Confessions of a part-time cornerback

6 June 2000

I have a confession to make. I am a New Orleans Saints fan.

I admit this is an unlikely thing to declare to the world, rather akin to standing up in a crowded room and shouting “I have haemorrhoids and man do they itch right now”. After all, weren’t the Saints the team whose fans went to matches with paper bags over their heads so that they wouldn’t be recognised on TV as supporters? The team that was despairingly renamed the Ain’ts by the self-same fans because of its ineptness? The team that allowed the sublime genius of Archie Manning to be battered into submission by endless years of non-existent pass protection?

Can’t deny it, but what can I say? When you’re a fan you don’t choose a team, it chooses you. You feel the blood stir when they score and there you are, stuck with them. And anyway, I share a birthday with Ricky Jackson, so that settles it.

Impenetrably American

But it’s not only my choice of team that’s unlikely: the fact that I support one at all is, on reflection, somewhat odd. After all football is the most impenetrably American sport in the world, your equivalent of our cricket. And how often do the good citizens of Spokane, Washington, erupt with controversy over the merits of Glamorgan County Cricket Club? Do they really care in Albuquerque whether or not Brian Lara captains the West Indies? I think not. I once saw some of the Dallas Cowboys taken to the Oval for a cricket match. They couldn’t get it at all – the same guys playing for five days solid, dressed smart enough to go out on the town afterwards? Weird.

So why doesn’t the reverse hold true?

It’s some time now since the boom in British American Football, the cumbersome name invented to get round the fact that to us football means soccer and a gridiron is something you cook on. Things have gone a bit quiet. But the glory years of the game over here saw an explosion in teams like you wouldn’t believe. From a standing start just about every town in England, and a great many in Scotland and Wales, produced its own team and joined a league within about a year and a half.

The lightest registered player in the British American Football League, in his Mum's dining room

The lightest registered player in the British American Football League, in his Mum's dining room

The team I got sucked into, as a particularly puny 17-year-old growing up in a small Hertfordshire market town, was called the North Herts Raiders. We weren’t England’s only Raiders, there was another team of the same name in Crawley although we never played against each other. At one time during those years I sat down and worked out how many of the (then) 28 NFL teams had had their names ripped off by British teams. The answer was almost all of them.

I never saw a Bills or a 49ers, but we had a Thames Valley Chargers (San Diego gave them some second-hand uniforms) and a Greenwich Rams, who I seem to recall were visited by Georgia Frontiere when her Rams were still based in Los Angeles. The Eagles played in the London Borough of Ealing, the Steelers were in Swindon, and the Seahawks were in Southampton. Penzance had the Mounts Bay Buccaneers and Blackpool had the Fylde Falcons. It was all rather sad, although some names were well chosen. Local history and symbols from city and county crests justified the Glasgow Lions, the Warwickshire Bears, the King’s Lynn Patriots (a bit of English Civil War history there) and the Wrekin Giants, named for local legend that says a particular hill was formed when a giant fell asleep. The Heathrow Jets were based near the airport of that name, while up on Tyneside they produced the best joke by far: one of England’s most famous beers is called Newcastle Brown, so no prizes for guessing which AFC Central Division name was borrowed by the local team up there.

Very few teams went out of their way to pick English names, and that might provide a clue to why the sport took off so spectacularly. For every London Ravens or Basingstoke Cavaliers, we had a dozen Strathclyde Sheriffs, Medway Mustangs, and Clydesdale Colts. We were all, at heart, wannabe Americans. How else do you explain the Chelmsford Cherokee, the Brighton B-52s, and the Croydon Coyotes?

Typical British team

At the North Herts Raiders, we were a typical British team. We had no sponsor, so we each paid for our own helmets, shoulder pads and other kit. This meant inept players could not be cut from the squad, since they had invested quite a sum just to be able to train. Our coach had played a little college football in Canada about 30 years previously. We did at least have a big enough squad that no-one had to play both offence and defence (as we spell them over here, although even players with cut-glass BBC accents always pronounced them of-FENSE and de-FENSE, US-style.) Some British teams with manpower problems tried to play both ways, and wondered why they lost 80-0.

Before the Luton Flyers match - me far right as #37

Before the Luton Flyers match - me far right as #37

Like most British teams, we relied on our running game because our passing game was pretty grim. Also like most British teams we were good at defending the run (our linebackers and safeties were psychopaths, or at least played that way) but we couldn’t defend the pass to save our lives (our cornerbacks should only have been allowed on the field to repaint the white lines). I played at cornerback, of course, and not even as a starter. The one team we played that did have a passing game, the Luton Flyers, took us apart with surgical precision. I remember desperately backpeddling as a lithe sprinter of a receiver hurtled towards me, while I tried to simultaneously watch his belt buckle (the giveaway sign of which way he was going to dodge next) and also the quarterback’s arm. I managed these most effectively but at the cost of forgetting to watch my feet: they disappeared from under me and as I sprawled on my backside I had a perfect view of the 40-yard catch-and-run completion that I had conceded. It was my last play of the game. The coaches made sure of that.

In my season, we won once, 9-2 against the Witney Wildcats, and lost nine times. We also managed a tie in an exhibition game played at a US Air Force base: our British opponents, the Ilford Blackhawks, had lost every previous game they had ever played. I think the American servicemen and women thought we were some sort of troupe of comic entertainers.

star running back

After our matches we’d lick our bruises, drink Budweiser, and sing along to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. All good American boys, we were. Our star running back even drove a Cadillac – I remember this because one day I was so careful to avoid hitting it in the car park that I drove into the car next to it. Things could have gone quite badly for me when its owner arrived and saw his rear bumper lying on the ground had our entire defensive line, in full kit, not loomed up behind me as he ranted.

So why did we do it?

Raiders vs Devils poster

Raiders vs Devils poster

Well, I think the American glamour appealed to the British psyche, uncorking a long-blocked channel into our feudal past. America is still in many ways a young country, busy brashly socking the rest of the world between the eyes with its culture. We haven’t really done that since the days of the Crusades and the Hundred Years War, at least not with any style: Victorian imperialism was all about commerce – very stuffy and boring. At heart, England is a country with a strong heritage of heraldry, of knights on chargers. Football has no shields and lances, but it does have helmets and armour, and bright team colours with symbols that would often look just fine on a bravely fluttering pennant. We are a tribal nation, and few sports are so tribal as your type of football.

The British love affair with football US-style is dormant at the moment: the NFL Europe has lost its London franchise and almost all of the dominant teams of the glory days of British American Football 15 years ago have folded. But things will change again. Plenty of blokes in English pubs have heard of the Chicago Bears and know what a quarterback is, while few of their American counterparts know – or care – that cricket is played in Durham or what happens at silly mid off.

And I still support the Saints, God help me.

7 responses to “Confessions of a part-time cornerback”:

  1. Nickie Goomba Says:

    September 10th, 2011 at 5:38 am

    I must admit that, even after a decade, your unfair criticism still stings. Based in Penzance, we were fighting to develop a following in competition with the Camborne-based Dutchy Destroyers (now THERE was a stinker of a name). Our local rugby club rightfully protected their identity as the Pirates.

    We practiced on a pitch in the shadow of St. Michael’s Mount sitting majestically within Mount’s Bay. The addition of Buccaneers kept the tough seafaring identity we wished to market. To this day I insist that our choice was appropriate, and the marketing value was brilliant. It certainly was an enjoyable era.

  2. andydarley Says:

    April 12th, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Nickie – I wrote this more than a decade ago and now, looking back, I think you’re right. Some names have a good feel to them, some don’t. Yours still, with the passage of time, works. I do think we all had a bit of a general imagination failure when it came to branding, but even so your Bucs ought to be moved into the “okay, yes, you can have that one” column with the Heathrow Jets, the Wrekin Giants and the Newcastle Browns.

    This was meant to be an affectionate and self-mocking look back at a time that was a lot of fun, but a bit mad and puzzling too. I’m sorry that it stung.

  3. peter urbanowski Says:

    April 12th, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    YOU DID MAKE ME LAUGH WHILST READING THE ARTICLE AND IT DID BRING BACK GOOD MEMORIES. DONT REMEMBER YOU THOUGH? BUT THEN AGAIN I CAME AND WENT A LOT. WHEN I DID PLAY I WAS ONE OF THE PSYCHO LINEBACKERS WHO DIDNT CARE WHETHER WE LIVED OR DIED DURING A GAME. MY SOLE PURPOSE/INTENT, WAS NOT TO WIN THE BALL BACK, SIMPLY TO DISH OUT AS MUCH PAIN TO THE OPPOSITION AS POSSIBLE. ALONG WITH PEOPLE LIKE “ROBBO”, BAXTER, AND THAT SPECIAL NEEDS INDIVIDUAL CALLED “TOFFIS”, STILL CANT BRING MYSELF TO SAY HIS CHRISTIAN NAME! I THINK THAT WE PLAYED THIS GAME FOR OUR OWN REASONS.SOME FOUND IT A CHALLENGE, OTHERS FOUND IT ALL NEW AND EXCITING, OTHERS LIKE “LITCHFIELD” AND “BRIDGER”,I REALLY HAVE NO IDEA, I SUSPECT THAT THEY SIMPLY ENJOYED THE SHOWERS AFTERWARDS? HOWEVER, WITH THE HELP OF ONE GIFTED INDIVIDUAL, MR.TERRY LEE, WE DID WIN THE BUDWIESER BOWL IN BIRMINGHAM. I STILL HAVE MY MEDAL! AFTER SO MANY TERRIBLE GAMES WE FINALLY GOT OUR REWARD WHICH WAS EXCELLENT.I JUST WISH THAT I HAD BEEN MORE CIVILIZED TOWARD OUR SO CALLED “COACHES” ALONG THE WAY, A SHAME BUT MOST OF THEM WERE WUCKIN FANKERS, THE BIGGEST WUCKIN FANKER BEING COACH “SCHRATER” WHO I PLAYED UNDER FOR A SHORT WHILE AT THE LUTON FLYERS, MIND YOU MOST OF THE TEAM WERE!! I WOULD REALLY LIKE TO KNOW HOW MANY OF OUR EX BRIT AMERICAN PLAYERS OF THE EIGHTIES ARE NOW SUFFERING PHYSICALLY AS A RESULT OF PLAYING THIS SPORT? I WOULD BET THAT QUITE A FEW COULD NOW BLAME THAT GAME FOR VARIOUS PROBS, ME BEING ONE.
    ANYWAY, ITS BEEN NICE TALKING TO YOU, BETTER GET BACK TO WORK.

  4. andydarley Says:

    April 12th, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    You probably don’t remember me ’cause I was one of the ones who stayed with the Raiders when you and Rab went off to form the Aerostars. But I think I still have a photo somewhere from a training session of the three of us getting up off the floor after a play had finished. Will have to see if I can still find it.

    I’m sure I got an email a couple of years back about this story from someone who’s still in contact with you. Damned if I can remember who, though…

    Anyway, I reckon it’s pretty clear we were mates with a different set of people at the time, given who you’ve got good things to say about and who you haven’t! One thing about that team, it was full of cliques – the offense and the defense barely spoke, as I remember, and then you lot all went off to form another team. And me so bloody young and naive that I didn’t realise any of it until years after.

    Ah well. Long time ago now. Still got my helmet on a shelf at home though. Lent the rest of the kit someone and never got it back, but not the lid. Keeping that!

  5. peter urbanowski Says:

    April 18th, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Andy, after having now reflected a bit more on this subject i do remember you, and yes you are right, a few of us did leave the Raiders and set up the Stevenage Aerostars. Good name eh! Dont think there was even a US college team with the same name at the time? We nearly got a home game in Stevenage with the London Ravens at one point, but I’m afraid that somone insulted John Aska of the Ravens so it didn,t happen!
    I cant believe that you can still remember Kieron Rablah,then again who could forget him!
    We were a fragmented team and thats probably the reason why we didn,t perform very well, after all it is a team sport! That’s why we needed a good coach, somone that could pull the thing together and make it work.
    I hope that you are physically o.k and that you haven’t suffered any long term problems as a result of having played this sport. i think that it really should have come with a health warning and you should not have been allowed to play simply because you could afford the kit. Cant believe anyone would fork out £400 + for a helmet and some shoulder pads?
    Anyway it’s been nice speaking to you, don’t let your helmet get too dusty, give it a good buffing up now and then!!
    All the best, Pete.

  6. Alan Telford Says:

    January 23rd, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Hi Andy ! I’ve just been trawling the web when I came accross your blog and had to have a chuckle ! :-) I too played cornerback for the Fylde Falcons in the late 80’s and have similar photos to yours! Our side too consisted of self bought gear (which I still have !) and lots of amature bravado but with some help from American imports (Bo Hicky, Cliff Walker, Dale ? & Jeff ? names escape me lol )We played team such as :- Manchester Allstars , Manchester Spartans Leicester Panthers, Glasgow Lions & Leeds Cugars . I also remember playing Birmingham Bulls Thames Vally Chargers, Bournmouth Bobcats and a traveling collage team from the states The Origon State Allstars who hammered us lol ! I ended up having to give it up through gettig too many injuries ;-) All the best Alan

    Ps I follow the Rams lol !

  7. Rik Parker Says:

    November 24th, 2013 at 12:59 am

    After all these years,still brings back memories
    As for urbo,rab robbo(rip)loved playin defence with three nut cases such as these
    So we didn’t win bugger all,who gave a toss!!!!
    Good times had by most

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.