British Fans Feel Just A Mite Disappointed

Posted: August 07, 1989

LONDON — Was this football, or was it rugby?

First, Eagles tackle Ron Heller, who weighs 280 pounds (or 20 stone, as they say here) scooped up a fumble and rumbled for a first down. Then Cleveland punter Bryan Wagner kicked a ball as it skittered strangely along the ground.

"It's rubbish," muttered Dave Alred, one of 73,677 fans paying a pricey $40 a ticket to watch the Eagles defeat Cleveland, 17-13, at Wembley Stadium yesterday.

"It's such a pity that the fans here can't see football at its best," he said after a first half filled with punts, penalties and repeated TV timeouts. ''It's obvious that the coaches can't be bothered about winning."

Alred knows the difference. A former British rugby star from Bristol, he said he had a brief tryout as a placekicker with the Minnesota Vikings 11 years ago. "I got hurt, and that was it for me," he said. Today, at 41, he's a secondary school teacher, and weekend placekicker for the Bristol Packers football team, which plays in Britain's semi-pro Budweiser League.

At a time when Britain's own national sports of soccer and cricket are in disrepute, Britain is potential prime territory for American football (London is to get a franchise in the NFL's proposed World American Football League).

Excerpts from American football games - fast, flashy and violent - have been aired for years on Britain's Channel 4, building an enthusiastic audience. This season, for the first time, the station will show full-length games the same day they're played. Really rabid fans of the American game can dial a 24-hour hotline to find out the latest game scores or listen to interviews with players.

Meanwhile, families stay away from soccer matches because they fear getting caught in battles between rival bands of hooligans. Cricket has gotten political - its top stars, in return for large cash payments, recently defected from the national team to play on an outlaw tour in South Africa.

But Alred and other football aficionados at the game worried that such inept performances as yesterday's American Bowl would drive new fans away.

"This is my first live game and I'm disappointed," said Alred's friend, fellow teacher Terry French, peering at the field some 70 rows below, partly obscured by pillars in between. "It's so static. I watch it all the time on Channel 4, but they cut out the boring bits."

During the boring bits last night, the crowd did the wave.

"We deserve better than this," said Alred. "Why play the first game of the exhibition season here? Why not the last exhibition game, when they've cut the roster down to 50 or so? Why do we get to see Randall Cunningham and Bernie Kosar for only one quarter?"

While the majority of fans at the game were British, there were thousands of Americans, such as Goldman Sachs stockbroker Jim Kelly, whose firm bought 200 seats and viewed the game as a sort of European version of the Super Bowl - a chance to score points with clients. "It's just a practice game; I didn't have high expectations," he said.

"The game was a bit slow in the first half, but picked up in the second half," said Paul Simmons, who works for Britain's social security agency and had seats on the 30-yard line. "I'd rate the overall experience as fabulous."

When Eagles wide receiver Henry "Gizmo" Williams made a lunging catch for a second-half touchdown and then did a flip, the crowd went wild, cheering louder than when a streaker ran onto the field.

"We know the Eagles in England; they've been on the telly three or four times," said Simmons. "I was really excited about seeing them because they're tipped (favored) for the Super Bowl. I'm just sorry Mike Quick or Reggie White didn't play."

London football fans even recall the Philadelphia Stars, the two-time champions of the defunct United States Football League. They played the Tampa Bay Bandits in Wembley in 1984. Philadelphia won that game, too.

Simmons said he could hardly wait until the NFL's new league starts play in Europe. "I'm definitely going to attend."

In the meantime, though, he said he was planning a fall trip to America. ''I'm going to L.A., and I plan to see both the Raiders and the Rams."

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