“A mixture of basketball, netball and futsal”: Introduction to DU Handball

By and

One of the key factors that made Durham University named Sports University of the Year by The Times was the huge breadth in sport that it offers. One of those is handball — a sport popular in mainland Europe, but less well-known in the UK. We sat down with DU Handball’s club captain Sophie Granville, men’s B team captain Tom Melling, and new player Ozzy Agyapong Beach to discuss how handball is growing at the University and across the country.

Handball is a high-scoring, fast-paced team sport where players attempt to score goals by throwing the ball into the opposition net. It is often end-to-end and never short of exciting moments. “That’s the big thing to get used to”. Tom tells us. “A full match is an hour long and you’d expect getting around one goal a minute so you get many high scores and that can be a weird thing to get used to”.

He also described the sport as “fast, exciting and a sense of togetherness”. This has been something that the University team has tried to introduce to its newest members. In recent years it has developed from a team that would “struggle to get teams for matches and train in Hild Bede without goals” to “being selective with who we want to play”. Sophie points towards an increase in the number of UK students taking up the sport.

“We started about six years ago, but the team was reliant on Erasmus students. I joined three years ago but that was the first year with a women’s team, but it has just grown and grown. Now we have enough for four teams: two men’s and two women’s and now because more English people are getting involved, it means the team can progress more, because people are staying for three or four years at university”.

Sophie is the first ever female club captain at DU Handball and this season marks the first time that both the men’s and women’s teams have had supplementary B teams. They have worked closely with DU Women in Sport and Team Durham to ensure that the sport gets more publicity. “My drive this year is to make the women’s team more well known. A lot of people have been messaging the account asking if it’s just men who can get involved:.

“DU Women in Sport, which started this year, has helped too. We have been tagging them a lot when we are doing women’s only stuff so that gets on there as well”. Unfortunately, this season has been one of transition for the women’s team, but the speed of development with new players has been very encouraging viewing.

“We beat York for the first time at the end of last term and at the beginning we didn’t expect to see that much progression. We’ve got so many players this year and I didn’t expect that”.

My drive this year is to make the women’s team more well known

The men’s team are currently competing in Division One, with the aim to consolidate their place in their league. However, the B team have their eyes on not only promotion, but also winning the Division Three title.

Given that this is their first ever full season, that would be an outstanding achievement. For the A team, they have the excitement of competing in the National Cup, having progressed in the first round back in November.

“We have entered the national cup for the first time, that’s not a university thing; that’s like handball’s equivalent to the FA Cup. We have the next round of that in a month so that’s exciting as well”. This, combined with BUCS fixtures for all teams and the Summer Cup (which will feature universities from across the country) provides plenty of landmark matches over the coming months.

For the A teams, the focus is on success. However, for the B teams development is paramount. “It’s the first year we’ve had a proper B team, so that’s quite exciting which, similar to the women’s, mainly has people who haven’t played before, so it’s been about development, getting them used to playing the sport. We’ve been playing lots of friendlies which helps get experience”. Players are not only attracted to the sport but to the social side of the club too.

“Because people are really enjoying it, they are staying to be part of it even if they’re not necessarily good at the sport or are still improving. That’s attracting others and people have just brought their friends in because it is a nice welcoming environment as it doesn’t matter how well you play so long as you want to turn up and people hear about it through that.

“For handball, the skill level in the UK is a lot different to in Europe. It’s a lot more beginner friendly which has helped a lot. It means that anyone can come along and play at a competitive level which is amazing as you can bring someone along”. The attitude that the country has towards handball shows how it is helping to grow the sport from all levels.

“It’s definitely growing in England. We’ve had quite a few schools in Durham and County Durham approach us wanting us to coach them because they want us to help them start out and I know that England Handball Association are starting to push handball in schools and there are lots of clubs and it adds to the quality levels”.

It is a nice welcoming environment as it doesn’t matter how well you play so long as you want to turn up

“As everyone gets better that’s when it’ll start to grow as there is more reason to publicise it. At the moment no-one really knows about the national cup or the league. But, as we get better, people will think it’s more worth their while”.

“The GB men’s team has just got further than they ever have done before in the Euros qualification, so it is growing at the highest level and the lowest level. As people hear more, they start to watch it and it is a very exciting sport to watch so that will just help with the exposure”.

So, what makes a beginner good at handball? “I’d say if you have any sort of athletic ability, you’ll already have some advantage. If you can jump high, run fast and if you are agile, you’ll be good. Obviously if you can throw and catch the ball that’s more than ideal. Getting in initially, athleticism is good. A lot of the movement is similar to other sports. If you’ve played rugby before, your footwork will be good”.

However, goalkeeping in handball is a different matter. Goals are common, and attackers almost always have the upper hand.

“This year the women’s goalkeeper played football and, whilst she knows how to play in goal, she says it’s so quick and said, “they’re scoring so many goals.” Because handball is such a high scoring match having the ability to play in goal is about changing the mindset”.

Contrary to football, handball matches tend to become higher scoring as the quality of the players increases. “At a low level, you wouldn’t see a lot of goals. If you’re good at handball it’s almost impossible to stop the ball”. Whilst players are not allowed to shoot in the D, the ability to throw the ball with such power and accuracy means that most close-range shots are unstoppable.

It’s just the main sport I play. I’ve ditched the others

What makes DU Handball stand out amongst other Team Durham sports and other university level handball teams? Sophie certainly had a more unorthodox route into DU Handball. “Me and my friend first started because we wanted to get stash! I lived in Brunei, and we played handball, but it was a different sport there”.

“We went along but it wasn’t that sport, but I stayed because people were nice and, in that year, it was quite an international sport. It was a really nice group of people and having so many international students made me feel more at home. Now though, it’s just the main sport I play. I’ve ditched the others”.

Ozzy points to the diversity of players that you get in DU Handball as a key reason why it has such a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. “It is also very inclusive and diverse in the sense that we’re from many different countries. Asia, Europe, Latin America to name a few, so anyone can come along and find someone who’s got a similar background”.

Handball at Durham evidently caters to all levels of players and is starting to attract social members too, despite being handed some tricky training hours to make. “It’s the first year we’ve had 7am training sessions twice a week but people are turning up which I didn’t expect”.

Even some people have come along and not particularly liked the sport but have stayed on as social members. “There’s no problem with that. And 7am sessions aren’t compulsory! We train every day except Saturday, so there’s plenty of opportunity to come along!”.

Handball certainly is growing in the UK, both amongst players and spectators. Durham is at the heart of this growth, with even Ozzy hearing about Durham’s set up when he was studying at Bangor for his undergraduate degree. However, there was certainly one selling point that stood out above the others: “If you want DU stash, this is the society for you!”.

Image: DU Handball

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