England U21 handball players
England U21 handball players at Medway Park, which will host the first multi-team international handball tournament in the UK since the London Olympics in January.

English handball heads into 2015 (guest post)

We’re starting 2015 on a positive note for a sport which hasn’t had the easiest time since London 2012.

Handball, like other ‘minority’ team sports in the UK, has had to deal with a lack of funding since Britain’s home Olympics. The sport proved surprisingly entertaining to fans at the Games who hadn’t previously seen it, but it’s hard to say the Olympic legacy has revolutionised handball in the home nations. How much more handball do you watch, now, than you did in 2011?

David Meli came on board as the first-ever chief executive of England Handball almost two years ago. In this guest post, David assesses the current state of handball in England and looks ahead to what might happen next.

If you’d like to contribute a guest post, you can find out more here. The Olympic linkblog returns on Monday, 5 January. Happy new year! – Ollie

By David Meli

Where is handball in England now?

Handball was a real hit at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The public loved the all-action, fast-paced nature of the game. The shop-window the Games gave us saw many people wanting to take up the game.

However, our joy turned to disappointment when we saw UK Sport cut funding for the GB teams, three months after the Games ended, as part of its ‘no compromise’ approach to funding elite sport.

Now, two years on, how is the game doing in this country?

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

On the international front things, admittedly, have been a struggle. Without any funding, it is extremely difficult to operate national teams.

The home nation associations in England and Scotland have worked together to keep some programmes operating, including age-group teams at U18 for women and U21 for men.

Unfortunately, the men’s senior GB team has not played competitively since June 2013 and will not do so until a funding stream becomes available to support its activities. The women’s senior team has recently been re-established, but on a self-funded basis with players contributing to the costs and trying to reach a point where the team can enter appropriate competitions.

That’s the depressing side dealt with. However, there’s plenty of upside.

At the England Handball Association (EHA), the sport’s governing body in England, we have put a thriving talent-development programme in place. This system looks to provide a pathway for players with talent to progress and play at the top level.

We have around 60 athletes aged 16-18 who are currently studying for the Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence, as well as a number of regional academies across the country. The performance staff includes 15 coaches, some of whom are Olympians ‘giving back’ to the sport and helping to produce stars of the future.

Look out for names like Josh de Silva, Sam Crocker and Oli Barton, who you’ll be able to see in action from 9-11 January, when GB take on Hungary, Israel and the Netherlands in the U21 World Championship qualifiers at Medway Park in Kent.

This will be the first multi-team international tournament on UK soil since the Olympics, and provides us with a chance to showcase the sport to new and existing players. There is no substitute for seeing a handball match in the flesh to really understand the speed, power and excitement that is generated.

Domestically, the game is developing fast and there are hotbeds of handball, particularly in the north-west of England and the south-east. Since London 2012, we have also seen huge increases in participation in emerging areas such as the south-west and the Midlands.

The top-flight for men and women is the Super-8. The men’s competition currently includes Cambridge, Coventry Sharks, Leeds Hornets, London Great Dane, Manchester, Olympia, Ruislip Eagles and Warrington Wolves. The women’s competition involves London Great Dane, Olympia and Ruislip Eagles, along with Deva (of Chester, as those who know their Roman history will know!), University of Leeds, London Angels, NEM Hawks and Thames. Under this top league there is a Championship for men and Regional Development Leagues for men and women.

If we’re honest, compared to continental Europe – where the game is second only to football in terms of participation levels and handball players are big stars – there is some catching up to do. This is not surprising. Countries like France, Germany and Denmark, where the game originated, have a long history in the sport.

In the UK the game is relatively new, having been introduced just over 40 years ago. Compared to established sports such as football, cricket and the two rugby codes, it is a relative teenager. However, it is a teenager with a big vision and the standard is improving all the time.

Warrington Wolves are a great example of how things are changing. Formed through the merger of Salford and Warrington (an example of clubs realising the benefit of pooling resources) they have ambitions to turn semi-pro. Their captain, Chris McDermott, is a recognisable name in the sport having been a member of the GB men’s team at London 2012. They recently ran professional Israeli side HC Holon close in the second leg of their European Handball Federation (EHF) Challenge Cup third-round clash. Two other British sides, Ruislip Eagles and Cambridge, also made it into the third round of the competition.

More and more people are playing the game at a grassroots level. The number of clubs has doubled since 2010. The number of registered club players aged over 14 has increased by 62% since the Olympic Games. This grassroots growth is in no small part thanks to an army of volunteers, be they coaches or people who just want to help out. The EHA’s National Schools competition has seen a 140% increase in the number of teams entering in the last couple of years.

The beauty of the game is its accessibility. Equipment costs are minimal and at an introductory level we can also use the “jumpers for goalposts” option, so often linked to football. One of the main challenges for the sport in the UK is the lack of full-sized courts on which to play formal, competitive handball. This is something the EHA is looking to address by developing smaller-sided versions of the game that can utilise other court formats.

Another great aspect of the sport is the physical literacy skills it teaches: running, jumping, throwing and catching. This means it is an ideal sport to play in schools, and this is a target demographic of the EHA as we look to grow the number of people playing the game. The vision is to embed handball as a key sport in schools.

This vision also addresses another aspect, relating to the top level of the game, namely finding British players with talent. This is vitally important as there is a strong foreign contingent in Super-8, as players join clubs to play the sport they love from their homeland.

To meet this aim, the EHA has an army of development officers taking the game into schools and satellite clubs. Among the courses are ones for teachers on how to teach the sport and an innovative scheme called “Girls 4 Gold”. This initiative aims to give girls aged 14 and over the opportunity to take a ‘leadership’ award and deliver activities to their peers.

So, how’s it looking for Handball in this country? As mentioned, it’s a young sport in the UK – I may have over-egged it, saying we are teenagers! However, the future looks bright and the game has big plans to grow. It is full of people, paid and unpaid, who are dedicated to seeing this happen – at grassroots and elite level.

And what about the senior men’s and women’s international teams? With UK Sport recently inviting governing bodies and the public into a consultation on investment strategy, there is hope. If the funding stream is again turned on, we could once more see the senior GB teams capturing the public’s imagination.

It is hoped that a broader approach to the funding of elite sport will benefit the many team sports, including handball, which lost out after London 2012.

We’re always on the look-out for people who want to take up the sport or help in its development in any way. If you’re interested in finding out more about the opportunities available to get involved in handball, take a look at the EHA website.

With thanks to David. Guest posts are, obviously, the views of the guest author and not necessarily those of their organisation, employer etc, nor this website.