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26th July 2018

Handball in Britain hits 50 - The birth of British handball on the Mersey

How the trainee teacher, Wolf Schneggenburger, contributed to the foundation of the British Handball Association in 1968

This article was written by Andreas Bruhn and appeared in Handball Inside

In 1970 the first book on handball was published in Great Britain; the title was ‘Handball. A Complete Guide.’ It was written by B.J. Rowland, a young teacher from Liverpool, who had been serving as chairman of the British Handball Association since 1968.

Rowland dedicated his book to a certain ‘Wolf Schneggenburger‘, from the ‘West German Handball Federation‘, for the help and technical assistance he had provided to British handball. “His constant enthusiasm for handball did much to help the formation of the British Handball Association,” reads the dedication.

‘West German Handball Federation’, that sounds like its official. Sounds like development assistance from a higher body, from the German Handball Federation. However, nobody there knew of the German. “That could be because I never played handball in a club,” said the man, who is now 76 years old, lives in Bingen am Rhein and looks back with ironic sentimentality on how he brought handball to England.

The story began by accident. Schneggernburger, who was studying English and sport in Marburg at the time, wanted to go to Poole in southern England in 1967 to be an ‘assistant teacher‘, to teach German for a year and improve his English. But it took him to Liverpool. In the city on the Mersey River he soon made friends. “The Liverpudlians are warm-hearted and friendly,” said Schneggenburger. He was happy at the Cardinal Allen Grammar School, at which he taught alongside a second school. And this is how he met the teacher B.J. Rowland, who was head of the sports department.

Rowland also had a good friend called ‘Chris‘. “He had discovered a completely new sport to England: volleyball. Because there was no federation in England, Chris had initiated the founding of a volleyball federation,” recalled Schneggenburger. “This had fascinated Jeff and he was looking for his own project. I asked him: “Have you ever heard of handball?”, “No,” was Rowland’s answer, “never heard of it.” Schneggenburger spoke about the hundreds of thousands of handball players in Germany. And Rowland was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. This new game he wanted to introduce to his pupils and get them to try it out. “I brought back a net of handballs from my next holiday home. And the rules. And then we began,” said Schneggenburger, who as a sports student had played handball and was himself no beginner.

Rowland was so taken with the sport, that he – together with four friends, most of them teachers – founded the British Handball Association in 1968. Rowland also thought big, and soon organised the first national team match. It took place on 22 June 1968. At 3 o’clock the British Handball Association invited spectators to watch the match between Great Britain and West Germany. Location for the match was the St. Bonaventures School Fields, on Cedar Road, Liverpool 9. “This is the first major handball match to be held in Britain,” declared the information flyer, which Rowland had printed. In order to inform spectators about handball, he wrote: “As a game it incorporates skills from Football, Basketball, Volleyball and Netball.“ As well as the required skills, he also outlined the most important rules.

“That was the highpoint,” said Schneggenburger, who ran out as captain of ‘West Germany‘ under the pseudonym ‘Calden‘. But his team-mates were not called Hansi Schmidt or Herbert Lübking, the heroes of German handball at the time. “I telephoned around my fellow students from across England, and we were able to put together seven players,” said Schneggenburger. “There were some good handballers, so we won the game by a big margin, the English had no chance.”

The English pioneer, Schneggenburger, recalled: “took all of this very seriously.” The referee came from France, he was also an assistant teacher. The national anthems were also played, although this was in no way an official match and is not been recorded in the annals of the British federation. The British played their first national team match at the end of 1968 and suffered a big defeat at the hands of Italy.

At the end of August 1968, Rowland reported with great enthusiasm to the International Handball Federation (IHF) about the developments on the British Isles. The three minutes allocated to Rowland were enough for the delegates to accept Great Britain as a provisional member of the international federation, unanimously. From then on, Rowland travelled the world of sport as an official, working to make this German sport more popular in the UK.

Unfortunately, Rowland died too early in 2000. His daughter Sian was communications chief for the European Handball Federation until her death, and his son, JJ, now works in this position. But Schneggenburger was unaware of all this. The contact with Rowland broke off once he had returned to Germany. But in 1970 Rowland sent him the book. “I hope that future generations of handball enthusiasts will not forget the debt of gratitude British handball owes to this west-German player;” wrote Rowland. For this reason, the man who brought handball to England, has kept the book to this day, as well as the team list where he, for the only time in his life, entered the court as captain of West Germany.

Posted in England Handball Association