Murtagh, mystery and suspense

Andrew Baker finds England's new netball captain has a hard task ahead
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S new netball captain, Fiona Murtagh, has a tough act to follow. The previous incumbent, Kendra Slawinski, was the most-capped English player in the history of the game, and even achieved a modicum of national fame through appearing on A Question of Sport. But if Murtagh, who led England to a 50-40 victory against Northern Ireland in her first match in charge yesterday, is daunted by the task ahead, she doesn't show it. "I'm stepping in to a big pair of shoes because Kendra had been around for so long," she admitted. "But we have the same principles, we do more or less the same thing."

Murtagh is 28, lives in Romford in Essex, and has been an England player for eight years. Most netball internationals are teachers - no doubt easy access to netball courts is the reason - but Murtagh is an exception: she is a personnel officer with a bank. According to the national coach, Liz Broomhead, her non-academic approach is ideally suited to developing the talents of the younger players in the side. "She brings a fresh quality to the job," Broomhead reckoned. "She looks at things as a player. There is no doubt that she is the most gifted netball player in the country, but she also has tremendous analytical qualities, based on her natural understanding of the game, which makes her a great coach."

Murtagh plays wing defence, an ideal position for a captain to play, shoring up the defence and launching attacks. "My job is to intercept he ball and get things moving again for my team," she explained. "You need quick reactions to play there: your opponent is constantly trying to dictate to you and you have to respond to that and make sure that you dictate where she is going to be."

Murtagh sees the current series of home international matches as the first stage in a long-term plan to culminate in a successful medal challenge at the next World Championships in 1999. "We have been fourth for many years and it's very frustrating," Murtagh said. "The competition is getting stronger all the time."

The home internationals will allow Murtagh and Broomhead to evaluate the less experienced members of the squad, an important task since eight of the twelve regular squad members retired after last year's World Cup. "We want to find out how the new girls get on in an England shirt," Murtagh said. "Some people will flap, some people will respond in the opposite way. Now it's their time for exposure." Spoken like a true personnel officer.

Murtagh certainly won't flap. She has always been one of the most relaxed members of the England squad, constantly committed to having a good time as well as competing hard. "She is tremendous fun to be with," Broomhead said. "You never quite know with Fi whether she is taking the mickey or not. Fun was always the most important thing for her, and it's great that she hasn't let her new responsibilities get in the way of that."

Netball has not always been Murtagh's sport of choice. In her teens she was an accomplished athlete and for two years she ran the 1500m for Haringey. "But then netball took over," she said. Now there is no time for other sports. She trains five or six times a week, working for the most part on general physical strength, and works on her ball skills by playing regularly for her club side, Leyton. "She is so hungry to improve herself," Broomhead observed. "She is always willing to look for answers."

There is hard work ahead for England. It is acknowledged that while they are close to the top of the international rankings, a gulf separates them from the class of the New Zealanders and Australians. Bridging this gap will be Murtagh and Broomhead's main preoccupation over the next few years.

"We have to take a step backwards in order to learn new things," Broomhead declared. "To develop the kind of qualities that Australia and New Zealand have. To learn to be assertive in attack and dominant in defence. We have to go back in order to go forward - and that is the only thing that Fiona may have a problem with. Because she so much wants to win, it is difficult for her to understand this learning process." Learning to lose will be a difficult task for such a committed competitor as Fiona Murtagh. But if it will benefit England in the long term, she will make the effort.