American Football: History takes a dirt-bath as the Dolphins sink in Wembley mud

Fans almost choked on their popcorn at the state of 'the Queen's turf' but the NFL touched down in London yesterday on a landmark, if predictably damp, occasion
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The Independent Online

It was a strange kind of history created here in north-west London last night; what with this oh-so-modern sport of gridiron, in this oh-so-modern stadium of Wembley, at this oh-so-modern kick-off time of 5.04pm. But still, it was history all the same. And at least there was something that defined it as quintessentially British. It was called mud and it was everywhere. Never mind all that padding, where were the wellies?

There was a winner, though, (there always has to be) and the record will show that the first, albeit rather untidy victors of a regular NFL season game held outside of North America were the New York Giants by 13-10. As expected, they were just a little too big and a little too strong for a Dolphins team who, in this incarnation, were supposed to be less Dan Marino and more San Marino. They battled, though, and their refusal to accept the inevitable made the Britons warm to them and blessedly diverted all the talk from the mud. Honestly, with all the broadcasters' bleating you'd think they'd never seen the stuff before.

In fact, the boys in the Fox TV compound were saying that most of these players probably hadn't, not in game time anyhow. "The NFL hasn't been played on one of these dirt-baths for years, if not decades," came the cry.

It only took the teams one look at the grass to turn up their noseguards. They said it was less like a football field and more like a golf fairway and almost choked on their popcorn when the groundstaff went out their with their pitchforks before the start. On the telecast the announcer told his viewers that "The Queen's turf is not ideal for football." Perhaps, they should try out "the Queen's Astroturf" next time. Either that or work out before that their studs needed to be longer before their backsides began to whack the ground with increasing regularity. They lengthened their "cleats" from five-eighths to an inch and it was just as well. Shouldn't this have been worked out prior to the action?

So many dollars have been chucked into this venture that you would think the planet's biggest sports league would have been anticipating every contingency. Rain in London at the back end of October is not exactly unheard of and it was not as if the downpour was particularly wretched. It was drizzle, incessant drizzle granted, although the ease with which the field cut up was almost as spectacular as some of the slip-ups. At some moments it looked more Stradey Park than Wembley, more Pontypool versus Maesteg than the Giants versus the Dolphins. But then, the half-time entertainment did not help in that regard. A few light-footed cheerleaders would have been the ticket and maybe not the marching band which ploughed this way and that. In fact, the razzmatazz was all a bit samey with the aforementioned dancing girls, a couple of fireworks, a pop band that few out of bumfluff would have known ... well, even the Bradford Bulls have all of that nowadays. That is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as if anything will sell American football over here it is the sport and only the sport. The sizzle is all very well, but it is the sausage that counts.

Because of the conditions it was destined to be anything but high-quality. But they will come back – the fans and, let's hope, the teams. The NFL should be mindful that not a lot went right for them beforehand with the Dolphins proving as unpredictable as the weather. When this fixture was announced the match-up looked a lively one but seven straight defeats into the campaign and Miami were definitely not as billed and it was difficult to create the excitement. That is not the NFL's fault, although mistakes were made in the build-up.

Was there any need to do all that "things you don't know about gridiron" stuff and tell us how different it is to our "soccer"? It has been on our screens for 25 years for goodness sake and that happens to be even longer than EastEnders. It was patronising to the already converted who turned up here as a knowledgeable throng of 90,000 and helped to rescue the night. It was damp, but thanks to them, it was hardly a squib.

Indeed, the noise they made as the Dolphins at last located the Giants' half rivalled anything the new stadium has heard since its opening earlier this year. By then the Giants had forged, or that should be squelched, to a 13-0 lead, courtesy of a run from Eli and a boot from Scotland. It was fitting that Lawrence Tynes, once of Campbeltown, had the honour of kicking off, just as it was that he was able to score the first meaningful points east of the sport's continent when his first-quarter field-goal soared the requisite 40 or so yards. Not a bad place for a Celtic fan to stamp his mark.

Indeed, for a while, and as the fumbles started to rival the grumbles in their numbers, Tynes' contribution grew in significance until a minute at the end of the half which effectively settled the contest. First the quarterback Eli Manning (the poor man's brother of Indianapolis's Peyton) ran it into the end zone himself and then a bizarre error by his counterpart, Cleo Lemon, when the ball dropped out of the back of his hand as he loaded a pass and into the hands of a Giant. Tynes capitalised on that howler with seven seconds left and that was largely that.

Miami did threaten something of a rousing comeback, and when they parked themselves in the Giants' half with the clock running down there was the merest whiff of chances. And when Ted Ginn Jnr rose for the touchdown with two minutes remaining the place went wild. Wembley was thankful of that, even it added up to a whole lot of nothing. The tension helped to soak up some of the sogginess.

It is a sport obsessed with statistics so here goes. Manning managed to complete eight out of 22 passes for 59 yards. Winning quarterbacks fare better than that, much, much better. It was just one those nights in the capital. Perhaps it could be remarketed next time, if there is a next time. "Never mind the Superbowl, here comes the Mudbowl."