Thirteen years have passed since the London Monarchs – or indeed the England Monarchs, as they were known for their final, nomadic season – were disbanded. But this Saturday the capital will again play host to the final of an international American football competition. The venue will not be Wembley, but instead a muddy patch of turf in a public park in north London.
Finsbury Park Stadium is perhaps a generous moniker for a venue that has neither fixed seats nor terraces upon which to accommodate supporters, but that did not stop close to 600 of them turning up to watch the London Blitz beat Denmark’s Sollerod Gold Diggers in the semi-final of the EFAF Cup, earlier this month. The Blitz anticipate a crowd twice as big when they take on Serbia’s Kragujevac Wild Boars in the final of a competition that has never before been won by a British side.
Launched in its present format in 2002, the EFAF Cup is the second-tier tournament for European clubs – a sort of Europa League to the Eurobowl’s Champions League. For the Blitz to have come this far is no small achievement. In Britain the sport is resolutely amateur, meaning the Blitz do not pay their players and ask them to help raise the funds required for tournament entry fees, transport, insurance and other operational costs. Teams such as the Wild Boars lure talented players from across Europe or even America, with the offer of a small stipend.
The Blitz have in the past had some of their best players tempted away. The linebacker Jason Brisbane, developed by the Blitz’s youth team, spent a season training with the San Diego Chargers in 2008, as part of an international player development scheme. After returning he soon moved to Finland, to play for the Seinajoki Crocodiles. He has since returned to Britain, but after injuring his knee he is working as a coach with the Leicester Falcons.
Although it is certainly not unheard of for players with significant college or even professional experience in America to join British teams – the former Denver Broncos quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt played for Leicester last year – the Blitz roster is without such figures. Instead the squad is a classic amateur mix of students and workers: bus drivers and carpenters, sales managers and property developers. Only the wide receiver Rod Bradley can make any claim to celebrity status, having starred as Spartan in Sky One’s short-lived relaunch of the TV series Gladiators.
But while they may lack the pedigree and professional status of the former Monarchs, they do have significant athletic talent. The Blitz possess running backs and wide receivers who have been timed at 4.55 seconds or less for the 40-yard dash, linebackers who can bench press more than 370lb and one defensive back, Joe Coultate, who can deadlift more than 550lb.
That is in part a testament to a new off-season strength and conditioning programme introduced by coaches following defeat in last year’s EFAF Cup semi-final, but it is also indicative of rising standards across the sport domestically. American football has not yet regained the popularity of the 1980s, but the numbers of people playing the sport have increased significantly since the NFL launched its International Series, bringing regular season games to Wembley, in 2007.
Fifty senior teams compete in the British American Football Association’s full-contact senior league and a further 58, spread across various age groups, play at junior level. In each category the BAFA has seen expansion at the rate of three new teams per season, while the growth at university level has been even more dramatic. From 42 teams in 2007, the British Universities American Football League has expanded to 67 this year, with roughly 1,000 more players and coaches participating across the six conferences.
“The overall standard has definitely increased in the British game,” says the Blitz head coach, Mark Moss. “I think the emergence and the continued success of the university league has had a lot to do with that. We’ve certainly got a lot of guys on the team who’ve played university football and it’s a real hotbed for producing talented football players. It’s right there on campus, there’s no travelling for the players to get to training and it’s a bit more centrally funded. It’s easier for guys to participate.”
The Blitz remain a dominant force in the British game, unbeaten domestically in more than two seasons and seeking a third consecutive title at BritBowl XXV, which is scheduled for the weekend of 24-25 September at the National Sports Centre in Crystal Palace. Whether that is enough to overcome the Wild Boars remains to be seen. The Serbian side have developed rapidly since appointing the American player-coach Stan Bedwell in 2008, dominating their domestic championship and drawing crowds of up to 3,000 fans to home games.
Moss says he is “quietly confident” and with a wide-open spread offence and a passing game that takes full advantage of the quarterback Frederick Boyle’s ability to make plays outside the pocket, the Blitz will at the very least hope to entertain the anticipated record crowd. And while Finsbury Park may not be Wembley, those fans will still be treated to many of the traditional trappings of the American “gameday experience” – cheerleaders, a full digital scoreboard, play clocks in each endzone, a mic’d up refereeing crew and a DJ for the intermissions.
Needless to say, though, the half-time burgers will be a fair bit cheaper.
The EFAF Cup final kicks off at 3pm on Saturday at Finsbury Park Stadium. For ticket details and directions visit londonblitz.com
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