Sporting Bygones: Time to come out of the closet as American football gets firmly established on the grid thanks to its pioneering pathfinders

The defence of the Yorkshire Rams American Football Team based at Moldgreen rugby ground in Huddersfield work on the tackle bags in training for the new season.
The defence of the Yorkshire Rams American Football Team based at Moldgreen rugby ground in Huddersfield work on the tackle bags in training for the new season.
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It may perhaps be hard to imagine for American football fans who have kept their passion for the Stateside pastime hidden under a bushel, but gridiron has been played in this region for a quarter of a century.

In 2012, the Yorkshire Rams have celebrated their 25th anniversary. Indeed, their roots go back a further 12 months to the Wakefield Wasps, who were created in 1986, only to fold before the end of the year due to a failure to secure a regular playing field.

Just down the A1 from the Rams’ latest headquarters at Leeds Corinthians rugby club in Middleton, county rivals Doncaster Mustangs also had cause to honour a landmark this summer as they notched 10 years and counting.

The Mustangs were the last attempt of a trio of hardy gridiron fans, led by Mark Blyth, to get a team launched in the area, after previous attempts with the Doncaster Jaguars had failed.

A third team, the Sheffield Predators, will mark their fifth anniversary next year, having won promotion in the three-tier British League in 2012.

A trio of teams representing Yorkshire may not suggest a groundswell of people donning cleats and pads every summer Sunday, but it does point to a healthy following among red-blooded males in the White Rose.

When an NFL game at Wembley attracts in excess of 80,000 fans, as it did last week for the sixth year in succession, such interest highlights a sport with a healthy fan base in this country.

However, before 2007, when the growing interest in the sport was taken seriously by the NFL’s granting of a regular season game to London, American football remained a game watched primarily by those willing to stay up on a Sunday night and glean whatever footage they could lay their eyes on.

The boom in interest of the 1980s left a hard-core of fans that grew steadily through the 1990s and 2000s.

Closet NFL fans abound, but, as a collective, they rarely opened the door to venture into the unknown.

“Unless you talked about it, nobody knew about it,” said Keith Clarkson, who was one of the founding members of the Rams in 1987.

“Once you get talking about it, you realise just how many followers of American football there are and how popular the sport is.”

Clarkson was a ‘young’ 38 when he joined members of the defunct Wasps to launch the Rams in Huddersfield in 1987.

The team was also swelled by players from the Bradford Dolphins, who had also failed to establish a regular base, and had subsequently folded.

“We had about 90 players in our first practice session and had whittled that down to 60 by the time of our first game,” said Clarkson.

“We played Heanor Hawks at Waterloo (former home of Huddersfield RUFC) and there must have been 1,000 people there. Fortunately, we gave them a show with a 26-24 win.”

Huddersfield Rams became the Yorkshire Rams just a couple of years later due to the wide area from which they were drawing players.

Moldgreen rugby ground in Huddersfield was their base before they moved to Dewsbury and then on to South Leeds Stadium in Hunslet. Three years ago, they decamped again to Leeds.

The Rams are one of four clubs still in existence who helped found the British American Football League in 1987. Through different names and guises, the league still exists today and in the season just gone, 51 clubs from England, Scotland and Wales competed.

In August’s BritBowl – the league’s showpiece final held at Don Valley Stadium each year – the Sheffield Predators won the Division Two play-off final and will play in Division One North next season.

The Rams – who contested their only BritBowl final in 2002 – are bound for an expanded Northern Premiership next season, despite only finishing fourth out of six teams in the regional top tier this summer.

Finishing above them this season, with six wins from 11 games, were the Doncaster Mustangs.

Formed by Blyth in 2002, they were BritBowl Division Two winners at Don Valley Stadium 18 months later.

“I still remember our first game,” said Blyth. “We played at Teesside Cougars and actually won on the last play of the game.

“Previous attempts at launching a team had been tough. We were travelling 200 miles nearly every weekend and we thought we’d give it one more go with the Mustangs.

“As luck would have it, we managed to establish a team.

“That team we put together in 2003 was absolutely superb.”

Between them, the three teams have more than 100 players and developing junior set-ups. They each enjoy positive links with the region’s universites.

Blyth said: “Our link with the University of Sheffield Sabres has been great and we attract players from all over; Sheffield, Rotherham, Bolton, Lincoln. Our entire offensive line is made up of guys from Newcastle.”

Doncaster also run an Under-16s team and from next season will have an Under-19s team.

The Rams would welcome similar. “In an ideal world we’d have 50 to 60 players,” said Rams general manager Adam Lilley, “and we’d be able to set up a developmental team that plays friendly games.

“We are always looking for as many players as possible.”

The Rams hosted a rookie day yesterday while the Mustangs plan to host one on December 2 at the Doncaster School for Deaf.

So for those closet American football fans out there, there is no excuse any more.