Inside the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars locker rooms as NFL influence in London continues to grow

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II.
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II.
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Chris Clark, a 6ft 5in, 300lbs defensive tackle of the Houston Texans, stands in the locker room 15 minutes after his side’s victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley.

He is wearing nothing but a towel, and talking freely about a huge 26-3 win for his side.

Houston Texans' DeAndre Carter (bottom) is tackled down by Jacksonville Jaguars' Breon Borders at Wembley.

Houston Texans' DeAndre Carter (bottom) is tackled down by Jacksonville Jaguars' Breon Borders at Wembley.

To him this is normal. The time to digest a result in isolation or with team-mates is something he has to share with the media.

Two minutes walk through the corridors underneath Wembley and the Jaguars’ locker room bears a similar scene. Players reflecting on a defeat have to share their thoughts with the media, who are granted access into both locker rooms after a 10-12 minute ‘cooling off’ period.

They can interview whomever they want; be it the quarterback who threw two fourth-quarter interceptions in Gardner Minshew or the veteran defensive tackle who has played more games at Wembley than most Premier League footballers.

“London has usually been a pretty good luck factor for us, but we didn’t do the little things right,” says defensive tackle Abry Jones, who has played on all six Jaguars teams to play at Wembley in the last six years.

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

“I’m very blessed,” he says of that accolade. “I enjoy it. At first it was cool to get the whole week, but now we come in Thursday, hit the hot spots, eat the good food and play some football.”

Houston’s Clark was playing at Wembley for the second time. The 11th-year veteran was here with the Denver Broncos in 2010, back when there was just one game a season in London.

“The wifi wasn’t working back then,” he laughs when asked about what has evolved in the intervening decade. “The crowds were different, the stadium felt different. It was much more organised and a lot better today.”

This is media access football reporters in this country can only dream of, but something even the biggest names in the English game believe may come to pass.

Wayne Rooney touched on it in a recent interview to mark his departure from DC United of the US’s Major League Soccer. How long, wondered England’s record goalscorer, will broadcasters who pay billions for television rights be content with access to a manager in a press conference and a couple of players in a mixed zone, when rights holders in America get access into the locker room and the chance to speak to any player they want?

A valid question, particularly with streaming services like Amazon, Netflix and Twitter joining the race for live sport, and upping the ante by bringing new ideas to their packages.

It is a sign of the NFL’s growth in England and the success of their international expansion.

When American Football’s premier competition first ventured ‘across the pond’ in 2007 to play a regular season game, 81,176 people watched the New York Giants defeat the Miami Dolphins in teeming rain.

Strong start, but how long would the interest survive? How much would the NFL embrace the experiment?

It turns out, more than anyone expected. Yesterday’s game was the league’s 28th regular-season game in London in 13 years.

It was the fourth in five weeks in the English capital, the second time the league has played four games in one season in the UK.

They now have two stadiums over here as well. Wembley, as it proved again yesterday, has the capability to be sold out year after year.

Twenty-two of the 23 fixtures that have been played at this stadium have attracted a crowd in excess of 80,000 – yesterday’s attendance of 84,771 was the third highest for a game in England.

The league also has a second home now, one that looks like a more realistic long-term base. Two games last month were played at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, a venue which has a commitment to host at least two games per year for the next 10 years. Spurs’ new home includes a retractable pitch and separate, NFL-sized locker rooms which were central to the design concept from the start.

London is also becoming a chip in the NFL owner’s power game. In a sport where unstable teams can leave cities if local authorities refuse to build them modern-day stadia, no team is secure. Los Angeles was without an NFL team for more than two decades, with the big media market often used as a threat by owners holding their cities hostage over the building of new stadiums. The Rams and Chargers now play in LA after forcing moves from St Louis and San Diego, respectively.

London is now the market used as leverage by disgruntled owners and part of the continued expansion of the London Games is to test the theory of whether a team could be based in London.

Houston became the 31st of 32 teams to have played a game here, the league gradually acclimatising each franchise to the demands of a journey across the Atlantic that is six hours for teams on the eastern seaboard, and 11 hours for those on the Pacific coast.

If a London team was to come to fruition, they would have to play home games in blocks of three or four to cut down on their own travel, and likewise play road games in clusters. They would also require a base on the east coast of America.

As a regular visitor to the NFL game in London, I remain sceptical about whether a permanent team would work here. Certainly we have the facilities, and the fanbase, but that fanbase is an eclectic mix. Walking into Tottenham three weeks ago, and again yesterday up Wembley Way, shirts from all 32 teams were spotted.

Even the players are divided.

Houston’s Clark would be an advocate. “It’s very possible,” he says. “I can definitely foresee it happening. It would be hard on some guys and their families. But you get a new expansion team, get guys that are willing to travel, it could definitely work.”

Jones of the Jaguars, he of those six appearances, is as well placed as anyone to understand the demands on the players.

“Full-time? No,” he counters. “Back and forth, from London to the States, that would be too much for a team here in London.

“I don’t feel like it would be possible. It would have to be London and a couple of other cities, because they would have to need their own division here.”

And with that, the locker room begins to empty, the Jags packing their bags for Florida, the Texans bound for Texas.

The NFL in London has become a constant. Maybe not ready yet for a full-time team but undoubtedly wielding more influence with each passing year.