Phil Neville may have been celebrating a hard-fought, somewhat unconvincing, FA Cup victory over Tamworth but it was his sister, Tracey, who arguably enjoyed the most sporting success on Saturday.
Tracey, who is the Director of Netball for the Manchester-based Superleague netball team, Northern Thunder, guided her girls to the Fast Net Grand Prix national finals with a 25-23 extra time victory over cross-Pennine rivals Yorkshire Jets.
The Fast Net Grand Prix features all eight Superleague teams and is split into northern and southern conferences with the top two from each going through to the finals weekend.
Thunder went unbeaten for the whole of the conference tournament, which was played in the Fast Net format of the sport; a shorter more entertainment-orientated version, with the quarters reduced from 15 to six minutes, rolling subs, three-pointers from outside of the shooting circle and a power play where every goal is doubled in value, just some of the rule changes.
The competition was Neville’s debut as Thunder head coach and she is not planning on simply making up the numbers in Friday’s finals in Surrey.
“It has been a real rollercoaster for me getting to know the players in a short space of time,” the former England international shooter said. “We’ve always wanted to get down to Surrey and the finals are what we want to be in.
“We’ll go back to the drawing board now and next week it’s two games and not four.
“Fast Net is one of those games where you can’t predict what’s going to happen, it all depends on where you play your power plays – but we’ll definitely be competing for the championship.”
The northern conference champions were as conspicuous before the games as they were when playing. To the sound of ACDC’s Thunderstruck seven women clad in yellow were four times welcomed into a completely dark college sports hall, only visible to the 900 strong crowd because of the spotlight which followed their entrance. Preceding ACDC, faux thunder rumbled out of the numerous speakers decorating the sports hall.
Histrionics aside, Thunder wasted no time in announcing their aspirations with a 28-14 victory over Yorkshire Jets in the opening game, with the Leeds-based Jets unable to compete with Thunder’s mid court, which featured England internationals Laura Malcolm and Sara Bayman.
The tournament’s round robin structure meant that Thunder then had an hour long break before their next match against Loughborough Lightning, however it was as if Neville’s team had never left the court and they led 6-1 after the opening quarter.
Strong shooting from Oldham girl Krista Enziano ensured the lead was extended to eleven at the halfway point before Lightning claimed a goal back to cut the deficit to 20-10 going into the final six minutes. And despite Neville ringing the changes in the fourth quarter Thunder strolled to their second victory of the day, 32-16.
Next up to the gallows were bottom-placed Team Northumbria, who apparently had not read the script, restricting Thunder to just a three goal lead after the opening stanza.
Their resistance was short lived, however, and Bayman and co treated Northumbria’s power play with contemptuous ignorance, doubling their lead in the second quarter before further increasing it to 20 going into the fourth on the way to a 34-12 win.
The result set up a conference final against Yorkshire Jets, who had convincingly dispatched Loughborough and Northumbria, and while it may have been a rematch of the opening game the similarities between the two contests were restricted only to paper.
It was a tentative opening quarter in which Kathryn Turner thought she had given Thunder the advantage with a three in the final seconds, but Jets reciprocated to tie the score at six a piece.
Jets took their power play in the second period and Neville instructed her team to keep possession in order to run the clock down but the Yorkshire team still managed to carve out an 18-10 lead.
Thunder then used their power play in the third to claw back six goals to make the score 22-20 going into fourth on the back of some deadeye shooting from Australian import Janelle Lawson.
Jets did not take advantage of their position of power, throwing away several passes including one in the final minute of the match allowing Thunder to level the score at 23-23 and send the match into overtime.
In Fast Net extra time there is no break between the end of the game and the additional period with the result settled when a team establishes a two-goal advantage – rules which Yorkshire Jets were clearly ignorant of.
While Jets were looking to the officials Northern Thunder and England defender, Emma Dovey, fed Lawson who scored, and then after the ball was turned over immediately, scored again to secure the northern conference for Thunder and with it top ranking for Friday’s finals.
Neville admitted she was frustrated at her team’s performance in the final but paid homage to the resistance shown by Yorkshire Jets, she added: “We didn’t actually start playing in the final until the last eight minutes which for a coach is quite hard, because they actually know what they have to do but they weren’t implementing it. There were a lot of tired legs out there but credit to Yorkshire Jets.
“I was fortunate to be part of the World Series gold medal [England] side in November so that gave me a massive plus in regards to the tactics and getting au fait with the rules – I think once you get to grips with the rules you can start to put the tactics in.”
Northern Thunder will face Surrey Storm in the opening round of Friday’s finals at the Surrey Sports Park and tickets are available from http://www.seatadvisor.eu/SurreySportsParkBooking.htm.