Duncan Mackay

It’s like the start of a classic road movie. Guys blow into town from different parts of the globe and form a fighting band of underdogs to take on the world. Just so, the GB men’s volleyball team. 

Reunited after spending the winter playing for different clubs in all corners of Europe and the Americas, they fly out to Azerbaijan today to play the first-leg of their European Championship Round One tie, with a place in the group stages at stake. It is a flight - to some extent - into the unknown. How will they gel together after so long in such disparate parts?  In total, 24 players (men and women) returned from 18 different clubs in 17 different leagues in 12 different countries, making them one of the most cosmopolitan outfits on the roster of British sport.

Although Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, is rated by the Lonely Planet travel guide as one of the top ten destinations in the world for nightlife, the GB team will be ignoring those charms and focussing instead on a creditable performance to carry over to into the second leg to be staged in Sheffield at the English Institute of Sport on May 15.

Victory for the GB team would ensure them six more matches in the competition on a home and away basis against Finland, Greece - two of the world’s top ten teams - plus Latvia. That, in turn, would reflect the great advances the young British team are making under the guidance of Dutch coach, Harry Brokking.

If the outcome is unknown, the determination that runs through the team is palpable. Since coming together again, the men's team have discovered that their captain, Ben Pipes, who wintered in Tenerife, had organised a number of essentials to make the operation run more smoothly. He has negotiated lunches at £3.50 a head for the whole squad at a local Sheffield restaurant, plus free milkshakes and discount circulation tights. His popularity might be slightly offset by the fact that he has also done a deal to supply ice baths for the team to speed recovery after matches.

Among those back in time for the Azerbaijan game, was vice-captain Andy Pink - who is going to be running a regular blog of the team’s progress this summer. He returned to Sheffield match fit from a fierce relegation battle with his club, Bassano Volley, in Italy.

Jason Haldane (pictured), who started out on his volleyball career as a Canadian but is now qualified as a GB player, was also playing in Italy until last week. Mark McGivern, Kieran O’Malley and Chris Lamont have returned from Belgium. 

The squad that embarked for Baku did not include Nathan Bennett who is recovering from an injury, Mark Plotyczer who only arrived back from his club season in Greece yesterday and the newly-qualified player, Slawomir Master, who will not be back from Poland until next week.

It did, however, include the young players Dami and Peter Bakare (no relation) who are newcomers to the senior squad. Dami is a dental student at the University of Sheffield, who divides his demanding time between heavy training sessions and building dental bridges for patients in his lunch hour. Peter - with a clip on Youtube to prove it - has one of the biggest standing jumps in British sport, something he is apt to prove with a leap over a teammate’s head. 

Brokking said of the upcoming match this weekend: "We will have to play at our very best to be sure to beat Azerbaijan over this difficult two leg tie, if we can maximise our performance in Baku then we can ensure a terrific match will be in prospect for the home leg when Azerbaijan visit our home court at the EIS-Sheffield on Saturday, on the 15 May, and the Sheffield public can get right behind our guys to help get us through to the 2nd round.

"Getting through this round will ensure that we play six more matches in the competition where we would line up against two of the top 10 teams in the world in Finland and Greece., as well as Latvia. This would be a huge step forward for my young GB team as they battle to establish their credentials as top players. They have all come back in very good shape,  and are showing a great desire and togetherness as they prepare to meet the coming challenges."

Harry also commented on the news that his assistant coach, Englishman Joel Banks, has landed a top job as head coach with Orion in the Dutch Professional League for the next two club seasons. "I am very happy that he is  going to a very good club with a great structure and demonstrates the growing credibility of the GB men’s programme."

For info on tickets and upcoming matches please click here.

Award-winning sports columnist, feature writer and chief interviewer at the Daily Telegraph for 12 years, Sue Mott is now much in demand in her new freelance capacity. A major contributor to television and radio - all terrestrial channels, Sky, ESPN and Radio 5Live - she has covered all the major sporting events including World Cups, Olympics, Wimbledon, Commonwealth Games, Athletic World Championships, FA Cup Finals and several Test series.

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