got another year and a half to graduate and, honestly, it won't matter if I don't get there until I am 30. The sport pays my expenses, and I've got a bit of Lottery funding. Sponsorship isn't very good apart from a squad tie-up with Gilbert, but I am lucky in that I've also got a footwear deal through my brothers with Diadora. It's a sort of family sponsorship, you might say."