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The NSL Files: Manchester Thunder

The NSL Files is a series looking in depth at moments and memories of the Netball Super League in years gone by. The first in the series focuses on Manchester Thunder’s name change from Northern Thunder and what it led to.

What is in a name? 

For Manchester Thunder, changing theirs did not change their identity, it strengthened it.

It set them on a path that has seen them become one of the most recognisable and successful Netball Super League teams in the country without ever losing sight of where they came from.

In 2013, as reigning NSL champions, Northern Thunder became the Manchester Thunder we know today and with it came the building of a community.

It was not always like this, in fact, the name change has a fractured beginning.

A Thunderstorm brewing 

Tracey Neville, David Jennings and Debbie Hallas hold the Super League trophy

Debbie Hallas has always been an innovator.

A stalwart of Oldham Netball Club, she was dissatisfied with the lack of netball-specific kit and equipment so she decided to do something about it.

She set up Netball UK in 2000 while pregnant, using her maternity leave to create the business before giving up her job and devoting herself to it fully.

Netball UK is now the UK’s largest independent netball retailer in the country and proved that Hallas is no stranger to taking a gamble and having it pay off.

Her next bet was on Northern Thunder.

In 2008, the North West franchise were rock bottom of the Netball Super League when Hallas travelled out to the ‘back end of nowhere’ in Liverpool to watch the side play.

She brought Mike Greenwood, the founder of Oldham Netball Club, with her and the two decided something had to change.

Northern Thunder team

“We went to watch and there were less than 50 people in the crowd,” Hallas said. “We struggled to find it and we knew we weren’t watching the best netball players from the North West.

“Oldham were a very successful team in the National Premier League, but our players didn’t want to play for the coach that was at Thunder at the time.

“There is always politics involved in netball, but this is the top league in the country, so we said, ‘We can’t see it like this, we need to try and change it.’”

Hallas and Greenwood’s initial solution was to put in a tender for a rival North West franchise, but they were told two teams in one region would not work.

This strong-willed pair knew they had to do it themselves.

She continued: “Knowing the pathways in the North West, there were plenty of players coming through but there were quite a few players that were playing elsewhere.

Jade Clarke had already become an England regular by the time Hallas took over Thunder

“The likes of Jade Clarke and Sara Bayman had gone away to university, but they didn’t have an option to come and play for a team back home.

“The old owners of Thunder actually offered to then sell it to us. The deal was next to nothing, but we paid off their debts, took it over and have run it from there.”

Thunder crash the party 

The 2008/9 season saw the club move to Bury with a number of new faces involved including current head coach Karen Greig and defensive legend Kerry Almond.

A sell-out crowd of 500 people cheered in the new era, which saw the team move up to seventh recording six wins to the previous season’s one.

From there the team kept climbing, reaching the play-offs for the first time in their history in 2010, losing by just a point in the semi-final to Hertfordshire Mavericks.

The next season saw them break into the top two as they moved from Bury to Gorton, inching closer to the centre of Manchester.

For Almond, it was a signal of intent in another way.

She said: “It was a step up in terms of crowd and it was great to bring it slightly more central which then made it a lot more accessible to more people.

“We went from being able to have about 300 people and then being able to get 1000 people.

“It was great for us as players to have that step up in atmosphere and to have fans on both sides of the court as well, which we hadn’t really had.

“It was that signal of intent of just getting bigger and better.”

Another semi-final followed in 2011, with more heartbreak as they lost to Surrey Storm before eventually, their first title came.

In 2012, former player Tracey Neville took over as head coach after the passing of Greenwood left a hole that only another legend of netball could replace.

Neville guided the side to the play-offs where they defeated Hertfordshire Mavericks in the semi-final before winning a thriller over Surrey Storm in the Grand Final for their first-ever title.

Becoming Manchester Thunder 

Northern Thunder had climbed to the summit of the Netball Super League but Hallas wondered how many people actually knew.

“I actually did some market research,” Hallas said “And asked people within netball and outside of netball ‘Northern Thunder, where do you think they are from?’

“And we had anything from Glasgow, to Leeds to Sheffield. Manchester was in there, but there were all kinds of different answers.

“We realised nobody knows where we were from. We had to rethink our strategy and an alignment with a big city helped the likelihood of gaining sponsors and being more commercially viable.

“It was really key for us to have that identity.”

The move of venues to Wright Robinson College in Gorton was part of a desire to commercialise the franchise and increase its attractiveness to sponsors, the name change was a vital piece of the puzzle.

And while Almond admits that players were not consulted about the name change, their only fear was quickly allayed.

She said: “The management would have weighed the pros and cons of changing the name but I don’t think the players really felt that too much.

“Because for us, it was more about being Thunder and it being black and yellow so as long as we retained that part of the identity, we didn’t really feel it too much.”

The people who felt the change most keenly were those in charge of the counties that make up the North West.

They had helped get Thunder up and running under Greenwood and Hallas and were worried about being forgotten.

Hallas explained: “They thought we were going to focus on Manchester.

“We had to explain to them that we actually become bigger and stronger with this identity, but we’re still representing the whole of the North West region.

“And if we’re stronger then we can help, support and work with you even better, but without that, we’re going to struggle.

“We knew it was those people that we needed to win over so we just had to explain the reasons behind it.”

With the counties on board, the name change itself was simple: the registered company stayed as Thunder Netball UK, the limited assets Thunder had were due a refresh anyway.

But the impact was huge and unforeseen, changing the landscape of netball in England.

Thunder back on top 

In the new Manchester Thunder era, Neville’s side again made the play-offs but a defeat to eventual champions Team Bath ended their 2013 campaign at the semi-final stage.

It was a positive start to life as Manchester Thunder but the best was yet to come.

The club would have their revenge over Team Bath the next year as the two met in the 2014 semi-finals as Wright Robinson hosted a thriller.

Thunder overturned a third-quarter deficit to dominate the final quarter, clinch the win and set up a final with Surrey Storm that followed a similar pattern.

While Thunder took a one-goal lead in the first quarter they again found themselves staring at a deficit with 15 minutes to go.

The Grand Final went down to the final seconds as, with the game tied, Jodie Gibson forced a turnover which found its way to Helen Housby who sunk the winning goal to crown Manchester Thunder champions for the first time under their new name.

The two play-off wins were full of the Northern grit now so often associated with the side and if people had previously not got the Manchester Thunder identity, they got it now.

In 2015 the name change really paid off as the undefeated Thunder hosted their first-ever game at Manchester Arena.

Hallas said: “It’s always exciting when you change something new, and you’ve got that motivation to ensure it succeeds as well.

“Sometimes it’s good to have a freshen up and it was just exciting to see where we could take it from there.

“Within two years, we were then hosting events at Manchester Arena. We wouldn’t have been able to do that previously. The name change enabled us to do things like that.”

The record crowd in the arena that night saw Thunder suffer their only defeat of the season as Hertfordshire Mavericks beat them in the semi-final.

Nevertheless, Thunder continued to be ever-present in the play-offs, but what they were doing off the court was just as important.

The Thunder community 

The record crowds, the Super League titles, attracting star names – that would have never been possible without important community work.

Almond said: “The community side of things is something that we’ve always done really well at Thunder through the years.

“I think that’s something that we definitely did when we became Manchester Thunder, it was something that was incredibly important to us and still is.

“We do like to work really closely with the clubs in the area. We are aware of where we are based and we help out with underprivileged children to just try and get them in to watch them and hope to start taking part in netball.

“It’s important for us to not only improve ourselves but also the local communities.”

Manchester Thunder are part of the beating heart of a community that spreads across the North West, and as their pathway players fly the nest, they spread that spirit across the country.

North West players can be found in most NSL sides up and down the country, and dominate Thunder’s side for the 2023 season.

Hallas added: “The North West is a very strong region for netball and sometimes it’s so competitive that players have to go elsewhere to get the court time.

“If you look at the amount of people that are playing for Thunder this season that have come through our pathway, there’s only the two South Africa internationals that haven’t. When you look around other teams, you don’t necessarily see that.

“And then there is the amount of our pathway players that are in other franchises. If you look at where all the athletes are from across every franchise, a huge percentage would be North West athletes.”

The Thunder way 

Ten years on from the name change, there are no regrets, as Thunder have added three titles, including going undefeated last season.

For Hallas, the move to align with Manchester has helped them to be a leading club in the Super League with the highest average attendance last season as well as topping the charts in terms of social following.

Thunder will once again try to lead the way when they take on Leeds Rhinos on Sunday at the AO Arena, they need 6,000 fans to pack in to break the record.

If they do it, it will be a culmination of over a decade of hard work, and a true reflection of the Northern grit that runs through everything the club does.

“There’s a lot of Northern grit and resilience, that’s the way you are brought up, particularly within sport,” Hallas said. “It’s ‘big girls netball’ as our coach used to say.

“There’s no messing or pampering, you have got to get on and work.

“And if you want to be a part of it, be a part of it. That’s what’s led to a lot of the success at Manchester Thunder.

“We’re just no nonsense, really.”

Buy tickets to Manchester Thunder’s game against Leeds Rhinos here.

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