Thirty years ago this week an American Football game took place in Cardiff that had been three years in the making.
THE South Wales Echo announced “the match all Cardiff’s American Football fans have been waiting for” would finally happen. The original team in Wales, the Cardiff Tigers, for the first time, were to face the club formed by a splinter of Tigers, the Cardiff Mets.
I was 11, and my brother 13, and we had a ringside position as part of the touchline chain crew and, as that Friday’s Echo preview stated, had been looking forward to the Sunday, May 7 fixture since it was first announced in early 1989.
The Tigers and the Mets had been kept apart by being in different leagues but did little to disguise their feelings towards each other. However they would only face each other on the field after the Tigers were forced to give up the place they had been awarded in the top tier Budweiser League for 1989 and drop down to the newly-formed Combined Gridiron League (CGL) due the loss of their sponsor.
A year earlier the Tigers, who had been competing in the British leagues since 1985, had been riding high. Former 1977 NFL first round draft pick Steve Pisarkiewicz was the team’s quarterback and head coach and they been renamed the Capital Tigers by their sponsors which also confirmed their status as the capital city side. The old black and orange uniforms had been replaced with a slick new look.
But just a summer later the Mets, who were formed in 1986, felt they were in the ascendancy and, according to the Western Mail, were the team with “the biggest squad and best support”. In contrast the Tigers had been hit hard financially and forced to relinquish former St Louis Cardinal Pisarkiewicz and their other American imports.
They would open the season with a home game against their emerging cross city rivals with a thick, crude spray of metallic grey paint covering the name of the previous year’s sponsor on the chest and shoulder plates of their white shirts with blue numbers.
If the Tigers’ uniforms reflected a team that prided itself as rough and ready and making the most of what they had the Mets looked pristine in their yellow shirts with red numbers, black helmets and pants.
Me and my brother had our prime position on the Mets sideline, which we used to shout vocal support for the Tigers, as we would regularly attend the team’s weekly training sessions, more often than some players. I can’t remember exactly who the third member of the chain crew was but it would have been another boy of around the same age back in the 1980s before health and safety became a thing and the British American Football Association outlawed child game day volunteers.
In the days before the game the Astroturf pitch at the Sophia Gardens National Sports Centre, which was to be the Tigers new home for the ’89 season, had thick bright blue lines painted on it, marking the gridiron, and pitch fork goal posts erected. The anticipation was building and falling into place before my eyes.
Finally it was game-day, on what I’m sure was the first, hot sunny weekend of the year. Me and my brother arrived at the Astroturf hours before kick-off for a game we, and everyone else, understood was the very definition of grudge match.
Whatever lay behind the split in Cardiff’s American Football community the distrust and resentment between the two sides, who’d began this new sporting adventure together as one just a few years earlier, was apparent.
The Echo preview put it diplomatically: “The Mets were formed by a breakaway group of Tigers players and there has been intense rivalry between the two sides ever since.”
Once the game kicked-off it didn’t disappoint as the Echo noted in its reflection on the game later in the week: “The first ever meeting between these deadly rivals had everything a local derby should have – and a bit more.
“The exchanges on the field were often ferocious but credit must go to both teams for the discipline they showed in the nail-biting tension of that last quarter.”
And despite everything that surrounded the game it is still the on-field action that stands out in my memory.
“In a nail-biting finish of incredible tension, Cardiff Tigers grabbed a dramatic victory over deadly rivals Cardiff Mets with a spectacular touchdown 26 seconds from the end of a tremendous gridiron game at the National Sports Center yesterday,” read the match report in Monday evening’s Echo.
That “spectacular touchdown” was a 22 yard pass from QB Kevin Gauci to the “brilliant” 19-year-old receiver Kelton Nicholas which came after the Mets had come back from being 13-0 down at the start of the fourth quarter to lead 16-13 with less than a minute to play.
I can still remember the joy at Nicholas’ touchdown which secured the 20-16 victory. The Mets had extended their single point lead, by two, with a safety inside the final two minutes but the last 60 seconds still offered hope to the Tigers.
The Western Mail also carried a match report that Monday morning and explained: “Ironically the Tigers won because their opponents forced a safety when a terrible snap saw the ball miss punter Tony Rego altogether.
“From the kick-off, Steve Cordle punted long and deep and the Mets defence failed to realise that the ball was live and didn’t touch it down thus conceding possession to the Tigers on their 38-yard line.”
A year earlier Gauci had been the Tigers tight end with the American Pisarkiewicz at QB but he stepped up to lead those players who had remained loyal to the side whose nickname honoured the city’s Tiger Bay docklands. A short pass from Gauci to running back Forday Fofanna, “who weaved his way through the Mets defence” for 15 yards to touchdown was the only score of the first half.
In the third quarter Gauci pushed over to establish a 13-0 lead as the Tigers justified the assertion that the game was a “step up in class” for the Mets. However I can’t remember ever feeling comfortable that the Tigers, who only had a 25 man squad, had seen off the Mets who “had a full complement of 45”.
“The Tigers were feeling the strain of the 80 degree heat and the Mets with Neil ‘Gonzo’ Hunt rushing for 116 yards took control,” said the Western Mail of the fourth quarter.
The Echo match report stated: “Hunt proved almost unstoppable rushing for 119 yards on 29 carries and scored two good touchdowns, both from close range, as the Mets sensed victory. Stuart Boddy added both extra points to give the Mets the lead.”
The final touchdown pass was, I’m sure, a Gauci dart to the right hand corner of the end zone and caught by the sure handed Nicholas. Despite being 19, the teenager, from the south Wales Valleys, was a veteran of several seasons with the Tigers. Newspaper reports would usually refer to how he had signed a form accepting liability for injury to allow him to play in the adult league when he was either 16 or 17 or possibly even younger.
Despite the late touchdown the Mets still had another possession but the Tigers pass rush closed in on QB Phil Pleace, possibly forcing a fumble, that ended any chance of another late twist. It was only then that I was completely satisfied the Tigers had secured the vital victory.
At the time it seemed there was nothing more important than beating the Mets. The Tigers had endured a tough off-season and defeat to the Mets would have felt like the biggest blow of all.
The Echo’s midweek sport though added some useful perspective on a game the paper had said, in its preview, would “settle the long-running arguments over which team is the city’s top side – for this season anyway.”
With three days reflection the paper declared: “The arguments are over. Both sides now realise they are about equal in standard” and said the sides would be “relieved” to have the clash out of the way so they could look forward to the rest of the season.
I had a begrudging acceptance of the conclusion the teams were “about equal” but don’t think I really appreciated until a few years later how significant the result was of what would be the first of four games between the pair over two years.
At the time I still thought my football future would lie in the NFL but four years later I would find myself playing for the youth team of the “hated Mets” who my brother had played for since the junior section came into being in 1991.
Our head coach John Dyer had been a Linebacker for the Mets defence in that game and I remember chatting with him about the fixture, which to me as a teenager felt like many years ago. He said he considered it the best of the four games the Tigers and Mets played from 1989 to 1990. Even though it was the only one his Mets would lose, to Dyer, it was the best game as all the players were locals, with the Tigers having already shed their Americans and the Mets yet to sign a number of Canadians.
After the Mets youth team disbanded me and my brother joined the Tiger Bay Warriors coached and run by Tigers defensive back Robert Mota and his friend Phil Musa who had been in Mets yellow in 1989. The Warriors had been founded by Coach Mota as a team for young players of all ages in the late 80s and based at Butetown Youth Centre.
The Echo named Mota as a defensive standout for the Tigers against the Mets and he was unlucky to have a 70-yard interception returned for an apparent touchdown called back for a penalty. The interception however did set up the Tigers for Fofana’s opening score.
That the game should have been played out in the modest surroundings of the National Sports Centre Astroturf pitch, which only had a very small uncovered stand of 100 or so seats, was an oddity. The previous year the Tigers played at Bridgend Rugby Club’s Brewery Field and before that Cardiff City’s Ninian Park and the Mets at the world-famous Cardiff Arms Park.
The enclosed pitch has since been re-developed as the National Hockey Centre with a larger, covered stand along one touchline and a new hockey surface laid but otherwise looks almost the same as it did 30 years ago.
It represented a step down in spectator facilities (and depending on feelings towards plastic pitches, for players too) at a time when interest in the game in Wales was probably never higher. The sport had enjoyed rapid growth since 1985 and now had a genuine local rivalry to fire passion and interest.
The Mets, who later that season would sign several Canadian players having played a team from Vancouver the previous year, would win the return fixture 30-14 that July.
But neither capital city side would finish the season as the top team in Wales. That honour went to Western Division winners, the Tigers’ long-time local rivals, the Swansea Dragons though they would be eliminated from the play-offs at the opening quarter final stage.
“This summer heralds the most interesting American Football season yet in South Wales,” the Western Mail had said before the opening game, as the “top three Welsh clubs will be in direct opposition” in the CGL while the Mets’ old adversaries the Newport Mustangs had remained in the British National Gridiron League.
It seems hard to believe that after the first game between the Tigers and Mets, which was “thoroughly enjoyed by the large crowd” and set up a “guaranteed sell-out” return fixture, the sport would in a few short years suffer a rapid decline across the UK and in particular in Wales.
The South Wales Echo and sister title the Western Mail, known as the national newspaper of Wales, had printed five articles between them about this one game over four publication dates. It wasn’t as if they were short of sporting news either, on the same weekend Llanelli lost to Neath before a world record crowd for a club rugby game at the National Stadium in the Schweppes Cup final and John Toshack was being lined up to manage Real Madrid.
Sadly the comprehensive newspaper coverage of Welsh American football soon dried up and the crowds would also dwindle and worse, there were less players coming through.
The Dragons couldn’t finish the 1990 season, the Tigers folded before the 1992 campaign while the Mets were forced to quit during the 1993 season – the same year I was part of the youth team which Dyer had carried on even after the senior club’s demise.
In 1989 I would never have imagined the Tigers heroes that day would go on to play for the Mets as the last team standing in Cardiff. But I can remember a wet, windy day in 1993 being part of another chain crew as a small Mets squad, featuring Kevin Gauci at QB and Robert Mota among the Tigers veterans from 1989, struggled to see out the season in Britain’s top flight.
The renamed Gwent Mustangs would continue to play in the leagues until 1997 but there was no team from Cardiff until Mota took the Tiger Bay Warriors into the senior league in 1996 with a handful of graduates from the youth team and a number of Tigers and Mets veterans.
Sadly the Warriors, who had reached the third division play-off final in 1999 but were defeated by the Chester Romans, were forced to withdraw from the league ahead of the 2000 season and it appeared the boom sport of the 1980s wouldn’t even make it to the new millennium in Wales.
Fortunately the South Wales Warriors, who continue to play today and whose games I regularly cover for the Dai Sport website, were formed in 2001 and have been competing ever since and are based at Llanharan Rugby Club.
That American Football survives in south Wales, even if no longer with a team from Cardiff in the senior UK league, is testament to the hard work and dedication of a handful of committed individuals and is a tribute to the groundwork laid by those 1980s trailblazers.
Looking back 30 years to that hot and intense Sunday of May 7, 1989 is a mix of nostalgia and wondering at what could have been but also a great memory of friends, people, teams and a game that were such a part of my childhood and teenage years.
Featured newspaper cuttings are from the Western Mail and Echo