The Lonesome Crowded West Midlands

The Arrows are back. The Worcestershire Black Knights are coming. Within fifteen miles of Birmingham, that’s now six teams operating and clamouring for players. Within an hours drive of Birmingham? That number rises to ten, with four or five other teams lurking just outside that imaginary border.

With several existing teams, across all age levels, struggling to field full teams, you could question if it’s in the best interests of the game to introduce further teams to what would seem to be an already struggling area.

Don’t think this situation is unique to the Midlands though. There are four teams playing in the area around Newcastle upon Tyne, serving a much smaller population than the West Midlands. There were five until the Tynedale Fury merged with the Gateshead Senators. There are nine teams within the M25, and even with the largest population of all to draw on, many still struggled for numbers throughout the season.

Back to the Midlands. Most notably, one-time Premier elite and the last non-London team to win the Britbowl, the Coventry Jets forfeited their game against the East Kilbride Pirates, and had their game against the Tamworth Phoenix called in the second half, both times due to injuries leaving them unable to field a team.

The longest standing team in Britball, the Birmingham Bulls came perilously close to forfeiting their final game of the season against the Ouse Valley Eagles, relying on several players to play “iron man” football, putting in shifts on offence, defence and special teams.

map
The locations around the Midlands offering football in at least one age group.

Tamworth aside, there probably isn’t a team within that hour’s drive radius that didn’t cast a nervous eye over their list of available players at one point in the season just gone.

Youth and Junior football were far from perfect. Birmingham, Tamworth and Sandwell put all their eggs in one basket due to a lack of resources, joining forces at Junior level under the banner of the University of Birmingham Lions, a decision that isn’t universally popular amongst staff at any of those programmes. The recently formed Black Country Vipers withdrew from U-19 competition altogether and have just at the time of writing cancelled a tournament. The Sandwell Steelers youth team withdrew from competition prior to the season. Tamworth, and both the Birmingham Lions and Bulls got through the season with very thin squads.

The vast majority of these teams were formed by splinter factions from the Birmingham Bulls, or in some cases, by splinter factions of splinter factions. Many questioned what niche the Worcestershire Black Knights were filling. Despite their billing, they are playing their associate games just thirty minutes drive from the Birmingham Bulls’ current home. And in fact, their stomping ground, Kings Norton RFC, is the former home ground of the Arrows.

After weeks of cryptic Facebook activity, the Arrows announced their intention to reform in October, after a seven year absence. They are yet to commit to a location, but you would imagine it won’t be too far away, based on their aim of “[serving] the south & east of Birmingham”. Former head coach Ian Hill, who called the shots at the Birmingham Bulls in 2013 and 2014, appears to be taking over once more and has assembled a staff in preparation for an associate period.

The associate period, for those that aren’t aware, is an indeterminate period of time that new and returning clubs must go through until BAFA can feel assured that they are a sustainable, and well run organisation. With a number of new teams struggling to complete seasons let alone field competitive teams, it might be argued there are questions to be asked about the robustness of the governing body’s process, but that’s by the by.

The essence, at least previously, is that if a programme can convince the league that they can form a team without poaching their roster from rivals and that they have enough money to pay for gameday officials for the minimum three games they have to play? They’re in. Welcome to the National Leagues.

12963371_1081133785241172_5064610886134141326_n
Worcestershire Black Knights hopefuls will be looking to make their mark on the National Leagues sooner rather than later.

Fellow local associate team, the Worcestershire Black Knights are currently two games deep into their associate period. Thus far they’ve lost to the East Essex Sabres (based in Southend-on-Sea, a relatively short drive from the Essex Spartans), and beat the Welwyn Hatfield Mosquitoes (a team within forty miles of ten existing teams). If their team roster is to be believed, they’ve got a healthy number of players, forty nine with three additional members listed as coaches.

Quite how they’ll respond to another associate team popping up in their ever shrinking sphere of influence is yet to be seen. It’s safe to say that the news of the Arrows’ reformation hasn’t been greeted with region-wide glee by staff at existing local clubs.

Comments

comments

Gareth Thomas

Gareth has played for the Birmingham Bulls and Sandwell Steelers, and as a frustrated offensive play-maker craves only the sweet rush that comes with interceptions. He joined Double Coverage at the request of Rob Amor and is only here until he's picked up by ESPN or Sports Illustrated.