As the bus rolled into the Belle Vue Speedway Stadium in the desolation of inner-city Manchester, it seemed as if somebody had played a cruel joke. Ancient stands creaked in the wind; scabrous grass held pools of standing water and mud wallows, as if a horde of wildebeests had migrated over it. "Jeezus, we're being featured in Wild Kingdom" said Colin Robinson. "Somebody better remember to count our players before we head for home."
But pioneers can't expect to travel first-class, and the massive Robinson, 28, a free-lance nightclub bouncer ("10 years without a scar!"), was not seriously complaining. Indeed, in a few moments he reached the high point of his week, donning the blue and white uniform of the Mansfield Express and running out as an offensive guard against the Manchester Allstars in the Pennine Division of the National Conference of the British American Football League.
Football as in football, that's to say, not as in soccer, and while the league's title is a resounding one, it is possibly a bit deceptive. Its stadiums do not, well, radiate glamour. And far from being paid to play, Colin will dig into his own pockets to the extent, roughly, of $4.50 for the privilege of playing. In the past three years there has been a phenomenal upsurge in interest in what to Brits is an alien sport, but, perhaps outside of British TV, nobody is making much money out of it so far.
Which may not be a bad thing at all. When that cross-oceanic implant—soccer—was tried in the other direction, it failed because a ready-made, largely imported, pro league was imposed artificially at the top. But American football in England seems to have seeded itself, even though the seeds, at first, were blown in on the TV airwaves.
July 6, 1986
And now those seeds are germinating everywhere in Britain. Take Colin Robinson's hometown of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire (pop. 59,949).
"Mansfield is a rough-and-ready sort of town," says Robinson, who ought to know. "It's a coal-mining town, and on a Saturday night it gets a bit heavy, but what else would you expect from lads who spend eight hours a day down a hole?" All the same, it's not a hangdog, dole-queue sort of place, either. The Nottinghamshire pits are profitable, and Mansfield is a hardworking town with money jingling in its pockets—ideal germinating soil, in fact.
Chris White, the team's head coach, an intense and serious man of 24 who is sports organizer at the town's leisure center, recalls the first sprouting of American football in the town three years ago. "We were just a half dozen lads who tried to play on a farm field, and to begin with, we didn't even have a ball" he says. "So we got hold of a soccer ball, let some of the air out and bound it with duct tape. Only it got left in a car one hot day and it exploded.
"We put an ad in the paper to see if we could expand a bit, and we got 60 replies, which shook us. Soon we had it figured out that the biggest blokes had to go in the defensive line, that the smaller ones got to be receivers, and anybody who could throw the ball was a quarterback. So we next went looking for a loan. All the regular banks turned us down, and in the end we had to pay 21 percent to a finance company on ¬£6,000. That kitted about 20 of us, so we had to interchange helmets going on and off the field. We were going 18 months before we could afford pads. We just worked on the basic techniques: blocking, running drills, tackling. I remember the shock I got when I realized the helmets and shoulder pads weren't made out of tank parts, that they just spread the pain to other places. I didn't understand that you could be walking away and somebody would torpedo you in the back, try and break you in two. They can pull a lot of stunts here because our refs have so little experience.
"We had to wait another year before we could get hold of any good [playing] manuals. The ones in the bookstores were just really tips on how to watch the game on TV, because it was the telly that started the whole thing off in this country."
In the heterogeneous mix of porn shops, bistros and fancy French butchers that make up London's Soho district, on a door on the corner of Great Poulteney Street you will see a metal plate inscribed CHEERLEADER PRODUCTIONS LTD. It IS a phrase that one day might find a modest niche in the history of the sport, for it was here, just over three years ago, that the unlikely notion was spawned of serving up football √† l'américaine to a TV audience that would have assumed an offensive lineman was an ill-mannered oaf who had come to fix the phone.
It was a time when a new British TV network, Channel 4, had recently gone into business. It was an unusual sort of channel to start with, having been enfranchised on the understanding that it would cater to minorities with, for instance, magazine programs for the Irish and West Indian communities in Britain. And so it wasn't entirely out of character when its sports editor, Adrian Metcalfe (who was an Olympic 400-meter runner at Tokyo in 1964), allowed himself to be persuaded by Cheerleader, a small independent production company, to put on a program called, simply, American Football.
To those accustomed to TV games ushered in via the prophecies of Jimmy the Greek, the Channel 4 treatment comes as a rude shock. A visitor to the studio watching tapes of last season's programs finds his senses assailed at once. There is a wild montage of football bodies crashing together to orgasmic shrieks and groans, while over the chaos Bonnie Tyler belts out Holding Out for a Hero at about two million decibels. One's attention engaged satisfactorily, Cheerleader is able to calm down a little as John Smith, an Englishman who once kicked for the New England Patriots, handles a feature interview—Walter Payton, maybe, or Dan Marino. It is a fairly simplistic interview as a rule. Then, edited down to little more than 40 minutes, comes an NFL game of the week—a week old, in fact. (Producer Gary Franses says, "When we first started, the viewers didn't know the score because it hadn't been published in Britain, so we could show just about any game. Now, though, they've read about the games earlier in the week—so we'd better get our choice right.") And finally there are the briefest scoring highlights of other NFL games and a league roundup.
"Last year we topped 4.2 million for a Dallas-Bears game, and 3.5 million watched all of the Super Bowl live—which, of course, went on to 2:30 a.m. here," Franses says.
These figures should be compared with maybe 16 to 20 million viewers for the most popular British TV shows, and Franses admits that by going on at 6 p.m. on a Sunday evening his show has an easy ride against what is known among British TV pros as the "God slot," when the other networks traditionally schedule hymn singing and church services. Nevertheless, the audience for football is growing all the time, and, indeed, there will be a sellout of 80,000 when Dallas plays Chicago on Aug. 3 in London's Wembley Stadium.
In the meantime—perhaps a little surprisingly—Franses disdains the homegrown variety of football as TV fare. "We don't cover the Brits," he says. "They moan about that. We know they're there, though, and we're glad of it. But their time is not yet, not yet."
That seems a little sad, somehow, when you realize how much the telly has meant in building the game in England. Last year, directly because of Channel 4, Chris White spent $600 on a package tour to Philadelphia so that he could see the Eagles live. "I saw them play the Redskins," he says. "It was electric! The volume of noise! And the size of the players close to! They're big on TV, but from 20 yards...."
It was only a year after Channel 4 started to broadcast football in 1982 that the first game between British clubs took place. The London Ravens—then and now the best-known team in the land—met a team from Cheshire called the Northwich Spartans and beat them 48-0. But it wasn't the first football game ever to be staged in the British Isles. That was played between the crews of the USS Rhode Island and USS Georgia almost 76 years ago, at Northfleet, Kent, on Dec. 14, 1910. Four thousand people, it is said, turned out on a bitterly cold Tuesday and saw Georgia's men win 11-0. As far as sports historians can judge, there was then a long pause, until World War II, when U.S. Army teams played some exhibitions, and an even longer one before Cheerleader Productions kicked the whole thing off again.
Now Britain boasts two leagues, the British American and the Budweiser League, the latter formed as a breakaway organization late last year when the beer company offered heavy sponsorship to the teams it recruited to play under its aegis. Nationwide, 72 teams took the Budweiser deal (the London Ravens were one), leaving 38 poor but proud teams in the BAFL. The teams themselves also have a tendency to split like amoebas. This year, for instance, the Manchester Spartans begat the Manchester Allstars, who begat the Manchester Heroes.
Other new teams are being formed all the time, as you discover when you scan the ads in the two monthly magazines and the weekly tabloid devoted to the sport in Britain. "Newly formed Wakefield Wasps require players and coaching staff.... Urgent! Ring Paul" pleads an ad in Gridiron UK. And if anyone doubts the TV genesis of the sport in Britain, he should note the letter in May's Gridiron from Lucy Bass of Hertfordshire. "I wonder if you could tell me," wrote Lucy plaintively, "if Joe Montana is married?"
The Mansfield Express resisted the blandishments of Budweiser, though coach White and his friends could do with the cash. At the moment, their only sponsorship comes from a company that makes surgical supplies. It amounts to $4,500 a season. A local car rental firm seemed interested for a while, but backed out when it discovered there would be no boxes for directors and their guests; that in fact the team played on a rugby field, with temporary bleachers set up on game days. No support seems forthcoming from the local elders, either. The 1985 Mansfield Citizens Guide, put out by The Mansfield Chronicle Advertiser and the district council, lists wheelchair basketball and Tae Kwon Do among area sports but leaves out football. "Those old pillocks," said Colin Robinson, using a local word with nerd-like connotations, "only care about bowling and whippet races."
This he uttered while dressing for practice a couple of nights before the Manchester game several weeks ago. Rain was falling but the offense, in particular, needed the workout. White, by the way, tells how he happened to come across a tape of the 1985 Army-Illinois Peach Bowl game in which, lo, Army was running something called the wishbone. "There wasn't much in our books about the running game, so we'd never heard of it," he says. "Most of our teams just run sweeps and power plays through the line. They don't run a lot of misdirections or feints through the middle."
Meantime, there are other problems for White. Most of his players work in the coal industry, and because of the shift system, it's hard to get them together at one time. Moreover, the Express is one of the few all-British teams in the two leagues, though the regulations permit a maximum of three Americans to play on any team. "We've not got 'em, so we don't miss 'em," Robinson says defiantly. "A lot of people who come over here from the States are not necessarily red hot." And indeed a little sturdy xenophobia may be another healthy sign for the game. ("Americans have no God-given right to be on our team," said Moe Hyers, coach of the Cotswold Bears, after recently firing three Americans from his squad.) But the lack of American player-coaches is clearly a huge handicap.
Even so, the genuine charm of happy amateurism pervades practice night where on game days (admission $3, senior citizens half price) a few hundred come to watch and eat hamburgers barbecued by wives and girlfriends of the players. The good humor is enhanced by the Express's press officer, Steve Osborne. "The one player everybody's heard about in England is Perry [the Fridge]," he confides, "so I invented one for us, our Brian Newton. He's a fullback. He's 220 pounds and sort of square-shaped, so I called him the Toaster." Newton, tattooed like Ray Bradbury's illustrated man, grins a wide Refrigerator grin when he hears his name.
"Do you remember The Wacky Races cartoon?" Osborne goes on. "The Slag Brothers? We got Andrew and Paul Jackson. Paul is our center. He's as mobile as an oil rig, and it's hard for him to remember the snap count. Andy, he's unemployed. He sidles out with his pants hanging down. He's supposed to be the offensive line captain and he takes the penalties when they're called. He has to be the one to talk to the referee. 'Will you accept this one, refuse this one?' It's embarrassing."
Osborne introduces Malcolm McAllister, a 5'7" wide receiver. "This boy," he says proudly, "is 75 percent Jack Russell Terrier."
And of course—because otherwise how could the club live up to the telly?—the Express has its cheerleaders, led at one time by Alison Brocklehurst, wife of defensive end Alan. "We practice by watching videos," she says. "And, ooh, it's tough. But a lot of the girls have got, uh, connections with the team now...."
This particular rainy evening, you could hardly expect them to practice with their pom-poms outdoors, so they retreat to the clubhouse bar which is, in fact, the property of the Mansfield Rugby Club, to which the Express pays rent. It is a facility that seems to have an invisible Berlin Wall running down the middle of it, even though the two sports have a common ancestry.
Earlier, Robinson had said, "This can be a rough old town, and you hear comments from rugby players about pansies who play in pads. That's absurd." Nevertheless, speaking among themselves, but loud enough to be heard, the rugby players already drinking in the bar start creating a High Noon-style tension.
"Our standards of fitness are low," says one rugby player.
"We just can't take discipline," says another.
"So they tell us," says a third.
"I'd like a nice glass of lemonade and a Kit Kat bar," trills a fourth, falsetto.
"Pillocks!" responds Alison Brocklehurst, but it's clearly time to leave.
It's paradoxical, perhaps, that the next day White gets a much warmer reaction from the soccer team of the local high school, The Brunts School, when he visits it on a proselytizing mission and finds that the boys have already tucked various texts into their soccer shirts as shoulder pads.
"Rugby's faster and tougher and in soccer we've got the World Cup," one boy says defiantly. But most are curious, open-minded, and White recruits a couple for the junior squad he is forming. And one ("Call me Nuggie. I'm 14 and four foot summat") says he wishes to become a quarterback. When he's asked why, he declares with passion, "Because it's cool."
On the trip to Manchester for the game with the Allstars, there is optimism on the team bus, even though the Express has lost its first two games of the season, 28-14 to the Allstars at home and, the previous week, 27-8 to the Manchester Spartans. Last season they lost twice to the Allstars by a combined score of 79-6. "We'll finish high this season, though," claims White.
For a while, conditions seem to suit the Express. Against all predictions, in the first quarter they take the Allstars apart, powering through their line. They score a touchdown and add two field goals. "We're devaluing 'em," yells Robinson in ecstasy. "They've gone all waggedy-fingery!" In his joy, he may have made the first British contribution to football's rich vocabulary. He means, of course, that the Allstars are now arguing among themselves. And they are, indeed, causing considerable anguish and pain to their coach.
Before the game that man, 25-year-old Jim Nendel from Spokane, a former defensive back at Whitworth College, had spoken of the state of the game as he found it in Britain. "Listen," he said. "These guys have come so far I really can't believe it. This is only their second season playing ball. They've had no touch football, no grade school football. A lot of them are natural hard hitters. Just tell them what you want and they'll do that, 100 percent, they're so enthusiastic. The better teams here could handle small colleges easily.
"But the hard thing is, we don't have much equipment, the blocking bags, sleds. It's all using the manual and harping at the guys. They're real good learners, though.
"Some of us are talking about a 10-year cycle [for British football to come fully of age]. We've got a junior club started. They can't play with padding but we're teaching them the basics. And they love it so much. They are such diehards! If they keep going and eventually feed into the big clubs...who knows what might happen?"
Nendel could hardly have been accused of crossing the Atlantic to make his fortune. "I tried out for the Patriots last year," he said, "and got myself hurt—a double hamstring pull. Now look, here I am! A head coach at 25!" He also is one of the team's stars, playing several positions on offense and defense. He doesn't add that the Manchester Allstars can afford to pay him only about $30 a week plus board, and that he supplements that tiny sum by giving clinics on American football all over Britain.
Which is exactly, in a practical way, what he did for the rest of the game at Belle Vue. He rallied the Allstars—at halftime he lamented how his line just wasn't firing out, how slow it was, how long it took the team to get going—and Mansfield's lack of discipline and skilled coaching ultimately led to a general breakdown. Nendel won the game almost single-handedly, scoring four touchdowns. On the Mansfield bench there was dismayed silence. It has been made very clear to them that at this stage of development of the game in Britain an American or Americans on one's team is an absolute necessity, both to coach and to lead.
Still and all, up in the Manchester sky that afternoon, some sporting deity didn't want the spirit of Mansfield to be utterly crushed. Midway through the last quarter, the diminutive Malcolm McAllister, the well-known Jack Russell Terrier, ran a spectacular 80 yards to take some of the shame out of the lopsided score. So it was 36-20, and there it stayed.
But, hey, Cheerleader Productions, though you are probably right with your "not yet" policy, one of these days you might ease off a little on your hard-rock football video sequences and show something like McAllister's Big Run. After which football in England might just start needing a Pete Rozelle.