Win: History of American Football in UK

When the NFL brought glitzy, all-star American Football to Wembley in 1986, few in the crowd realised it had been played there 30 years earlier.

Steven Russell

When the NFL brought glitzy, all-star American Football to Wembley in 1986, few in the crowd realised it had been played there 30 years earlier. In fact, as a new book reveals, the game has a proud history in Britain - and particularly East Anglia. Steven Russell pads up

IT'S the early 1980s and, in thousands of UK homes, quiet Sunday teatimes are disturbed by the razzamatazz of American Football. For Brits still digesting the events of the Falklands War and watching unemployment rise above 3,000,000 for the first time since the 1930s, the combination of transatlantic glamour and hard-hitting on-field combat is a potent mix. Young Nick Richards, then at primary school, quickly falls for the bright, cartoon-like action played out weekly on Channel Four. The squads look just like Lego astronauts in their outsized uniforms and helmets.

He turns eight just after the Super Bowl in 1983 - American Football's version of the World Cup Final - and in the playground he and similarly-addicted pals dream of being a top quarterback like Joe Montana, of the San Francisco 49ers.

Nick's bedroom has its soccer pictures, but also sharing wall-space is a Dallas Cowboys poster he got for Christmas - and he sleeps in a 49ers top sent by a relative in the States.

“I used to pretend to be Dan Marino [Miami Dolphins' new-for-1984 quarterback] on the landing of my parents' house. I'd take a big ball of rolled-up socks, pump-fake to Nat Moore and then complete a dramatic fictional pass to Mark Duper. The whole play would end with me jumping head first onto my bed into an end zone made of pillows and teddy bears,” he remembers.

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Nick's spell as a wet-behind-the-ears Dolphins fan ended in the summer of 1985. Just before the new season started, a party of teachers and other VIPs from his home village of Hingham, between Thetford and Norwich, travelled to the US to help celebrate its American namesake's 200th anniversary in Massachusetts. Headmaster Paul Planken came back with sporting goodies such as softball bats, and a list of potential penpals. During the 1985 season Nick corresponded with Michael Ditullio, who sent over New England Patriots paraphernalia. Against the odds, the Patriots reached Super Bowl XX . . . and carried with them the hopes of many young fans in an unlikely corner of East Anglia. Sadly, a 46-10 humiliation by the Chicago Bears meant there was no fairy-tale ending.

More than two decades on, he says: “I remember going into school five hours later and everyone had watched it. It was bizarre. It was almost as if we were in America, in a way. I imagine the people we were writing to in Massachusetts were having the same conversations that Monday morning: 'What a disaster . . .'”

Today, the Pats are still his team. The magic of American Football might have ebbed and flowed over the years, but the passion is still there - strong enough to glue him to the TV on Sunday nights in the autumn and winter as the action is played out thousands of miles away.

And strong enough, too, to prompt him to write a history of his beloved sport on this side of the pond: Touchdown UK. The timing couldn't be better: it's 25 years ago (plus a few months) since the first match between two all-British sides - the October, 1983, clash of the London Ravens and Northwich Spartans - and a quarter of a century since the formation of two key UK organisations - the British American Football Federation (with seven clubs) and the American Football League United Kingdom (19).

A pivotal event that pushed the sport firmly into the public consciousness was the inaugural American Bowl in August, 1986, when gridiron deposited its hype, Gatorade sports drink and cheerleaders on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium - along with the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears, including the Bears' defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who at his peak weighed more than 27 stones. Chicago won the pre-season game 17-6 and the occasion won massive media exposure in Britain.

But it wasn't the first time the sport had graced Wembley. No siree! Nick was amazed to discover early in his researching a 1952 programme for a United States Air Forces in Europe clash.

“I was like 'What? . . . 1952 at Wembley?!' I thought 'That's 30 years before the modern games there.'”

In fact, the first recorded match over here was on Tuesday, December 21, 1910, at Northfleet in Kent - between the crews of two visiting battleships. A crowd of about 4,000 saw the USS Georgia triumph 12-0 over USS Rhode Island.

It all went relatively quiet for 30 years, until US servicemen started coming to Britain in the 1940s and brought their favourite sport to US Air Force bases.

With the war over, the game was played on the bases, with the United States Air Forces in Europe Championship the pinnacle. British USAFE teams started their own league in 1951, with the winner taking on the best team from the continent to decide the overall USAFE champions.

The first USAFE showdown was at Wembley on December 13, 1952, before a 22,000 crowd. Burtonwood Bullets' 7-26 defeat by Furstenfeldbruck Eagles was captured for posterity by Pathe News, whose reporter compared the helmeted players to Martians and called the scores “tries”.

East Anglian USAFE teams involved in the sport over the years included Lakenheath, Bentwaters, Mildenhall, Woodbridge and Wethersfield, near Braintree. “If you're looking for a real heartland of America Football in Britain it is, bizarrely enough, East Anglia, with Lakenheath and Mildenhall being big areas,” says Nick.

Wethersfield reached the 1963 championship game against Bitburg, but the game was cancelled following the assassination of President John F Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the teams were declared joint winners.

Some famous names walked on East Anglian soil, too. Tom Landry, based at RAF Debach in Suffolk as part of the 493rd Bomb Group, would go on to become the Super Bowl-winning head coach of Dallas Cowboys. Chad Jennings, an A10 Thunderbolt pilot at RAF Bentwaters, played for two seasons with the Suffolk base and was later with the Cowboys for 11 years.

Nick interviewed 40-50 people for his book, including many former air force personnel who served over here. “A lot of them say that when they were in England they lived for their American Football. All the memories they bring back are of playing against other teams, rather than of their actual job in the air force. They lived for their Saturdays.”

As far as the wider British public was concerned, however, the sport wouldn't trouble the collective consciousness until late 1982, when the launch of innovative Channel 4 broke the mould.

“The alternative schedule began five days into the new era when, on November 7 at 5.30pm, the channel's multi-coloured logo formed into an American footballer and snorted steam for the first time,” writes Nick.

“In the Sunday tea-time so-called 'God-slot' it was up against the likes of Antiques Roadshow, Last of the Summer Wine and Songs of Praise. Compared to those three programmes, it stuck out like a sore thumb. A sore thumb wearing a bold Stars and Stripes plaster.”

An estimated 750,000 viewers a week tuned in that year, enjoying the taste of something different. The following January came the first Super Bowl to be screened live on British TV. An estimated 4.5 million fans braved the early hours to watch the Washington Redskins trump Miami 27-17. It heralded the start of a golden decade of American Football over here.

British teams quickly sprung up. The London Ravens were swift out of the blocks; by the summer of 1983 they were ambitiously taking on the USAFE team from Chicksands, Bedfordshire, at Stamford Bridge.

That first clash between two all-British sides (Ravens v Northwich Spartans) came in the October, and by the end of 1983 there were a dozen teams in Britain - 35 a year later.

It was a decade when you could buy a poster of star quarterbacks John Elway and Dan Marino at Athena, and even Marks and Spencer brought out American Football annuals for Christmas.

Britain had regular weekly TV coverage of NFL games, with as many as 12 million tuning in to watch Super Bowl XX in 1986. And 150-plus American Football teams were formed across the country, with more than 10,000 people taking up the sport.

NFL Properties, responsible for pukka merchandise, said there was virtually no revenue generated from the sale of goods in Britain in 1983. By1990 it was nearly $50 million - Britain accounting for more than 75% of all European merchandise sales.

The sport's fortunes in Britain seemed to rise as soccer's waned between 1982 and '86. Hooliganism was a scar on the game, and there were the Bradford and Heysel tragedies.

Big-time football came to Wembley in August, 1986, when the old stadium hosted that first American Bowl. The pre-season showpiece would be a fixture into the early 1990s.

The next major development was the World League, featuring good but not top-level American players and a sprinkling of decent homegrown talent. It kicked off in the spring of 1991 and the Wembley-based London Monarchs beat Barcelona Dragons in the first World Bowl: probably the worst thing that could have happened, as year two was an anti-climax - the champions winning only a couple of their 10 games.

In 1993 the World League was temporarily suspended as chiefs considered its future. The end of the Golden Decade was nigh. With the United States closing numerous bases across Europe, the 42-year history of competitive American Football games on USAF stations in Britain drew to a close. Lakenheath Eagles were crowned the last British champions.

Some of the native British teams dropped out, and changes to the programme format helped see Channel 4's audience figures drop.

Fans grew more knowledgeable and needed something more filling than the novelty fizz of the pre-season American Bowl games; and the World League philosophy never quite fired the imagination. “They thought they'd have a rivalry between London and the European sides, but it never really worked,” says Nick. “People don't care about Frankfurt and Barcelona - especially when they were all Americans in the team, anyway.”

The successful relaunch of soccer in 1992 with The Premier League also had an influence.

But while the British scene has paled, it's far from moribund. Today, the British American Football League boasts about 50 teams, including Ipswich Cardinals, Colchester Gladiators, Norwich Devils and Cambridge County Cats.

“In Britain, it will never be as big again as it was in the '80s, but the core fans love it,” says Nick. “You're not going to get ten or 15,000 for a game. but it's still very positive, with lots of people playing and watching.

“There's a new wave of interest. A lot of it is from people who are now too old to play and are passing their love of it on to their kids; and a lot of sides have junior teams.”

Channel Five has picked up terrestrial coverage in recent years, and the BBC shows the Super Bowl, while those with satellite and cable can sate their hunger by watching three NFL games from America on a Sunday during the season.

Nick's been known to watch all 10 or so hours.

“I did it at Christmas,” he smiles. “I was watching it from 6pm until 4am and watched the last play and then came to work.” He works as a journalist with Archant, publisher of the EADT. “Everyone said I looked knackered, but I said I had a really bad cold. I didn't want to let on I'd been watching it all night!

“But I love it. Bright and colourful, when it's dark and dingy outside . . . that's why I started to like it, really - that sense of escapism. It's still magical for me. A lot of the games at night have such a good atmosphere, and I haven't shaken that off.”

What did he know about the history of the sport in England until he started researching in earnest?

“Very little. I just thought it was an '80s thing. It was nice talking to people about the '80s, but when you realise there was another 40 years before that - longer, even - that you didn't know about, those were the people and times I really wanted to talk about.”

Thanks to the wonders of the web, tracking down former servicemen who'd played in England wasn't too difficult.

“They've started to organise themselves and have had two reunions, and have another in Las Vegas in September. I've been asked to go over and give a talk,” says Nick, “and my next book is going to be looking at those air force years. There's so much there.

“Actually, one guy came in right at the last minute. This book was done and he said 'I hear you're looking for people to talk about the old days.' This was over Christmas. He sent me a picture on New Year's Day of him and his grandson, with his old number 82 shirt from his USAFE days at Alconbury, and I quickly changed things to get his thoughts in the book.”

Nowadays there are rumours the NFL might establish a Wembley-based franchise - a pukka side competing with your Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Pittsburgh Steelers. And last weekend came suggestions the league might be ready to let its crown jewel - the Super Bowl itself - be staged outside America, at Wembley, in years to come.

“I'm sure if an NFL team was based in London it would all change again,” says Nick of the sports fortunes in Britain. “There could be another boom. But that's all pie in the sky at the moment.”

Touchdown UK - American football: Before, during and after Britain's Golden Decade is available via at �14.99

NICK Richards can pinpoint exactly the genesis of his book on American Football in Britain. It came one desultory night during a round-the-world trip.

He'd put work on ice to go travelling with girlfriend Lorraine. In October 2007, three days before leaving England, he'd been among the 81,175 fans at Wembley witnessing the New York Giants' triumph over Miami in the first competitive NFL game ever played outside America.

“I wanted something to read on my trip, really - in Singapore, Thailand, all these Far Eastern places - and I was thinking about the game: why it had come about. I wondered 'Why is there no book on this?' There are loads of books from the '80s, but no general history.

“And when I was in Cambodia and Malaysia, I was checking into nice hotels so I could watch American Football, trying to follow the season. I really missed it.”

The trip wound up in America for three weeks. “I've got an uncle in Arizona and was talking to him about it. He's ex-USAFE, who served at Upper Heyford and Greenham Common. He said 'Yeah, why is there no book on it? Write one!'

“We got snowed in one night in a hotel near the Grand Canyon, in a place called Williams. I bought a notepad from Wal-Mart and that night I sat at a desk for about six hours doing a kind of spider diagram of the book - eating some blueberry pie from a vending machine, thinking about what I could include.

“When I came back, I thought 'I've got to do it.' I didn't want it to be another idea that just comes and goes.”

Back in Blighty, he started on the book in February last year, fitting it in with work. It's a self-published tome that's cost him about �4,000, including buying some historic old images, but believes it's a cheap price to pay for fulfilling a dream, and that there's a market among fellow devotees for the finished product.

His fascination with all things starred and striped hasn't abated over the years. Nick, who lives in Bury St Edmunds, read American studies at university. “When I grew up, everything was cool in America, and I haven't lost that feeling. When I first went there, it was 'Wow! Brilliant!' I still get a special feeling about it. All the place-names are such a part of our culture - song titles and things like that. The best TV shows are American; much of the best music is American . . .”

The long-time Norwich City supporter says, though, that it's nigh on impossible to get soccer fans to share his fascination with his “other” love. The magic's either there for you or it's not. “People always say it looks so confusing, but it's not. There's always something happening. And all the colour and glitz . . .”

He was in the States last year for the Super Bowl. His uncle is retired now from the military, but they went to watch the game at the base where he used to work - “with about 300 people in their GI gear! We were all playing bingo, with things like 'five-yard pass' and 'touchdown' and 'punt' to tick off. I won! There was a correct-score game, too, and I won that. It was a bit like beating them at their own game!”

What's his best American Football moment ever?

“I think the Super Bowl in '86. It's the first time I remember staying up for a whole game. That and going to Wembley in 2007, and thinking about how it was a regular-season game in a new stadium.”

Not surprisingly, the New England fan has already got himself a couple of �75 tickets to see the Patriots take on Tampa Bay in this October's match-up.