Career pivot

January 2, 2019

Netball has never been more popular with the World Cup coming to Liverpool this summer and host nation England tipped to take gold. Simon Rushworth meets a North East favourite determined to set the region’s emerging stars on the road to international glory

Twelve months ago, Leah Kennedy was a contender for England’s Commonwealth Games squad, committed to her first Netball Superleague season north of the border, and on course to cement her reputation as the go-to role model for North East players seeking to establish themselves at the highest level.

What a difference a year makes. Fast forward to 2019 and Leah is still the most prominent poster girl for netball in a region regularly overlooked as a potential hotbed for the sport.

But the England dream has been placed on hold and, for the first time in almost a decade, the Darlington native will not be gracing the Superleague stage in front of the Sky Sports cameras.

At the age of 25, the talented defender has turned her back on top level action to focus on her true vocation – nurturing the next generation and laying a platform for netball’s long-term success.

“I took the decision to take time out from the professional game,” explains Leah, who
will marry fiancé and England volleyball international Darius Setsoafia in the summer of 2020. “I decided to take a career break from the Netball Superleague and England.

“I have so many projects on the go and I love the coaching side of the game. I also suffered a severe shoulder injury last season and that gave me a lot of time to think and to reassess my goals.

“In November 2017, I signed for Sirens in Glasgow after playing my entire career with Team Northumbria. I went up there with high hopes last January but my season ended early when it became clear my shoulder required surgery. That was tough to take but there was plenty of time for reflection.

“During my time on the sidelines, my England contract was downgraded and I’d decided that I didn’t want to do so much
travelling for the first time in ten years. I needed a break and I wanted to focus on player development.”

Her Superleague season was curtailed and her Commonwealth Games dream shattered. England went on to win gold on Australia’s Gold Coast to spark fresh interest in a sport so often ignored by mainstream media while Leah took stock and bounced back. But a life-changing decision didn’t come easy.

“I’m only 25,” she adds. “I’m young enough to play Superleague netball again in the future and experienced enough to give England another crack. But right now I feel as if coaching is my calling.

“Yes, it was a huge decision to turn my back on full-time professional netball as it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do for as long as I can remember. On the other hand, I had the opportunity to coach young players at various levels and help to grow the sport I love in the part of the country that means the most to me. But it’s a gamble. A lot of the programmes I’m involved with don’t offer full-time jobs. In many respects, I’m going out on a limb.”

Leah began her netball career with Hartlepool-based Oaksway – a club she has returned to following her recovery from injury – and became the youngest player to don a Team Northumbria vest at the tender age of 17. She was awarded the captaincy of the North East’s now defunct Superleague franchise in 2015 before making her senior England debut against Northern Ireland at Northumbria University’s Sport Central a year later.

As a consequence, many of her peers were at a loss to explain last summer’s decision to call time on a playing career that still appeared to be in the ascendency.

Too much, too soon? Perhaps. But even as a fast-rising star destined for the top of her profession, Leah felt frustrated at the lack of opportunities available to North East players and frequently expressed concern at the pressures facing the region’s elite performers as they aspired to take their game to the next level. And it is that prevailing attitude, rather than premature burn-out, which lies at the heart of a decision to devote the next stage of her netball career to coaching.

“Demand is outstripping supply as far as junior netball provision in the North East is concerned,” adds Leah. “There are so many kids keen to play and there’s a need to get more coaches qualified and establish new clubs. I saw it happening when I started working with Dame Allan’s School, in Newcastle, three years ago. It went from half an hour with a few children to an hour’s session that’s always packed out.

“I’ve since worked with Colegate Community Primary in Gateshead and St Teresa’s Catholic Primary in Heaton. Both of those schools
asked me to provide them with a coach to meet demand. There are so many more schools in the same position but I simply don’t have the coaches or the time to give them what they need.”

A wholly positive experience working with the staff and pupils at Dame Allan’s was part of the reason Leah chose to take the plunge and focus on coaching. “I’ve always enjoyed my role as junior netball coach at Dame Allan’s and with their help I’m launching a club for the wider community, based at the school,” she explains.

“It’s an area of Newcastle that lacks the proper provision for netball and there’s a huge gap in the market. The club launches in January and it will provide an extra opportunity for those Dame Allan’s girls who aren’t a member of a club and also encourage pupils from other schools in the area to play somewhere with fantastic facilities.

“Fenham, and the surrounding area, is home to so many exciting young players with so much potential – we’ll start working with years five to nine and take it from there. From September, we aim to affiliate with England Netball and Tyne & Wear Netball and start to play competitively against other clubs in the region.”

And Leah won’t stop there. Her one-woman mission to bring netball to the masses includes a key role with coaching provider One Netball – a successful offshoot of One Hockey – and a temporary position with North East Netball, coaching Under 17 players at a time when the sport in the region is under review.

“There are discussions ongoing in terms of how the regional pathway will look moving forward,” adds Leah. “At the moment, I’m working with Rachel Dauber to maintain a regional framework for Under 17 and Under 19 players. But there is no provision for Under 15 or Under 21 players. I’m hopeful we will find the support from the community to run those teams in the future.”

Northumbria University’s decision to shift its focus from performance sport to participation last summer claimed a number of high-profile casualties – including Leah’s former club Team Northumbria. And without a Superleague franchise in the North East, there are fears the regional pathway will suffer and talented players will be forced to move elsewhere.

“If you’re a North East-based player aspiring to make the Superleague right now then you’d have to go to Manchester and become part of the Thunder setup,” explains Leah. “The travel and time involved for teenagers still in full-time education will make that very difficult – those who want to become part of the England pathway will have to relocate.

“Until the North East wins back its Superleague franchise then we face the prospect of losing our most promising players. That has already happened with Ella Bowen – one of our best young players in the region – who started college in Manchester last September in order to link up with the Thunder.

“But the biggest downside to the loss of Team Northumbria is the lack of role models. That’s what I have always aspired to be – a role model for players in the North East. But there is no better role model than a player operating at Superleague level week in, week out.

“For the younger players to see those senior stars training and playing at Sport Central was a huge inspiration and Northumbria University became a hub for netball in the region. It was where the community came together on a match day and, in my eight years as a Team Northumbria player, it was fantastic to know that everyone was right behind us and that we were part of the North East netball family.

“When I was injured last year, I was still going to the games at Sport Central and seeing all of the same faces. Almost regardless of results,
the support was there. I’m not sure where you would find the same regional hub right now.

It was a blow, but we can’t give up on the next generation and I want to be there for them, now more than ever.”

Leah Kennedy
One Netball hosts its first camp of 2019 on January 4 at Walbottle Campus.
For details, visit www.one-netball.com
@LeahEm11

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Viewpoint: David Pattison