For a sport that's so popular in the rest of Europe, handball has a surprisingly low profile in the UK. But just six years after its foundation the Newcastle Vikings Handball Club boasts a men's and a women's team, alongside junior teams, and counts several Newcastle students among its members.
Handball's popularity elsewhere in Europe and further afield explains the club's high number of international members, and Newcastle University students such as Maren Liane and Emily Bjerk joined the club after growing up playing the sport in Norway. Fellow Norwegian Pål Jakobsen had limited experience before arriving in the UK, but was a keen follower of the sport and now enjoys playing for the Vikings.
Liane explains the sport as “a mix between football, basketball and rugby,” with the simplicity of football combined with the pace and high scores of basketball.
“Everyone plays defence, and everyone plays attack, so everyone runs the whole court,” she continued. “You also have tackles as well, so it's a bit more physical than basketball in that sense.” Indeed, the lack of protective clothing is deceptive; handball can be a brutal sport.
The Vikings, however, tend to play in a more friendly manner, making the club a good starting place for beginners. The unlimited subs in handball makes it relatively easy for beginners to gain match experience, and Vikings members are more than welcome to just attend training sessions.
These sessions are held twice a week: Monday evenings in South Shields and Wednesday evenings in Benfield, just next to Walkergate Metro.
For those looking to get a bit more competitive, the club holds training matches and competes in handball leagues. “There's a few people who started off with just doing training,” Liane explained, “and then they joined the training matches and now they're playing the league.”
The men’s team currently sits at the bottom of the National North division, but is more concerned with gaining experience and having fun than racking up a string of victories.
“We’re quite new; we have a mix of abilities,” Jakobsen explained. “We know we're not going to be the best in this league, and therefore there's not much complaining either. We're there to develop and have fun, basically.”
The women’s team is currently a division lower, in the Regional North league. Like the men, they want to win but their main motivation is the fun of playing matches.
The club was set up in the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympics, where the appearance of a British handball team sparked a wave of interest in the sport across the country. Team GB crashed out of the Games after losing every single one of their matches, but their presence helped to introduce handball to a British audience.
By building connections with local schools the Vikings can introduce handball to a new generation of players, and ultimately encourage more British kids to take up the sport
The Vikings' membership consists of a mix of students – particularly those such as Liane and Bjerk who played the sport before coming to the UK – and locals. While setting up a handball club in Newcastle University's Athletic Union could help to attract more student members this would also require a lot of work and dedication from its founders, so for the time being the Vikings are the main source of Tyneside handball action.
“I think quite a few people are keen when they come to university to try something new, to do something they've never done before,” Liane explained. But unlike the AU clubs' ability to advertise their sports at freshers' fair, the Vikings are not part of the University and so can't benefit from this kind of publicity.
“It's a challenge with us being an outside club,” she continued. “Because it's hard to get in contact with students unless they know about handball beforehand.”
One of the club’s main aims going forward is to reach out to junior players. By building connections with local schools the Vikings can introduce handball to a new generation of players, and ultimately encourage more British kids to take up the sport. The junior teams have their own training sessions and can take part in under-16 competitions if they want to.
The three students are keen to spread the word about their beloved sport. Liane summarised a typical encounter with English students: “everyone that I've explained it to is like, 'Oh that sounds really cool. Why do we not have it?' and I think with it being an indoor sport as well, it's quite nice for England!
“The basic rules are quite easy to get into, it's a bit like football in the sense that as long as you have a ball you can start to play, which is good for beginners.”
Anyone is welcome to join the Vikings and try out handball. The club offers three free taster sessions for newbies, and Bjerk points out that a great way to find out more about the sport is to tag along to a training session. “If there are people who don't know what it is they can also come by and just watch and see what we're doing, she explained. “They don't have to train, they can just sit and watch how it works.”
If handball’s moment has finally come in the UK, the Vikings are at the forefront of this expansion. Their mix of competition and fun and welcoming attitudes towards beginners makes the club an important part of the development of handball in the UK, and the Norwegian students hope that their enthusiasm for the sport will be shared by more of their fellow students in Newcastle.