They may not be the most glamorous football team in Essex (albeit not by much), but Essex Spartans of the BANAFL are making big steps in building a franchise (Image | Romford Recorder)

They may not be the most glamorous football team in Essex (albeit not by much), but Essex Spartans of the BANAFL are making big steps in building a franchise (Image | Romford Recorder)

In the latest of TAP’s exclusive interviews, we’ve spread our wings again in our constant ambition to bring you news from as many different walking sports as we can. This time around, Emma Webb speaks to Marc Saunders, an American Football evangelist and the head coach of the Essex Spartans, about recruiting players and building a team philosophy.

Where did it all begin for you, Marc?

1987 – I watched the Super Bowl. I’d never seen American Football before and over the next six months, I learned the game. A local team were running a touch youth team so I got involved with them, and played my first game in the November a month before my 11th birthday – and I’ve played every year since.

How long has the Spartans been home?

I joined the Spartans as a player, but a ‘seasoned vet’ of a player, and felt after a while that I wanted to help a bit more and give a little more to the club than just my playing ability. This is my third season as Head Coach; prior to that I was coaching the defence, and the line-backers in my first season, and I’ve also played every year up until now.

Is it true that an ex-NFL player was a coach here?

Yes! We had an ex-NFL player as Head Coach for a season: Cyrill Weems. He was living in Billericay, he didn’t know we played football and was walking his dog one day, and saw us training.

We couldn’t resist roping him in and he became our head coach for a season. Everyone here learned so much from him. It wasn’t just about technique or what he’d done himself, it was about personality and enthusiasm.

He was such a role model for team ethos. He was quite influential for a lot of the players, and the team in general – he was my role model, and it did work, that year we had a record-setting season for the Spartans. The family atmosphere here was important to Cyrill – one of the first things he did as Head Coach was invite everyone round his house for a barbeque.

What went wrong for the Spartans in their lowest years?

It came from the top. The Head Coach is very influential in how the team works and his ability – if the Head Coach doesn’t inspire confidence in the players it all falls apart below him. From what I can tell those darker years of very few or no wins, it was down to that.

One of the coaches just couldn’t grasp the concept that that these guys don’t have to be here and don’t have to be spoken down to; you don’t have to light a fire under them and beat them up to get them to do the work. It caused a lot of people to leave and there was a huge lack of guidance and massive disunity.

How long do you spend in pre-season training?

The season runs April to September for us, but we will all start at the beginning of January, and this year in November we started fitness training. I was out with another guy who’s a personal trainer, and we were basically just running the guys ragged! It wasn’t until January that we started talking football with them, but it really is almost all year round.

I have to take a couple of months off to recharge my batteries and get some of that enthusiasm back. A lot of people feel that way, and then we have some players who, two weeks after the season is over, are asking, “When we training, coach?” It’s really good to hear that they’ve got that enthusiasm but I think sometimes they need to realise that the coaches need some recharge time!

What have you learned from your years in the industry?

I had a conversation with a colleague a little while ago, he’s another Head Coach and they’re really quite successful, and he said to me, “Get those players together off the field as much as possible; be it barbeques, drink-ups, going paintballing, whatever! Just get them together.” So far it seems to be working – we had 95 people at our Super Bowl night, and it was the best Super Bowl party I’ve ever been to in all these years of playing.

Promotion of ‘The Team’ is the most important thing – it is the ultimate team sport and you can’t place too much focus on individuals in this game. The better teams I’ve played with spent lots of time together, as a team, on and off the field.

What has been your proudest moment of your career so far?

In 2004 I played at club level with a team that went to the final of the European Championships in Austria; they televised it live in Austria and it was live on the internet as well. We got absolutely hammered, we lost 45-0, but I remember it being a massive highlight. I sat on the field for ages after the game had finished; they started turning the floodlights off around me. I was just thinking: this was fantastic. I know we lost, but I didn’t feel beaten in any way. We’d just played to 9000 people in that stadium and I’ve got to say that is the highlight, where I actually had a problem hearing the quarterback call a snap count because of the crowd noise. We don’t have crowd noise in the UK, there’s no such thing!

If you could do one thing to really promote American football in the UK, what would it be – and would you do it?

If there was a promotional opportunity to promote the sport in the UK, I would definitely be there with bells on it. Quite what it would be, I would have to defer that to marketing gurus and people who have done it. I think showcase-type things, games in public before a big event – hell, even if they could get a little bit of American Football in the Olympics or something, on before one of the main events, that’d be a great idea. I want to see the sport grow, hence why I’m coaching.

What is the atmosphere like for the new season?

They’re excited, there’s definitely a buzz. In years gone by I’ve run the fitness training  and we’ve had four or five guys turn up if I’m lucky – but this year we’re getting twenty guys turning up to those sessions. Then we had the Rookie Days and we had 75 people turn out for both Rookie Days and it went on from there. I’m really excited about this year; the end of last season we had a rough time, I was bit dejected, wondering whether to throw the towel in and give it up, and right now I can’t wait for kick off day. I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do this year.

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