Netball, though one of the nation's most popular participation sports, occupies only marginally more space than mountain unicycling in the back pages of our national newspapers.
This is partly because sports pages are on the whole run by men, and men traditionally think of netball, if they think of it at all, as a bit, dare I say, girly. I used to subscribe to that view myself, until my duties as a father brought netball into my sporting orbit. My view now is that coaches across a range of sports could learn a good deal from netball, in which one of the principal skills is running into space off the ball, giving options to the person in possession, who is not permitted to carry the ball. Footballers, in particular, would benefit from studying netball. Sir Alex Ferguson, whose club captain Gary Neville has a former international netballer in the family – his brother Phil's twin, Tracey – could perhaps take the lead.
It is through my 14-year-old daughter Eleanor that I have reached this conclusion. While some way short of international honours, she is the first-choice goal-attack for the county Under-16s team – the Wayne Rooney, if you will – and promising enough to have been selected for the West Midlands branch of the "elite" Under-17s national training squad, the first girl in Herefordshire this century to receive such recognition, which naturally fills me with paternal pride. However, it does not match the pride of both her grandmothers, who are convinced that only myopia on the part of the selectors will stop her playing a full part in the 2012 Olympics (a more formidable obstacle is that netball is not yet part of the Olympic programme).
Out here in the Welsh Marches, Eleanor's sporting talent means a journey, most Sunday mornings, via the A44, M5 and M6 to the University of Wolverhampton sports complex in Walsall. When it is my turn to drive her, I confess that I am not always filled with the selfless, zealous dedication of a Yuri Sharapova or a Richard Williams. A lazy morning at home with the Sunday papers sometimes seems preferable. But last Sunday I was rewarded with a thrilling match between Herefordshire Under-16s and South Birmingham Under-16s, which finished 25-24 to Herefordshire, and made me spill my cappuccino down my shirt in my excitement (university sports halls have come on apace since my day; the one in Walsall has a Costa Coffee franchise).
All this brings me to Simon Usborne's fascinating feature, in this newspaper on Monday, about parental hooliganism at football matches. He told the story of a father in Wiltshire who drove his Range Rover on to the pitch in protest at a refereeing decision, and while I have never been privy to anything quite like that, I have seen and heard plenty of touchline rage while supporting my son Joe's Under-13s football team. Just a few weeks ago, as Joe's teammate Jack skipped down the wing, the opposition coach cried "Get him!" so aggressively that I was relieved he didn't have a couple of pit bulls to let off the leash.
As the cappuccino incident shows, I myself have been known to lose control while watching my children play competitive team games. But I have never heard touchline rage at a netball match, another feature of this excellent sport from which football could learn. It is nothing to do with one being widely perceived as a sport for girls, and the other as a sport for boys. Nor is touchline rage a uniquely British phenomenon. I have a friend in Chicago, Roger, who reports that parental misbehaviour at his 10-year-old daughter's soccer matches got so bad that all parents must now sign a deposition at the start of every season, promising among other things to cheer good play by the opposition.
Whatever, netball clearly sets an example at all kind of levels, but it is the highest level which interests me most. When I recently met the Wales rugby union coach, Warren Gatland, we got talking about the influence of other sports on his coaching philosophy, because I had read that in the 1980s when he had joined the All-Blacks as a hooker, and was encouraged by the coaching staff to suggest one or two training drills, he introduced some plays from Gaelic football and Aussie Rules.
"Yeah, that's so," he said. "Around the time the game of rugby was going professional, there was a lot of transfer from other sports." Could he think of any others? "Yeah, netball," he said, completely unprompted. "Netball is not like basketball where you can bounce the ball and move forward. The ball is off the ground all the time, and the handling skills are very good. Rugby players can take a lot of skill sets out of netball."
So there you are. If not even rugby union is too macho to draw inspiration from netball, football should consider it too. Next time I see Gatland I'll challenge him to send out his backs against Herefordshire Under-16s. I bet they'll get tonked.Reuse content