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Fife fire is blazing for American football

A junior team sporting red and black is training for its first competitive scrimmage as the game returns to Kirkcaldy after 10 years, Roddy Mackenzie reports

When Mark Branwell, the Active Schools sports coach for Fife Council, hosted trials for his new junior American football team in July, only one player turned up. But that did not put him off.

Since then, he has overseen a successful recruiting programme, the fruits of which will be seen on November 4 when Fife Fire plays its first match. The Edinburgh Wolves will cross the Forth Road Bridge to Beveridge Park in Kirkcaldy for the first kitted match since the Fife 49ers disbanded at the end of the 1996 season, after many of their older players retired from the game.

The Fife team will then train over the winter for its first competitive matches in the Scottish Conference of the British Youth American Football Association league. Mr Bramwell hopes the new team will be the forerunner to a senior team in years to come.

"Usually when an American football team is set up in this country," he says, "it is when a group of enthusiasts come together. When that group stops playing, because they get older, there is nothing to sustain the team.

"By starting with youth players and working upwards, we're hoping players will graduate through our ranks to form a senior team and there will be a stream of players to fill it in years to come."

Two years after the closure of the Scottish Claymores, Scotland's only professional team, who were funded by the National Football League in the United States, the rise of Fife Fire is a sign of recovery in the kitted game.

Since the demise of the Fife 49ers, there has only been a non-contact flag football team in Fife: the Kirkcaldy Bulls.

Although the junior game (14-16 years) is only five-a-side (the full 11-a-side game starts at youth level, 16-19 years), it is similar to the full game in that there are five offensive players and five defensive players who rotate.

"You are taking the offensive and defensive lines out of the game at junior level, but you still have the skills of the game in running, throwing and catching," Mr Bramwell says.

"Many of the Fire players had only seen American football on television or from playing a game on their computer console, but they have really taken to it."

Mr Bramwell has held coaching sessions at 11 primary schools in Fife and visited St Columba's High and Queen Anne High in Dunfermline to spread the word.

The concept of establishing a kitted team was talked about last February but the cost of equipment was a stumbling block. It takes an estimated pound;250 to kit out each player with uniforms, pads and helmets. A successful application to the National Lottery Awards For All programme, however, brought a grant of pound;5,000.

"It means players can come along with just a pair of football boots and we can kit out 15 players," Mr Bramwell says. "All we ask is that they pay pound;2.50 a week for each practice."

The uniforms are red and black, the colours used by the Fife 49ers.

"We've been all over Fife, from St Andrews to Dunfermline to Dalgety Bay, and put posters up in schools and sports centres.

"We've had a mixed response when we've gone into schools but children are generally aware of the sport, especially around Super Bowl time.

"As long as it is on television and on the Xbox, there will be children wanting to play. It's not like in Glasgow, where they have schools playing the game because the Claymores played there.

"It is still a new game to schoolchildren and there is no doubt some parts of it baffle them, but we try to keep it as simple as possible and teams get four chances to move the ball."

It will always be difficult to get American football into the physical education curriculum, he says, but the game is gaining in appeal, simply through word of mouth. As children come to training sessions and enjoy it, they tell friends who then start to come along.

Mr Bramwell is quick to dismiss fears that there will be opposition from Kirkcaldy rugby club, which will be on the look-out for similar young players. He believes both clubs can co-exist without any problem and says the rugby club has even let Fife Fire use its facilities.

The playing seasons are different, which helps. "Our season will run from April until September, which is more or less outside the rugby season," he explains.

"They are much more established and have three men's teams, a women's team, a colts team and a youth team.

"I'm not sure what they do strength and conditioning wise for their young players but we have our own coach trained in that area, Alister Pullen, who runs his own fitness company.

"At junior level, when children are 14-16, you can start basic strength and conditioning work, as long as it is closely supervised."

As well as Mr Pullen, Mr Bramwell has two other assistant coaches to train the players.

"There's no reason why American football cannot regain its foothold in Fife and, hopefully, we'll see a senior kitted team before too long," he says.

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