Richard Bowdery, historian for the Cray Wanderers football club, looks at a grave marker at the St. Mary Cray cemetery in London, England, on Friday, Oct. 12. Heidi Fang Las Vegas Review-Journal @HeidiFang
Ghost of a chance?
American football an underdog
to establish following among English tradition
Richard Bowdery, historian for the Cray Wanderers football club, looks at a grave marker at the St. Mary Cray cemetery in London, England, on Friday, Oct. 12. Heidi Fang Las Vegas Review-Journal @HeidiFang
Updated December 27, 2018 - 7:01 am

LONDON

For NFL history to be created, that of another type of football must be addressed:

Long before gypsies passed the day strolling among the departed at St. Mary Cray Cemetery, migrant workers extended a railway from London across the Cray Valley toward the coast, many having fled famine in Ireland.

It was 1860.

“Lunch time would come, and they would feel a bit peckish, so they would have a bite to eat and go to the pub for a few snifters of beer,” Richard Bowdery said. “Then they would have a kick-about with a ball. It took some of the stress and strain out of what was very hard work.”

And so was born the Cray Wanderers, one of the oldest soccer clubs in the world.

How the prospect of an NFL franchise one day making London a successful full-time home intimately connects to a level of soccer that exists eight steps below the Premier League might not immediately appear sensible, but this is where American football needs to most make its impact to ensure long-term stability.

Not among the dead where famous gypsy burglars are honored — although that might have been an appropriate spot for this year’s Raiders team — but rather by penetrating the curiosity of those whose first and last love when it comes to football has everything to do with yellow cards and not flags.

The reasoning: If the NFL can win over fans who, say, have had a lifelong attachment to a London-based club such as the Cray Wanderers, well, there’s every chance it can work existing among the Houses of Parliament and the Royal Family.

The London Jags?

Cray Wanderers FC is part of the Isthmian League, a lower outfit that would take more than just a few snifters at the pub to get one dreaming of advancing to the Premiership, the country’s top level of football that generates billions of dollars a year in TV rights and is home to such famous sides as Manchester United and Arsenal and Chelsea.

Bowdery acts as club historian who arrived in St. Paul’s Cray in 1983, “With the woman I’m still happily shackled with.”

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It’s not that there aren’t NFL fans in London. In fact, since the league began playing regular-season games there in 2007, there have been 21 contested at Wembley Stadium and three at Twickenham.

Of them, 19 have drawn crowds in excess of 81,000.

“I’m a recruitment specialist for work, whatever that means,” said Joe Vines, assistant manager for Cray Wanderers F.C. “But most of my time is thinking about the (club). When you see the pride and history of it, you realize how special it is. I’m not sure how an NFL team would do being here all the time with so much love for soccer.”

And still: The NFL reportedly hopes to have a team in London full time by 2025, and there has been active support by the government there to help facilitate the process.

The league will tell you its own research has estimated there are 13 million NFL fans throughout the United Kingdom. Of all the games to have been played in London, an estimated 47,000 “season tickets” have been purchased by the same individuals or groups, regardless of matchup.

inline-smallCray Wanderers Tom Phipp (5), left, and Barney Williams (3), back, are tied up with the Canvey Island Gulls’ Josh Hutchinson (7) trying the head the soccer ball during a game in Canvey Island, Essex, England, on Saturday, Oct. 13. (Heidi Fang Las Vegas Review-Journal @HeidiFang)

The most popular theory is that Jacksonville has been, for some time, the team ready to make London home. The small-market Jaguars have played more games abroad than any other NFL franchise and are owned by a billionaire businessman (Shahid Khan) who also owns Fulham F.C. of the Premier League.

Beginning in 2013, Jacksonville committed to playing a game each season in London, a deal that extends to 2020. Khan actually put in an offer of what translated to $790 million to purchase iconic Wembley Stadium this year, only to withdraw it after the plan became “divisive.”

Still, to expand its global footprint to the level it has desired for some time and to cash in on what undoubtedly would be a financial jackpot for rebranding merchandise and apparel, the NFL needs to take up permanent residency abroad.

No matter whether it’s losing money on the venture or not.

Not specific teams. The Jaguars, having been extended by the NFL territorial rights in the United Kingdom, make more off a London game than in Jacksonville, given they play in one of the league’s smallest TV markets.

A team such as the Raiders, who gave up a home game in Oakland this season to play the Seattle Seahawks at Wembley Stadium, also can see a profit for traveling thousands of miles to get beat 27-3.

There was actually a Fox Sports report Sunday that the Raiders, awaiting their 2020 arrival to Las Vegas, could potentially play all eight home games next year in London.

But staging even one game abroad is incredibly expensive for the NFL, and things such as broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals have yet to overcome the cost.

So far, that is.

“As kids growing up here, we all sort of had an NFL team we followed from afar, perhaps for something as simple as the team colors,” said Tony Russell, manager of the Cray Wanderers. “I think it would succeed full time here. A lot of people really like it. I mostly remember the Los Angeles Raiders. I still watch some games now, but I’m not banging about it.”

Russell then was reminded that the Raiders are no longer in Los Angeles, moved back to Oakland and are headed to Las Vegas.

He seemed to be banging about the last part.

“That should be something,” he said.

Cray’s biggest fan

The train departed London and began its 55-minute journey to Benfleet, a town in the borough of Castle Point, Essex, which forms part of the Thames Gateway, an area of land stretching 43 miles on both sides of the River Thames.

From there, a short car ride is required to reach Canvey Island, where on this particular October day, the Cray Wanderers are a visiting side for a preliminary round match of the FA Trophy.

Which means Jon Smith has taken his usual place behind whichever goal Cray shoots at first.

“It doesn’t always work,” Smith said, “but I try to (mentally) suck the ball into the goal.”

I think (an NFL) team here would sell out every game. Kids would love it. It’s growing on the nation. Having our own franchise would be brilliant.

Jon Smith, began following the Cray Wanderers in 1968

He has — get this — attended every Cray match, home and away, for the past 25 years. Smith is also a big fan of the Seahawks, having visited the Pacific Northwest and fallen for all things 12th Man.

“I’m part of the English who love American football,” said Smith, who began following Cray in 1968. “I actually prefer watching ‘Red Zone’ so that I can see every single team. Many of us are very passionate about it. I think (an NFL) team here would sell out every game. Kids would love it. It’s growing on the nation. Having our own franchise would be brilliant.”

A few hours later, Cray Wanderers F.C. had lost 2-0, and the team and its coaches and directors and fans made their way to the Frost Hire Stadium pub, where it appeared neither winning nor losing interferes with a round (or 20) of snifters.

inline-smallThe Mortuary chapel at the St. Mary Cray cemetery, which used to be the pitch the Cray Wanderers played on, in London, England, on Friday, Oct. 12. (Heidi Fang Las Vegas Review-Journal @HeidiFang)

More than a month thereafter, the mayor of London approved a plan for Cray to build a new stadium after 45 years without its own home pitch, a plan that includes a 1,300-seat main venue and several other additional fields by which to grow the club’s junior sides.

“We know local kids will grow up dreaming about the Premier League, but this stadium and facility will also allow them to also grow up thinking about playing for the Cray Wanderers,” said Sam Wright, a former Cray player and now club director. “That’s the mindset we need to fully engage a community.”

And as for engaging it about the NFL?

“I think there would be some room to cheer and support that as well,” he said.

The NFL’s hope: It doesn’t take a full-time London plunge and eventually share space alongside those at St. Mary Cray Cemetery.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.