You get the distinct impression, after an hour of conversation, that “no” is not a word which Colyn Gordon responds well to hearing.
The 6ft 5” Brummie, who lived in Jamaica for much of his childhood, is a familiar face (and voice) for netball supporters across the UK, with his encouragement (and sometimes less favourable comments!) booming from the stands at club, Superleague and international games. Over the past 25 years or more, he has carved out a respected place as a coach, player, adviser and commentator across the game in the United Kingdom.
His story has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, with adversity, serious illness, rejection and finally redemption woven into it – so how has he managed to navigate his way to a situation where he received a Lifetime Achievement award from the England Mens and Mixed Netball Association at the end of 2021, despite men’s and mixed netball being overlooked by the national governing body for many years?
Gordon started playing back in Jamaica in 1979 – as he explains, high school sports there have no gender and, having decided that cricket was not for him, he took to netball “like a duck to water”, with his reach and deadly accuracy under the post marking him out as a formidable shooting opponent.
On returning to the UK at the end of the 80s, he sought out a club to play for, but was frustrated by the lack of opportunities for men. Invited to play by coach Audrey Thorne at Westovians NC, Gordon joined the club’s men’s section and recalls fondly how the side took a 15-14 victory in one of the first male netball tournaments held in the UK, over the National side. At that point, National was the only men’s’ club acknowledged by the AENA set-up (albeit unofficially). Colyn joined their ranks, and the side was soon invited to assist the England national team in preparation for major tournaments.
In fact, Gordon has played against England under eight different head coaches, and has seen a stark change in the playing style and ferocity of the team as the game has professionalised. “Each coach has added something new to England’s game,” he explained, “with the intensity of play increasing every time a new squad is selected.
“(Former England captain) Kendra Lowe (now Slawinski) was my first real battle, and I loved the challenge of facing her low flat passing, instead of the aerial game which the taller men’s’ sides used to rely on. She was a fierce, tenacious defender who was mobile, tall and strong. As the game become more professional, so did National’s preparations for our training run outs against the girls – no more late nights, more training and more focus. England definitely made us more professional as they improved their own standards.
“England has always had a reputation for strong defensive units, and I’ve taken it as a personal objective to overcome the physical and mental challenges which they posed for me,” he continued. “Sonia Mkoloma and Amanda Newton really upped the pressure on me from the word go, and I found them really ferocious to play against – they tried to trash-talk me and get into my head, but it never worked.
“Meanwhile Geva Mentor is at the other end of the spectrum – a smiling assassin who laughs one minute and is then deadly serious in the contest in the next.”
Gordon kept playing and in 1998 was selected in the England Nets mixed netball team to face a touring Australia party. The Aussies gave the home side a lesson in fitness and focus, and as Gordon says, that was a wakeup call with England taught a valuable lesson in training and pre-match preparation. Gordon and the England side trained hard and, by 2012, had turned a 110 goal loss to New Zealand in 2000 to a two goal margin at the men’s Netball World Championships in Australia, an England team which Colyn describes as the “best prepared” he has ever been part of.
In 2012, Gordon was diagnosed with cancer but, in typical fashion, refused to slow down for a moment, discharging himself from hospital treatment to play in a practice match against Surrey Storm. Unfortunately, the rigours of the game took their toll and he collapsed on court but, with typical Gordon fervour, remembers thinking, “If this is how I go, then this is the way to do it.”
Thankfully he recovered but realised that his days of contributing physically to the development of the game he loves were over – and so he switched to coaching full time.
Blessed with an astute netball brain and great communication skills, Colyn had already dabbled in coaching, volunteering to support Botswana U21 at the World Youth Championships in 2005, a team he describes as ‘sponges’.
“They were so willing to listen and learn, and I’d like to think that I made a huge difference to their final position in the competition. It proved to me how much potential there is in the developing nations, if only they could receive the support and encouragement from the larger nations – countries like Uganda (who I worked with in 2019), Botswana and Namibia are the sleeping giants of our sport and, with a little encouragement, could really challenge the top teams which can only be good for the future development of the game.”
In 2017, Gordon volunteered his services to the Alberta state team, at this point the lowest performing team in Canada, and for the first time they defeated Ontario – one of the country’s powerhouse sides – the Canadian national championships, through a regime of on and off court training which was totally new to the squad at that point. At the same time, he was working with fledgling men’s teams both in the UK and Jamaica, despite challenges with management in the English netball world.
“When I started playing, men’s netball wasn’t really talked about over here, and yet the standard was relatively high. I’ve been honoured to work with the first men’s’ team in Jamaica, the Beagles (named after a British touring team which featured the England GS Chris Maylor), and also the Vauxhall side over here to encourage new standards of play across the men’s’ game, and the recent men’s national championships showed just how far the game has come in this country.
“I’ve played with some true trailblazers over the years – names like Kunkel Blaine, Derrick Barnes, Derrick McCarthy, Dalton Hinds, Chris Campbell, Terence Peart, Ian Root, Colin Hill, Jaimie Holden, Marc Benoit and, most recently Chris Green: all men who have taken our game forwards and refused to be dismissed or sidelined.
“There’s still a long way to go, but the 2021 UK National Championships showed how much talent is out there, and the potential for the development of the game in this country is huge, especially now that England Netball has welcomed men’s and mixed netball into the fold.”
Gordon received a Lifetime Achievement award from the England Men’s and Mixed Netball Association at the end of the 2021 championships, a recognition he describes as ‘extraordinary’.
“As the citation was read out, I didn’t immediately recognise all the things I have achieved. The award wasn’t just for me, though: it was for all those I’ve played with and coached before. Netball has been there for me in my darkest times and got me through, and now I am forging forwards with new enthusiasm.”
So, what’s next for the man who seems never to stand still? As well as coaching a club side in North London, and totally changing their fortunes over the course of two seasons, Gordon still has his eye on potential international honours. “I enjoy the challenge of taking ordinary players and helping them to become extraordinary,” he said.
“Everyone has something to give and something to learn, and I think I can definitely change the fortunes of a second-tier international side – I just need someone to give me an opportunity. Why not?”
International governing bodies – stand by your phones. No one would bet against Gordon being on a team bench at the next World Championships.
For more information about the England Men’s and Mixed Netball Association, please visit https://www.englandmmna.com/