Strathclyde Sirens may be still in the fledgling stages of their pre-season training but already, head coach Lesley MacDonald is optimistic that her squad is looking stronger and more formidable than ever before. 

A raft of new signings over the summer has given Scotland’s only professional netball side almost an entirely new look and that will, hopes MacDonald, be enough to see them have their best ever campaign.

There have been new signings both from England and from overseas who will, hopes MacDonald, complement the longstanding, homegrown contingent of the team which remains in place.

Two of the stalwarts of Sirens for a number of years, Bethan Goodwin and Emily Nicholl, remain and the pair will be, believes MacDonald, the perfect foil for the new signings which include Millie Sanders from Leeds Rhinos, Hannah Leighton from Celtic Dragons, Hannah Williams from Loughborough Lightening as well as Sesandili Ngubane, who’s a South African internationalist.

It has, says MacDonald, left her desperate to get her teeth into pre-season training with the squad, which begins this week.

“There’s definitely been a few changes in the squad so we’ve got a new team with some of the core players still here. Individuals like Emily Nicholl and Bethan Goodwin have been the backbone of the team for many years so it’s great to still have them and they’ll help the newbies settle in and find out what it’s all about to be a Siren,” MacDonald, who’s going into her fifth year as Sirens’ head coach, says.

The Herald: Bethan Goodwin is one of the more experienced members of Sirens' squadBethan Goodwin is one of the more experienced members of Sirens' squad

“Our recruitment has been really strong both in terms of experienced players coming in as well as moving some young players, who want to prove themselves, up to the main squad.

“I feel the quality we’ve brought in this summer has really moved the squad on – and that’s no disrespect to previous squads.

“This season, I feel like we’ve got 12 very good players who’ll be fighting for starting spots in the 7 each match day.

“It means the bar keeps getting raised and that’s a really healthy environment for the players to be in.”

Sirens have had somewhat disappointing seasons over the past two years, in terms of final league placings in the Netball Superleague anyway, having finished eighth in both 2022 and 2023 which was a drop from their fifth and sixth place finishes in 2020 and 2021.

However, that slide down the table was, believes MacDonald, far more to do with minor failings and a few strokes of bad luck rather than there being any drastic flaws in her team’s play.

And so ensuring Sirens make the almost imperceptible improvements that can, in time, alter entirely the fortunes of their season, is the major focus of the coming weeks and months ahead of the 2024 season beginning in February.

“Last season, it was such fine margins for us – we had a lot of games that we drew or lost by only a few goals so there was very little in it,” the 43-year-old from Fife says. 

“The biggest thing for us for the new season will be working out how we can convert those draws or narrow losses into wins and that comes down to how we prepare ourselves in pre-season because last year, there were times where we’d compete very well for 50 minutes but then drop off in the final ten minutes so for next season, we’re looking on converting those close games into wins.”

As the only Scottish team in the league, Sirens have their work cut out to compete with the financial might of a number of the English teams, with netball down south significantly more developed than in Scotland.

However, MacDonald, while realistic about the size of the task they have in competing with the best England has to offer, is not curbing her ambition as she looks ahead to the coming campaign.

“We’re always pushing to be better than we were the season before,” she says. 

“We want to come top four but at this moment in time, it’s very hard to know where we are compared to the other teams, we’ll get a better picture once we start playing pre-season friendlies. 

“We have huge ambitions in terms of pushing for higher league positions and if we can get as high up as possible in terms of achieving the best finish we’ve ever had then I think that’d be a really successful season.

Of everything MacDonald is charged with handling over the coming months, likely to be one of the most challenging is keeping every individual in a hyper-competitive squad content.

But, as MacDonald and her players look towards 2024, that’s a problem she’s delighted to be confronted with.

“From a coach’s perspective, the position I’m in with having such a strong squad to select from is every coach’s dream,” she says. 

“It is going to be a challenge keeping everyone happy in terms of court time once the season starts but I want people to put their hand up and show me that they’re playing the best netball and I should put them on the court because they’ll make an impact on the game. 

“So it’ll be interesting to see how the squad dynamics develop over the next few months.”