American Football: Smith seizes his chance as 49ers impress at Wembley showdown

Annual London NFL game attracts capacity crowd to confirm game's soaring popularity

Yesterday evening's 24-16 victory for the San Francisco 49ers over the Denver Broncos at Wembley showed that the appetite in this country for live NFL regular-season games remains strong. Four years after the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants slugged out a 13-10 war of attrition on a morass of a surface in the first such game, enough people were still prepared to stump up hard cash to watch to fill Wembley to see two struggling teams.

Naturally, it helped that the 49ers are one of the great names of the sport, with five Super Bowl wins and a glorious history of big-name players, however poorly the present team is playing. They are said to be the third most-popular NFL team in the UK, which is no surprise, as they were they one of the glamour sides when the sport first reached the British national consciousness in the 1980s.

So red-and-gold-clad fans of the 49ers – the "home" team – were in the majority, and although the fact that the successors to Joe Montana, Roger Craig and the rest had arrived in London having won only one of their seven games this season was disappointing to the faithful, it did not seem to dim their enthusiasm.

And of course, plenty of fans of other teams from Britain and all over Europe had made what has become an annual pilgrimage to Wembley. It is nothing less than a gathering of the NFL tribes: Steelers fans from Somerset, Dolphins fanciers from Denmark. Reactions to news from other games shown on the big screens revealed a myriad of allegiances. Some came for the football, some attracted by all that surrounds it – from the tailgate event in the Wembley car park to the cheerleaders and the pre-match build-up in the stadium. Through a public address system that made them easily audible in San Francisco, Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child sang the Star-Spangled Banner, and Jeff Beck picked out a slightly surreal version of God Save the Queen.

Then it was time for the coin toss, a far more elaborate ritual in the NFL than in, say, League Two – requiring the attendance of Olympic Athletes, several representatives of the two teams, and guest greats of the past.

Yesterday, that meant John Elway, the former Denver quarterback, and Jerry Rice, the legendary former 49ers wide receiver. Bearing in mind the lowly standards achieved by both teams this season, inviting Elway and Rice to be anywhere near Wembley seemed downright cruel.

The game, though, was better than anyone had a right to expect as the 49ers scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to come from behind to win. Troy Smith, the San Francisco quarterback, was an unknown quantity, promoted to starter after an injury to Alex Smith, the first choice. He had not practised with the 49ers until last week, but after a slow beginning, he impressed, rushing for one touchdown and throwing for another.

Denver had led 10-3 in the third quarter thanks to the first decent passing play of the night, which left San Francisco and Smith needing to do more than hand the ball to Frank Gore, the running back. Their new ambition paid off, with Smith running in from a yard after his throw to Delanie Walker had paved the way. Having thrown the ball once, he decided he liked it and did it again, finding Michael Crabtree with a 28-yard touchdown pass.

Denver's evening continued to deteriorate as they lost possession 18 yards out, allowing Gore to punch through for a 24-10 lead, and although former 49er Brandon Lloyd caught Kyle Orton's one-yard pass to reduce the arrears, it was not enough.

For Mike Singletary, the 49ers head coach, it had been a must-win game, if votes of confidence from owners carry the same weight in American Football as they do in the European version, and he had won it.

It had ended up a better game than it started out, and there will almost certainly be more. Nothing has been confirmed, pending a new collective bargaining agreement between the League and the players' union, but it is understood that the NFL will be back next season, and if yesterday is anything to go by, Wembley will welcome it enthusiastically once again.

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