Back with a bang, Georgia Gayle hopeful Hatters can hit the ground running on WBBL return

By Jamie Thomas

On the Diamond Anniversary of the club’s foundation, it wouldn’t be right if the Sheffield Hatters weren’t taking to the floor to contest the 2021-22 WBBL Season. Thankfully, we will be seeing the legendary Hatters franchise returning to our courts this coming year, as the club has worked tirelessly to get ready for what is already a historic season.

Betty Codona OBE founded the club 60 years ago, and her granddaughter Georgia Gayle was one of the first signings confirmed for the Steel City club’s landmark season. We caught up with Georgia recently to discuss the thrilling term that lays ahead.

“It was very important for us to have the club back in the WBBL this year for a number of reasons – the anniversary being one – but also for my Nan, Betty, who founded the club back in 1961, and she has worked non-stop over the last year to find funding to make it happen.

“I get up in the morning and she’ll already be working, phoning people, trying to sort out this or that in terms of funding, and we’ve literally had to pull her away from the computer for a little break all the time.

“She’s done everything she can to make this happen and she’s so happy to have the team back, as are we all to be back together as a family, just to celebrate this for everybody that has been around the Hatters for so long. This year is a big celebration for all of us, and we’ll be working so hard to make sure we end it with some silverware.”

“I wouldn’t have this life or have travelled the world if it wasn’t for her.”

An incredibly successful franchise in the history of the British game, Codona won dozens of national titles with the Hatters in her time on the touchline, coaching over 500 games, before her daughter Vanessa Ellis took over in 2009 and has returned to the Hatters as Head Coach for this milestone season.

Legacy is a word that crops up in our conversation with Gayle, as she discusses the atmosphere at the club and her pride in representing her family.

“I think the family feel of the Hatters is what sets us apart from other clubs. A lot of players that we’ve had over the years always say they miss it like mad when they leave us and just want to come back, and even with the new players now they’re completely taken by the family feel of the club.

“Playing for my family is always special, so I’m very excited for this experience especially after a few years away. My game has changed since I was last here, and I’m excited to show what I can do. There are a lot of new faces in the league, but we’ve got a good team and the challenge is something to look forward to and we’re in a positive position to be successful.

“It is very special to me to be able to continue to the family legacy. Honestly, my family and so on are all involved in this club for ourselves and because we want to be, but a huge part of it as well is because we want to be here for Nan. I wouldn’t have this life or have travelled the world if it wasn’t for her, so this season is definitely for her.”

“We’re always going to be aiming to be at the top.”

With vast roster changes across the WBBL and entirely new teams and returning teams being added to the mix, it is impossible to predict how the 2021/22 season might develop.

The Hatters have a history in the Women’s game that is unmatched, and Gayle is confident that the team can compete at the top of the table.

“I’ve kept an eye on the league over the last few years, definitely. The powerhouses are still the same in Leicester and Sevenoaks, but obviously London have put themselves up there as well which has been great to see, and also it has been really encouraging to see teams like Essex though come in and make their mark.

“As for expectations for ourselves, given who we are and our history, we’re always going to be aiming to be at the top. London, Leicester and Sevenoaks are going to give us very good competition, but like my family has always said, when you get out there it is only five on five – we’re not playing the whole 12 players – so if we play our best defence and give it our all then we’ve got a chance.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on defence at Hatters, and this year will be no different, so we definitely want to be challenging. It is going to be such a competitive season, the talent bar has risen so much, but I expect us to be up there with the top teams for sure.”

“I think for once on the court I’ll have a smile on my face.”

There’ll be plenty of emotions for all in the Hatters organisation when they do take to the court again for many reasons, and Gayle – who normally shows an unfazed expression on the court – admits the emotions may prevent that from being possible this time.

“I’m ready to go, there’s no nerves or anything, my adrenaline is going to be rushing. I think for once on the court I’ll have a smile on my face because normally I’m quite blank when I’m playing, but to be back on home court with family and friends watching, I can’t wait for all of it.

“We’ll have played against Newcastle and Cardiff before the competitive games get going, and we’ve seen last year what is possible if you have a great work ethic and chemistry in your group. Its inspiring to all of us, makes everybody raise their game, and makes the league so competitive.

“I hope as much as being successful on the court, we can inspire people to get involved in basketball again, particularly young girls who either tend to move more towards netball or they play basketball until their late teens and then not continue to play after that for every reason, so we want to be role models and inspire them to strive to play in our WBBL team in the future.”