Teenage netball ace James Firminger overcomes prejudice and adversity to land prestigious prize at the 2021 National Men's & Mixed Netball Tournament
A teenage netballer has taken his first steps towards stardom following a jaw-dropping display at the 2021 National Men's & Mixed Netball Tournament.
Goal shooter James Firminger, from Lanehead, Burnley, was the stand-out performer at the championships held at Westwood Sports Centre in Nottingham.
The 15-year-old, who was the youngest player at the event, picked up the Player of the Tournament accolade after an almost flawless show for the Spartans.
He scored 85 goals in five games with a 91% shot accuracy, which drew praise from New Zealand's Junior Levi on social media.
"It was the most incredible weekend ever," beamed his proud mum, Bernardine. "He'd only been with the team for eight weeks and only missed one quarter from the five games played.
"It went from 0-100 in a matter of days. My head is still spinning because it's been such an incredible journey so far.
"It's all been so amazing; I can't really put it into words. It's been mind-blowing. It's quite difficult to comprehend. We're getting texts all the time asking him to play now.
"People were wanting to take selfies with James. The reaction was incredible. Gary Burgess, the head of England Umpires, called him 'phenomenal', which made me cry. I've been crying non-stop all weekend."
The Burnley FC season-ticket holder, who watches the Clarets from the lower tier of the James Hargreaves Stand, made his competitive debut in a 43-6 win over Norfolk United.
The Spartans, based in Manchester, followed that up with a 24-13 success over Knights Shields as they looked on course for a medal.
However, they lost out by 10 points against eventual champions The Giants, with the game finishing 34-24, which preceded a 32-18 defeat at the hands of The Knights, who also made the final.
And their competition culminated in a 22-20 loss against The Titans from Leeds, a result that ended any hope of silverware, barring individual recognition for the Blessed Trinity pupil.
"It was amazing being there with the team," said James. "I wanted to win, but being there was enough. This has been the highlight of everything so far.
"I still can't believe that I won the trophy. I don't think it has sunk in yet. I practice my shooting everyday in my back garden so it has just become normal for me."
He added: "It's been so good, I've had lots of support. A lot of people have been congratulating me; they've told me that I'm a good role model for young male netballers.
"It just shows what you can achieve if you want it enough. Everybody has been really positive about it; the response has been mind-boggling.
"I was so nervous in the first quarter of the first game, I kept passing the ball to my team-mate when I had the opportunity to shoot.
"But after that I started to back myself. I kept scoring and my confidence went sky high."
James has had to remain stoic in the face of prejudice and adversity since starting his journey in what is still considered to be an extremely niche sport.
Name-calling, intimidation and brushes with bullies have been par for the course since he first picked up a ball as a nine-year-old at St Mary's RC Primary School in Oswaldtwistle.
The youngster had contemplated giving it all up in an attempt to end the constant verbal and physical taunts, but his passion for the game outweighed the pain he would feel if he was to knock playing on the head.
"Getting to this point has been quite tough," James said. "I'd contemplated giving it all up, but I stuck at it and that has led me to where I am now. I want to go as far as I can in the sport and play for England one day."
It has been a hurtful and testing experience for his parents, too. "It hasn't come easy for him," added Bernardine. "There were no opportunities for him when he was in high school. He wanted to continue playing, but there was nothing out there for him.
"He's had a lot of negativity thrown at him along the way. He's received a lot of grief for being a boy in a girls' sport.
"He's been called names and pushed around, but he's never stopped chasing his dreams. If anything, it's made him even more determined to succeed.
"It's been tough for him as a teenager. It can cause so much damage and it has got to him at times.
"The pressure of it all has been hard but he never wanted to stop playing the game that he loved."
The ex-gymnast, who trained at the BEST Centre, has continually found inspiration in various female role-models along the way.
His mother has played at Burnley Netball Club for 36 years and he's found comfort within that environment.
Helen Tomlinson helped him on his way to passing his Umpire 'C' award theory test while head coach Linda Moores has provided a supportive arm every step of the way while encouraging the protégé to pursue a path in coaching.
"He started playing mixed netball from the age of nine and even then you could see that he had a talent for it," said Bernardine.
"He picked up the skills for it really quickly. He just took to it quite naturally.
"I still play and I still love it. My passion for the sport has clearly rubbed off."
The pair, who have an unbreakable bond, would take trips to watch Manchester Thunder and England Roses, lending their support to Barrowford's Commonwealth Games gold-medallist Natalie Haythornthwaite.
Sitting alongside each other as supporters cushioned their role-reversal. James transitioned from being a spectator — cheering on his mum come wind, rain or shine at the Thomas Whittam Campus — to being the main attraction.
"It's a slight obsession for him," said his mum, who attends fixtures alongside partner Andy Layfield. "It's a real commitment. We've had to make sacrifices for him to be able to do this.
"We go together as often as we can. We both want to be there to support him on this journey because we know how much it means to James."
Appearances at the SPAR Lancashire Games in Blackpool seem like a distant memory now.
He's been part of the Spartans' plans ever since he was first acquainted with captain Caswell Palmer and coach Michelle Gilkes at their training base at Belle Vue Sports Village.
James impressed in exhibition games — where he'd been marked by Super League stars Paige Kindred [Leeds Rhinos] and Rebecca Airey [Manchester Thunder] — before being pinned as a 'one to watch' by Knights co-founders Lewis Keeling and Ryan Allen.
"The potential is quite frightening," concluded Bernardine, who helps her son train in their back garden. "It's really exciting. Hopefully his appearance in this tournament will be the catalyst for change in the men's game.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of my son, who has fought to be here right now. He has battled through name-calling, prejudices and knock backs."