It was a night for raincoats and thermals at Wembley on 28 October 2007, not T-shirt and shorts; hot drinks not cold brewskis at the tailgate party for the sensible in the crowd of 81,176; and the sodden pitch, designed for football, cut up in seconds leaving huge divots and bad first impressions.
The only play worth highlighting was Eli Manning’s super slow-motion 10-yard run for New York’s only touchdown and the final score was barely relevant to most either. It was an event, with a capital E, V, E, N and T because this was the first regular-season NFL game played outside North America, the culmination of decades of endeavour in the UK.
Channel 4 showed highlights – extraordinary to think these days but on a week delay – in 1982 and the late-night Super Bowl ritual was formed. A weekly American football newspaper, First Down, was produced, a domestic competition sprung up and there were pre-season American Bowl games at Wembley from 1986-1993. There were the heady days of the World League and the London Monarchs winning the first World Bowl in 1991, provoking semi-serious discussion of a game between them and the worst team of the 1990 NFL season, which, rather remarkably given the past 20-odd years, was New England.
It was all that and more. The late Sunday nights listening to the Armed Forces Network as its medium-wave signal faded in and out, whistling and crackling live commentaries. Then came weekly live games on TV every Sunday and Monday and the emergence of a market big enough to satisfy the NFL’s rapacious desire for yet more millions of dollars.
It was scarcely believable that here were two NFL teams, right in front of us with all the rigamarole and pageantry; at kick-off thousands of cameras lit up the dark sky. There were tears in the packed press boxes.
Those closer to the action were also in awe. David Tossell, of the NFL London office, told me: “Even when we first knew we were going to be staging the game it was pretty daunting, so the moment that always sticks with me was when The Feeling were performing the pre-game show and my boss and I looked around at the packed stands and turned to each other and said: ‘Wow, we did it.’”
Things moved so quickly it was noticeable to the players. Osi Umenyiora, the former Giant, born in England and now an award-winning analyst for the BBC, said: “The crowd was amazing but I wasn’t sure how much they understood about what they were seeing. I really noticed a difference when I returned to play for the Atlanta Falcons.”
That was in 2014 and the International Series, as it is now marketed, featured four games in London last year, two at Wembley and two at Tottenham’s new stadium with a pitch and dressing rooms installed especially for the sport. Every year talk of a franchise in London builds while the expansion of the NFL season to 17 games provoked the theory of every team playing once outside the US. That appears unlikely for now, as is fanciful talk of a Super Bowl being played in London.
On a micro level, in September the NFL Academy opened in north London, giving young athletes the opportunity to combine full-time education with training from professional coaches. The aim is for the best to go to colleges in the US and, though a huge long shot, the NFL.
There is another lasting effect of this game that benefits all those who visit Wembley now. The stadium’s creaky infrastructure was overwhelmed that night and the NFL demanded major improvement. Thus, anyone who uses the wifi at Wembley can thank the NFL for the massive, free upgrade.