With brothers Gary and Phil, Bury’s Tracey Neville completes a family of remarkable sporting stars.

Tracey Neville

Tracey Neville - Credit: Archant

Tracey Neville talks to Amy Grace on why we resumed our affair with netball PHOTOGRAPHY: KIRSTY THOMPSON

Tracey Neville with the Manchester Thunder Squad

Tracey Neville with the Manchester Thunder Squad - Credit: Archant

If your school sporting memories involve a lot of shivering in short skirts on damp, windswept netball courts, then Tracey Neville thinks you are in a minority.

In the locker room

In the locker room - Credit: Archant

She doesn’t believe there are many women in this country who haven’t played the game at some point in their lives - and enjoyed it. But then Tracey not only comes from one of Lancashire’s best-known sporting families, she’s also an England netball international.

And she puts up a pretty convincing argument. The coach for netball super-league team Manchester Thunder believes that many introduced to the sport at school are probably back on court now, making new friends.

Around 160,000 women are playing netball every week in the UK, mainly thanks to Back to Netball, a national organisation that aims to provide women over 16 with a ‘gentle reintroduction’ to the sport.

Tracey, twin of footballer Phil and kid sister to former United defender Gary, puts the surge in popularity of adult teams down to the fact women want to get fit but they want to socialise, too. ‘They don’t always want to go to the gym. They want to meet people and through netball, that’s possible. There’s a position for everyone – you can run around or stand in the centre!

‘I know some women who hadn’t played for 30 years and then got into it through work later on and have ended up joining leagues. The beauty is, you can go with friends, get fit and contribute as much or as little as you like.’

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There have been media reports recently of modern netball being confrontational and aggressive but 36-year-old Tracey doesn’t agree.

‘Netball needs a team. It’s not solitary and it’s not bitchy,’ she says. ‘In any sport there are going to be disagreements. I say it’s competitive. If my team beats yours, or if I’m first out on to the court, it’s just eagerness. I think that in the culture of women’s sport there is an association of words such as tough and manly, but it’s a stereotype.’

Returning as coach of Manchester Thunder came four years after her early retirement as a player and she is adamant that it’s essential for top athletes to know when to quit.

‘I had five knee operations and I got to a point where I looked at the future and I knew that the only way I could get the enjoyment out of it would be to work with players in a coaching role. I enjoy the impact, the influence and the support I can give to players who want to make it big in the game. There is so much training involved in maintaining that level of game that I knew it was a case of when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.’

Working to bring younger players on in the sport is something Tracey is so passionate about that when she’s not coaching Manchester Thunder or working as technical coach for England, she trains younger girls on courses held around the country. This summer she will be leading her sixth summer course at Sedbergh School for girls who love of the game.

‘I want to just encourage commitment to the sport, and I wanted to support my England colleague Lucia Sdao (101 caps) who is Head of Girls’ Sport at Sedbergh. She invited me to run a summer course and not as a professional academy – to treat it like an England selection course would be disrespectful to the girls who come.

‘For them, it’s a chance to live in a sporting in environment, in a lovely setting, mixing with other girls and the technical side is about ball handling skills. It’s all about pass, catch, shoot. We bring in other sports to practise this; tag rugby is excellent and we use this in warm ups – it’s great for change of direction, moving a ball up the court, it brings out good ball handling in ways that are fun.’

Developing a passion for the sport is different to committing to it, as Tracey knows from her childhood. ‘I grew up with mum and dad being passionate about sport. I was taken everywhere - to rounders, netball, hockey. At primary school I was always good at sports and was moved up two year groups to play with an older team in a centre position, and from there, I started going to play with my mum’s team as a sub. But things escalated.

‘It was never about them pushing us to be sporty though. The key thing was that both of them were always very supportive. The change for us came around age 13 or 14 when we needed to commit to one sport if we wanted to play seriously.

‘I was always on the sidelines watching my brothers play football and vice versa. Even now, I watch how professional my brothers are and they are also my sporting heroes. I have the biggest respect for them – how they represent their sport, their dedication, and how they are so professional on and off the pitch. Our parents have always driven us to take opportunities and to make the most of them, and this has stuck with all of us.’

Living life on the netball court has meant Tracey has seen some opportunities pass her by but she has no regrets. ‘When I look back, I was enjoying every minute. I never felt as though I was missing out.

‘I’ve always loved netball; it’s just something that has been part of my life. I will never have any regrets about investing so much of my time and life into it. You can always go back to education but you can only play for England once. That was something I would never have given up.’

Red card for brothers

Sport has been a dominant factor in Tracey’s life. The former pupil at Elton High in Bury is a keen spectator of cricket, golf and football. ‘Having grown up in a house full of men, it’s hardly surprising that I tend to be more attracted to boy-oriented sports. I’ve recently started getting into rugby league as well. I loved the Olympics and did have a soft spot for gymnastics, athletics and cycling.’

Tracey prefers her games live. ‘When I bought my house, the first thing I banned was MUTV – my brothers are obsessed with it and are still watching games from the 1990s!’

Be a net winner

There are more than 80 teams playing across the north west each week. If you want to give it a go check out www.englandnetball.co.uk/ For information about Sedbergh School’s Summer Programme, including the Tracey Neville Netball Academy, please visit www.sedberghschool.org/the-academies.html or call 015396 22616