How a meeting with Gareth Southgate has kickstarted England’s netball revival

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Ahead of the biggest test of her managerial career, England head coach Jess Thirlby will lead her side into this week’s Quad Series armed with a few pearls of wisdom from her football counterpart, Gareth Southgate. 

“I’ve spoken to him now directly, connected a couple of times and also listened to a couple of his interviews,” Thirlby told Telegraph Sport. “I think more and more now that kind of modern coach is thinking about the environment more than they do about the tactics and that certainly resonates with me. I’m a really big believer in making sure you take yourself out of your own sport bubble.”

In the world of netball, it isn’t often that England head into the competition as favourites, but Thirlby’s side have been afforded that status after enjoying a solid 2021. 

A historic series win in New Zealand last summer – their first in 20 long attempts – which the team backed up with another victory over Jamaica, has given England a healthy platform to build on as they continue their preparations for July’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

It is a measure of the positive environment that Thirlby has painstakingly fostered since taking charge of the Roses two-and-a-half years ago. Galvanizing a new generation of young players has been a hallmark of her tenure, and this new-look England side – which historically carried the baggage of fourth-place finishes at major tournaments – has been pumped with a freshness. 

Like Southgate, who oversaw England’s under-21 side for three years before his promotion to the senior squad and has always followed England’s development teams with a keen interest, Thirlby’s managerial career has followed a similar trajectory. 

Back in 2009, she took a core group of England under-21 players to the World Youth Cup in the Cook Islands, where the likes of Jo Harten and Eboni-Usoro Brown were fast becoming breakout stars. The pair would go on to be key members of England’s historic Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning side in 2018. 

“I like the way in which in that long term-thinking and success can be sustained both during your tenure and beyond it,” said Thirlby, who spent 15 years in several coaching capacities at both club and international level before landing the top job in English netball. “There’s a lot of alignment with some of what I hear about Gareth’s approach which kind of resonates with me. I’d say we’ve got a real duty to keep collectively building the profile of women’s sport.”

Ever the focused and eloquent speaker, Thirlby’s endeavour to broaden her horizons is a tactic she has used to hone her leadership skills. She counts Sir Alex Ferguson among her role models – and has even made it one of her New Year’s resolutions to connect with the most successful manager in British football history. “He’s someone I grew up really admiring,” admitted Thirlby. “Mel Marshall [Adam Peaty’s coach] is another one who I’ve listened to in a lot of interviews and who I’m really curious about. Maybe if I drop a few more names, they might respond.” 

This week’s long-awaited Quad Series, which has not been staged since 2019 because of the pandemic, features four of the world’s top five nations: England, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. With four games in five days, the competition’s condensed schedule will also serve as an important dress rehearsal for this summer’s Commonwealth Games. England have never won the competition, but with Australia – the world’s top-ranked nation – having not played in more than two years, this is arguably their best chance to rewrite the script.

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