The Oakland Raiders assistant coach, Al Saunders, hopes to follow in some distinguished family footsteps by helping the Raiders beat Miami Dolphins on Sunday night in the first of this year’s three regular-season NFL clashes at Wembley. “I’m an Aston Villa fan because my great-uncle Ron was the manager,” Saunders explained.
Ron Saunders was a Wembley winner with Villa in the 1975 League Cup final against Norwich City, his former club, leading Villa to another victory in the same competition against Everton in 1977 in a second replay after a Wembley draw, and, in 1981, delivering Villa’s first League Championship since 1910. His great-nephew was born in Hendon – a few long punts from the stadium – but moved to the USA when he was five, and has enjoyed a 31-year NFL coaching career, including three seasons as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, and a Super Bowl win in 2000 as the assistant head coach of the St Louis Rams.
When he moved to the Raiders, the Villa connection was spotted. “There’s an Aston Villa fan club in California and their president, Rick Leong, sent me an honorary membership card,” Saunders said. He wrote back, gladly accepting the honour and saying that he’d be happy to talk about Villa and “real football” over “a couple of pints”.
“I still follow the Premier League on TV. Soccer is deeply ingrained in our family. My daughter Kori [formerly a forward or attacking midfield player for the University of Nebraska] was an All-American High School player.
“I’m excited to be back home and looking forward to playing at Wembley. It’s a privilege to be here. I gave my aunt, who is from Luton, six tickets and she’ll be sitting with my wife, who is coming over. Hopefully we’ll put on a real good show.”
Hope is more realistic than expectation, however, with the Raiders having lost all three of their games so far this season. They also are notoriously poor travellers. Their record away to East Coast teams is abysmal, so flying a further five time zones away from California seems unlikely to improve their prospects.
Yet the game, despite the poor form of both teams, is another sell-out, partly because of the historic support for both clubs in Britain. The Raiders won the Super Bowl in 1984 – soon after Channel 4 began broadcasting games – and are they fondly remembered for having a tough team of charismatic characters, such as running back Marcus Allen.
The Raiders’ best hope may be that the Dolphins are arguably in even worse shape, despite having won one of their three games so far. Yet ticket sales suggest the appetite here for the genuine NFL product remains unaffected and momentum for an eventual London-based team continues to grow.
“That is really for the executives, but it’s an exciting game and international expansion is at the forefront [of their thinking],” Saunders pointed out. “I would be all for it.”
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