GREAT Britain beat Finland 24-23 at the Echo Arena in Liverpool on Saturday night to reach the group stages of the Women’s 2010 European Handball Championships for the first time.
GB overcame the Finns 41-37 on aggregate following their victory in Helsinki three days earlier, and will now go forward to the group stages where they face former World Champions France as well as Austria and Iceland.
Their victory over Finland provided a remarkable benchmark for the progress the squad has made as they prepare for the 2012 Olympics in London.
Just 18 months ago, Finland confidently beat Great Britain 29-16 in the European Challenge Trophy in Cyprus and went on to win that competition. But some superb defence coupled with potent fast-break attacking helped GB to their greatest victory.
Head coach Jesper Holmris said: “It’s amazing - it’s definitely the best result of a British team ever.
“We are proud and I think we played well; we had some very good spells in the match but we also had some spells where we didn’t, especially near the end of the match where they started to score more frequently.
“My nails aren’t that good!
“We are playing France in the next stage which is very exciting and extremely difficult – it is make or break for British Handball.
“We have shown to everyone now that a GB team can get results. It is the first time a GB team has made a qualifying tournament – we are extremely proud.”
Holmris made a number of tactical changes to the team which suprisingly saw their midweek top scorer Sophia Cannon dropped. But the changes left the Finnish team confused and they struggled to adapt.
Five first half strikes from Goodwin put settled ther nerves for GB as they found themselves 3-0 following an opening, breakthrough strike from Lyn Byl on three minutes.
This was follwed just 20 seconds later when Holly Lam-Moores scored on a fast-break with captain Lynn McCaferty adding a third moments later.
GB spurned opportunities in the half to go further ahead as Hargreaves defeated the Finns time and time again allowing GB to attack on the fast break.
The Finns finally scored their first goal of the match through Carolina Von Veh on 7:30, but the writing was on the wall as Alexandra Roos hit the GB post from a penalty six minutes later.
Finland were unable to capitalise on Lam-Moores in the sin-bin and GB followed her reintroduction onto the court with four unanswered goals as the teams went into the break at 13-8.
The second half saw the Finns outscore GB by 15-11 which threatened the result on the night, but the overall result never looked in doubt.
Zoe Van der Weel scored her first goal for GB after making her debut midweek, and Kathryn Fudge’s rocket of a goal with 10 minutes remaining put paid to a Finnish fight-back which had seen them claw the deficit back to just one goal on the night as Annette Tallqvist started to find her range.
Lam-Moores followed Fudge’s strike with a brace that increased the GB lead to four but Finland, sensing the clock ticking and the urgency of the occassion, stepped up their game with four quick goals themselves to tie the match at 22-22 with three and a half minutes remaining.
With the crowd sensing a potential unhappy ending for the GB team they rose to their feet to push the team one last time and Nina Hegland and Jeanette Andersen answered their calls to make it 24-22 with just moments left.
GB will now travel to Feldkirchen on October 14 to play Austria in their first group game, and then go on to play France and Iceland both home and away over the coming months, with the exact dates and venues yet to be revealed.
The match in Liverpool was watched by a partisan crowd of around 2,000, who clearly loved the spectacle of world-class international handball being played in Britain.
And with France due to come to the UK some time next month, they won’t have to wait too long for their next fix of handballing action.
FRANK UIJLENBROEK WORLDSPORTPICS