The UAE Falcons stunned teams placed above them in the world rankings to clinch the European Open Challenge netball gold in Gibraltar on Sunday.
The Falcons travelled with the hopes of winning a couple of games but ended up with a clean sweep of four games in the five-team league played over three days.
They began their campaign by surprising hosts Gibraltar 49-34. The Falcons followed that up with victories over Isle of Man (59-52) and Switzerland (93-31) before the demolition of Malta 57-33.
This was the first ever gold for UAE at an international open competition.
“It was an outstanding performance and amazing result,” team manager Susanne Skelding told The National after the final game of the competition.
“It’s obviously the best performance we have seen. It was a little bit surprising, especially against Isle of Man who were ranked 10 levels above us at 27 in the world.
“There was great team unity with the girls backing each other all the way up and down the court. The other teams also said to us that we were really enjoying it out there.”
The European Open Challenge was given the green light in May after the 2020 calendar was disrupted due to the pandemic. The Falcons, led by former Welsh international Carly Lewis and former England international Deb Jones, started preparations six months ago.
“When we set off, our thoughts were to win two matches, but all that changed after the first game when we defeated Gibraltar," Skelding said.
“We have met them twice before, winning the first in 2018 and then got beat by them in the next.
“It was a re-match with everything to prove from both sides. It was a close game but we were by far the fitter team, as Gibraltar had to run their bench. We were fitter and stronger and that’s how we got that win.”
The Falcons’ second match was against Isle of Man, ranked 22 in the world, and the strongest side in the competition.
“To come out with a win against them was an extremely good effort,” Skelding said.
“The matches we really expected to win were against Switzerland, who were a young team, and Malta.
“The final game against Malta was harder than the actual scores suggest. They had a lot of youngsters and were rebuilding their team. But to be fair to our team, we were playing our fourth game in three days and it may have taken a toll on our players.”
Skelding said travelling from Dubai and playing the next day was not the most ideal plan. But she was pleased it all worked out in the end.
“Full credit goes to the players and technical staff. We didn’t expect to come off with four wins. But having done that, we are clearly delighted to represent the country so well.
“We have previously won a European championship competition in 2018 and have finished third in the Open Challenge. To come away with a win and gold today now makes us the team to beat.
“We now start building on what we have achieved. The players will have a short break and will be back in training from November. We then have a break for Christmas and return to training until the next competition in May.”