Celebrating 25 years of the Adelaide Thunderbirds,Edge of the Crowdwill delve into the history of the club from various perspectives, beginning with that of the inaugural coach, Margaret Angove OAM.

An icon of Netball in South Australia, Angove was the coach of the Adelaide Thunderbirds for the duration of its time in the Commonwealth Bank Trophy, a competition that ran for 11 years from 1997 until 2007 and preceded the ANZ Championship.

Prior to taking the top job, Angove was an established coach in South Australia, coaching Contax Netball Club’s A Grade side for 16 years, with an incredibly successful record.

It’s no surprise that at the establishment of a domestic competition as the Commonwealth Bank Trophy was, Angove was applied for and was offered the role of head coach at the Adelaide Thunderbirds.

Speaking toEdge of the Crowdabout that appointment, Angove thought her credentials were strong, especially given the connection the Thunderbirds would go on to have with her state league side, Contax.  

“My background was reasonably good and I'd been a coach at Contax for quite a few years, winning premierships and playing in 10 Grand Finals straight.

“Once I heard in 1996 that this was going to take place next year, I thought I'd put my hand up for. So, I was lucky enough to get that position and held it for 10 years. And in that 10 years we never finished lower than third, which I'm pretty proud of.”

The Thunderbirds were one of the two Adelaide teams berthed in the new competition, and a team that had incredible success in its earliest days. Right from their very first year, the Thunderbirds knew they wanted to sit in only one position, and that was on top. While it didn’t come true that first season, in the two following they held the trophy up high.

“Looking back, SA was a good netball state, but it was much so much smaller than New South Wales and Victoria,” Angove said.

“I think outside the inner circle people just thought we'd done a good job, a very good job, getting right up in the top, playing in the finals and prelims, semi-finals and stuff like that."

Though, Angove and the Adelaide Thunderbirds would never settle, always getting better and "aiming to obviously be the best that we could be."

In the original Commonwealth Bank Trophy competition, there were another two teams in Western Australia, two in Melbourne, two in Sydney and a single team in Brisbane.

But just how was this first Thunderbirds’ side built?

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Building the Thunderbirds

With two squads to fill it was only smart that Netball SA split the eight teams from the State League and gave four to the Ravens and four to the Thunderbirds.

Though, at this stage of the process, the Thunderbirds weren’t even known as the Thunderbirds.

“At that stage, the Thunderbirds were called the Falcons. And just, I don't know, a month or so before we started the game in the competition, we were told that we couldn't have that name, because another national sporting identity had it.

“I don't quite know how we came up [with it], but we ended up as the Thunderbirds, so we played as that over all those years.”

The squad was built by Angove, in consultation with Rod Hook and Kathy Nelson, people that would become integral to the Adelaide Thunderbirds’ incredible first decade.

“I think [the team was created] in consultation with a gentleman, who actually was our President, Rod Hook, and another very astute lady Kathy Nelson, who was a former President of Netball SA and my friend, as well. She ended up as a manager.

“So, we sort of had a look around and we knew that the Contax side was on the Thunderbirds' side, so I did know [the players] and we played against Garville in a lot of Grand Finals, but Garville were in the berth, but we knew all the players right through the state league competition.

“We knew all of the players and so we were able to talk, who was good enough at the top clubs? And who do we need? And stuff like that. So it wasn't that difficult to do.

“It was easier to pick seven than perhaps 12. Because there were quite a few girls that probably missed out, but that's how we did it.”

When asked who her first name was, the player she built a team around, Angove said “that would be Kathryn Harby-Williams (pictured below)… She was Australian captain after that and things like that, so she was a wonderful player for Contax and carried it on right through T'Birds and then for Australia.”

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Creating a culture for success

While Angove brought the strong philosophy they’d created at the Contax to the Thunderbirds, she acknowledged there were other successful clubs around her and people she could drawn on to set the Thunderbirds up for prolonged success.

“We did have a strong philosophy at Contax and we sort of took that with us on our next journey and also anything that we could learn from some of the other clubs that we could call upon.

“So, Oakdale was right up there in those days, so there were good people to think of, to talk to and see what their aims and their journeys were and how to how to get the best out of everyone.

“We didn't just sit down and pick a team and say that's it, we actually delved into the background of players and where they've been, what they wanted, and how would they fit into our culture?

While it didn’t end with the premiership as Adelaide had hoped to achieve, the season came with plenty of learnings.

A grand final loss at The Glasshouse was a devastating end to the opening year, but it was exactly that, the opening year and the early seedlings for success were well and truly rooted at Netball SA.

“I remember our grand final,” Angove reminisced.

“We lost by about 10 goals, I think it was, against the Melbourne Phoenix, as they were, they are the Vixens now, but they were the Phoenix in those days.

“I think we learnt a fair bit from them. We learnt that the level of the competition is higher than what we've been playing in, except some of the Australian stuff. And so we implemented some new ideas and probably a few different training things.

“Because remember, in those days, we can only train out of working hours because nobody, everybody either went to uni or work. So, it was two court sessions a week and then some weights and that on the weekend, running and that on the weekend.

“So we just incorporated and made sure, I always made sure, that I was, you know, I'd been at SASI - the SASI coach - and I watched and I understood what these conditioning guys were doing for different sports and so I think we tried to implement the best of what we thought would help us into our culture and our team.”

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Going back-to-back

That culture, well established by 1998, led to an impressive season where the Adelaide Thunderbirds were minor premiers and went on to hold the trophy in the “title town sweep” of 1998, a successful sporting year for South Australia.

“Winning the premiership in 1998, we played the Sydney Swifts as they were called then, the Sydney Swifts not the New South Wales and we beat them by six and that year.

“The Adelaide 36ers won, the (Adelaide) Lightning basketball won, we won, and the (Adelaide) Crows won. So it was just, I've got photos of it, as we were invited to participate in a ticker tape parade down King William Road, we got the keys to the city from the Lord Mayor and then not long after that we were paraded around, I think it was Footy Park in the back of a car, in front of a lot of people.

“So it was just absolutely amazing for our sport and also for South Australia. I don't think that's ever happened before and it's never going to happen again.

“We were pretty friendly with the Lighting girls, Jan Stirling was the coach and she's always been a very special person to me, I've admired what she's done. So, yeah it was just nice that we all won.”

With a strong 1997 season under their belt, Angove felt confident about the Adelaide Thunderbirds' chances, but knew they “just had to be absolutely spot on with everything, because otherwise we would get run over.

“We wanted to be consistently good... and also, we started looking around to see what we didn't have in South Australia and we took a couple of imports over the next few years.”

The success continued for the Adelaide Thunderbirds into 1999, a season that would end with a demolition job in the grand final over their state rivals, the Ravens.

“In '99 we played the Ravens and we won by 32, so that was absolutely amazing.

“It was pretty hectic times… a lot of those girls were Garville girls and a lot of them were Contax and Oakdale girls, and we'd had absolutely nail-biting finishes over 10 years and so, certainly wasn't any love lost between us.

“It was a good challenge for us and to win by that many was absolutely amazing. I don't think the hierarchy in New South Wales or Victoria thought much of it. And then, you know, they were expecting a close game, I think, so I don't know how our ratings went but, we had some Aussie Diamonds in our side, too, in that year, I think was up to five, so certainly had some good cattle.”

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What spurred the Thunderbirds on to find this continued success in the late 90s, and what would continue their finals appearances well into the 2000s?

Talking with Angove, it seems she was a remarkably reflective and proactive coach. She never rested on anything, always looking for ways to make herself a better coach and her players better players.

“As someone said to me, when you lose the sun still comes up tomorrow. It does, but it's always a lot of tears and questioning. What could I have done better as a coach? How can we make this better?

“And even though in '99, when we won in '98, we didn't rest on our laurels, we just worked with the same, hard work ethic and those expectations, as we had. And we continued through the years as well, but nothing's ever easy and winning by 32 goals was just amazing to us and I had managed to get all the kids on court in the last five minutes. So that made it a very, very good party that night, I can tell you.”

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A strong foundation

The people around Angove supported the tenacious coach through the highlights and the lowlights, because, despite never finishing lower than third, there were some lows along the way.

As Angove shared her memories, her passion while talking about the people, who are still friends of hers, is genuine and lovely to hear.

Among those people were Rod Hook and Kathy Nelson, presidents, managers and people who were just as impassioned as Angove was. As well as players, who impressed Angove both on and off the court.

“I think we just had, as I said, a man called Rod Hook, who was absolutely amazing. Handled anything that I asked, kept me keeping intact when I was going to write a nasty letter to someone, changed the wording," Angove laughed.

“He was just wonderful for us, and he was there for about 10 years.

“And I had a very true friend, Kathy Nelson. She was one of our managers for a lot of that time and she always stuck by my side and made sure that I was okay through the hard times, as well as the good times. So, had a very good base.

“Some of the players like Kathryn Harby-Williams and Sarah Sutter and an absolute whizz called Jacqui Delaney, she was amazing, all Australian [players]. Peta Scholz (née Squire), Rebecca Sanders they're all girls that knew what they had to do to be the best that they can be.

“And another player who won two premierships was Cassie Martin (née Mogg), and she's still, they're all still friends of mine, but Cassie Martin coached against me when I did Adelaide Academy side earlier, well last year. Her Academy, which she's from Northern, won. So, I think she was pretty happy with that. She was never an Australian player or anything like that, she just was a backbone, was the glue that kept everyone together.”

Listening to Angove speak, it’s clear why the Adelaide Thunderbirds were a force of the Commonwealth Bank Trophy competition.

Angove was always striving for success but built that from the friendships she forged with her players over the years. She’s a well-respected individual, whose focus was always on the team and the sport.

While times have certainly changed from when she was coaching at the highest level, she is still well involved in netball in South Australia. Mentoring coaches, coaching at Westminster School and coaching an Adelaide Academy side have kept Angove busy, and she still loves getting to the stadium for Adelaide Thunderbirds games, hopeful of more success for the club in 2022.

Margaret Angove was awarded Life Membership at Netball SA and the Premier League Grand Final best player award is now named in her honour. She was awarded an Order of Australia for services to Netball 1995, and also named Female Coach of the Year at the 2000 Australian Coaches Awards.

Stay tuned for the next story in the Edge of the Crowd's 25 years of the Adelaide Thunderbirds series.