Written by Ollie Williams for Frontier Sports

24 hours
Cuts, threats and tears

24 hours Cuts, threats and tears by Ollie Williams for Frontier Sports

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On 4 February, British water polo lost all funding.

On 22 April, Britain’s women faced Spain, the world champions.

The game could be their last, at home, before the team disbands.

 

1

 

1

Monday night

 

Nobody here thinks the war can be won.

They are losing their jobs. The tricky part is knowing what to do next.

Seven of the British team are staying at the Manchester Travelodge ahead of Tuesday’s game against Spain. Luxury, by water polo’s standards. One player to a room, each with a double bed, has never happened before.

This would be perfect, but looming unemployment disturbs an otherwise happy reunion.

The part where people lose livelihoods is under-reported in sport. Funding cuts are talked of in medals and millions, not two-dozen lost jobs, unpaid mortgages and disrupted human lives.

Six of these players went to London 2012, where Britain finished last of the eight nations taking part. They lived and trained together for years before the Olympics. Now, friendships are kept alive using Skype and Whatsapp.

Tonight, talking face-to-face is a rare pleasure. The subject matter is not: UK Sport’s decision, two months earlier, to terminate the team’s funding. They are no longer considered a likely source of future Olympic medals.

“We had no warning. Literally zero idea,” is how team captain Rosie Morris remembers discovering the team’s funding had been lost. Morris, 28, plays in France for Olympic Nice when not with the British squad.

“We’d just finished an afternoon training session in Nice, and I looked at my phone – I had missed calls from absolutely everyone. I answered a call from [GB team-mate] Angie Winstanley-Smith a few minutes later, and she told me the funding had gone.

“I Skyped Graeme Thompson, our performance director, and he was close to tears.”

Tomorrow’s match is Thompson’s last. The following week he will be made redundant, as will other members of staff.

Many of those leaving have no idea where to go - during the Commonwealth Championships in Aberdeen, earlier in April, players would catch the staff hunting for jobs in spare moments.

“It’s the saddest thing in the world,” Chloe Wilcox, 27, remembers thinking.

Wilcox and Morris lived together in Manchester for nine years as up-and-coming water polo players. Now Wilcox, like Morris, plays abroad, for Spanish club Mataro (near Barcelona). Two of her club team-mates will line up against her for Spain tomorrow.

The talk in the Travelodge has to be about the future, not least because it’s reassuring to hear that nobody else knows what they’ll do either.

Last-minute begging secured just enough funding to carry on until June’s European Championships, although the players will not get paid for that. Beyond June is a mystery for most.

Wilcox wants to play for an Australian team and maybe get into teaching. Right winger Aine Hoy will stay and plan her wedding in Manchester, where centre back Hazel Musgrove has interviews next month for jobs.

“I’m clueless,” admits Morris. “I based everything on the fact I’d be going to Rio. I haven’t even got a job slightly lined up. I had things planned out till 2016 – now I’ve got a month, then I’m unemployed.”

Staying up late, chatting with old friends and team-mates, makes things easier. Desperate for British television whenever they come home, three of them are in Morris’s room, watching One Born Every Minute. “We’ll put on any old crap.”

The evening evaporates in gossip, memories and old jokes. When Morris thinks to check the time, it’s already well past 11pm. “Shit, we’re playing tomorrow. Bed time.”

She usually finds sleep hard, the night before a game, but not tonight.

“Normally I’d be sat up watching video of old matches, stressing about the game. But the guys left my room and I was like, hmm… bed. There was no pressure. No-one was expecting anything of us.”

 

2

 

2

Tuesday morning

 

Kostas Vamvakaris moved to Britain last September as the new coach of British women’s water polo.

“The role will need a lot of work and real trust,” he warned in a press release announcing his appointment. But he was confident enough to move his wife and two-year-old son to Manchester, and he signed a three-year lease on a house.

Not only that, he left behind a good job as assistant coach of the Greek men’s team. Greece is a relatively strong water polo nation -  the men finished ninth at London 2012, the women won the 2011 world title - and the sport is popular there.

The British gig, though? Head coach was a promotion.

Straight away, Vamvakaris felt the British had a problem defending. It was an issue he could correct, if only he could get some meaningful time with the players. Gone was the centralised programme which kept the players together for London 2012 – now, with everyone spread across Europe, training time was at a premium.

“We had a game against Russia in December,” remembers Chloe Wilcox. It was Vamvakaris’ first game in charge. “We had two training sessions before the game. That was the first time I’d even met him.”

The team liked what they saw of Vamvakaris, and that made a refreshing change. Their last full-time coach had been a Hungarian named Szilveszter Fekete, appointed in 2007. By the time he left in April 2013, some felt he had outstayed his welcome.

“Szilveszter definitely knew his stuff but he just couldn’t communicate it with us,” says Wilcox. “If Szilveszter had carried on, I’m not sure how many players would have carried on. I think people had reached the final straw.”

An interim coach had briefly replaced Fekete but the players found the arrangement ‘chaotic’ - tactics, especially, were hard to come by. Not so with Vamvakaris. That was the last criticism you could level at the Greek.

“He’s honestly the most tactically aware coach I’ve ever come across,” says Wilcox. “He’s incredibly intelligent in the way that he understands the game – but the Greeks are renowned for that.“

Vamvakaris brimmed with ideas, enthusiasm and an impressive intensity. Without funding, though, he would have to leave.

Faced with that news, Vamvakaris had pledged to remain with the team until it disbands after this summer’s European Championships. That commitment earned him yet more respect, not least because it meant turning down the offer of his old post, back in Greece. That was a bold move, with a young family and a three-year lease to his name, in what promises to become a water polo vacuum.

Kostas Vamvakaris with the GB team
Kostas Vamvakaris during his first game in charge of GB.

Stillsport

“Kostas… it sounds like a cliche, but he’s a breath of fresh air,” says Rosie Morris, the British captain and goalkeeper. “Kostas knows everything, plus he can communicate it so well. We all know exactly what he wants. You ask a question and he’ll give you such a precise answer – tactically, he’s brilliant. He’s been so, so good for us.”

When, on Tuesday morning, the entire British squad jumps into the water at the same time, it’s because of Kostas. Vamvakaris has instilled a regimental atmosphere. He believes it is the small things which build a team so, after 15 minutes warming up on dry land, the captain gives a countdown and everyone dives in on cue.

If you don’t wear the same clothing as your team-mates to training? Kostas is unimpressed. If you’re a second late with a move in training? Unimpressed.

After an hour of sprints, passing and shooting, the British are just leaving the pool as the Spanish players begin to arrive.

 

3

 

3

Tuesday afternoon

 

Spanish water polo has undergone a revolution.

Spain’s women did not even qualify for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, yet they won silver at London 2012.

A year later they became the world champions, having finished 11th the last time around. It was the first world title they had ever won.

In January, Britain’s women played the new world champions – but lost the game before they had even jumped into the pool. Psychologically, nobody could get past that phrase. We’re playing the world champions.

“We went in giving them way too much respect,” recalls Rosie Morris. “We would give them 10 seconds with the ball, and they could pick where they were going to shoot.”

Spain won 13-5.

In water polo, there are four quarters of eight minutes each. That’s why, when old housemates Wilcox and Morris went for a pre-game lunch with Rosie’s mother, Wilcox said she’d be happy if they only lost by five goals that night.

“It sounds quite bad,” Wilcox admits now, “but I’d have been happy with five. That’s not bad against a world-class team – if you lose by four or five, that’s only losing each quarter by one goal. In water polo terms, to be within five goals is still a relatively close game.”

Morris said a three-goal defeat would be more like it. Her mother was horrified at this negative talk, but the two players insisted they were only being realistic. This, after all, was Spain – a team whose players could almost be called celebrities in their home country. They even acted like A-listers.

“With teams like Spain, they’re the world champions and Olympic silver medallists but none of them are friends,” says Morris. “They are players who happen to be on the same team. Some of them don’t even speak to each other when they’re out of the pool, it’s so bizarre.

“We were centralised for so long that we all became really good friends, but other teams say that is so rare – especially for a national team – to all be that close.”

If you need an example of that close team bond, look no further than Fran Leighton’s book.

Leighton, now 32, had been the British team captain at London 2012 but retired the following year. She missed the 2013 World Championships through injury before announcing her retirement, depriving team-mates of the chance to give her a send-off.

Leighton would be there to watch tonight’s game, so this was an opportunity to put that right, and a lot of thought had gone into it. Morris had been working on a book of memories for Leighton since November – written recollections and photos from a decade or more in top-level water polo, carefully arranged and ready to be presented after the game.

Well, perhaps not quite ready. “It was frantic, finishing the book off,” says Morris, who enlisted Wilcox and Ciara Gibson-Byrne to help on Tuesday afternoon, adding stickers and arranging photos.

“People don’t understand, Fran has been around us for so long,” explains Wilcox. “There’s a picture of her with Angie Winstanley-Smith, when Angie is 15 or 16, and Fran’s got Angie on her back. They both look so young.

“There were loads and loads of pictures in that book, and messages from everyone in the water polo community. We were a bit emotional about it.”

Emotions would soon run higher.

When Graeme Thompson became the team’s performance director, in 2013, he introduced ceremonies before each game to hand players their caps. Thompson comes from a rugby background, where such things help to bring a team together and add a sense of pride.

For each ceremony, Thompson finds someone different to present the caps. Today he had chosen Adam Murphy, the team manager, because Murphy would be made redundant the following week. Murphy had been one of the staff members searching for jobs – unsuccessfully – at the Commonwealth Championships.

Being handed your cap by someone losing their job, with your own future anything but certain, is a hard way to prepare to face the world champions.

But Susan Dale, the team physio, was ready for this: she had a Creme Egg ready for every player. Something small, to lift the spirits.

The small things make a team. That’s what Kostas said.

 

4

 

4

Before the game

 

Kostas Vamvakaris did not have to look far for his team talk.

Think of what this game could mean, he told his players. Think about the funding. Think about UK Sport, and the statement it would make if you win the game.

“And he said we had to start well,” remembers Rosie Morris. “When we played Spain in January, our start ruined it. But now we had nothing to lose and we had to hammer the first quarter. Kostas kept going on, and on, and on about defence.”

Chloe Wilcox remembers feeling relaxed, at first. “There was no pressure. It was a nice atmosphere and, if this is our last home game ever… We knew that. Enjoy the moment and make the most of it. But nobody was thinking we were going to win this game.

“We’ve been in that position a lot of times, where there has been no pressure. And we haven’t won.”

British results since London 2012

Date Result Event
21 Jul 2013 GB 9-14 Canada World Champs
23 Jul 2013 GB 7-13 Greece World Champs
25 Jul 2013 GB 4-16 United States World Champs
27 Jul 2013 GB 5-14 Hungary World Champs
17 Dec 2013 GB 9-12 Russia World League
16 Jan 2014 Ukraine 3-17 GB Euro qualifier
18 Jan 2014 Israel 3-19 GB Euro qualifier
18 Jan 2014 Netherlands 13-7 GB Euro qualifier
19 Jan 2014 GB 14-8 Portugal Euro qualifier
21 Jan 2014 Spain 13-5 GB World League
18 Mar 2014 Russia 20-13 GB World League

Only later, during the national anthem, would voices crack as the realisation set in: this was the last home game.

Players picked out faces in the crowd. Morris saw her old club coach, Gordon Dacre, who looked impressively healthy as he recovered from stomach cancer. Whole families were up there, in the oppressive heat of the balcony (water polo fixtures often involve punishing humidity for spectators).

One person not present was David Sparkes, the chief executive of British Swimming. Sparkes had not endeared himself to the team when British Swimming decided not to appeal the water polo funding cut. In some cases, that dislike ran deeper.

“David Sparkes hadn’t come to watch and that was a first, I think, that he hadn’t even bothered to turn up,” says Morris. “It showed British Swimming had lost interest.”

Sparkes had, however, been to watch the team’s European qualification tournament in the Netherlands three months earlier – before the funding cut. He had spoken to the team before one of their games.

“He started by saying something like, ‘I don’t really understand water polo, I don’t understand the rules… and I know you don’t, either.’ He thought it was a really funny joke,” recalls Morris. “We were there thinking, ‘Are you taking the piss? It’s your job to know water polo and you’ve just made a comment like this.’

“It was the world’s most cringey speech. Everyone does some good impressions of him since that meeting.”

Players say Sparkes had even felt the wrath of Vamvakaris, in a confrontation at the Commonwealth Championships.

“I think it had been frustrating,” explains Wilcox. “Graeme, the performance director, had been looking for this perfect head coach and putting together the staff – we have a brilliant rapport with our staff, whereas we never used to get on with our head coach – and then the next minute they’ve taken the funding away, and everyone’s been made redundant.

“So Kostas is livid. And we saw him take David Sparkes to one side. Kostas is laying into him, going crazy, European-style hands everywhere, really close to his face.”

“There was some Greek expression,” adds Morris, laughing at the memory. “He pointed at his crotch and walked off. We all stood there like: ‘What’s he just done?’

“I’m not sure that’s done us many favours with David Sparkes, but I’m not sure we need them any more.”


5

 

5

The game

 

Feelings about the funding cut run high. So do feelings about Spain.

Britain’s women met Spain in the quarter-finals at London 2012 (there being only eight teams, all eight reached that stage).

Spain won a surprisingly close game 9-7, and might have been in considerably more trouble had Britain not missed a vital penalty. Two goals were the difference between ‘finishing last’, of eight teams, and ‘reaching the semi-finals’.

That result lingers in the memory, but there is a personal edge, too. Some Spanish and British players know each other very well.

As Chloe Wilcox emerged for the game, two members of her club side – Mataro – were lining up for Spain: Marta Bach and Ona Meseguer.

“Marta came over to me and said something about me being really white and having lost my tan,” laughs Wilcox. “I called her bumface. In Spanish. Cara de culo.”

So far, so light-hearted, but Wilcox’s relationship with Jennifer Pareja – voted the best player in the world last year – is a little trickier.

Pareja, 29, plays for Sabadell, near neighbours and big rivals of Wilcox’s own Mataro. Sabadell are dominant. They have won all but three of this century’s Spanish league titles, alongside the past seven cup finals.

Pareja and Wilcox face each other fairly frequently and they share the same role: they take the swim-off, the start of each quarter in which one player from each team swims to the centre. Whoever gets there first, gets the ball. It’s a specialist position and losing that race can hurt.

“Jenny is the queen of swim-offs,” admits Wilcox. “She’s renowned for it. But, for some reason, I can beat her – and I know how much it pisses her off, which makes me want to beat her even more.

“It’s a personal battle between us. I remember one time, she beat me on three swim-offs in a row. When I won the last one, she gave me a little pat on the head under the water. A little sympathy pat. ‘Well done.’

“I was like, you little shit.”

Rosie Morris observes: “Their rivalry has maybe passed the friendly stage.”

Inside the Manchester Aquatics Centre, the game begins. Kostas Vamvakaris berates his team in one last, quick pep talk: defence, defence, defence.

Now it’s Wilcox versus Pareja at the swim-off – and Wilcox wins.

Not only does Wilcox win the swim-off but, after one quarter, Britain are winning the game. They are 1-0 up, which is improbable on two counts – it’s unusual for a water polo game to be so low-scoring, and shutting out Spain is an impressive achievement.

“For them not to have scored any goals against us is crazy,” Wilcox remembers thinking. “But come on, let’s keep this going, keep this going.”

By half time, the score is 4-1 in Britain’s favour and we are approaching uncharted territory. All the work on defence, the coach’s mantra for months, is working. Britain’s new strategy, combining zonal defence with a late press up the pool (something few others have tried against Spain) has given them the upper hand.

“Kostas is buzzing, but we’ve still done something wrong. Nothing is ever perfect in his eyes,” says Wilcox. “But that’s good.”

Morris, in goal, keeps thinking about the Commonwealth Championships. The final was only days ago – England beat Canada, but it was close. England were winning by five goals in the final quarter, then fell apart and only scraped home by a goal. That served as a warning.

To lose now would be typical Great Britain, coming so close to a great result, only to miss out by a single goal.

“We’ve had so many games against top teams – Greece, Spain, Holland, Italy – where we’ve lost by one goal. Don’t let this be one of these again,” Morris prays to herself.

With a couple of minutes remaining, Spain have roared back into the match. The score is tied at 7-7 and Morris’s fears are proving entirely founded.

Wilcox can already imagine how it will go after the match: “We’re going to lose by a goal and everyone will say we had a good game, blah blah blah, well done. That’s how our water polo careers have gone.”

Perhaps not tonight. Ciara Gibson-Byrne scores a penalty to restore Britain’s lead and, with time running out, the Spanish foul again. Vamvarakis barks from the poolside that he wants Wilcox to take this penalty.

'They’ve picked me out, they say they’re going to set players on me and beat me up'

“Normally Ciara would take it, but she’d already taken two and scored them both,” explains Wilcox. “Sometimes, if you take too many, the goalkeeper might read where you’re going to shoot it.”

As Wilcox prepares to take the penalty, her swim-off rival, Jenny Pareja, appears.

“It’s a silly little thing, but I’ve got the ball in my hand, and then Jenny keeps knocking it out of my hand. I had to ask the referee to move her farther away.

“Perhaps it’s a good thing that she distracted me. I didn’t have time to think. I kicked up, the goalie had already started to jump, and I shot the other way.”

Wilcox scores.

“I did a fist-pump, which is unusual for me, and I made eye contact with their goalkeeper. Apparently I’ve now become the most hated player from the Spanish girls’ point of view.

“My team-mate in Spain said, ‘Jenny hates you because you beat her.’ And the girls from Sabadell have said they’re going to ‘get me’ in the (domestic Spanish) play-offs. They’ve picked me out, they say they’re going to set players on me and beat me up. It’s a bit pathetic, but it’s good that we’ve rattled them like that.”

Morris, at the other end, makes a save moments after Wilcox’s penalty and suddenly realises Spain are running out of time.

“I clocked, as I saved it, that it meant we’d won,” she says. “And I did this horrible fist-pump. I’m getting absolutely ripped by the girls. There have been so many jokes about it.

“But they didn’t see the one I did before, when Ciara scored. Kostas had said he wanted to see more passion when we scored, so I jumped into the air, but I’d drifted back into my goal. I absolutely smashed my hand on the crossbar. My hand was agony. I remember thinking, please let no-one have seen that.”


6

 

6

After the game

 

“We celebrated like we’d won the Olympic final.”

Britain won what may be their last-ever home water polo contest, defeating the world champions 9-7.

“We’ve been through so much over the last three or four months. It’s been horrific,” Angie Winstanley-Smith told a reporter as her team celebrated.

“We’ve had to look at our lives totally differently. To come away with a result like that shows you the strength of character we have. We’re not just a water polo team, we’re a family.”

Chloe Wilcox saw that interview later. “Angie summed it up perfectly. It wasn’t that we’d beaten them, it was what it meant to us and the team; what it showed to everyone out there who doesn’t believe in us.

“I genuinely don’t believe we would have won that game if they hadn’t cut the funding. It gave us something extra to fight for.”

Players began crying the moment the game ended. Rosie Morris swam the fastest length of her life to join her team, at the other end of the pool.

A post-match meal had been booked at Jamie’s Italian in Manchester. With so many staff due to be made redundant, the plan had been to eat out and celebrate old times, regardless of the result.

The team eventually rolled into the restaurant an hour late. Wilcox could not even eat her prawn linguine and chocolate brownie. She had no appetite, too much else was going on.

Former captain Fran Leighton received her book, the result of months of loving hard work, to rapturous applause. She broke down in tears, and Morris felt momentarily guilty, but it was clear Leighton loved the gift.

Kostas Vamvakaris, having witnessed the defensive performance of his life, could afford to relax.

“Kostas was so chuffed with us,” says Morris. “We wanted to do it for him. He’s part of the family.

“We’ve all accepted what comes next. Even if UK Sport somehow changed their minds, I don’t think that decision would be made till September or October, so the funding couldn’t come in till April or May next year.

Karaoke after the match
Karaoke after the match.

Courtesy of Rosie Morris

“People have to find jobs. Even if we won the Europeans, I think it’s too late. If they reinstated the funding, there wouldn’t be much of a team left by then.

“That has made the decision for me. Now, it’s time to move on to the next part of my life.”

The GB team moved on: to a karaoke bar. There, they performed Spice Girls and S Club 7 hits until the owners switched off the music, late into the night.

No music proved no obstacle.

As their finest day ended, the team stood on karaoke bar chairs and sang God Save The Queen.

“We won,” laughs Wilcox. “Isn’t it amazing to be able to say that? Nobody can take that away from us now. We beat them, and we’re proud.”

Read daily Olympic sports news updates at Frontier Sports.

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