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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

NFL foray recalls days when London boasted title team


LONDON — Occasionally life deals you a good hand.

Christopher Davies

It could be a new job, a new girlfriend or boyfriend, a memorable vacation or a stroke of unexpected luck in any form. We should enjoy whatever it is while we can, because life dictates such highs do not always last as long as we would like.

So when professional American football came to Europe, more specifically London, in 1991 in the form of the World League, this devotee to a sport alien to most of my fellow countrymen was determined to savor every moment.

A fan of the Oakland/Los Angeles (or whoever made Al Davis the best offer) Raiders, I now had my own team, the London Monarchs. The gridiron god had smiled on me.

American football had "arrived" in Britain in 1982 when Channel Four started to broadcast National Football League games, albeit a week old. They were rewarded with a cult following, a generation of sports-loving school kids who quickly added Dan Marino and Joe Montana to their list of idols alongside the inevitable soccer stars.

My son, Kerry, was typical of the teenage fan club. He was 6 when Marino and Montana came into his life (in fairness he stood no chance . . .) and at age 15 he could barely remember life without American football.

The marketing suits of the NFL were keen to exploit this new market and the World League was formed with 10 teams — six from the U.S. plus one from Canada, England, Germany and Spain.

Apart from spreading the gospel in Europe the World League gave valuable game time to players who struggled to move up the ranks of the then-28 NFL franchises.

The first season could hardly have been more successful for the Monarchs, who beat the Barcelona Dragons in World Bowl '91 at Wembley 21-0 before a delirious crowd of 61,108.

Jon Horton, Phil Alexander, Judd Garrett, Stan Gelbaugh and Danny Lockett became back-page news on the soccer-dominated English newspapers.

The home of football was now also the home of American football with the Monarchs averaging 40,000 at Wembley. Amazingly, incredibly, unbelievably, two years later the World League was suspended, returning in 1995 as NFL Europe with the Monarchs in a six-team European league.

Why did the NFL put the league on hold?

Many reasons.

The huge first-year budgets were slashed in years two and three, the well-oiled marketing machine was minimized and, perhaps in an era where instant returns are demanded, the NFL didn't have the belief to invest in the new product.

In 1997, London's team became the England Monarchs, becoming gridiron nomads and playing home games in London, Birmingham and Bristol. The following year the Monarchs folded and the league placed a new team in Berlin.

In seven years, the sport and the Monarchs had somehow descended from a peak no one ever dared dream about to extinction. By June 2007 the Germany-dominated league was kicked into touch by the NFL.

Five months later, the NFL was back in town as the Miami Dolphins' winless streak became 0-8 with their 13-10 loss to the New York Giants at the impressively refurbished Wembley in the first regular-season NFL game outside of North America.

The NFL money brokers would have been hugely impressed that interest was so high. The attendance of 81,176 could have been sold out five times over on Sunday.

The crowd was mainly English die-hards with some expatriates delighted to have a chance to see their national sport on their adopted doorstep, plus some from Miami and New York who flew over the pond because they wanted to be at the historical event.

The spectators, mostly cheering for Miami, did their best to make a poor game played in pouring rain exciting but the entertainment level generally matched the weather.

The buildup was predictably and sadly a throwback to the 1980s with too many columnists writing as if American football was a new concept here. Doing nothing for the belief that Americans have taken being insular to an art form, Miami linebacker Channing Chowder was unaware that people in England speak English (I kid you not).

Plaxico Burress of the Giants admitted the only thing he knew about London was that Buckingham Palace was there (it's a start . . .) while the weak dollar against the pound was a shock to most players.

Those who paid top dollar for Wembley seats knew more about the game than the visitors did about their country, though perhaps fittingly the first NFL points scored in Britain were by Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes, born in Greenock (Scotland) who converted a 20-yard field goal.

The Dolphins' touchdown came so late it gave the scoreline an unrealistic closeness. The Giants were vastly superior, though aficionados would ask how they managed to win while completing only eight forward passes for 59 yards.

Such stats were irrelevant to the fans who clearly enjoyed a mediocre matchup — or the NFL accountants who deal in finance not field goals.

The game was part of the globalization of American football, though talk of an NFL franchise in London smacked of lip-service.

"We're looking at the U.K., Mexico, Canada and Germany as our four markets," said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. "We definitely want to come back soon."

The interest in the game proved American football is still alive and kicking in England, but maybe we should enjoy whatever we can feast on while we can. There is likely to be a long wait between courses.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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