Big hits and American glitz as Wembley welcomes the NFL

American football found a home from home in explosive fashion yesterday. James Corrigan joined the fraternity
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The Independent Online

After the damp squib came the firecracker. This was what the NFL signed up for when it made the historical decision (as they like to say over there) to play a proper, competitive, non-exhibition match in London. Where the Dolphins and the Giants had slipped, slid and basically sucked a year ago, so the Saints and the Chargers put on a show worthy of all the hyperbole. In the process, certain American disbelievers were stunned to discover it doesn't always rain in the capital in October.

And amen to that said the 83,000 gridiron fanatics who gathered here for what will surely become their annual fix of Americana. In prevailing 37-32, New Orleans not only did their play-off chances no harm but also helped London in the long-term bid to extend the "international series" past the original four-year deal. While Wembley had suffered the downpour of 2007, this time it was treated to the Brees of 2008.

It was largely down to the quarterback, Drew Brees, that the Saints' gamble paid off in agreeing to travel for what was their "home fixture". He gave them the cushion which allowed them to avoid being dumped on their pants by a Chargers comeback which threatened to blow the arch off its standings. San Diego fell short – just – but what a spectacle they had afforded the British support.

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From the outset Brees went to sky as he threw bomb after bomb to his wide receivers, whose catches triggered the explosion of cheers. Nothing typified the evening better than Lance Moore's touchdown near the end of the half. It was 30 yards of inch-accurate perfection and capped a second quarter in which the teams had contrived to score five between them. That is three more than in the entire Giants-Dolphins 13-10 squelchathon.

There was much more to come in what was undoubtedly the finest gridiron encounter to take place on this side of the pond. It was a serious ball game with a serious outcome. San Diego refused to be bowed by Brees' ability to find gloves almost at will and tore back from a 17-point disadvantage, with a little over 11 minutes on the clock. With five minutes left they had encroached within a score and suddenly overtime seemed favourite. But Jonathan Vilma caught his interception and the Saints could scrape home, surviving a final-second "Hail Mary" heart-stopper when Philip Rivers chucked it 40 metres into a packed endzone. The New Orleans relief was the reaction to three-and-a-half hours of frenetic action.

There was one negative, one reason for the supporters to go home with a grunt rather than a high five. It came not when the New Orleans kicker did a "Don Fox" and missed the extra point but rather when the Chargers had trimmed the deficit to six points as that second quarter ran down when Rivers found Antonio Gates from 12 yards. Gates had been a lively force all match as he waved to the crowd and he clearly had been working on his soccer celebration when his moment arrived. So he ran towards the grandstand, arms outstretched and skidded on his knees. The fans went wild, but then so did the officials, just as they would when the San Diego defence was deemed to have excessively celebrated what they had erroneously thought had been a key interception.

They call such behaviour "disrespectful" to the opposition in America and the Chargers were duly penalised the appropriate 15 yards. Sure they have their own rules, their own culture but next year perhaps they can allow their boys a little slack. When in Rome and all that...

Still, that was not about to dampen the experience. If anything, the NFL's conviction that England was just ripe for their marketing men's plucking was bolstered by the stunning response to last year's washout. They have a saying in American football that a team's strength only truly shines through in the stickiest of times and this definitely applies to the sport's future in this country. Instead of consolidating, they added more seats to Wembley and they sold like hot dogs, going in under a day. With last night's humdinger being broadcast live on BBC, goodness knows how quickly they will be snapped up in 2009.

So what is the attraction? Well, apart from the audience so clearly having an excellent grasp of the sport, there is an unmistakable sense of a supporters' convention, as they assemble from their amateur leagues, their fan clubs and their living rooms to worship at the shrine of this most modern of pursuits. As they fill the stands in colourful shirts, representing every franchise in the NFL and many beyond, it is reminiscent of rugby league's Challenge Cup final. They come for the weekend, attend the pep rallies, shout their appreciation of the cheerleaders and generally behave like the fraternity of their dreams. It is a glitzy, joyous and welcome diversion from the snarl of the Premier League. On this evidence NFL London will become a mainstay of the British sporting calendar.