19th May 2022
A top flight English handball club has added its name to the record books after winning both the men’s and women’s championship for the first time in its history.
North East Manchester Hawks Handball Club, known as NEM Hawks, claimed the men’s Premier Handball League title in their final match of the campaign with a win over Olympia in April.
Earlier this month, they added even more silverware courtesy of their women’s side, defeating Olympia by 33-20 to win the trophy.
Donna Hankinson coaches both teams alongside Sue Whitehead, and the duo have made more history for their club by becoming the first female coaching team to have managed a men’s and women’s team to lift both titles.
Donna said: “Winning both titles is a brilliant success for our men and women who have put in so much hard work following what’s been a difficult couple of years for our sport.
“We’re absolutely delighted at this success, which really gives us something to continue to build upon for the future.” The victories mark the pinnacle of a journey which started back in 2010, when coaches Donna and Sue came together to form the club and introduce handball to their local community.
“We started with both girls and boys at the same time so winning our 1st senior titles in the same season really completes the circle,” said Donna.
“We’d been involved in handball as both players and coaches but felt there was real lack of opportunities for young people in the North West to play the sport.
“Sue and I founded the club in 2010 with a focus on the community, and the reception was fantastic with lots of young people attending for sessions not just once or twice, but week in week out over the years.”
Handball fever had taken hold at the club’s bases in Oldham and Rochdale, which soon attracted players from all across Greater Manchester, and just two years later, some found themselves playing supporting roles at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“London 2012 was a massive step forward for handball in the UK, and when we found out about opportunities to be there, we knew it was important for our young players to see handball at a top level,” said Sue.
“We were able to play our part in handball at the Olympics, with Sue working for LOCOG as Handball Services Manager and NEM Hawks juniors working as Young Gamesmakers at London 2012, alongside Donna who was a Team Liaison volunteer.”
Nearly 10 years on, some of those juniors have now gone on to win the Premier League title with NEM Hawks, which Donna and Sue point to as a true success story for the legacy of London 2012.
“The Olympics was an inspiring time for everyone, and we went on to have a lot of success at junior level, winning competitions and at the same time seeing our young players develop into talented handball athletes,” said Donna.
“Over the years, we’ve had a number of players develop onto a high level of handball, for example playing for Great Britain and excelling for their clubs at university. Several Hawks players were in the first cohort post 2012 to do AASE (now DiSE) and left the UK to spend a season playing at a handball academy in Aarhus, Denmark.
“What felt special was many players returning to their home club after university or games elsewhere, and I put that down to the family feel at the club, as we’ve all worked and played together for so long, it’s been a real journey that we went on together. We have worked hard on developing the person not just the athlete.”
NEM Hawks’ talented teams would eventually earn promotion to the Women’s Premier League in 2014 and Men’s in 2016, going up against some of England’s best and brightest sides, and flying the flag for the North West.
Sue said: “Becoming a Premier League club was a real challenge but one we relished as it came with travelling to the likes of Nottingham and London to go head-to-head with established clubs – we always had to travel the furthest and battle the hardest, the women and men had finished runners up a couple of times and in 2020 (pre covid) we were neck and neck with Nottingham for the men’s titles.”
The pandemic may have put a stop on NEM Hawks’ tenth anniversary year, but when the league campaign started up, they reclaimed the court in quick fashion to mount a title challenge on two fronts this season.
“We played all of our initial league matches away from home, only hosting a home match in the New Year,” said Donna.
“We had less time to prepare due to Covid, and limited resources, but what we did have was a squad that was 80 per cent homegrown. “They know the club, we know them, and they had the skill, talent and determination to put on a brilliant campaign, winning 10 games, drawing one and losing just one on their way to becoming champions.”
A few weeks later, the women’s team triumphed in similar fashion, capping off 12 years of hard work for Donna and Sue, who had made history for English handball by becoming the first female coaches to win the championship with a men’s side.
“When we started up, women having a leadership role in a men’s sports team was relatively unheard of, and over ten years on, it remains a very rare position for a woman to hold,” Donna said. “
We were keen to manage both men’s and women’s teams, as we wanted to show that women can be successful in these roles, and that men can react to female leaders positively, and our results over the years show just that.
“Winning the league with the men’s team was a big motivating factor as it had never been done before, and we felt that to do that would be a real statement for women in handball/sport, and that we can achieve things regardless of gender.
“Then to win the women’s title soon after was just incredible. We’re so proud of the team for all their hard work and they really deserve so much credit.”
Both Premier League Handball trophies now take pride of place in Manchester, but Donna and Sue are far from finished, as the club looks to continue developing talent on its own doorstep.
Sue said: “Without junior development we simply wouldn’t be double champions, and so we’re as focused on ever as welcoming juniors into our club and nurturing new talent for the future of the game.
“The impact of Covid on sports has meant many are struggling to access community clubs like ours, which is why we’re committed to remaining an open club for all, with the aim of seeing NEM Hawks become champions again in the not-too-distant future.”