The GB Lions - Still Roaring after thirty two years!
In October this year the GB Lions men’s team travelled to Sweden to play a “friendly” game (that terminology doesn’t seem right for American Football does it!, so let’s call it a game that wasn’t part of a competition). They took a large squad, and performed pretty well, considering the inherent issues that National representative sides have, i.e., the players are not used to playing together on a regular basis, and they have very limited time to mesh as a team. Sweden won the game by a narrow 15-12 score line, inflicting (if my research is correct) the team’s sixteenth defeat since they first took to the field in September 1985.
That first ever Lions game saw a 7-0 victory over a visiting French team. The encounter happened at the Stompond Lane facility in Walton-Upon-Thames, where a crowd of around 2,000 saw Britball legend, Victor Muhammad of the London Ravens run in a touchdown that was converted by the trusty boot of Steve Raven of the Nottingham Hoods. The Head coach was the much-respected Lance Cone (London Ravens), and as has tended to be the case, with National teams, if the HC is also a club coach, then the bulk of the squad will be from their programme. This was evident for this game, where 31 of the 49-man squad were Ravens players, to be fair though, they would have been the best players around at the time anyway. Interestingly the game jerseys for this inaugural international fixture said “United Kingdom” across the front (see the picture) but with no Irish players on the team, you would say they were a Great Britain team!
There was a European Championship in 1986 but GB didn’t enter. Interestingly at this time, there was one European federation whose executives rang things for the greater good of the game. The Euros were initially held every two years, so fresh from their success over France, the Lions began preparation for home and away qualifiers against Holland during 1986, they won both encounters and claimed their spot in the 1987 finals, where they finished fourth.
In the mid to late eighties, talented American players and coaches were part of the British game. The progressive teams had “imports” that raised the level of the game and made it more exciting to watch (t here’s an idea). The better British players became upskilled, and the national side were now a force to be reckoned with in Europe, so much so, that under the leadership of Terry Smith (traditional British name, but really a traditional American entrepreneur) of the Manchester Spartans, they won the next two European Championships in 1989 and 1991. This period represents the golden years of the GB Lions programme.
Peace in Europe didn’t last though, as that scourge of competitive sports (administrators with egos but no organisational skills) raised its head. The Lions ended up playing no games at all between 1992 and 1994,but back in the fold for the ’97 Euros they finished 4th.
The pattern of uncertainty bought about by regime change both domestically and in wider Europe, led to periods of relative success and failure for the Men’s Lions team over the following ten years. This was evidenced best between 2009 and 10, when they played seven times, but only won once. After another two-year hiatus they were back on the prowl in 2013, when as part of a qualifying tournament in Italy, they thumped Spain 58-6, beat the Czech Republic 24-13, but narrowly lost to their Italian hosts 20-16, meaning that they would not qualify for the 2014 championships.
2013 was also the year that the Lions Women’s team made their first competitive appearance (I have written about their meteoric success in other articles).
The structure for the Championships now had qualification dragged out over a tortuous four year period, so the next finals competition wouldn’t happen until 2018, or at least that was the plan, As part of the knock-out phase, in 2016 GB hosted Russia, Holland and the Czechs in a two day tournament at the Sixways Stadium in Worcester. The Lions impressed beating Russia and then the Czechs, thereby taking their next step to getting an invite to the European top table, another qualifier against Sweden (yes, their most recent game).
But here’s the big however, there was now a major rift in the European corner of the International Federation of America Football (IFAF, you faff, we faff, call it what you like), with National Federations aligning themselves with the disparate elements within the split, a championship with all European nations was now, no more than a distant dream. Much preparation under the leadership of current Head Coach, Mike Callan had been undertaken, and travel plans were in place, so the trip to Sweden still happened. There are rumblings that there will be a Euro Championship next year, in fact there will probably be two, “organised” by the different factions.
After being around for thirty-three years, the Lions have won more games than they have lost, the record shows 21 wins from 37 games, with 16 losses and no ties. There have been some elite level athletes that have worn their GB (and UK) jerseys with pride, along with some excellent coaches. For many British players, representing their country is the pinnacle of their careers, O lineman Matt Meyer holds the record for most caps with 17 appearances so far. I hope for the benefit of the current and future teams, that moving forward the international game can find people who truly have the development of the sport at heart. It would be great if every time the Lions played a home game, everyone involved with Britball went along to support them, let’s show the world we mean business. We should all “Feel the Pride, and hear the Roar!