American Football: Dallas feel the absence of Smith: Although the American Bowl's attendance is down, a physical encounter sees passions run high on the pitch

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Dallas Cowboys. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13

Detroit Lions. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

TO judge by some of the reports that preceded last night's American Bowl, a bigger gathering might have been expected on the sidelines than in the stands. In the end, though, despite the presence of roughly 80 players from each side, there were more watchers than participants, the crowd of 43,522 witnessing a 13-13 tie after over-time.

American football, it is said, is in decline on this side of the Atlantic. The television ratings have been slipping in recent seasons, prompting Channel 4 to move the coming season's coverage from its Sunday evening slot, and show the matches late on a Monday night instead.

The pulling power of the American Bowl also seems on the wane. It was the first time that the gate had fallen below 50,000, though due allowance should be made for the fact that the Cowboys arrived without their two leading players, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, while the Lions are a relatively anonymous team.

There are now pre-season games in a number of cities around the world, but London was the pioneer and is regarded as a 'mature market' that may not be satisfied much longer with a relatively unimportant pre-season friendly - which is what the American Bowl essentially is.

'I'm personally not ready to give up on the UK and say we ought to move the game somewhere else,' Neil Austrian, the NFL's president, said. The next step might be to play a regular season game here, and Austrian also hinted that the prospect of a franchise based in London remains a possibility, albeit a long-term one.

On the turf, the pre-season nature of the game did nothing to diminish a highly physical contest. Indeed with the teams needing to reduce their rosters to 47 by the end of the month many were playing for their careers. Attention was initially focused on Dallas's running game, where the absence of Emmitt Smith, who is holding out for more money, has created a situation vacant. Smith was a key figure in the Cowboys' Super Bowl success last season but wants a new contract worth dollars 4m ( pounds 2.75m) a season, which is at least dollars 1m more than the Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones appears willing to part with.

At one point it seemed inconceivable that the Cowboys could go into the new season without Smith but an impasse has been reached - hence the concentration last night on the alternatives. In the first half it was the rookie Derrick Lassic who saw most of the ball, and after an indifferent start he made some solid gains. Still there was no comparison with Detroit's running back, Barry Sanders, who made 14 yards with his first carry before returning to the sidelines well before the end of the first half.

And that half was a largely scrappy affair with neither quarterback settling into a consistent rhythm. The half ended with the Cowboys leading 6-3, neither side having managed a touchdown.

The Cowboys had the better of things in the third quarter but were unable to add to their score, allowing the Lions to draw level at 6-6 with another field goal early in the fourth quarter. A dull contest finally got the impetus it needed when Jason Garrett Dallas's back-up quarterback, connected with wide receiver Tyrone Williams for a 54 yard touchdown. The Lions drew level again when Kevin Scott returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, making the score 13- 13. The game went into over-time, during which Lin Elliott, the Dallas kicker, missed three field goals, including one with three seconds left to leave the game a stalemate.

The overall impression though of a disappointing game was that the Lions may have problems at quarterback in the coming season, while the Cowboys should get to some serious negotiating with Emmitt Smith.

(Photograph omitted)

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