By Rachel Steinberg
It might be the greatest sacrifice you can ask of a Brit right now: “Can you please skip watching the Euro at the pub, for my sake?”
But up and down the country, people have happily paid the price - for netball.
This Sunday, one squad will be crowned 2021 champions of the Vitality Netball Superleague in front of family, friends and fans at London’s Copper Box Arena.
Just four teams remain: newcomers Leeds Rhinos, table-toppers Loughborough Lightning, reigning champions Manchester Thunder and Somerset side Team Bath, hoping to add to their league-leading five titles.
And as hard as her Thunder teammates have worked for their spot in Saturday’s semi-final, goal attack and goal shooter Eleanor Cardwell insisted an even bigger effort was put in off the court.
The Blackpool native said: “Our families, they’ve also had to sacrifice a lot, which I don’t think many people would think, because we’re just players and nobody sees the background.
“Our families have had to not go to events, or do things that they usually would like see friends, which you can do now that it’s government-permitted.
“But they’re like, ‘I don’t want to wipe Eleanor out for the game, so I’m just going to restrict what I’m doing.'
“So I think that is a big thing as well which has kind of been forgotten about, what so many people have had to sacrifice this season.”
Players also upended their lives for the sake of their squads.
Cardwell moved away from her family to be closer to Manchester this season, a decision she made to feel less at risk from catching Covid-19.
The England international’s teammate, Joyce Mvula, left her young son behind on another continent in order to play for Thunder.
“Joyce, to be playing in this country, she’s had to sacrifice a lot, all the time. Her son is in Malawi, and she’s only been able to see him for a few months a year, which has got to be hard,” said Cardwell.
“She always tells us about him, and it’s lovely hearing all the stories she tells us about him.
“But obviously it’s been hard for her, she wasn’t really able to get home for long.
“All she’s talking about is going home, because she’s so, so excited to see him which is really, really nice to see.”
Cardwell is one of just eight players to have been named in the Vitality Roses full-time programme every year since its inception in 2016.
The athlete, who would love to one day teach PE, works part time in a primary school where she’s developed a legion of adoring fans who will be tuning in at the weekend, when Thunder will take on Team Bath in the second of Saturday’s semi-finals.
She said: “My year five class love netball. I’ve literally just come back from coaching them now.
“And they’ve just been like, ‘Miss! We hope you get through to the Grand Final and we’re going to watch it!’
“It’s just lovely to see and to be a part of and I know some of the girls, if it was a home game, I know they would be there.
“It’s nice that you’ve got an impact on the younger generation. It’s nice for them as well [that] they know they can become a full-time netballer now.
“When I was younger, that wasn’t an option.
“It’s really nice for them to see their own teacher doing that, and they can dream to do it as well.”
The 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague season will come to a climactic end on 26 and 27 June at the Finals Weekend in London. Visit the Vitality Netball Superleague website. Fans can enjoy all matches live via the Sky Sports Mix and YouTube. Keep up to date by following @NetballSL on Twitter and Instagram