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The sisterhood of travelling netball fans comes full circle in Birmingham

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Sport is often referred to as the great unifier and lauded for its ability to bring people together.

Perhaps Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar summed it up best when he said, “whatever language you may speak … the language of sport is common.”

As Pat Haden, Sue Bailey, Almena Theobald and Margaret Mumford cheer on the England netball team at the Commonwealth Games, they treasure every moment they get to witness their beloved Roses play as much as they simply cherish spending time together.

Although they all speak English and don’t have to worry about that barrier, this group of women have defied their own geographical challenges to keep showing up for each other.

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Getting ready to watch a match at the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool.(Image: Supplied)

All four had volunteered at the 1995 World Championships in Birmingham and joined forces not long after that, when a mutual friend introduced them in the hope of gathering a group to attend the following tournament in Christchurch.

In a way, they’ve now come full circle as they take their seats at the National Entertainment Arena, reflecting on their friendship since it all began in the very same city of Birmingham.

“She said, ‘I’ve got these two ladies that want to come along with us’ and so we all met,” Pat recalled.

“We liked each other, went off to New Zealand together as a group of five at that point and just happened to get on very well.”

“We live on separate sides of the country, but we try to meet at Superleague matches and any of the international matches held here … what also transpired was that we all like travelling, so attending the major tournaments became a great way to travel and see the netball.”

Pat Haden hat from netball tournaments
Pat Haden has collected pins at every tournament.(Image: Brittany Carter)

During their time as a group, the friends have travelled overseas to Australia twice, New Zealand twice, as well as Jamaica and Singapore. Then there are the destinations netball has taken them within the UK, such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester.

They’ve even made it to a couple of Netball World Youth Cups to support the England U21s.

Meanwhile, if you go back and count the tournaments each of them has attended individually before their adventures linked up, the group’s collective tally is even more impressive.

This Birmingham Commonwealth Games marks the 16th major netball tournament they’ve attended between them, with the first on the list tracing back through Almena to the 1963 World Championships in Eastbourne.

2015 World Cup Sydney
Having some fun at the Netball World Cup in Sydney.(Image: Supplied)

Before Australia and New Zealand were known as the Diamonds or Silver Ferns, they set the tone for the next 60 years of netball to come when they established their status as the top two teams in the inaugural tournament.

The Aussies won gold, New Zealand were runners-up and England finished third.

For much of the sport’s lifetime, these placings have also been reflected in the world rankings.

Although this narrative hasn’t quite played out at these Commonwealth Games, that history has since dictated the way we judge results in Test matches and major events.

For instance, when the Silver Ferns finished fourth and missed out on a medal at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, their campaign was deemed a massive failure and led to an overhaul of their coaching staff.

Netball group at 2014 Commonwealth Games Glasgow
The group of friends at the 2014 Glasgow Games.(Image: Supplied)

Similarly, the one-goal loss the Diamonds suffered in the final of those Games in 2018 and again at the 2019 World Cup, saw Netball Australia and head coach Lisa Alexander part ways — after she’d spent almost a decade at the helm.

This high level of expectation may seem quite harsh — considering others would be stoked to get their hands on a silver medal — but Almena says Australia’s standards in particular have pushed world netball to be better.

“Women’s sport has come so far and there’s an enormous difference in the way they play netball today,” Almena said,

“It’s the feel of it, the women are more confident and are now treated like athletes … that first word champs was played on an ordinary tarmac court, and the rules have changed of course.”

“But we’ve got to thank Australia a hell of a lot, because they’ve had a more modern approach to netball and have given the girls a chance, so well done Australia.”

2015 sydney nwc
Enjoying some sun in Sydney at the 2015 Netball World Cup.(Image: Supplied)

Pat also added that the height of players has grown tremendously in her years watching the sport.

“The girls have a much bigger presence now, they’re taller and stronger.

“I was a defender and considered myself to be quite tall, but there’s no chance I’d make it in that area now, I’d have to play centre court.”

Unfortunately, the group were unable to travel to Australia for a third time to watch the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

As a result, they missed the one and only time England has won a gold medal at a major tournament.

England's netballers celebrate their gold medal game win over Australia
England beat against Australia 52-51 to win gold at the 2018 Games.(AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

They did make sure to tune in from home for that final in the early hours of the morning, but Pat says they’re still disappointed they missed it in person, especially because they beat the Australians.

“I’ll tell you, it can be humiliating being English when you go to these competitions because you have to smile at the end when people say ‘well-tried England, well-tried’.

“It would have been lovely to have been in Australia for that, I won’t say we would have rubbed their noses in it, but we might have done, just a little bit.”

2022 Commonwealth Games
The four women have been enjoying the Games in Birmingham.(Image: Brittany Carter)

Of course, netball was the interest that tied them all together, but the tight-knit friends have developed some new traditions over the years.

“We see the new year in together now,” Sue said, “Wherever we are, we make the trip to meet in one place and celebrate.”

“We also like to meet up two to three times a year and we zoom weekly with a cup of tea or glass of wine.”

List of attendance at major netball events

1963 — Eastbourne 

1979 — Port of Spain

1987 — Glasgow

1991 — Sydney

1995 — Birmingham

1999 — Christchurch

2002 — Manchester

2003 — Kingston

2005 — Fort Lauderdale (Youth)

2007 — Auckland

2011 — Singapore

2013 — Glasgow (Youth)

2014 — Glasgow

2015 — Sydney

2019 — Liverpool

2022 — Birmingham

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