Many thanks to Stephen Mudd who is the Historian and Author of this excellent document originally produced by David and Doreen Sheppard in May 1994
The winds of
change were blowing throughout the British game during the lead-up to the 1986
season. The existing AFL(UK) were discussing plans to merge forces with the
smaller British American Football Federation (BAFF) in an initial step to unify
the game when out of the blue, a new challenger emerges. The American beer
company Budweiser announced plans to set up a league of its own by unveiling an
ambitious three year investment plan following the collapse of talks aimed at
helping out with the AFL (UK) and BAFF merger.
Teams flocked to join the new set up with its promises of low fees and long list of benefits. Some teams dithered between the options without any clear guidance as to what to do, and the Cougars along with most of their major rivals from the previous year just stayed where they were.
The newly merged British American Football League (BAFL) was to consist of a 14 team National Conference backed up with a 24 team Second Division Anglo Conference for the weaker or inexperienced teams. This set up hoped to achieve fiercely fought close contests with eight of the previous years play-off teams competing although the champions from last years bowl games (London Ravens and Rockingham Rebels) were missing as both had moved over to compete in the new Budweiser League. The Cougars were placed in the Pennine Division of the National Conference along with the previously encountered Manchester Spartans and Allstars plus an unknown quantity in the shape of the Mansfield Express. The published fixture list would provide Home and Away matchups with Divisional teams plus teams from the Northern Division (Tyneside, Glasgow Lions and Edinburgh Eagles) to produce a twelve game regular season.
Taking the schedule into consideration, things should have been looking good, but off-season changes meant the Cougars were about to enter the unknown. The club had realised that a more professional approach to business was required and had formed a new committee. A new ground was sought with better facilities which would hopefully lead to increased sponsorship, and Leeds City Council came up trumps with the offer of Elland Road, home of Leeds United FC. Sponsorship was soon forthcoming when the Cougars first main sponsor United News Shops offered to inject cash into the team.
To go along with this new approach a new coach was sought and the Cougars appointed ex-Manchester Spartans playcaller George Aguado to the position. How ironic, therefore that out first game of the new campaign was to be an away fixture against our old rivals the Spartans.
Our on-field problems appeared to be minimal, but the movement of starting quarterback Glenn Stevens to running back at the players own request due to shoulder problems, at first seemed slight but was to be felt as the season developed.
The opening game saw the Cougars take the field with two rookie quarterbacks in Rick Strout and David Lundstram but faced with relentless pressure from the fired up Spartans defence neither had any real chance. The Cougars were struggling from the off with their potent "Air Cougar' attack grounded and when the usually tight defence over pursued on a Spartans draw play the experienced American QB T J Johnson decided to keep the ball. He kept it for 85 yards as he outpaced the defence on a weaving run to the endzone. A high snap from a punt near their own goal line by the Cougars gifted another two points and we were down 9 - 0 at the end of the first quarter.
If the first quarter was bad, the second was a total disaster as the Spartans turned up the heat We were at sixes and sevens, in complete disarray. If we got the ball, we gave it straight back, the chance of getting a first down looked remote. 9 - 0 at the end of the first quarter quickly became 37 - 0 at the half as the Spartans exploited our generosity and good field positions to score on two short runs and two passes.
In comparison, the second half was a more even contest The Spartans had the game won and knew it. They finished off a third quarter drive with another short yardage touchdown run for the final points of the day and a 43 - 0 advantage. Only now, with the game already lost did the Cougars resort to halfback option passes by Stevens which had Sammy Pryce showing flashes of his previous years form as the two connected on one 37 yard completion.
The Spartans were not to be denied a shut-out victory and their strength on both sides of the ball was confirmed as they hung on to keep the final quarter scoreless.
A lot of stunned Cougar fans travelled back over the Pennines that evening. Expectations had been high and they were not prepared for what they had witnessed. It was bad enough to have lost by such a score, but the fact that it was to the Spartans mode it even more difficult to swallow.
However, seven days is a long time in footballing terms and by the time the Cougars took the field against the Tyneside Trojans at Elland Road their confidence had been restored and the fans were pleased to see Glenn Stevens back in his customary Quarterback slot. It was hard to believe this was the same team that lost heavily the previous week as they steadily, asserted their superiority on the game. The running game proved effective with the honours shared between numerous players as the Cougars racked up over 200 yards, with the passing game subdued in comparison with only 90 yards. Six touchdown, three running two passing and one interception return were more than enough to see off the Trojans who scored a fourth quarter consolation touchdown to leave the final score at 40 - 6.
We were travelling again the following week with our visit to the Lions of Glasgow and were to come away on the wrong side of a 28 - 20 scoreline as the Lions registered their first victory over the Cougars. Our offence had returned to its usual aerial bias as the running game was held in check by the Lions defence and the early loss of Lions Quarterback Mark Federspiel raised Cougar spirits, but the Glasgow ground game rose to the challenge and responded with over 200 yards.
The Lions took an early first quarter lead, and a touchdown for each side in the second quarter kept the contest close at 12 - 6. The second half was tit for tat but the Lions were always in front to finish with the eight point advantage.
Manchester Allstars were our next scheduled opponents following our rest week but as both teams had been invited to play against the visiting Chicago Metro Allstars over the Bank Holiday week the fixture was cancelled, to be arranged and played at a later date. The fact that this never happened and the fixture was awarded to the Allstars is still bewildering today and meant that we were 1 - 3 for the season.
against the Chicago Allstars on Bank Holiday Monday before a crowd of over 3,000
at Highfield Road, Coventry was to show just how much the British game still had
to learn. The visiting semi-professional side contained players who were just
one step away from the NFL, they were enormous and they were very well drilled.
The final score of 65 - 0 emphasised the difference in class, but although
losers on the day the Cougars won respect and gained invaluable experience by
just being out on the field and giving their all.
And so back to league action with our trip to Whitley Bay for our return match up with the Tyneside Trojans who were still looking to register their first win of the campaign. With five minutes of the game to play they looked to be on course having scored on a halfback run and added the PAT kick in the first quarter. Turnovers and solid defence were the story for the remainder of the game until tight end Tim Casey went for the two point conversion to win the game - the lack of a recognised kicker could have influenced the decision - and the pass to Mr Reliable, Sammy Pryce was good to give the Cougars the narrowest of wins and leave the Trojans still looking to taste victory.
The win brought us back to 2 - 3 for the season, but things were not all rosy. Players were becoming uneasy about the new regime installed by coach Aguado which did not allow them to play with natural flair and a devil may care attitude and it was decided that club and coach would part company.
The Cougars were without a Head Coach in mid-season, but worse was to follow. Suddenly eight of the regular players, including Quarterback Glenn Stevens, decided to leave to join the Bradford Dolphins. "I thought this was it, this is the end of the Cougars" was the response of then Chairman Mick Hardaker. However, when the situation was explained to the remaining players they amazed Hardaker by rallying round and getting on with the job in hand. The old Coach Drew Roberts, hauled the game together and even took over the helm at Quarterback to lead the Cougars to their win at Tyneside
And so on to Edinburgh for our clash with the Eagles which began dreadfully as the Eagles built up a twenty point first half lead before we composed ourselves and began to play. Touchdowns from Tim Casey, Paul Pryce and Sammy Pryce brought the Cougars back into contention and just as they prepared to overhaul the Eagles time expired. Another couple of minutes and the Cougars would have won, but it wasn't to be and the Eagles ran out 20 - 18 winners.
The following game was to be special for many reasons, but mostly because it was to be the last for our stand-in Coach and Quarterback Drew Roberts before he returned to the States with his family. A match-up with the 7 - 0 Manchester Allstars did not offer the prospect of a winning send off especially when considering our player problems, we had only two healthy running backs , and the fact that on both previous meetings we had been beaten out of sight.
The game followed a similar pattern to that of the previous week but this time it was the Cougars who jumped off to a flying start as 8 - 0 at the end of the first quarter became 24 - 7 at the half
When a scoreless third quarter was completed the fans were already celebrating victory. The Allstars, however were not finished and came back strongly with fourteen points to leave us with a final few minutes to survive. The game was won 24 - 21 against all the odds and the scenes of jubilation and emotion amongst players and fans were a sight to see, you just had to be there to appreciate it, I think the whole scenario was best summed up a few years later by Drew Roberts when he said "What happened that day was what I believed was a combination of luck emotion and the most heart I've ever seen by a group of men. They wanted to win the game for me and to spoil the Allstars summer And we did!"
Good send-off it may have been, but the reality of the situation was that once again we had no Head Coach and no recognised Quarterback and nothing in the pipeline. The team decided to carry on without a Head Coach, and the job of Quarterback fell to Linebacker Dave Pearson.
The situation was not going to be easy, and a home 20 - 0 shutout by the Glasgow Lions confirmed this. We just could not move the ball against the reliable lions defence which held us to minus three yards rushing on 44 carries and only allowed us 75 passing yards on five Sammy Pryce catches.
A change of Home venue, back to McLaren field due to a double booking at Elland Road, did not improve our fortunes as again we suffered a 30 - 6 Home reverse, this time to the Edinburgh Eagles. We were, however, beginning to play as a unit and showed signs of moving the ball, all we needed was a little more confidence.
The Confidence boost came a week later when we travelled to Mansfield to meet the Express. They had been an unknown quantity prior to the season having played the previous year alongside the Manchester Allstars in the North Central Conference, and so far this year had only one win under their belts. We were not firing on all cylinders and although our running game was completely dominating we were level at 6-6 going into the final quarter and led by 12-6 going into the final two minutes. Touchdown runs from Pete Haddon and a first score from the 'power back' option by Paul Muscroft had given us the lead, but the Express had the ball and were moving downfield. What followed next was the longest two minutes I have ever known! Express Quarterback Adie Daniel (later to join the Cougars) got his team to within striking distance and began to launch an aerial bombardment on the end zone. Passes fell incomplete and passes were batted down, the Cougars could not get an interception and the Express receivers could not get to the ball. The drive seemed to stall when a fourth down pass sailed out of bounds but a roughing the passer call kept up the pressure and moved the Express closer. What relief then when the final whistle went , the Cougars were back on the winning trail and still in with a chance of the play-offs.
The Play-off trail seemed to be fading fast the following week when we trailed the unbeaten Manchester Spartans 22-0 at the half, visions of our week one loss were beginning to appear and I believe the Spartans believed they were in for a similar result They had however reckoned without the Cougars new offensive weapon as new boy
Hardy was let loose in the second half
The Spartans had relaxed and before they knew it they had a game on their hands as the Home crowd got behind the team and the players responded. The Cougars pressured, chased and closed down the Spartans offence and allowed their own offence to dominate as they pulled back to 28 - 20 going into the final quarter That score soon became 28-28 as the Cougars converted yet again and the stage was set for a frantic final few minutes with the Spartans hanging on to keep out the now rampant Cougars and escape with a tie.
The stats for
the game made interesting reading and showed that J J Hardy passed for 127 yards
on 5 completions with Sammy Pryce collecting 4 of them for 100 yards, he also
ran for 105 yards on 16 carries, not bad for what was in effect half a game.
In with a chance of a play-off spot going into the final game the Cougars were not going to slip up, and duly completed a comprehensive 40 - 6 demolition of the Mansfield Express with a well honed all round performance to ensure an away wild card game against another old enemy, the Fylde Falcons. The Falcons had benefited from a season away from the top flight and had posted a perfect 10 - 0 regular season record plus a 36 - 8 home win against the Musselburgh Magnums in the play-off preliminary round to ensure their wild card spot.
This was not to be an easy game as the Falcons were obviously full of confidence and we needed to score early and often to dent this confidence. Unfortunately the Cougars were unable to exert any prolonged pressure and although in contention at half time, they fell away to a more balanced and powerful offence on the day to finish up on the wrong side of a 36 - 14 scoreline in a game which was to play a leading part in future.
A season which had begun with great expectations had finished with our elimination at Blackpool, although considering the number of up and downs, twists and turns the Cougars had encountered it was, in many respects, astonishing that they had progressed as far as they had. The players had reacted to all obstacles placed before them in such a positive manner that the spirit and qualities shown were to set the standards by which all future Cougar teams would be measured.
One further game was played later that year, a charity match in late October against the Nottingham Hoods. The game was a typical end of season turnout and both teams used the time to good advantage in trying out many options and variations on their playbook and the result was a 50 - 14 victory for the Hoods. It was notable on two points, it was the first Cougar game under the watchful eye of the man who was to become our Head Coach for the following year, namely Chuck Brogdon, and the game attracted local television coverage as the Hoods operated a series of downs with a young lady playing at Quarterback.