‘We are a family’ – Thunder culture is the key to retaining 2019 title

THE current reigning Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) Champions Manchester Thunder have team culture at the heart of their franchise. The club has produced some of England’s most talented athletes through their pathway system and has a history of nurturing young netball potential. Manchester is one of the UK’s most passionate sporting cities and the Thunder pride inspires their athletes to leave everything out on the court.

Draft Central spoke to Thunder Head Coach and Director of Netball Karen Greig, as well as young shooter Berri Neil – who was recently named in the ten player senior squad for the first time – about what they hope next season will bring. 

Every Superleague team has been hit financially by the impact of COVID-19, but for independent franchises such as Manchester, who are not affiliated with a university or other sporting organisation, the impact has been significant. Greig notes this was the hardest challenge they faced during the past few months.

“The main challenge is the financial hit that we’ve taken. We are a standalone franchise and run as a small business so all of our income streams are based around ticket sales and sponsorship.”

Despite the uncertainty and instability caused by the pandemic, the Thunder spirit has not been lost, and the team were focused on staying connected and looking out for each other.

“Our leadership team in Emma (Dovey), Kathryn (Turner) and Laura (Malcolm) were really fantastic at keeping the squad together as a unit and keeping them all connected,” Greig said. 

Whilst the athletes were busy running virtual competitions and maintaining their fitness objectives, the coaching staff and support team were facing a different challenge. Many Superleague franchises had to put their members of staff on the furlough scheme, which meant that the Government pays a percentage of their wages while the business has reduced income – the downside is they are not allowed to work. This was the case for Greig, who has spent months in limbo before being allowed to resume preparations.

“It’s been frustrating. I’ve been furloughed since the start of the pandemic, and I’m still not back full time yet. It’s really difficult, everything we normally do in the period from March until now we’re having to cram into a really short period of time.”

All these preparations and plans, including communicating with athletes and preparing a return to training programme, also include settling on a new squad. Teams must have their roster of ten contracted players and five training partners signed by the end of October. Thunder are a team that works to maintain stability in their squad, a factor that has enabled them to perform consistently in the VNSL in recent years. Greig is confident that their signings so far will have the desired outcome.

“Where we do make changes we like to build those players in gradually, we know that any signings that we do make will have an impact for us. We’ve signed Lois Pearson and Berri Neil who were our training partners last year and both are products of our pathway. It’s fantastic that we’re able to reward those kinds of athletes in these times.”

When it came to extended benches, Greig would support the inclusion of this rule in the UK after seeing success in the Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) this season. The netball community has seen youngsters like Nyah Allen and Sunday Aryang get their chance to shine on the big stage, and the rolling subs rule has further encouraged this sort of exposure for youth. It has changed the way that coaches view their lineup and allowed many teams to try out new combinations. Greig believes innovations like this are important for moving netball forward.

“We’ve got 11 franchises in the Superleague now so we need more and more talented athletes coming through, so the more opportunity we get for these young players to get on court and get that experience the better.”

With this in mind, the elevation of young training partners Neil and Pearson is especially positive for Thunder. The Thunder family are always aiming to perform to their high standard and win the Superleague, but the development of their pathway athletes is also a crucial element to consider. Neil was not expecting to be elevated into the senior squad, especially as she is still only 17-years-old.

“I was really shocked… I was so happy and really over the moon. I’ve played for Thunder since I was 12-years-old and gone through the pathway so I’ve been working up to this stage for so long.” Neil said. 

A debut season can be a daunting prospect for a young athlete, but Neil is focusing on taking things one step at a time and giving herself the opportunity to adjust to the new standard.

“Because it’s my first ever Superleague season I want to get into it and get used to it. Hopefully, I’ll get a bit of court time and just to play with the team really and experience what it’s like to play senior level.”

Her partnership with Pearson is one we have seen developing and strengthening at U21s level. They have a strong relationship in the shooting circle and have progressed through the pathway together, something which bodes well for Thunder in the future. Neil is confident to switch between goal attack and goal shooter and has been compared to Helen Housby in terms of her playing style and strong drives in the goal third. Neil has looked up to Housby whilst growing up.

“She’s kind of been my netball inspiration, so to be compared to her is such a huge compliment.”

Neil is ahead of her time when it comes to England selection, earning her first cap for U17s when she had just turned 15-years-old. She has since been selected for tours to Australia with the U19s and most recently the U21s, and the senior squad at Netball Europe. She is laying all the groundwork for the goal of earning selection for the U21s World Youth Cup squad, which was recently postponed to December 2021. In the meantime, Neil’s focus will be on slotting into the Thunder side and getting back into the swing of training.

VNSL teams, including Manchester Thunder, have recently been allowed by Government regulations to start returning to face to face training, but are limited at the moment on what they are permitted do. The training schedule mirrors what England Netball have been working on with the Roses, and Greig laid out what this looks like for teams. 

“We’ve got a pretty strict returning to training programme that we need to follow, working closely with England Netball around what that needs to look like to ensure we’re managing the athletes properly through this process. We’re not looking to get into match play for at least 6-8 weeks really and even then it will be very minimised.”

With all the uncertainty over the past few months, teams will be excited to finally be back in on the court and playing together. Thunder benefits from a wide range of ages in their squad and has developed a strong club ethos over several years. Neil finds that this team environment helps players to achieve their potential.

“The team culture is really good, everyone is so supportive. The vibe at training is so good, sometimes it doesn’t feel like training because everyone gets along so well. At the same time, you’re pushed to be the best you can so it’s really good.”

Since the announcement that George Fisher will be playing for Southern Steel in the ANZ Premiership, as well as several key senior player retirements in the off-season, there are a number of question marks around gaps in the VNSL that will need to be filled.

“The rumour mills are ticking over at the minute like they do every year… I think some squads are going to have some really interesting signings over this period so some teams are going to look very different. We’ve just got to wait and see what happens.” Greig said. 

The addition of Leeds Rhinos for 2021 means this season is going to be particularly interesting for franchises and fans. Yorkshire has not been represented in the VNSL since Team Northumbria were part of the competition in 2016. The region has produced fantastic players over the years, and their inclusion is a positive step towards growing elite netball in the UK. Greig is looking forward to the prospect of another Northern derby. 

“Having another Northern franchise is fantastic, we’ve got some awesome players up in the North. It will be interesting to see whether the talent pool is watered down or not. I think maybe 11 teams at this moment in time may be too many but it will be good to see how it plays out.”

There is a lot to look forward to in next year’s VNSL season, which has been confirmed to start in February 2021 and all teams will be hoping to make the most of being back on the UK’s elite netball stage. Greig has confidence that her side has what it takes to perform.

“As reigning champions, the target is on our head, but we know what we’re capable of and we’ve just got to go out there and get the job done.”

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