This blog may have a Scottish focus, and I had at least one eye on the Scottish teams throughout their time in Esbjerg, but there were three other teams from Britain at the European Championships.
They are England men (Alan MacDougall, skip, Andrew Reed, Andrew Woolston, Tom Jaeggi, Ben Fowler), England women (Anna Fowler, skip, Hetty Garnier, Angharad Ward, Lauren Pearce, Naomi Robinson) and Wales men (James Pougher, skip, Rhys Phillips, Gary Coombs, Jamie Fletcher and Simon Pougher), all of whom competed in the B-Division this year.
I spoke to the teams about how they got started in curling, the hard yards they put in to make it to Esbjerg and how they enjoyed the Europeans experience.
So. Curling. Established in Troon and Toronto, sure, even Trondheim… but Tunbridge Wells? The setting up of England’s only dedicated curling facility in Kent was the genesis point for the current England women’s team, as they all live in the area, caught wind of it after it opened in 2004 and played on from that point.
Others have links to more traditional curling nations – Canada (Angharad Ward and Jamie Fletcher – both began playing it across the Atlantic and then took it up again in the UK) and Scotland (Alan MacDougall and Andrew Reed).
Then there’s the Olympic effect. The 2002 Games inspired Fletcher and James Pougher, while the 2010 event prompted Gary Coombs to join in at Wales’ sole facility in Deeside Leisure Centre.
Deeside, in the north east of the country, is indicative of the difficulties faced by British curlers outside of the Scottish motherland of the sport.
Fletcher, who is about 45 minutes’ drive from the facility, says: “We have it one night a week… It’s ice hockey ice – we get the ice about six hours before we play so we’ve got to prepare it ourselves, and it’s often not very good.
“So we are trying to get our own facility, we’ve been working on that for a while, but at the moment we don’t have anything.
“We do our best with what we have, but having our own facility would make a massive difference.”
The England women are hopeful that more English rinks would mean more competitive curlers for them to face, and more competitions to play in south of the border – because at the moment they play so often in Scotland that Braehead (next year’s Europeans host) is becoming like a home rink for them.
But skip Anna Fowler is also realistic about English curling’s capabilities, knowing that it’s a long term game.
She said: “When the other rinks [beyond Fenton’s in Kent] open up, it’ll take a little bit of time but maybe five years after that we’ll have some good competition and I think English curling will develop.
“But we need a couple more rinks to develop the sport. At the moment it’s not really developing loads in England.”
The England men’s team, Ben Fowler says, “train as a team in Greenacres but don’t get much time all together”.
“This season three of us met twice for a weekend of training,” he adds.
Stretched resources meant creative approaches to funding their way to Esbjerg, paying for travel, accommodation and all the other associated costs.
While England women raised cash through crowdfunding (read more about that here), the men covered their own costs – aside from those (their car and house for the week) provided for by the English Curling Association.
Their Welsh counterparts are, says Fletcher, ‘about 98 per cent self-funded’ – with a few donations coming from people within Welsh Curling, suppliers and friends.
“No lottery funding, government funding – it’s all us,” Fletcher adds.
The problems didn’t even stop once the teams had arrived in Esbjerg either, as #broomgate made its presence felt on the teams as several brush heads were banned at short notice.
England women found they could not use any of their shipment of Goldline pads, and Anna Fowler added: “It’s been a bit of a pain because we’ve been training with the IcePad.
“We knew it might be banned, so we were only using one, but it’s been frustrating.
“We got the email when we were already here, and [England men] were on the plane when they got the first email, which is a little ridiculous.”
However, at a time when the ‘spirit of curling’ seems to be losing its way, an Olympian gave proof that it still exists – Norwegian skip Thomas Ulsrud giving England women four new broom heads.
“I don’t know how we knew that we’d had so many banned, but he came up and gave us four Norway ones, which was really nice,” says Fowler.
But it seems that the practice, funding and equipment issues are worth it for the Europeans experience.
Fletcher said this was his first Europeans, but his team-mates had all been to at least one before – and as well as the ice, food and lounge facilities being good, the biggest bonus is that the A and B-Division arenas are both on one site, which hasn’t always been the case.
As well as allowing the English and Welsh teams to go watch A-Division games between their own, it’s meant that the B-Division has been less of an ‘afterthought’, shunted off to the middle of nowhere and attracting very few spectators – the B-Division viewing area was packed four rows deep on several occasions I attended games.
On the ice, both English teams were disappointed not to achieve promotion to the A-Division, while the Welsh struggled in their group but ultimately secured B-Division status again for 2016.
England men gave themselves a shot at making the playoffs by edging into a tiebreaker with Israel, but came up short in that match.
Ben Fowler reflects: “Considering our lack of preparation this year and the tough group we were in, we did really well!
“Our goal was to get to the A division for Braehead next year. Unfortunately we didn’t manage our goal, but we did avoid relegation.”
England women played well throughout the week and reached a semi final against Italy. The game was 3-3 into end 10 and the Italian skip’s last stone picked – only to make an unbelievable raise takeout that won her side the game.
Italy went on to defeat Norway to qualify for the 2016 World Women’s Championships so England, who lost to Latvia in their bronze medal match, did well to push them so agonisingly close.
Wales finished W2 L5 in their group, but defeated Croatia 10-4 in a relegation playoff to ensure they will be alongside both England teams at Braehead in 2016.
Before then, the seasons continue for these sides to varying degrees.
England men will play in the Aberdeen City Open and the Haggis Bonspiel in preparation for the English Championships in February.
For England women, Ward says, “A couple of smaller competitions in Scotland – like the Aberdeen City Open and hopefully Perth Ladies, just to keep us together as a team and keep on practising.
“But this is our major competition of the season, so it’s a shame it’s so early on in the season.”
As for Wales, Fletcher said: “We go back into our normal league playing on Monday nights. We’ve got Welsh Championships coming up in early March, so we’ll be going to that together as a team.
“But that’s it really – we don’t have any competitions lined up over the next couple of months.
“We’ve been going really, really hard in the run-up to this, probably spending more weekends in Scotland than we have at home, so we need to get back into our normal lives a little bit.”
For more information on English Curling, see their website here.
You can also read the England women’s team blog here, or follow them on Twitter @lovecurling.