Exclusive interview with Manchester Thunder's head coach Karen Greig as netball's champions line up for Vitality Superleague opener
Manchester Thunder head coach Karen Greig has a very simple goal - winning back-to-back Vitality Netball Superleague titles. And it all starts today.
Thunder have seen 11 seasons in the British league and won their first title since 2014 when they defeated Wasps 57-52 in last year'sfinal. But the side have never won back-to-back titles, and Greig wants that all to change in 2020.
Greig made her Superleague debut as a player for Thunder in 2002 and announced her retirement from the game in 2012.
A year later she took on the assistant coaching role at the club alongside former England head coach Tracey Neville.
Three and a half years later Greig was appointed as head coach and has now been in charge for four seasons with Thunder.
And in an exclusive interview with NewsChain she said: “You know what they say, yellow and black runs through my veins really so yeah I’m definitely passionate about the franchise.”
Greig's team finished this year's pre-season positively despite missing a handful of England players due to the Vitality Nations Cup last month.
She said: “We’ve had a really good pre-season, we are happy with how it has gone so far and we have faced a number of the other Superleague teams.
"It’s been quite difficult as it’s been quite fragmented with us missing England girls which obviously can’t be helped. But that obviously impacts your ability to be able to do structures and principles as a team.
“I think confidence is a difficult one really. To go back-to-back is the most difficult thing to do and Thunder have never been able to achieve that historically, so it's definitely on our radar and it is definitely something we are aspiring and working towards. And hopefully, we can put together a really good season and be able to achieve that.
“We’ve got a really good team culture at Thunder and we’ve obviously got our way of playing and doing things. With the combinations that we could possibly play we’ve got a very versatile squad I feel.
“We are a tight-knit unit and we like to think we’ve got each other’s backs and we look after one another. We do have a certain way of playing and it's just making sure that we can develop within that. And just being able to go out there and being able to put up some consistent performances against some really good teams,” she added.
And Wasps, who finished as the runner-ups last season, are on Thunder's backs increasing the pressure for the Northern side. But Greig isn't phased and believes ‘preparation’ is the key to being successful against each team.
“They (Wasps) are always a tough team and they don’t make many changes in terms of their squad this season and the previous season. So we know they are a solid unit that has got really good grounding and foundation there.
“So, of course, they are going to be difficult to take but if you look at the likes of (Saracens) Mavericks, (Team) Bath, Loughborough (Lightning) and (Severn) Stars have made some really good signings this year and I do think this season is going to be really tough.
“There is definitely going to be teams who we will be targeting that we know we have to beat and we’ve just got to be as best prepared as we can be.”
It was only announced last year that the league have formed a Season Opener series for one-day only at the Arena Birmingham. Today's event will see all the ten Superleague teams come together and play one game each.
But the decision was heavily criticised due to the affect it could have on some teams, especially on teams like Thunder.
“Yeah (I’m) not happy, it is what it is and we’ve got to get on with it and hopefully come out with the points that we need and I do believe it could massively skew the league. It unbalances the league and for us we’ve got to play Wasps three times in a season just in the regular rounds and that for anybody would be a really tough ask.
“When you look at the way the league finished last year and how tight those top five were, a round like this could massively impact that and it would be awful for any of the teams to be on the end of it.”
But despite the backlash, the Superleague itself has seen a significant change over the last few years.
“It’s been huge, I remember when it was (called) Super Cup before it turned into Superleague and it's just the difference in how many teams are involved, the areas that are covered.
“Obviously now TV is more involved and the exposure that we are getting through the media is fantastic. And obviously now that it's turned into kind of a normal semi-professional league it's fantastic to see that the players are actually making some money out of netball.”
However, the huge increase in coverage with Sky Sports as the broadcasters, has not changed the funding side of the league, with the teams receiving nothing from their title sponsor.
She said: “We get absolutely nothing off the league sponsors, they are purely sponsors of England Netball. The Superleague is now part of their sponsorship with England Netball, so we don’t see any of that cash.
"It would be nice kind of moving forward if that would change, almost along the lines of the way the football is run but yeah, unfortunately, we don’t see any of the funds.
“So all the funds we get we manage to raise as a franchise ourselves. Every franchise is completely different, we are a stand-alone franchise, we 100 per cent rely on ticket sales and sponsorships, running workshops etc. Whereas other franchises are backed by universities or rugby clubs like Mavericks and Wasps.
“We are probably one of the only ones that are left that are stand-alone and fighting to be independent and pulling in sponsorship and getting the stands filled every game.”
Since Greig was appointed to the role she has admitted that it has been extremely ‘tough’ to keep progressing. But she has proved that you can become title winners even if there is a financial struggle.
“(Before becoming title champions) I know that we were probably running off the lowest budget in the league so we don’t have a lot of money, we are kind of the paupers in the league.
“We are doing all we can to change that but you know as I say our ethos and our culture as a club and as a franchise is what kind of sees us through."
The salary cap rule in the Superleague states that every team has to spend £40,000 but can’t spend more than £75,000. The board level the money out so every team starts on the same footing before each season.
“It’s hard work (to win being the lowest financial backing) and you know I’ve been in post for three and a half years.
"There have been times where it's been really tough and I’m just really lucky that I’ve got the support from everyone around me that enables me to do a good job really.”
Greig is convinced that ‘Northern Grit’ played a part of the magic that led them to success last season.
“I think as a franchise we’ve always been, people talk about the Nothern grit and people getting stuck in of working with absolutely everything we’ve got. I think in the area in terms of the North West, you know we are working class in terms of we get stuck in and we get the job done.
“It's a real family feel and it's always been like that, there’s no prima donnas as such. The girls are really hard-working, they’ve got each other’s backs and you know we go out there and if it means winning ugly then we win ugly.”
With the Superleague and England women breaking records throughout the last several years, Greig believes the commercial side is going to be ‘key’ but wants a ‘league sponsor’ in order to progress the league to a whole new level.
“The commercial side is going to be key, you know if we can get big sponsors on board as a sport you know the more exposure we can get through the media whether it be online, on the telly, radio.
“Whatever that looks like we need to make sure we are putting out positive stories and games and test series and games in the Superleague. And really pushing it out there because I think probably what we’ve found over the last few years is that netball is great for netball but it’s how we attract new netball fans.
“I think that is going to be key over the coming seasons, in making sure we can keep making these strides that we have made over the last few years.
“I do think there needs to be a bit more commercial input so it would be fantastic to get a title sponsor. You look at women's football and women’s rugby, the fact they’ve got an actual title sponsor supporting the teams you know that probably has a massive financial impact on the teams as well.
“If we can get in that direction and get that title sponsor and get some more investment as a team then you know it's only going to do well for the franchises.”
She is confident that Thunder have the ‘loudest’ fans in the league and that other Superleague teams ‘dread’ playing them.
“We definitely have loyal fans, we’ve got the noisiest fans in the league and I know when teams come and play us they hate the draw.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve transitioned from our previous site where we used to be able to house a thousand people and we were seeing that sell out on a regular basis. But we kind of outgrew that so over the last few years we’ve kind of made that transition into a new venue at Belle Vue (Sports village) which has two thousand seats.
“This year will be the first year we are there full-time for all of our matches. So it’s going to be tough from selling out a thousand seats to selling out two thousand but we are going to be doing our best to make sure we promote that. When we played there last year we were averaging about 1300 so if we can improve on that it will be fantastic.”