As the current generation of England’s Commonwealth Games-winning netball players garner all sorts of praise and promise, Leeds Athletic Netball Club meanwhile sees a mixture of the sport’s past and future stars all aiming to reach new heights.
Two of them are former England player-turned-Leeds-coach Maggie Birkinshaw and England Under-17 vice-captain, Georgia Pexton, who both also coach and play at Super League side Loughborough Lightning/U21 owing to Yorkshire not yet having a Super League franchise.
Despite this, Leeds are still one of the top clubs for producing the sport’s top talent, earning them a reputation for high standards from many throughout the netball community.
“If you want to just play recreationally then you wouldn’t choose Leeds Athletic,” says Birkinshaw. “When people sign up here they know what they’re getting into, because it’s not easy.
“Players like Georgia are fitting in things like exams, travelling up and down the country to compete and England commitments, so they don’t train here just for the fun of it. They do it because of the level of performance which is what they thrive on and live for.”
A lot of this, however, would not be possible without the likes of head coach Anna Carter, club chair Mariana Pexton and development officer Susie Stead putting in a lot of the work behind the scenes, which has seen the club turn into a “very professionalised” outfit in the last five years.
“It’s changed immensely,” says Birkinshaw. “What the girls have now in place for them – the structure, the science and the facilities – is superb. When I was playing we thought we were fabulous because we had physiotherapists!”
The teams have also continued to thrive, with Leeds’ junior sides topping all but one of their respective league tables while the senior squads (a lot of whom are still juniors) compete in the Premier League 1 – the highest level for a Yorkshire side as well as the top local leagues.
A team trip to Australia of nearly five years in the making will also continue the club’s tradition of providing its players with the best taste possible of high-level netball.
But for those who do reach that level, new challenges will soon await, with any under-14 who shows exceptional amounts of promise soon put to the test in a match amongst the club’s older players – a tough prospect for any young player regardless of ability.
“It always either makes or breaks them,” said Birkinshaw. “Most of them, although Georgia didn’t, have tears in the first couple of games because they’re up against women often twice as old as them with twice the experience that don’t think twice about pushing them off the ball or on their backside.
“But it definitely makes them and I don’t think we’ve broken one girl yet; they’ve all risen to the challenge and it’s paid dividends for all of them.
“(Senior netball) is a very physical game,” added club chair Pexton. “Often people have an impression in their heads of a sort of school netball, but when they come to watch a game here they are generally quite shocked because they just had no idea that that’s what the game is really like.”
This style of coaching and play is what has moulded players, such as Georgia Pexton, into the top, young prospects they are today, with Georgia herself describing her experience with seniors as “invaluable” for her development. Despite not yet being able to break through into netball’s Super League elite, Leeds Athletic is certainly not a club to be underestimated.
Talents such as Georgia Pexton will eventually move on to bigger things, but as, long as figures such as Mariana Pexton and Susie Stead are still present in the background, Leeds will continue to uncover the hugely anticipated post-Commonwealth generation of players.
Club: Leeds Athletic Netball Club.
Based: Leeds Beckett Sports Centre, Headingley.
Number of members: 170.
Season highlights: Having seven players selected for the National Academy and almost all juniors sides topping their respective league tables.
Training nights: Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday.