If you were awake at 4am in Manchester on 15 April 2018, you may have heard Eleanor Cardwell screaming. The netball player, like many of her kind, braved the early hours to witness a watershed moment in the sport’s history. England’s Roses, in their first Commonwealth Games final but up against the vaunted Australia, came from behind in the dying minutes to snatch victory from the hosts with a penalty shot after the whistle.
“It was absolute chaos,” says the 27-year-old with a grin. Having been a part of the Roses squad since 2016 the shooter was delighted: “I just remember feeling extremely proud of all the girls because I’d been through all the training with them and knowing what they’d gone through as a team and how much it meant for them. I remember texting some of the girls who were also at home: ‘Can you believe it?’”
Four years later, Cardwell will go from watching at home to centre stage on court to make her Commonwealth Games debut as one of the 12 England players – and one of seven based in the UK – chosen to defend their historic title. While the make-up of the final team has yet to be finalised, the shooter’s name has been a dead cert on anyone’s list.
Under the head coach, Jess Thirlby, Cardwell has clawed her way to the front of the pack. With her pinpoint shooting accuracy and commanding presence she has proven her worth against some of England’s toughest rivals.
But perhaps Cardwell’s best quality is that she is never overawed by the occasion. Where others can go missing at crucial moments, she is always there hunting the gamechanging moment. “People tell me my face has quite a lot of emotion. They’ll say I’m angry, but I’m actually never really angry. I’m just trying,” she says.
“If I’ve missed a shot. I’m like: ‘Right, that was definitely my bad; that was my mistake.’ I go into a complete zone where I’m like: ‘I need to win this ball.’
“It might be instances where the centre is running towards me, and I’ll mark them, or I’ll try my best to mark her out the game. I’m not thinking too much at that moment. ‘Right, I’ve got her – I’ll keep her here.’ There is definitely a switch. ‘Right, here we go into that mode – get it back: win the ball.’”
Cardwell offers up two possible sources for her tenacity. The first is from years practising taekwondo. She credits the martial art for an “inner strength” opposition defenders have found themselves running into. The second is from having spent most of her netball life as a defender.
The switch to attack occurred nine years ago when Cardwell bibbed up as a shooter to make up numbers in training. The then Manchester Thunder head coach, Tracey Neville, saw her potential and called her the next morning to tell her it was her new position.
While she is grateful to Neville, who coached England to gold in 2018, Cardwell believes the shift may have slowed her England trajectory. “It was more me learning how to shoot was the initial thing,” she says. “It was hard to make that transition, especially so late in my career.”
In the past year Cardwell has become a regular starter for England as well as going the entire domestic season undefeated as Thunder clinched the Superleague title. But she believes she has always been capable of producing the form she is currently showing, it’s just now she has been afforded the chance to do so: “I think I’ve always been able to do it, I’ve always shot the way I have, I’ve always been willing to go to post. Even when I was learning how to shoot, I was still just trying to shoot from everywhere.
“The opportunities I have been given have given me more confidence in my own ability and maybe the confidence in those people around me as well to just give me the ball and let me shoot.
“I definitely feel ready on the international stage. I feel proud of the player that I’ve become and the journey that I’ve gone through to get to where I am.”
A self-assured Cardwell will be crucial to the Roses’ Commonwealth Games campaign, but expectant English fans will not be the only ones studying her closely. Next season Cardwell will join the Adelaide Thunderbirds in Australia’s Super Netball, becoming one of the select few English players in the world’s best league.
If there is pressure on England to win and sustain the precious momentum they gained four years ago, Cardwell doesn’t show it. Excitement is the prevailing emotion for now. But she is under no illusions about the challenge ahead. “We’ll give it our best,” she says. “We’re hoping to get that gold medal and we’ll do our utmost to get it.”