in conversation with Clayton Goodwin
Ama Agbeze has unprecedented qualifications for what lies before this summer. Birmingham. Netball. Commonwealth Games. For all of these her experience is uniquely relevant. Ama was born and raised in Birmingham, and still lives there when her many professional duties aren’t taking her to the Southern Hemisphere, for several years she has been one of this country’s outstanding netballers, and four years ago led the national team to winning the gold medal when this competition was last contested. In addition to so much she retains the enthusiasm of a fan, allied to the personality and tact of a diplomat. No wonder that a year ago Ms Agbeze, 39 years-old, was appointed to the Board of Directors for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in her home city in August, and to Chair the Athletes Advisory Committee. To round it all off Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, presented her with the MBE at Buckingham Palace.
That’s not bad going for any-one, but for somebody who had been a nervous starter it is quite outstanding. That is true. The star player, who, as much as anyone has symbolised a Golden Age of England netball, achieving success in both attack (shooter) and later defence, wanted to be a track-athlete in her younger days. Unfortunately, she was too nervous in lining up at the start, and found greater confidence in a team-sport where every-one started together. Ama’s international career culminated in her leading the England Vitality Roses to Commonwealth Games victory in an extremely tight finish against Australia – the “old enemy” in netball as in several other sports – on their own patch in 2018.
On the eve of the final Ama rallied the team with the call “It’s our time. We are ready. We’re completely together – It’s us. It’s now”. And so it was. Ms Agbeze was expected to lead the host nation in the World Championship in Liverpool the following year, but was waylaid by a knee-injury she picked in Jamaica that terminated her international career. Whatever was the court-of-play’s loss, became the microphone’s gain. Even as I am writing this piece, Ama has been commentating on the Quad Series 2022 in which England’s netballers matched the performance of their country’s male cricket team by collapsing in the closing stages to lose against Australia in the final.
Let us, for the moment, leave Ama Agbeze’s playing career – the details are well-known and can be found in the record books – and concentrate on what she has to say about the Commonwealth Games.
“Sport, and these Games in particular, are an opportunity to bring people together and celebrate the Commonwealth” she told me. The competition has its own family atmosphere which is not always possible with something as large and amorphous as the Olympic Games. Ama’s enthusiasm for the Commonwealth is genuine. She has played in/against the leading countries and keeps a close, and sympathetic eye, on the performance and progress of the principal teams and their players. It puts her in an almost unique position to answer the obvious question …..
Who’s going to win?
As our conversation was conducted over the phone, I could not see Ama’s blushes and dutifully ticked the England Vitality Roses as the favourites. (Well, we do want her legacy to be continued). It wouldn’t be plain sailing, however. With admirable prescience, remembering that this was said on the day before the Quad Series final was decided, Ama felt that just by being their hard, determined “normal selves” the Australians could make things very difficult for every-one. Nor could the chances of New Zealand be left out of the equation. After all, the Silver Ferns are the world champions. Then there are the South Africans, whose recent uneven performances could be put down to losing services, through maternity and injury respectively, of their three leading players.
Ama was adamant that Jamaica should be added to the nations with a good chance of success. “They are an ever present threat and will be fuelled by the celebration of Jamaica’s 60th anniversary of independence the very day that the final is due to take place?”
“Well, yes” Ama continued. She noted how England’s achievement in overcoming the tough Southern Nations last time round had inspired some of the other countries to believe that they could do the same. I do remember her warning against complacency when England faced Uganda in a home series not all that long ago. She said then: “The She Cranes are growing in experience and confidence. I think people may be surprised if they think that the series is won already. (They) play with athleticism yet poise, and we’ll be looking at building pressure across the course of the game to force them into error”. The main problems holding back some countries, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, is not ability or commitment but the lack of equipment and difficulties in travel and getting time off from work.
As for the Commonwealth Games, themselves, in Birmingham in August. We could all say:
“It’s our time. We’re completely together”. And we would be right.
It will be quite an occasion.