Kerry Almond 2017

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Kerry Almond almost joined the police when she was 19. Can you imagine a Manchester Thunder without those impeccably timed intercepts?
 
“I got to the final rounds of interviews for the police, but they thought I needed a bit more life experience. Maybe I can try again when I retire. If my body isn’t completely broken,” recalls Almond. “I always wanted to join the RAF but the way the world has gone in the last 15 years, it put me off.”
 
It may be difficult to believe, but despite being one of the most vocal players in the heat of battle on court, Kerry is noticeably reserved and quiet off it. She counts her mentor and team-mate early-on, Julie Lewis, as a vital ‘old head’ in front of her in goal defence, in ‘taking a season’ to get Almond to talk on court.

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Although naturally private, Kerry credits netball for giving her confidence and bringing her the most joy in life – and one man in particular, Mike Greenwood. Every Thunder player in this feature series has mentioned the former Oldham and Thunder coach as having a significant influence on their netball career. And Almond certainly doesn’t hold back in her praise and gratitude, as she explained the exact impact Mike, who died in 2011, had on her and others. She said: “I was lucky in the coaching I had through my youth. Mike constantly pushed me to do more and then he gave me the Oldham captaincy at 20 or 21. Mike was good at feeding confidence in players. He recognised if players needed shouting at or just an arm around their shoulder. There was a point where Mike said to the attackers during a coaching session ‘you can’t throw those balls when Kerry is in the circle’ and that’s when I realised I must be ok at netball. Mike was pivotal to where I am now. I would be a different player if I hadn’t had Mike coaching me from 12 right up to when he passed away.”
 
Mike’s ability to inspire reached further than just Oldham and Thunder, though, with most of the north west sitting up and taking notice of the former Army sergeant, who was as meticulous and dedicated to his coaching as he was to his time in the armed forces. He had such a hand in anyone who came through the Oldham pathway and to a certain extent Thunder and the North West set up,” Kerry, 31, explains. “Players like Jade Clarke and Sara Bayman – they probably wouldn’t be the same players they are today without him either.”

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After toying with playing on the wing and then even at goal attack, Kerry settled at keeper. Her 10-year partnership with Emma Dovey has continually been one of the strongest in English netball’s top-flight ever since they first stepped on court together. “It was 2007 and Emma was only 17.. and we’ve played together since then,” the Netball UK office manager remembers. “There have been ebbs and flows but we know each other inside out and I do shout at Emma but she’s used to it. Whatever happens out on court, stays there.”
 
The balance of experience from Kerry, Emma and Liana Leota balances out the youth, especially in the attacking end of the court for Thunder. And Almond recognises her responsibility to help nurture the less experienced players. She said: “In a game, if we need experience or settling down then that usually does come from the defence end because usually the shooting end is quite young. It helps to build confidence through the rest of the team that they know one of us will come up with an intercept in the dying moments to win it or take the other team out.”
 
After a disappointing 2016 campaign, which saw Kerry suffer serious injury, then fight her way back to fitness only to spend most of the latter stages of the season on the bench, she was ready to throw away her ankle supports for good.
 
The Oldham-born star was at the lowest she had ever been. But one thing changed her mind. Her coach’s faith. “I wasn’t going to come back, Karen (Greig) got me to stay. She made me realise that I had more to offer. Sara Hale also text me and said ‘we need you back.’ “It’s so nice to have a coach that’s got confidence in me. Last year with my injury and coming back towards the end of the season, and not playing. I felt like I didn’t have the support behind me.”

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Thunder are the queens of the comeback, and not many other players will have experienced such ridiculous ups and downs than Kerry. But with such dramatic, pressure-cooker, last-second wins like the Grand Final in 2014 or the agonisingly close fightback losses to Surrey Storm in last season’s Grand Final at the Copperbox or against Loughborough Lightning a few weeks ago, it’s a solidarity and solid mental strength that is installed in the Black and Yellows that makes them different from the rest. “We are mentally strong and that always gives Thunder an edge,” the Liverpool FC fan declares, without apology. “As a squad, we are always close knit and the core is always from the region or the city and that makes a massive difference. We’ve been lucky enough through Mike, Tracey Neville, Dan Ryan and Karen to have coaches who have had a strong mental attitude. We always head into a game knowing that this team won’t beat us easily and they’ll have to work hard if they do and that showed in the Loughborough game this season. In the final quarter we were seven down and we went straight to 10 then came back like a steam train. That was our own mental strength where we said ‘you’re not having this game in front of our fans’. We didn’t quite get there as the time ran out but we believed and so many other teams would have given up.”
 
Due to the upheaval in the off-season across the Superleague, which included a number of players leaving, Thunder were installed as underdogs for the title. But that didn’t bother Kerry and her team-mates. And they are proving those naysayers wrong now as they find themselves one win away from securing a play-off place. What happened in the off-season was incredible.  But we are fighters and we believe in each other. No one gave us a hope at the start of the season.”
 
There is very little money in netball here in the UK, unless players are lucky to gain generous sponsorship deals or be part of one of the more lucrative franchises. Putting it bluntly, playing netball is still a hobby for the majority of the Thunder squad. Kerry makes a very valid point. She added: “You do it for the love of the game, the friendships and confidence in other aspects of my life. You have to love the feeling you get out on court and something goes right and people are screaming at you from the crowd. You are playing with your mates. We are volunteering to do this. We’re not flushed with cash and don’t have money to throw at players to pay them so a lot of players still have to work and it is purely for the love of the game and I think that gives us an advantage.”
 
Netball’s growing popularity delights Almond and she takes her role as an ambassador for the sport seriously, with the players being approachable and open to selfies and signing autographs with young fans an integral part of being a Superleague player. But there is still a long way to go. She said: “If we can encourage kids to take up the game and more importantly not quit when they are teenagers, then we’ll have done a good job. I want to see netball in the broadsheet newspapers. Forget football, rugby and cricket, there’s never any netball. Netball has to go more commercial. It’s a day out for the fans and I am seeing more families coming, including dads who are actually choosing to come. It can only be a good thing that we were the first team to have a proper mascot. We are the trend setters.”
 
So, after a career that has included playing for England, countless Premiership titles with Oldham and Two Superleague titles for one of the country’s most respected keeper’s ever, what is next for the former Oldham Hulme pupil? “I want to win another Superleague, to make it three, that would be amazing. That would be it for me. I don’t want to say I’ll play until we win it again, we’ll have to see what happens this season.”

Report by Denise Evans :: Photos by Mark Pritchard