SWNT – Malta Mission Accomplished!

Senior Women's VictoryOn the 14 August 2011 the Senior Women’s National Team Squad held a meeting at Stirling University. The purpose of the meeting was to map out the vision for the next 10 years and to identify the steps that would require to be taken if the overall vision was to be achieved. The theme was about raising the bar. It was a really positive meeting and everyone in the room bought in to what was being presented.

In situations like these it is often very easy to agree to what is being asked. However, once the reality sets in and it becomes obvious what it all means in terms of hard graft, sacrifice and commitment the euphoria disappears. Success comes at a cost.

The CEV Small Countries Division Qualification Round in Malta was the first major checkpoint on a 10 year journey. Its significance as a defining moment in the Senior Women’s National Team Programme cannot be underestimated. It was crunch time.

The Squad flew into Malta on Thursday evening arriving at our base in Slienna around 9.30pm much to the surprise of some of our opponents. They clearly thought we had made a mistake arriving so late. In actual fact the players were well rested having had a good sleep at home the night before, meeting up at Prestwick at 2.00pm and having a three hour direct flight. In comparison to some previous journeys it was almost ideal.

Our first practice session was due to be held on the competition court at the Cottenera Sports Complex between 8.00 and 9.00am. The minibus was due to pick us up at 7.00am to take us the 10km from the hotel to the hall. It finally arrived around 8.20am. The key thing for us to realise here was that we had no control over the transport. While we expressed our concerns there was no point in getting upset. We needed to stay calm and focused.

Senior WomenPractice was very light with most time spent on service. The most obvious feature of the hall was the heat. At this time of year the average temperature in Malta is normally around 25 degrees. It so happened that they were in the middle of a heat wave and the outside temperature was 35 degrees. It also transpired that the sportshall did not have air conditioning. No matter what anyone else thought this was going to have a major influence on the tournament.

We returned to the hall at 12.00pm as the build up to our opening match against Liechtenstein began. The Liechtenstein Coach had been in Luxembourg for the Novotel Cup in January and so we knew he had some idea of how we might play. But we also knew he had seen some of our worst performances at that time and that we had moved on considerably.

As both teams lined up for the National anthems the announcer couldn’t get our anthem to play. The pause was quite uncomfortable and so spontaneously the Scottish squad burst into an acapella version of ‘Flower of Scotland’. Was this an omen? The opening exchanges of the first set were a little cagy as both sides looked nervous. Liechtenstein edged ahead before Scotland gradually began to take control to lead 8-7 at the first technical time-out. Scotland continued to build on this advantage and opened up a 6 point gap at 13-7. Liechtenstein fought back to 13-14  before Scotland reached the second technical time-out 2 points to the good. Back came the opposition to bring themselves within 1 point at 17-18. Scotland were looking shaky at this stage and it was no surprise when Liechtenstein crept ahead 21-20, but the Scottish players demonstrated great resolve when they roared back to clinch the set 25-22.

Liechtenstein controlled set two from the outset and kept their noses in front until Scotland began to score more effectively and reached the second technical time-out 16-15 ahead. Once the lead had been established there was no stopping the Scots and they raced on to take the set 25-18 and open up a 2 set to 0 lead in the match.  Set 3 was dominated by the Scots and for the third time in succession they reached the second technical time-out in the lead. But Liechtenstein were not going to lie down and they rallied back to grasp the advantage in the key final moments of the set. At 24-22 to Liechtenstein it looked as though we were heading into a fourth set but the girls thought differently. Two further points levelled the score only for Liechtenstein to win another match point. Again, the Scots levelled and this time scored the next 2 points to take the set and the match. A really critical result which put Scotland in the qualification driving seat.

Ireland were next up against Cyprus who were our next opponents. While the Irish girls played as valiantly as they could they were no match for the Cypriots going down 3-0. The Cypriots did enough to win but we had a feeling we might see a different team the next day. In the final game of Day 1 Liechtenstein defeated the hosts, Malta, 3-1.

And so to Cyprus.

As we had suspected they raised their game a few gears and showed a level of hitting weight that they had not displayed against the Irish. Scotland matched them at the net and defensively we played tough. Leading 8-6 at the first technical time-out the Scots were then put under some sever hitting pressure from the Cypriots. Gradually the pressure told and they began to edge away. Scotland hung on and continued to score big points but the gap was too much to close and the first set was lost 16-25.

Cyprus started a bit slower in set two which Scotland quickly capitalised on. They raced to an 11-4 lead and the Cypriots looked stunned. A change of setter stemmed the tide and again the Cypriots made in-roads into the Scots lead eventually levelling at 13-13. The consistency of the Cypriot hitting meant that they were scoring more frequently and while Scotland worked hard to match them they ran out of steam as Cyprus took a 2-0 lead in the match (25-16). Scotland looked a little punch drunk at the beginning of set three as Cyprus scored with relative ease. With the score 6-16 at the second technical time-out it looked as if the bubble had well and truly burst but the Scots rallied a little to bring a degree of respectability to their performance. Cyprus finally scored the point they needed to win the set 25-16 and the set 3-0 but they acknowledged that they had been in a bit of a contest.

The other results that day saw Ireland lose 3-0 to Malta, Cyprus maintain their unblemished record by beating Malta 3-0 and Ireland suffer a heart-breaking 3-2 defeat against Liechtenstein.

The final day arrived and the situation was very clear. Win both our games that day and we would qualify. Anything else and then it would be out with the calculators. Our third game was against Ireland who we had already beaten in Dublin back in October 2011. While they had played an exhausting match against Liechtenstein only the night before and would have very little physical reserves left we knew they would play with the spirit that typifies all Irish sports teams.

But there was also another factor. The temperature inside the hall when the game started at 10.00am was 29 degrees with over 50% humidity. It could only be described as oppressive. What bearing would this have in the final outcome of our two games?

Other than a slightly untidy phase at the start of set one the result of the match was never in doubt. While Scotland didn’t quite reach top gear they were always in control and comfortably secured a 3-0 win (25-16, 25-17, 25-19). It was down to the final game against Malta.

After the Ireland game the girls were clearly drained. We needed to recover and recover fast so it was a case of returning to the hotel after the game finished at 11.30am, taking in lots of fluid including electrolytes, some pool recovery work and rest. But would we have enough time to recover because we needed to be back on the bus at 2.00pm?

Following our game, Cyprus beat Liechtenstein 3-0 to win the group. The result also meant that we only needed to win one set to qualify. This was never discussed with the players. The focus was on what we needed to do to win the match, no more, no less.

Malta played some very tactical volleyball serving tough and blocking well and they did enough to take the opening set 25-23. But one of the major changes in this Scotland team has been their resilience and their calmness in the face of adversity. During the change between sets one and two the girls made it very clear they were not going to let this game go. The result? They blew Malta off the court in set two winning it 25-13. We had clinched the set we needed to qualify but it was never mentioned. All that was discussed was what we still needed to do to win the match. Set three was a little more even with Malta edging things if anything but as the set moved into its final third Scotland took a firm grip and closed it out 25-16.

In set four it was becoming clear that the Sottish girls were beginning to show the signs of fatigue in the sweltering heat. They began to make more mistakes, served with less effect and allowed Malta to take control. To the delight of the home crowd Malta took the fourth set to take the match into a tie-break. All the work that the Scotland squad had put in over the past 16 months came down to one 15 point set. Again, the girls showed real maturity in their attitude during the break and as a collective they decided that this final set was theirs. The opening plays by the Scots stamped a mark on the set and their superior hitting weight established an 8-5 lead at the turnaround. The lead was never relinquished and despite a slight hiccup at the end secured the final point to win the set, the match and qualification by points won.

For those of you looking in I’m sure you will agree that this is a very commendable achievement. The results speak for themselves. What you won’t be able to see is the complete change in a group of players who 6 months ago in Luxembourg had little belief in themselves. But I have always stressed that what the players did, no matter how small, was an investment in the bank. Over the course of the three days that investment paid dividends and the girls became true international players.

However, while the plaudits go to the eleven players who stepped onto court they were only able to achieve what they did because of the work and support of the girls who were either not selected or unavailable for selection. This has been a true squad effort and will continue to be so. The journey goes on as we can now look ahead to a return to Malta in 2013 where we will face Malta, Cyprus, Luxembourg and San Marino.

My final message is to all the girls in the squad….

You have just raised the bar!

Craig Faill
29 June 2012