The end of the 1970s saw one young man return to Crewe in need of stability and a fresh start. A trusting stepfather made a job at Rolls-Royce possible for teenager Gary Delaney – and he grabbed the opportunity and excelled. Marriage followed, but a crazy dream that would unsettle everyone soon dominated his life…
“My parents divorced when I was very young and my mother brought me to Crewe to start over with my ‘new’ father. I was a difficult child and tested my parents to the limit. Eventually, I moved to Suffolk to live with my real father. Things went from bad to worse as I neglected my education, missed lessons, flunked exams and left school with almost no qualifications. I needed to sort my life out.”
With few options remaining, Gary returned to his mum in Crewe. “I was lucky, and thanks to my stepfather’s clout I enjoyed a fast-track route onto the craft apprenticeship scheme at Royce’s in 1977. I completed all of the disciplines, from milling and mechanics to electrical work and coach building. Then, in 1980, I won the Lord Hives Award – the highest honour bestowed on the company’s craft apprentices. That helped me repay a debt to my stepfather. Deep down, I think he was proud of my award.”
Some exciting times followed in the experimental department, developing a new car that would use a smaller BMW engine. Work dominated but there was room for another obsession. “The career opening up was great, but from the early 80s something else took hold of me – American Football. Channel 4 started to broadcast games in 1982 and I also tuned my radio to the American Armed Forces network for the live games. The reception was rubbish so I’d sit there waving the aerial around trying to get a signal. You’d have a Spanish Opera singer fading in over the commentary, but I loved grabbing any snippets I could.”
By now married and living on Queens Park Gardens, a chance purchase by his wife fuelled his new passion. “She bought me a new magazine called Gridiron UK, instead of my preferred Touchdown. It was all about the British American Football scene. I had no idea there were teams starting up over here, so I was excited and wanted to be part of this new revolutionary movement. I still hadn’t passed my driving test so getting to train with teams in Stafford or Manchester was out of the question. So I decided to start my own team in Crewe, which was a crazy idea. So that’s what I did; I became the self-imposed owner and Head Coach of the Crewe Railroaders American Football Team.”
Setting up a new team in a railway town dominated by traditional sports was always going to be tough, but there were also some serious financial pressures. “We were struggling at the time with bills and mortgage payments. I’d tried loads of daft get-rich-quick schemes and my wife’s patience was wearing thin. The last thing she needed was our spare cash devoted to American Football. Lads from the local rugby and football teams thought that we were idiots, and the fact that I was weedy and about eight stone soaking wet made it all the more laughable.”
Still, a few friends and work colleagues were drafted in and an embryonic club was established. “There was no real backing from anyone official; in fact most of the people I spoke with thought I was bonkers – including my parents. I put posters up around town and gave the local papers a bit of flannel. I said we’d have proper American players coming to join the team in Crewe. I had big plans, but convincing anyone that this new American Football lark was going to be huge wasn’t easy. Eventually, on a cold, wet November afternoon in 1984, we had our first Crewe Railroaders training session. Eleven guys turned up and, amazingly, ten of them would go on to play in the first game in June the following year.”
Securing a regular venue wasn’t easy and it took parliamentary intervention to get things moving for the Railroaders. “The local council was opposed to us using the new Cumberland Arena. It was the flagship sports facility, but nobody was using it. I was furious when they wouldn’t let us hire it. They probably thought we were a bit of a freak show. So I wrote to local MP Gwyneth Dunwoody. She appreciated that we were going to represent Crewe all over the country and, hey presto, within a couple of weeks we were offered the Cumberland as our home venue – and at a decent discount as well.”
With the dream still alive a family was born, a group of players who would look out for each other. “If any of us were in trouble the whole team would respond and help. We had all invested hundreds of pounds of our own money to take part in the first recorded season of American Football played on these shores. It was quite comical at times, and I remember the first game when we didn’t realise that everyone had to wear gum shields. The referees wouldn’t let us play without one, so we had to share! One player would run off the field, take the gum shield out of his mouth dripping in saliva, and another would snatch it and pop it into his own mouth.”
Everything about the team was close-knit, and social occasions were never dull. “It was very interesting going out in the evening for a drink on mass. We all wore black and silver jackets with ‘CREWE RAILROADERS AMERICAN FOOTBALL CLUB’ embroidered on the back in large letters. That always attracted attention, not always from young ladies! On many occasions we were subjected to abuse by a few drunks who fancied their chances, but they found out the hard way that if you took on one player you took on the whole Railroader family. Nothing usually happened, because once twenty or thirty big guys surround you most tend to realise that the odds are not in their favour.”
On and off the pitch the Railroaders were a decent bunch and they made visiting teams welcome. “After the games we always had a few drinks with the opposing players. The Crewe Squash Club by the George V playing fields and the Belle Vue on Earle Street were our favourite meeting places. Despite being a very violent and dangerous game, once the final whistle blew there was never any hard feelings or grudges carried over. We were all part of something new despite being on different sides. Other teams loved travelling to Crewe as we always put on a good spread after each game. When we didn’t have a game on we used to dine at Rockafellas on Hightown, which had an American theme to it. I used to love their Wild West Smokey Burger dripping in barbecue sauce.”
For Gary, however, the story didn’t end in the 80s. He continued playing until 1993 and made some great friends along the way “The best thing about the Railroaders is that most of us have kept in touch; we still are a family. We still meet up for drinks, BBQs and the odd party. Years later, still a keen fan of the sport and encouraged by friends I decided to write about the Crewe experience. The book turned into a script, and after several years it’s going to be made into a film called Gridiron UK, based on the true story of the formation of the Crewe Railroaders. We’ll relive those wonderful years again and have our moment of fame, this time on the silver screen. Hopefully, it will put Crewe on the Hollywood map.”
Gridiron UK filming took place in the summer of 2012, featuring actual locations used in 1985. It will be released at cinemas in September 2016.
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