It’s one week on from the sensational last-second goal that could change English netball for ever. Scorer Helen Housby has hardly removed her Commonwealth gold medal. Inside a coffee shop at Sydney’s Olympic park, she passes it over the counter so two baristas can feel the weight. “I’ve worn it everywhere,” she says, “it’s the first one of these I’ve had so I’m going to make the most of it.”
England’s surprise victory over hosts, world champions and overwhelming favourites Australia is not only a first gold medal for Housby – it is the nation’s only major netball title, which many predict will prove a transformative moment for the sport at home.
Housby lives in Sydney, playing club netball for the New South Wales Swifts, as one of six England players who ply their trade in the southern hemisphere. She knows better than anyone just how huge this win was.
“It’s hard to put into words how big beating them is,” Housby says. “Before the Games people were saying that the only guaranteed Australian medal was in the netball, which added fire to our bellies. They were having a great tournament, smashing teams by 50 or 60 goals and I don’t think anyone outside our team was tipping us to win. It is a game changer, in the same way as the women’s hockey team winning Olympic gold and the cricket team winning the World Cup.”
It's a game changer, in the same way as the women's teams winning the hockey Olympic gold and the cricket world cup
Housby, 23, scored on the buzzer to secure victory by a single goal after the team had trailed Australia by four at one stage in the final quarter of the game. This triumph against the odds was in keeping with Housby’s own unlikely rise.
She was born in Drumleaning, a hamlet in Cumbria which is home to more animals than people. When she first began playing for netball super league team Manchester Thunder, her mum Gillian would drive the five-hour round trip to training three times a week. “Mum would pick me up from school,” Housby says. “She’d have pasta in Tupperware ready for me to eat. It would often be close to 1am when we got back home so Mum sacrificed a lot but I feel like I repaid her with this medal: she was in tears at [seeing] me on the podium.”
Such is Cumbria’s dearth of netballing talent that at one point the pair were team-mates. “Not that many people played in my local area,” she says, “When I was 14 I played for a local team which my mum also played for and she would have been around 40. I was goal attack and she was goalkeeper. We were just playing for the love of it – you’re rarely seen by selectors when you play rurally.”
It was at Manchester Thunder that Housby, 6ft tall, long-limbed and very slim, was first spotted by Tracey Neville, then the club’s coach and England head coach since 2015. Recalling the early days, last week Neville called Housby a “skinny little waif”, but she has been a mentor throughout her career. Housby says: “I always remember her saying: ‘You could get through that gap, you’re a little slice of ham.’ That is just Tracey 101, she’s straight talking and I really like that.
“A couple of years ago I was playing in England and was in a shooting position but decided to pass it off to get a little bit closer. At quarter time she told me: ‘If you don’t want to shoot then don’t be a shooter.’ It was live on TV so I was getting messages from my friends saying ‘Ooh, Tracey Neville is shouting at you.’ But she was right and I like that she has confidence in my ability.”
Once the 8,000 fans had emptied out of the Gold Coast’s Coomera sports centre stadium last Sunday, the England women gathered in a corridor chanting, “there’s only one Tracey Neville”, a tribute to their manager, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by those of her footballing brothers, former Manchester United players Gary and Phil. A United fan, Housby got a message of congratulations from another former star.
“I was on the bus after the game heading to the beach and I got a notification on my phone that David Beckham had sent me a message on Instagram,” Housby says, “I’m telling everybody because it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s completely bizarre that he knows who I am and you couldn’t think of a bigger celebrity. I don’t think netball has ever been recognised in such a way.”
Wandering around Sydney’s Olympic Park, Housby draws stares from passers-by, not unusual for netball players in the country. “In Australia, they really get behind their sports stars, male and female,” she says. “I think we need more of that in the UK. We need the media to get behind us, the young boys and girls only know the big stars because of the TV and newspaper coverage.
“When I was growing up most of the big sports stars were male. If I had had females to look up to it might have changed how I perceived myself in sport and we want young girls to think of sport as a viable career option. It’s been a really powerful time for women’s sport lately and everybody is feeding off each other’s successes and energy.
“I feel like we need to harness that. We want it to be referred to as sport and not just ‘women’s sport’.”
There is a campaign for netball to be included in the Olympics and Housby thinks England breaking the antipodean stranglehold might go some way to convincing the International Olympic Committee of its merits. But she also believes it is restricted by being a predominantly female sport.
“In Australia a lot of men play it in social leagues,” she says, “It would be good if more boys played it in the UK because I am always being told by people who have just seen us play for the first time that they didn’t realise how fast it was.’ I went to university in Manchester and the rugby boys and netball girls were close and they used to bet us that they could beat us in a netball game and so we agreed to play them. We showed up and warmed up really professionally, they rocked up and expected to absolutely ghost us and we ended up winning by 40 goals. It felt so sweet because they finally appreciated the level of commitment that goes into playing a game at the highest level.”
One of the players was forced to give Housby his club tie after losing that bet. Four years on and it is a gold medal round her neck instead and Housby hopes to continue teaching people the power of netball.
• The UK won a total of 65 gold, 77 silver, and 86 bronze medals in the Commonwealth Games 2018.
• Of these, England won most medals – 45 gold, 45 silver and 46 bronze and stood in overall 2nd position behind the host nation; Wales were in 7th, Scotland in 9th and Northern Ireland in 20th place.
• The highest number of gold and silver medals won in one sport by England was in swimming (9 golds and 10 silvers).
• Women won 40% of the total medals for the UK.
• Top performing athletes include Nile Wilson, pictured above left, with six medals, and Courtney Tulloch, right, with four medals.