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.
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 à 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.