In a muddy field close to Southsea seafront, a group of young men are out in the January air. As they run, their breath is clearly visible.
It’s a cold Sunday morning, but their enthusiasm for their sport shines through.
Rather than kick a ball, this team is throwing it. And no, they’re not playing rugby – it’s American football.
The Portsmouth Dreadnoughts are just starting out and play a special game called Flag Football at the moment as they can’t yet afford all the kit required to play real American football.
The club, which has around 35 members, is Portsmouth’s only British American football team. It started in April last year. Its predecessor, the Southern Sundevils, folded in 2008.
The man behind the new team is 53-year-old chairman and coach Simon O’Hara. Living in Emsworth and working as a chiropodist, he has taught the sport for more than 30 years.
He says: ‘I spent a lot of time in America in the 1980s and a friend of mine, who was a high school coach, showed me how they taught it and since about 1983 I’ve coached 10 different teams.
‘I used to drive to Bristol every Sunday and some people wouldn’t turn up, so I preferred the idea of doing something closer to home. It’s about time Portsmouth had another team down here.’
Phil Marter, 40, who lives in Martyr Worthy outside Winchester, agreed to help Simon set up the club, along with a couple of other boys who had previously played American football.
Phil says: ‘There’s only one other full contact team in the county, the Hampshire Thrashers, and I think he wanted to put Portsmouth back on the map. I liked the way Simon did things.
‘Education is very important to us in the coaching side of football. We have the same outlook on that, and I’ve just been awarded a grant by the University of Winchester (where he works as a lecturer) to promote American football in schools in Hampshire.’
He adds: ‘I’m particularly interested in Portsmouth schools and it’s part of the drive to increase participation.’
But starting a new club, especially with a non-British sport, is never going to be easy. Cost means Portsmouth Dreadnoughts are restricted to Flag Football that doesn’t require protective equipment (an artists’ impression of what their new kit will look like is pictured right - courtesy of Peter Hoccom).
Phil says: ‘There are different flags tucked into someone’s uniform and a tackle is getting the flag off them. It’s the way a lot of younger people get involved with playing American football. Because you don’t have pads and helmets, it’s a lot cheaper.’
There are teams throughout the country playing Flag Football and the club hopes to start taking part in competitions in the year ahead, as well as applying for funding.
Phil explains: ‘We want to get bigger and show people that it’s an exciting, fast, professional sport. ‘There’s a very good team in Chichester, the Chichester Sharks, who are one of the top flag teams in the country, so we hope to compete against them in this coming season.
‘We are going to try for National Lottery funding and other grants from various sports bodies that give funding for teams starting out, such as Sports England.’
The Portsmouth Dreadnoughts, who are named after HMS Dreadnought, a battleship from the early 20th century, are always looking for players through their Facebook page and believe that interest in the sport is increasing.
Phil says: ‘When I was watching the sport you could only watch one game a week, but now there are so many different mediums for people to watch it on, such as Sky and the internet. There’s so much more access to it.
‘It is becoming more popular than ever. There are 80,000 people every year who go to watch an NFL (National Football League) game at Wembley. They take one game out of the season and play it there, and this year they are even putting on two.’
Simon says: ‘There were 60 teams in the UK when I started and now there are more than 170. There’s a huge number of people who want to play it and the NFL is trying to increase the player participation in this country. They are even trying to set up a London-based team.’
Jim Roberson, who grew up in New York but now lives in Fareham, is set to join the Portsmouth Dreadnoughts as head coach this year. He first came to the UK to coach American football and has extensive experience.
The club practises in Horndean and on Southsea seafront, but is still looking for a permanent home.
Phil says: ‘We don’t even have an official training ground. We’d like it to be in central Portsmouth. We want to have a home.’
He adds: ‘We want to be one of the top teams in the south. At the moment people pay around £1.50 to go to a training session, and that covers the running costs. It will probably go up once we have sorted out things like a kit and insurance.’
Simon adds: ‘I hope the team will be very successful and we can shake off the British mentality of if you’re not being paid in sport, then you don’t do it. We’ll try to go forward and become national champions. Why not?’
Go to portsmouthdreadnoughts.vpweb.co.uk for more information.
American football developed from native British ball sports (rugby and football) during the 19th century. It was a violent collision sport between teams that pummelled each other with physical running and tackling that on a number of occasions resulted in fatalities.
Its terrible safety record prompted President Roosevelt to force football to change its rules and the idea of the ‘forward pass’ was introduced soon after to break up the large formations of players colliding at speed.
Improved safety equipment also followed. This collision sport was introduced to British television by Channel 4 in the 1980s and its popularity led to the formation of a number of British teams and a British league.
Among these teams were a series of Portsmouth-based teams, the last of which folded in 2008 (Southern Sundevils). Prior to that there were the Portsmouth Warriors and the Portsmouth Tridents.
In 2007, the American National Football League (NFL) staged its first ever competitive regular season game outside the United States when the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants. Since then a regular season game has been played each year in front of 80,000 British American football fans at Wembley.