Sheffield Hatters see light at end of the tunnel after a year of inactivity for famous WBBL club

The latest in our series looking at sport in lockdown puts the spotlight on women’s basketball. Nick Westby focuses on the damaging effects suffered by the cash-strapped Sheffield Hatters.

Sidelined: Jess Southwell. (Picture: Mansoor Ahmed)

WHen she trudged off the court after suffering defeat to Derbyshire Diamonds on March 9, 2020, an 18-year-old Jess Southwell could not have envisaged that a year later she would still be waiting to return to action with her Sheffield Hatters team-mates.

Southwell had been playing basketball with the Hatters since the age of 10, had represented three junior teams as well as the senior team in the Women’s British Basketball League, even winning silverware for them.

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“Probably the best day of my life,” she reflects, ruefully, of the 2019 WBBL Trophy victory.

She had dropped back to the second team in National Division Two to get some more time on the court, not knowing that the thing she treasured most in her life was about to be taken from her.

Two weeks after that defeat, coronavirus forced Britain into lockdown and the Hatters have not played since.

Basketball is back, as all sports are now, but the story of what has happened to the Sheffield Hatters and the women that serve them – most of them voluntarily – is a salutory one in what are still uncertain times for many sports.

Hatters, the founding members of women’s basketball in Britain 60 years ago and its most successful team, had to withdraw from the WBBL when it restarted in the autumn because they could not find the £60,000 needed to fund them for the full season.

Battling on: Sheffield Hatters win the 2019 WBBL Trophy (Jess Southwell, No 17)

Initially distraught, many of the senior players pledged their loyalty to the club by saying they would represent the second team. But when basketball at that level was prevented from going ahead, it forced many players into a decision: look elsewhere or leave basketball behind.

Some players joined rival clubs, others went abroad in search of competition.

Southwell, who was just starting the second year of a teaching degree at Sheffield Hallam University, decided she had to put her basketball career on hold.

“I remember back at the start lockdown was supposed to be just a month,” she reflects.

Star: Georgia Gayle.

“So that was the most difficult thing, realising that it was going to be a lot longer process than we were first led to believe.

“It’s been really tough going from training three to four times a week and then playing games at the weekend, to no basketball at all. From your body being in such physical demand to then being off the court completely has been extremely strange.”

The Hatters have tried to keep their 80 or so members engaged with online fitness and training sessions that have “helped with the motivation”, says Southwell, but nothing can replicate the adrenaline-surge of competition.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though.

Sheffield Hatters coach Vanessa Ellis has had to find work in Austria (Picture: Ian Anderson)

With lockdown measures beginning to ease from Monday and as part of the Government’s road map allowing a return to outdoor sports, Hatters will resume in-person training sessions on the park across from their gym at All Saints School on Tuesday night.

“It’s going to be hard to believe we’re back out there because a year is such a large part of your life especially when you’ve been doing it for nine years,” adds Southwell, who has no bitterness about matters out of her control.

“Even though it has been a year, I’ve definitely not lost my enthusiasm for the sport.

“If anything I’m more enthused because it’s been such a massive part of my life for so long and to have it taken away has just made me even more eager to get back on the court.”

Conducting the junior sessions on Tuesday and Thursday evenings will be Loraine Gayle, whose mother Betty Codona is the woman credited with launching the Hatters back in the early 1960s.

“It’s crucial we get people back together and into some kind of routine,” says Gayle, who reveals over 50 per cent of members did not engage in the online activites. “We’ll lose clubs because of this pandemic, not just basketball clubs but also how many kids have been disengaged by these restrictions and lockdowns?

Georgia Gayle playing for Westfield Health Sheffield Hatters

“We don’t know how many will come back. That 50 per cent that haven’t engaged electronically, hopefully once we say right we’re back in action, they’ll come back.”

Gayle’s own daughter Georgia Gayle is one of the Hatters’ most successful graduates, having gone to university in Florida for three years.

She came back after the first lockdown struck and was willing to play in the Hatters second team until they were denied game time, prompting her to take a professional contract with Valencia in the Spanish league.

Other players have joined WBBL rivals while another of Codona’s daughters and a Hatters and Great Britain coach, Vanessa Ellis, has taken a job coaching UBI Graz in Austria.

Ironically, she is getting paid to coach basketball but hopes to be back in Sheffield volunteering with her beloved Hatters soon.

“It was a difficult decision but I wasn’t doing anything back in England,” says Ellis.

“Everybody was impacted in some way and had to find somewhere else to play this season.”

“The Hatters are trying to get back into the WBBL but it’s the same old story – finance. We need £60,000 to pay for players, courts, referees.

“When you look at other clubs in the league they’re supported by universities or investors. We’ve got nothing of that.

“In a city the size of Sheffield, how can we not get a couple of companies giving us support?”

Lorraine continues: “We seem to have a lot of goodwill, but that’s got to translate at some point into money. Until it does you cannot live on goodwill. It gets increasingly difficult every year to sustain the level of funding.”

While the sisters and the Sheffield club’s committee lobby for financial support, Southwell and her team-mates across two senior teams and five junior teams can at last get back to doing what they love this week, hopeful that a famous community club offering women’s sport can re-emerge.

“The Hatters is not just about basketball, as cliche as that sounds, it is a family,” says Southwell. “It’s not just the sporting aspect you get out of it, it’s the places you go, the people you meet, the confidence you get.

“I definitely think we’ll get back to the WBBL. Being the most successful women’s club I hope this isn’t the end of the road.

“But it’s a difficult time. A lot of clubs are going through the same thing, especially women’s clubs, but hopefully we’ll get there in the end.”

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