GB Lions European Championships 2018 – Review
GB Lions European Championships 2018 – Review
Images courtesy of Bec Edwards
In European Football National team terms, Group A is the elite level of competition, to get to a Group A tournament you will have beaten a number of programmes in the Group B echelon. Therefore, to be competing is an achievement worthy of note. The GB Lions have recently been doing just that over a seven-day period in the city of Vantaa in Finland, at the IFAF 2018 European Championships. Two groups of three, with round robin games to determine who would play for 5th and 6th, 4th and 3rd and winners and runners up was the format. GB were placed with Finland and France, two of the favourites. Austria, Sweden and Denmark were in the other group. How did it all go for the Lions, and what did we learn? I’ll take the games one by one.
First up for GB in the opening game of the tournament were Finland. It was evident from the off that the Fins had big, fast strong athletes on both sides of the ball. Starting quarterback James Slack was soon to find that their defensive line were on a mission to get to him, and they were succeeding, giving him no time to set-up, the first quarter saw the Lions excellent punter, Ian Jacquet being deployed to keep Finland at bay. With some stout GB defending it took the Fins until the closing seconds of the quarter to break through for the go-ahead score after a series of punishing runs. Still looking to get a foothold in the contest, the Lions were handed a lifeline by outstanding defensive back and kick returner Josh Amis, who opened the second quarter with an electrifying 85-yard interception return for a score!
Amis, formidable on the return
The Lions were back on terms, but not for long. Finland were stung into action, and three big runs behind some power blocking had the Fins back in front 14-7. The ensuing kick off was fielded by Amis who took a knee thinking he was in the endzone, and it would be a touchback, unfortunately he was on the one-yard line, and the offence would start from there. On the first play the ball was fumbled in the endzone, Finland recovered it, and just like that, it was 21-7. Before the half was over, despite an impressive interception by Ashley Hopkinson, the Fins scored on a further run, leaving the halftime score at 28-7. After the break the Fins weren’t finding it so easy on offence to make gains, the Lions had made some adjustments on defence, with Will Hobbs racing around the defensive backfield making a number of important stops. Amis made his second interception of the game returning it fully fifty yards before being hit and coughing the ball up on the Fins fifteen-yard line. GB worked themselves into the redzone but were unable to get the ball in the endzone. Patrick Daley came in at quarterback and had some success running the ball himself, but Finland soon got wise and shut him down for the most part. Now deep in the fourth quarter, the game had become a stalemate. GB introduced Brad Thompson at quarterback and he sparked a promising drive with Campbell impressing on the ground, and Milloy and Newport making catches, but as time ran out a further pass was tipped and picked off, the contest was over. Interesting to note then, that there had been no further scoring in the second half. Amis was deservedly awarded the MVP for the Lions, who would need to recover fast, as they would play again within three days against the European powerhouse, France.
Hobbs was pumped up for the battle
Game two was an eye opener, the French squad was stacked with athletes at every position. They had possession early and executed a near flawless drive ending with a pin point pass for the opening score. GB started the game with Daley at quarterback, presumably thinking his mobility would be required against a fast French defence, they were right. Scrambling outside the pocket he looked for a target, but the pass was intercepted, and the turnover resulted in France extending their lead to 14-0. The Lions did get on the scoreboard when Hopkinson recovered a fumble, putting GB on the French twenty-five-yard line, but they had to settle for a Jacquet field goal to close out the first quarter at 14-3. The second quarter looked more promising for the Lions. Ridge caused a fumble which Cheadle recovered, and Daley drove the team downfield with a good combination of runs and passes, however they stalled in touching distance of the endzone and came away with another field goal, 14-6.
Daley eyes his target
France then turned it up a notch, throwing for a touchdown on a deep pass, and then following that with another score, the receiver somewhat fortuitously benefiting from a tipped ball. At half time it was 28-6 France. Coach Callan had clearly fired the team up in the locker room, and the offence came out playing at a high tempo. Daley found the reliable Joseph downfield, and it looked like the Lions were about to get the elusive touchdown they needed, but the French defence stood firm again, and for the third time Jacquet split the uprights, 28-9. France put together another dominating drive, ending it with a touchdown run, with three quarters gone it was now 35-9. The game was now beyond the brave Lions who were still battling, but were unable to secure any further points. France drove the length of the field to notch their sixth touchdown of the contest edging their lead to 42-9. Inside the final two minutes, the French engineered a long run and looked like scoring, but a last-ditch tackle saved the day as the clock ran out. The French had lived up to their pre-tournament billing, but to their credit the Lions never gave up.
The Lions defence worked hard all game
After seven days of competition we arrived at the Finals day. GB would be playing Denmark for fifth and sixth place. You may think there wasn’t much hanging on this game, but you’d be wrong, the victors would retain their A group status, so there was plenty to play for. The other match-ups would see Sweden play Finland for the bronze medals, and the tournament would end with Austria and France facing off for the silver and gold, and the title of European Champions.
For the previous two games running backs Dan Conroy and Gabriel Qaurtey had been on the injured reserve list, but after some intense re-habing, they would suit up for this crucial encounter.
Game three would see Pat Daley getting the start, and straight from the off the team looked to have a higher level of confidence and belief than they had to this point. Daley drove the offence down the field with purpose. The Lions were upbeat and strong running from Ali and Campbell moved the chains. They moved into the redzone and it looked like a score was on the cards but a fumble on the two-yard line handed the ball to Denmark, however the fired-up GB defence forced them to punt. With the Lions back in possession, Daley found Joseph who pulled off a spectacular one-handed catch. Two plays later they were at the Danish five-yard line where Conroy took the hand off and strode in for the score thanks to a fierce block by Deji Ali. Jacquet was good with the kick, so the first quarter ended 7-0 GB.
Denmark were looking to get back in the game, but at the start of the second quarter a series of penalties put them in a spot. A big hit by Lions D lineman John Ridge rattled the quarterback, and on the next play he threw a pick to the ball hawking Amis. GB had the momentum, and when Daley threw a screen to Conroy he benefitted from a great double block by James Cherry to the tune of seventy yards and his second touchdown of the game! Denmark weren’t about to give up, but a big sack by Ash Miller, and a pick by Leslie Wilson saw the first half end with the Lions ahead 14-0.
Conroy bursts through
With the third quarter underway GB picked up where they had left off, with Wilson snagging his second interception. James Slack was now in at quarterback, but a dis-connect with his intended receiver led to Denmark picking off the pass. As the Danes lined up, the centre snapped the ball past his unexpectant quarterback, the Lions were quick to react and linebacker Alex Haldane scooped and scored to stretch the lead to 20-0. Denmark were given a lifeline when the combination of a GB fumble and two generous pass interference calls gifted Denmark possession at the Lions two. The Danes finally got on the scoreboard with a touchdown pass and two-point conversion, moving the score to 20-8 Lions. Note to Denmark’s special teams co-ordinator, don’t kick to Josh Amis! He fielded the ball five yards deep in the endzone and proceeded to race the full length of the field, almost taking an official out on the way! Closing the quarter at 26-8.
For their final quarter of the Championships the Lions re-introduced Daley, but it was the Danes who troubled the scorer next. A deep fade into the corner of the endzone led to a score and another two pointer, 26-16. Having reduced the deficit to two scores Denmark thought they had a chance, but another pick by Amis took the wind out of their sails. Ian Jacquet then got the chance to show he isn’t just a talented kicker, when he ran a deep corner route and Daley found him for the score to put the game beyond the hard-working Danes. The game was effectively over as a contest when Brad Thompson came in for the final GB drive. Quartey ripped off a big run, but the next play saw the Lions adopt the victory formation and the game was over. Not surprisingly Amis secured his second game MVP award.
The Offence found their groove against Denmark
Reflecting on the experience, Mike Callan shared his thoughts with me “I have to say that our time away in Finland was excellent and hats off to the city of Vantaa for hosting a great tournament. I feel we performed well and the players, coaches and staff responded and did everything we could do to put us in the best positions to win. Ultimately it took us till the final day to register a win versus Denmark. However, that was what we set out to do since 2011 when this journey started, progress from the last Group A tournament. Both the Finland and France games were two of the most physical matchups we’ve ever faced. They are well drilled teams and it showed how strong the competition was because they finished third and first respectively in the tournament. However, that is the level we want to be at and raise our game to, so now we have the bar set for us. I have to say there were some standout performers as well along the way. Josh Amis obviously stands out. He contributed immensely on defence and special teams and I truly believe he could have been in the running for tournament MVP. We also asked guys to find new depths of toughness. I think that was exhibited by DJ Ogunkolati, as he was a two-way player for us and to do that at this level just shows how impressive that is. The defence as a whole played incredibly throughout the win versus Denmark as well. They were on the field a long time and Coach Hilton and his defensive staff worked hard to continually adjust and put them in good positions. Offensively Pat Daley really stepped up and took command under the guidance of Coach Athersmith and the O staff. The Offense grew and grew through the tournament and while working with a great set of running backs started to churn out the yards. That then freed up the wide receivers to go out and make some big play, especially in the final game. Thinking about it, overall, we have a lot to work on to get better and push to play in the medal games. I think we can do it and the players believe in the process as well. We’ll come home now, review and rest up and hopefully try to start putting plans in place for the future”.
Running backs coach Toby Chesters spoke about the success in the Denmark game “We just focused on us and the game plan that we wanted to implement. We had a few days to take the positives from the France game and build on that because we thought we were more than a match man for man for Denmark”.
The final word on the Denmark game goes to the mercurial Josh Amis, “Just happy to finish with a win - I think we really came together as a team and proved that we can compete at this level”.
It was great to see GB finish with a win, and to retain their A group status, but overall, what had we learned. We learned that the Lions have a host of talented players, and that they played with great heart and pride, never giving up when they couldn’t catch a break. The current squad is relatively young and coach Callan can build from here to achieve further success. Overall it’s a massive well done, with some big positives to be drawn, but it was also evident to me that this was a step up for the Lions and the National teams from the countries with semi-pro leagues and imports were more efficient, and made less mistakes, playing and executing to the higher level that they are used to on a weekly basis.