Duncan Mackay

When I last blogged we, the Great Britain men’s volleyball team, had just taken our leave from the European Championships qualification tournament in Greece. This was no disgrace, rather we gained not only the invaluable experience of going close against the top teams in Europe but also the plaudits and respect around the volleyball world that we crave.

Since then we have begun to play in the yearly European League competition, which features two pools of four teams, comprising of two home and away fixtures before a final four playoff weekend to decide the winner. 

Our pool is a tough one. It includes former European Champions Spain, former European League winners Slovakia and a very strong Romanian team. Spain was nominated to organise and host the final four of this year’s European League and will therefore automatically get a place in the de facto semi-finals.

So, if we’re to achieve the goal we set ourselves of final four qualification, we will most likely need to finish top of our pool. After two weekends of play, I am pleased to report that we currently sit well poised in second place in our pool.

We opened the competition last weekend by hosting Slovakia at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. This Slovakian team had blown us out of the water a fair few times in the past, but we are a different kettle of fish these days. In front of a vociferous crowd, however, we fell to another heartbreakingly close 3-1 defeat in Saturday’s opening match. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m penning this little blog from a cramped economy seat on a British Airways flight high over Spain. Why does that matter?

Well, since that opening match against Slovakia we have played a further three matches in two countries, never mind the training, weightlifting and travel. In essence, I can’t really remember what happened in that first match. It’s often said that some athletes have a near-photographic memory of even the most minute events that occur during competition. In this case, however, I didn’t play very well, and sometimes those matches simply fade in the memory.

After reviewing the video of our loss to Slovakia, we realised that with just a few minor changes we could beat those guys - a result that simply wasn’t an option a couple of years ago. I could tell in the morning’s training session that the mood in the squad was good, and the gaffer had that look in his eyes he gets when he’s hatching a mischievous plan. The team took the hint and came out of the starting blocks on fire. We tend to play our best when we are fighting for every ball, every point, scratching and scrapping our way to winning ugly.

Without boring you with the details (you can read wonderful match reports by Programme Director Kenny Barton  by clicking here), we won the match 3-0. A fantastic result, and a much-deserved reward for everyone involved in the hard work behind the scenes. Coupled with Romania’s victories over a young Spanish team, we found ourselves in second position in our pool. What a difference a win can make.

Three days later we were on our way to Salamanca in Spain for the next two matches. Spain’s legendary coach, Julio Velasco, had decided to play pick and mix with his team selection in the first round of matches to let young but talented players cut their teeth at this level.

It’s always a guessing game in this competition as to who will turn up for the opposition because the team sheet doesn’t have to be made official until 24 hours before the first match. As expected, Spain made some changes from their losses against Romania.

However, our own Churchillian figure by the name of Brokking (pictured) was not to be outdone and sprung a surprise by giving Jason Haldane the weekend off and letting future star Dami Bakare show what he can do. Dami had a fabulous weekend and looked like a 10-year veteran of international volleyball.

The first match against Spain on Friday night could not have started any worse for Team GB. We were trounced in the first set (25-15). We just didn’t get into the match until the second set. I would have bet my life on a positive response from the boys and my, my, what a response it was. We hit back hard to the tune of 25-18. The match was now finely balanced. Somehow we managed to figure out two more ways to lose a set by the minimum number of points, with the final two sets finishing 26-24 and 28-26. If the volleyball world rankings were based on the ability to lose a set by two points, we would be world champions. I’m not sure I’ve seen Team GB that disgusted and angry. Ever.

One of the best parts of this competition, however, is that at this stage there is nearly always another chance to put things right - and we had a second match in Spain in less than 24 hours to try and do just that. 

Job done. A smash and grab 3-0 win that featured fantastic performances from Bakare and McGivern left Spain reeling. It wasn’t a pretty game, but all we care about is results and we’ll definitely take this one. Add Spain to the ever-growing list of countries that have fallen at the hands of Team GB!

Our next matches are at the K-2 Centre in Crawley against current table toppers Romania. A couple of victories will leapfrog us into first position at the halfway point of the competition, and we will spend a few days training hard in Sheffield to ensure that we are ready before we head down to Sussex. The rest of the European league has been put on notice. The British are coming.

Andy Pink, who plays for Bassano in Italy, is Britain's vice-captain. For more details on the matches at Crawley click here.

British Volleyball is represented by davidwelchmanagement.com