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Meet the Belfast women who have combined their high flying careers and world class netball

The sport is fast becoming one of the most followed in the UK. Here, two NI trailblazers tell Leona O'Neill how they balance their careers with playing for prestigious clubs in England

Fionnuala Toner in action for Northern Ireland
Fionnuala Toner in action for Northern Ireland
Net gains: Niamh Cooper in the Mater Hospital
Fionnuala's graduation at Chartered Accountants Ireland
Fionnuala Toner playing in the International Netball Festival in Antrim Forum: Northern Ireland V Botswana.
Playing for Northern Ireland
Niamh Cooper

Niamh Cooper is 27 years old and from north Belfast. When she is not setting the court on fire she is a locum doctor at the Mater Hospital in Belfast. She recently signed for Surrey Storm, who play in the English Superleague.

"I started playing basketball when I was really young through primary school," she says. "Then I went to Dominican College, Fortwilliam, and started playing netball.

"The school put me up for trials at regional level and underage national level and I ended up really loving it.

"I never thought in a million years that netball would be something that I could do and be paid for it. When I was at school, my goal was always to play in the senior Northern Ireland team. I played in the junior team and under-19 teams, but I always had that dream.

"I ended up in the senior squad when I was in lower sixth in school.

"And at that point I thought to myself, yes, I can definitely do this. But the professional stuff has only really come about in the UK in the last couple of years.

"And in those last couple of years I have been working full-time as a doctor after getting qualified and I didn't really have an opportunity to pursue it. But I've got to the point now where I am working as a locum, working part-time, and it is more realistic for me.

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"It's only been in the last couple of years that I've realised that I can play at a higher level."

Niamh Cooper

Niamh now works as a doctor during the week and is also able to play semi-professional netball. She says the game has really thrived and grown in the last number of years.

"I'm not fully professional, more semi," she says. "I am paid for playing but you couldn't live off it. For me, it just covers my travel expenses to and from London to play. So I have to work at home in between times to make a living.

"But a couple of years ago there was no money in netball at all and if you wanted to play over in England you would have had to pay for it all yourself. So there are massive improvements in the game in the last few years.

"Australia is where netball is the biggest," she says. "They have fully pro players. It is probably heading that way in England too, but not just yet.

"Playing fully professionally is not something that I have let myself really think about. I really enjoy my job, I love it, so I don't know if playing fully professionally is something that I would do. But I suppose if I was offered it, I would never turn it down. It is a dream in itself, but it just seems so distant that it wouldn't be something that I have ever let myself think too much about."

Playing for Northern Ireland

Niamh, who has won 52 caps for Northern Ireland and made four starts at this summer's Netball World Cup in Liverpool, previously played at the 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games and captained the Under 21 side at the 2013 World Youth Championships. Surrey Storm snapped her up in the summer.

"We had the Netball World Cup in July and I performed quite well in that," she says. "And off the back of that there was a bit of talk about whether or not I would be interested in playing in the Superleague.

"A few years ago I was approached by a team in Northumbria and I had to turn it down due to work commitments, I just couldn't have worked it out. So knowing that work was going to change for me in August, and knowing that it could work out for me this time, I had a few conversations with the coach at Surrey Storm and it all worked out quite nicely.

"Going to a Surrey Storm game is like going to any professional sport, there is an entertainment factor to it.

"There will be a lot of social media coverage around it and when they are calling the players out there are videos of them. It's all hype. At international level, I've had that for a few years now, and it is probably one of the more exciting parts of the whole thing, but it's only a small part of it."

Niamh says that to play at the top level, a tough training regime must be followed. And it's not for the faint of heart. "At the moment I am working one or two days a week in Belfast," she says. "I work on a Monday generally and on a Tuesday I fly over to London and train on a Tuesday night, a court session. On Wednesday I do a running session on my own, the same on a Thursday. And on a Friday I fly back and I train with Northern Ireland then at the weekends. It's non-stop.

"Sometimes it is a little mad but I have a little bit more free time than I would have had as a doctor. I'm lucky enough that I have a job that allows me to be so flexible."

Net gains: Niamh Cooper in the Mater Hospital

Niamh says she hopes that one day female netballers will be on a par with male footballers in terms of equality of pay and she has high hopes for the future of netball in Northern Ireland.

"Even the fully professional netball players in Australia - who are on a good salary - wouldn't be on anything near what the professional male footballers earn," she says. "I think they are on perhaps £40,000 a year. I would like to see all sports on a level playing field. At the end of the day male and female sports should be treated exactly the same.

"When it comes to sponsorship and financial gain it should be equal. I do think it's heading in that direction. It's definitely not there at the moment.

"To play for Northern Ireland at the moment, it's not paid. In fact we fundraise a lot and pay out of our own pockets to play for Northern Ireland. You do it because you love it as opposed to any financial gain. Last year as a fundraiser we organised camps in primary schools across Northern Ireland."

She says she and other high-level netballers have a responsibility to get the next generation engaged in the sport.

"Last year we went into schools and did coaching and met the children," she says.

"We noticed that, along with the Netball World Cup being so well advertised on the TV, participation levels have massively increased at junior level.

"I do think we have a massive responsibility to get kids involved.

"And when I think back to when I was at school I used to look up to the PE teachers who were playing at the time and thinking 'wow, if only I could play as well as them'.

"We have to remember that when we are playing, or when we are on social media, we have that responsibility in the back of our minds."

South Belfast native Fionnuala Toner is the vice-captain of the Northern Ireland netball team. The 29-year-old, who is audit manager for Deloitte in Dublin and a chartered accountant, was signed for Team Bath in the summer.

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Fionnuala Toner playing in the International Netball Festival in Antrim Forum: Northern Ireland V Botswana.

“I started playing netball in grammar school,” she says. “I went to Our Lady’s and St Patrick’s College in Knock and it was a school sport.

“I played for the Belfast Ladies Netball Club’s junior teams and senior teams and was selected for the Northern Ireland U17 team when I was 15 years old. I represented Northern Ireland at the U17 Europeans for two years and joined the senior squad in 2009 and got my first senior cap in Nations Cup 2009 in Singapore.

“I’ve since represented Northern Ireland at two Commonwealth Games and two World Cups.

“I am currently on 84 caps and am vice-captain of the Northern Ireland team.

“I’ve played for Team Northumbria in the English Super League, with London Pulse in their inaugural year in the now Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) and this summer I transferred to Team Bath for the 2020 VSNL season.”

Netball takes Fionnuala all over the world for tournaments and in any given week she finds herself jet-setting off to training and games.

Fionnuala's graduation at Chartered Accountants Ireland

“As I live in Dublin, I travel for training or games,” she says. “For Belfast Ladies and NI training it is a drive home to Belfast.

“For Team Bath and the VNSL, I travel for training and games. I travel to Bath once a week — usually on a Thursday morning and we have training on Thursday evening and then a Friday morning gym session with our strength and conditioning coach. If there are weekend sessions, I will stay for them and if not I would fly home Friday afternoon.

“I think being able to play international or semi-professional sport is not something that everybody gets to do.

“So, when I started university and then work I always juggled it with studies and life, so I didn’t know anything different.”

Fionnuala says she is constantly working to improve her game as well as juggling a high-powered career.

“Thankfully I have a very supportive employer,” she says. “The nature of my job allows me to work remotely if required and so I can be in Bath or elsewhere in the UK and still work.

“It can be challenging at times and requires a very organised diary and some planning.

“I have successfully completed my professional exams and I am now a manager in the financial services department in Deloitte, all while playing netball for Northern Ireland and semi-professionally in the UK so it is doable.

“I am not sure I would manage a week where I had to be in the office nine to five all five days at this stage.”

Fionnuala believes that the Netball World Cup has definitely heightened the profile of the game in the UK.

“I think the success of England in the Commonwealth Games in 2018 followed by a World Cup in the UK provided a huge platform for the sport on this side of the world,” she says.

“The momentum created from 2018 through to this summer was huge and the World Cup in July had sold out crowds every day.

“As a player it was a fantastic event and the atmosphere around the city over the course of the tournament was incredible.

“I think netball is continuing to grow and it is great to see. In Northern Ireland we have PwC NI as a sponsor and Vitality are the main sponsors for the superleague in England, both of which are just fantastic and something we want to see continue.

“Sky Sports have been providing expanding coverage and I think for the general public to see more netball on a weekly basis will only grow the game and the support.

“I think the sport will continue to grow. It would be great to see it in the Olympics, although I would be gutted if I missed it as it won’t be in my playing career.”

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