Celebrated as a legend at Team Bath, ex-England captain Pamela Cookey is now aiming to continue her run of Netball Superleague success with a new West club after calling time on a playing career that brought seven domestic titles...
When is the right time to bow out? That is always a key question facing elite sportspeople approach the winter of their respective playing careers.
For England Netball legend Pamela Cookey is hoping to have found the answer by taking charge of a new, top-level netball franchise. Severn Stars – catering for Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire – as one of three new teams in an expanded Superleague for 2017. Cookey, as the new Director of Netball, will combine her role with the Superleague team with her duties as the director of netball at the University of Gloucestershire, where she will also act as a senior lecturer post in the school of sport and exercise.
As an individual who burned the candle at both ends in order to fulfill her promise both on and off court she has led a busy life. Despite working at her day job with Bristol at Airbus and then the West of England Sport Trust, where she was part of the senior management team, she put in the endless hours of practice required to win 114 caps for her country.
“A lot of people have said 'why have you stopped?',” Cookey says, flashing the smile that proved as much of a feature of her time on court as her unerring accuracy in the shooting circle. “After the 2015 World Cup in Australia [when England finished third], I'd been playing for my country since the age of 15 and felt I had had achieved everything I could have achieved.
“I wanted to progress my career but I carried on playing in the Superleague and we were fortunate enough to win it at Storm. Not many people get the opportunity to finish on such a high, doing something that they love. I wanted to finish then, knowing that it was such a great time – I had so many great memories and achievements and met so many different people along the way. It just seemed right and once I'd made that decision, then I wasn't missing it.
She adds: “Once the season starts this year, maybe I will miss it, but the summer was great because I had the chance to see family and friends, go to weddings and travel – all the things you have to sacrifice as a sportsperson.”
“I spoke to Mick Donovan [deputy pro vice chancellor at Worcester] and Anita Navin [head of Gloucestershire's school for sport and exercise] and it was clear that it was a role that met with my passions,” added Cookey. “It was a case of 'this is in front of me, grab it now'. I'd done all I wanted to do and felt confident the playing side of netball was over.
“The area covered by Severn Stars has never had a Superleague team but it still boasts 26 per cent of England Netball's affiliation. There is a big pool of netball players there and it's good that we can service it and that they have something close to them at elite level.
“It's really exciting. The role is two-fold. With the university, it is all about pulling together the programme and helping them make the step up to the next level with the structure, the training and the all-round package. For us, it is about developing the athlete rather than the netballer or the student. That was what really helped me get to where I am today and I want to impart that onto others as well.
“My parents always said to me 'if you're not doing well at school then you're not going to play netball', so I had to make sure I had that balance. It stood me in good stead in later life. There are so many things that cross over, like teamwork and time management. I had to learn all of those things and I used them in work and in netball. I just want to make things better for England Netball as a whole. If you can develop more people playing the game, then you have a bigger pool of people and it ups the standard.”
Wile she has work to do, it cannot be denied that Cookey has already done more than most to raise the bar when it comes to performances on the international stage. England's most-capped attacker won bronze medals at both the 2006 and 2010 Commonwealth Games and three years ago captained her country to a 3-0 series whitewash over the Australia Diamonds, who, along with New Zealand's Sliver Fearns are the long-time powerhouses on the world stage.
With the talismanic Cookey sidelined by a ruptured Achilles, England were then edged out by a single goal against both opponents at the following year's Commonwealths in Glasgow.
“We had the momentum and that would definitely have been our time,” she says, reflecting on one of the few regrets of a glittering career. “I'd like to think I could have made up that one goal in both games by being there, so it was really heartbreaking for the whole team.
“But beating them has been done, so why can't it be done again? It just about is getting that mindset back. We got to that stage where it was all about Australia and New Zealand and we said 'why can't it be about England as well?'. We stayed in our bubble and did what we needed to do to get there. It [the 2013 win over Australia] was one of the most pleasing moments of my career.”
Another Bath v Gloucester rivalry
The formation of Severn Stars throws up the tasty prospect of a first regional derby in the Superleague too, with Team Bath – still the most successful club in the top-flight's 11-year history – retaining the franchise for the South West despite fierce competition. Cookey will roll out the welcome mat for her former club at the University of Worcester on March 11, but says the sentiment will end when the first whistle sounds.
“They built something special at Bath and that is still at the heart of the franchise there,” said Cookey. “University was such an important time for me and Bath was where I learned my skills and developed the most. I've still got that close connection to Team Bath. I played alongside Rachel Dunn and Tamsin Greenway at Surrey Storm, who were also students with me at Bath. We've always got that pull – you always want them to do well but then you've got to look after the team you are playing with at that time. Those games are interesting.”
Superleague has clearly given netball a major boost as Cookey states: “The coverage and the media that we've had on TV and radio has been phenomenal. Monday Night Netball on Sky means people can watch it and, all of a sudden, it becomes real and achievable. Superleague players have been great advocates for the sport and sell the benefits and more people want to be part of it. “It's great for the players to have kids saying 'we saw you on TV last night and have been practicing that move you did'. It really humbles you and shows you are having an impact and helping to make other people better.
“The demographic of the crowds is changing too and it's not just schoolchildren watching any more – you have your mums and dads and people of all ages. The skills you learn in netball you can use in many different sports. You want people to be able to access it easily and netball is great for that – you just need some trainers, a ball and some bibs and you're good to go. But as long as you go out and have fun, then that's the main thing. I always played my best when I was smiling!”