Heat is on for handball

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Queensmead Sports Centre is a brick box of a building opposite a carpet ­outlet in the unlovely London suburb of Ruislip, writes David Owen. That’s where I found myself one recent Sunday, the day after English/British teams had got the better of worthwhile opponents at just about every team sport that matters to the nation.

The occasion was the first round of the British women’s national handball league, with five teams playing each other in a gruelling series of 10 matches. While two sides knocked spots off each other on court, the other three milled around a cramped viewing area that smelt faintly of embrocation. Food debris littered the tables, along with the Sunday papers.

Foreign accents predominated. A discussion sprang up over what to do about the teams in the next scheduled match – reigning champions Ruislip Eagles and Nottingham University – who both played in blue. In the end, the university team took to the court sporting lime green bibs. Clearly, this was not a sport enjoying a lucrative trade in replica away kits, changed every second season.

In the UK, handball is not, to put it mildly, a team sport that matters. According to Paul Bray, a senior official with the British Handball Association, the sport has perhaps 5,000 players and receives the princely sum of £10,000 a year in public funding. But this may be about to change.

Handball is an Olympic sport and London’s victory in the race to stage the 2012 summer games has handed Britain a unique incentive to develop teams capable of competing with the best. “It’s basically going from being a pub team to being capable of playing against Manchester United in six years’ time,” says Donna Hankinson, a member of the Manchester University side. Clearly, British handball’s experience could hold lessons for any sport seeking to extend its geographic range.

This, then, is the sport’s big chance. On Monday officials sit down with representatives of the British Olympic Association and UK Sport to discuss development plans in the run-up to 2012. Indications are that the bureaucrats may eventually get an extra £40m or so a year to spend on elite sport. A tiny fraction of this would be enough to transform British handball.

“We are not going to win a medal in 2012. Seven years is not enough time for us to catch up,” says Bray. “But if we don’t lay the foundations now we never will . . . We genuinely feel we can deliver teams who will give a very good account of themselves.”

There is certainly plenty of catching up to do. The Queensmead venue has no proper spectator accommodation, with substitutes and coaches jammed into the small space between touchline and wall on narrow benches. The “scoreboard” consists of ring binder folders containing numbers written on sheets of paper. Whenever a goal is scored, a page is turned.

Some put the cost of improving both men’s and women’s teams enough to perform respectably at the Olympics at as much as £500,000 a year.

Much of the debate in years ahead is likely to revolve around the extent to which genuine home-grown talent can be nurtured and whether ready-made international players with a British nationality qualification need to be brought in. British handball seems determined to develop largely local-bred teams.

“We wouldn’t really want to recruit aggressively abroad,” says Bray. “Our view is to create a legacy so we want the majority of the 2012 team to have grown up here. We will go out and recruit good basketball, netball and football players who are never going to make their national teams.”

This suggests much will have to change if the profusion of Heidis, Anias and Kjersties milling around the Queensmead centre is a reliable guide. Melanie Chowns, the Ruislip coach and former England international, says she is “now saying to the foreigners ‘Yes, you can play, but you have to give something back’ ” by helping the juniors. But Lucy “Loopy” Johnson, Ruislip’s
15-year-old goalkeeper, is one of the few players present who might entertain hopes of making any 2012 British Olympic team.

One key will be getting the sport into more schools. At present, Bray says, any school can choose to play handball but take-up is patchy. The sport is best established in the north-west of England, where the governing body is based. A 10-year development plan, already in its second year, is focusing on 12- to 14-year-olds and on courses to train teachers to coach the game. Even with the sport essentially limited to a handful of regions, Bray says British youth teams sometimes break into the top 10 in Europe for their respective age groups. “The problem starts when they get older and want to go to university” often in an area with no handball tradition.

Britain is lucky to be so close to the sport’s epicentre in continental Europe. This may help British talent, for example, to break into the best European leagues. A partnership agreement is in the making with Denmark, one of the eight nations who founded the International Handball Federation in 1946. “They are genuinely interested in developing the sport across Europe,” says Bray.

Proximity to the sport’s heartland was not an advantage enjoyed by Australia, which was faced with a similar situation in the run-up to the Sydney games in 2000. Shelley Roy, a member of that Australian team, recalls “doing a lot of tours” and moving to play in Denmark for a season. “You have to play in Europe to get the level of experience you need.” Partly as a result of the travel, she estimates the sport has “probably cost me A$50-60,000 over the years”, in spite of the funding pumped into it in the years prior to Sydney. She appears to harbour no regrets, however: “It seems like you are training for ever for nothing but in the end it’s so worth it.” What is more, the team has survived, with Roy preparing to head off to St Petersburg for next month’s world championships.

It is a fast and physically demanding game, with similarities to basket­ball, football and even water polo. Defensive play at the Queensmead was at times as uncomprom­ising as the Arsenal back four in the Tony Adams era. “If you see some of these girls’ legs, they are covered in bruises,” said Eleanor Curtain, a Nottingham University player, who learnt her handball at school in Portishead, a small town in south-west England. She was herself sporting the beginnings of a black eye.

It requires little specialist equipment, demands few skills of beginners and provides good exercise. I would have thought it was ideal for schools and have always been baffled as to why it has not taken off in this country. “I play women’s football and cricket as well and this is the game I enjoy the most,” says Hankinson.

Perhaps the success of the London Olympic bid will help inject the impetus – and funding – for the sport finally to establish itself.

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