THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS!
What can I say about the week before the game at Wembley Stadium? Tiring, but absolutely rewarding.
Steeler Nation first began thinking about events for the Steeler fans with the announcement on October 17th, 2012 that they would be coming to Wembley. Andy and I, who co-ordinate Steeler Nation UK, were not sure what we could do, but we wanted to do something so we began to bounce ideas of each other.
As neither of us lived in London, finding a venue for any meet and greet was going to be difficult. We had ideas about what we wanted to do, but we needed venues.
I retired at the end of January 2013, and that provided the opportunity to sit down at my PC to search and make inquiries about likely bars. Some places wanted a deposit or guaranteed bar takings. There was no way that we imagined we would get the numbers we did, so I discarded those places.
Eventually, I discovered Henrys (picture left.) It was in the right location and they were affable towards our aim once I had confirmed it wasn’t for soccer fans, but for Steeler fans. I became a little concerned when they didn’t email me confirmation so decided we would meet there before Ben’s meet & greet in July so that Andy knew we had a booking and to familiarise ourselves with its atmosphere.
All was confirmed by the events manager and the ball began to roll. Ben signed the flag that evening and put Steeler Nation UK on the map and on Sky TV. Andy and I began our work in earnest. We was still concerned about finding a place in Wembley though. The Green Man just didn’t appeal to us. Packed in, shoulder to shoulder, with football fans from all the other teams just didn’t seem right for the Nation. They deserved more.
We wanted our own Steelers’ bar. When I went to Wembley for a soccer playoff game, I had noticed a social club that I thought we might be lucky with if I used my charm and charisma, but I had lost their details so couldn’t contact them. We were going to have to do our searching on foot.
We took the flag on tour, first to the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth and then to the Shard in London, primarily to get photos for our Facebook page to set the scene for our planned September adventures.
Andy came up with one of his ideas without knowing it. He said it would be a good idea to have a countdown to the game starting at the beginning of September. I thought that a superb idea, but we needed some more images of London to go with it, particularly Wembley Stadium.
There was also confusion over what bags people were allowed and whether our Nation flag would be allowed in so we decided to use the occasion to ask at the Stadium. Our inquiries were fruitless; the Stadium just said it was down to the NFL. They couldn’t confirm anything.
We didn’t waste our visit entirely as we took some good photos of the flag and Wembley Stadium. We decided to walk to the social club that I had picked out a few months earlier, but it was closed.
We walked back to the tube station for our next port of call and spotted Watkin's Folly. Disappointed, in need of refreshment and with it being past 12 o’clock, I decided we would go in and take a look. We were impressed with the interior so decided to talk to the bar manager and that meant our Steelers’ bar for the day came to fruition. At the time, little did we know what we had created?
We moved on to visit more locations, ending up at the Tower, before having a relaxing drink at Henry’s with Alex in the evening. A good day’s work, but with a lot more to do.
Andy spent his time procuring balloons, flags and any kind of black & gold decoration to enhance the ambience of our two designated bars while I laboured over the second half of the “days to go” images. We both continued to field questions and inquiries from Steeler Nation about our events as our spare time began to evaporate with the passing of each day.
I know Andy had his fair share of connections and so did I. Scott from Australia was the one who made the most impact as he discovered me via Google when he couldn’t sleep after his 26-hour flight. Scott became part of Steeler Nation UK for a week to join those from Europe and USA in the fun.
Our first London event was a walkabout around London on Wednesday October 25th. It brought three continents together - America, Australia with us Brits. Our first attempt at having a photo taken with the Nation flag was foiled by a roaming inspector for the National Trust. So we waited until he had disappeared around the corner.
On September 20th I had received an email from Channel 4’s American Football Show asking if I was interested in going to London for the recording of the programme on the Thursday before the game. I obviously replied yes and put forward Andy’s name as well. This meant that we had to keep Thursday clear. This invitation was postponed, so I siezed the opportunity to update our Facebook page with photos from the walkabout.
Through the Steelers media release, we knew that the team would be practicing on Friday between 1500-1700 at the WASPS training ground so we our plansmeant keeping Friday free in case we received confirmation of where it would be. Having no commitments on the Thursday also gave us the opportunity to organise any visit to see the Steelers practice.
WASPS play at High Wycombe, but train at Acton. We had to gamble on one of the two venues. My rugby friend said it would be High Wycombe, Andy with his connections through his daughter playing rugby, thought it would be Acton.
Heads we win, tails we lose so I thought go with Andy’s instincts. We had always worked as a team, so the decision was made. I picked up Scott on the way as he was staying with his sister in Epsom and was going to hire a car and I didn’t want him to have that expense on a wild goose chase.
Andy arrived there first and spied some American Football posts through the railings and rang us to tell us he was convinced it was the right location. The journey for Scott and me through the Friday afternoon London traffic seemed to take forever.
Eventually we appeared and Andy told us that WASP security was not allowing anyone in unless they had media credentials. Fortune favours the brave so I marched up to some people who looked like they knew what was going on and introduced myself. Apparently, I somehow avoided the security person because his attention was elsewhere.
I was talking to the right people and gave them one of my SteelersUK schedule cards explaining I just wanted to take some photos and wouldn’t be any bother. I added that I had with me the Steeler Nation UK flag that Ben liked so much. They were a little negative regarding the flag as it was a “business” practice and had to be treated as such.
I agreed that we would only go with their instructions and then went for gold saying I had two more with me (Andy and Scott) and I needed them to hold the flag if we were allowed to have a photo taken with it. I added that we wouldn’t be any trouble, would go with whatever they wanted us to do, or not do and that sealed the deal. We were in!
Well, almost. There was now the slight problem of finding somewhere to park for a few hours as London has some very tight parking restrictions. We debated whether it was worth incurring a parking penalty as we wanted to ensure we were inside the practice facility before the team arrived.
Without appearing to panic, we drove around in circles before finally stopping to ask someone who pointed us in the direction of the Ealing shopping Centre. Fortunately we found the pay meters outside the tube station with relief all round before legging it back to the training ground.
There were quite a few members of the media sitting in the clubhouse bar so we waited patiently with them to await our team. Three buses eventually pulled into the car park and coach Tomlin led his team out on the short walk to the training area allocated to them.
As Andy had previously spotted, a football post had been put in place and basic field markings. All the media, including the Steeler Nation representatives, were supervised by members of the Steelers crew. They told us when we could take photos and when we couldn’t as the team went through their walkthroughs.
After an hour, photographing was no longer allowed so all the British media disappeared to leave Steeler Nation watching their team alone. It proved a good opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the Steelers’ photographer, Karl, and also Missi from Steelers TV.
Missi and Bob Labriola recorded their videos for the web site behind us while we continued to watch the team practice. Eventually, all good things have to come to an end and we watched the players walk back to the buses wishing them good luck for the game and.
The memories from those two hours will linger for a long time, and we have our photos to share with Steeler Nation UK as we went there as your representatives.
As we were going to spend three days in London, I decided to book a hotel for the period and found the Quality Hotel in Wembley for a reasonable price – especially as I had left it late.
After we left the Steelers practice, I drove to the hotel with Scott who wanted to look round Wembley Stadium. I had been too busy to check the location of the hotel, I was just happy it was in Wembley.
When the Sat-Nav told me to turn into Empire Way and we descended towards our Steelers bar for the day, I suddenly noticed the hotel. It was a hundred yards from the pub. I just couldn’t believe my luck. With a lot of decorations and Steelers paraphernalia that Andy and I had accumulated, it was fortunate to have somewhere close to store it all.
Friday evening was a rehearsal at Henrys for Saturday. Some of Steeler Nation joined us for a little get together. As we had a lot to do the next morning, I left early to ensure I would be up for the first of two big days and arrived at Wembley Park tube station to be greeted with this:
Saturday morning was an early start as I had to pick up two tickets from someone travelling on the 0900 Eurostar arrival at St. Pancras. The tickets I had arranged for a Steeler Nation UK friend and his son. The seller couldn’t go to the game so had wanted the tickets to go to genuine football fans and googled “Steelers UK” and found me so emailed me to see if I was interested. A large world reduced to small by a search engine.
Having brought the tickets, Andy and I headed to the Landmark Hotel for the NFL Fan Forum with Merril Hoge, Daunte Culpepper and Ahmad Rashad. Steeler Nation UK had a good representation at the game with Scott (picture left) from Australia and Dean and his friend from Ireland.
The Steelers Supporters Club that I started in the mid-eighties had awarded Merril their MVP trophy. Merril says he was part of an NFL tour of the UK in 1988. I arranged for the trophy to taken to him during that tour, but I thought it was later than ’88. When I have a spare five minutes, I’ll go through my Steelers stuff in the loft and try and verify the year.
He said during the forum that he doesn’t remember anything about his visit, so the question I had prepared regarding his trophy went out the window. After the forum, Merril was only too happy to sign autographs and naturally signed the Steeler Nation UK flag.
After the forum, we were taken to Regent Street for the NFL rally.
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 28th CONTINUED
After the NFL Fan Forum we were bussed to Regent’s Street. Andy has arranged to meet Steeler Nation outside of Nike Town, but unfortunately we were dropped off the other end. It was convenient for the NFL rally as that is where the stage had been set up, but to get to Nike Town it was going to prove to be a challenge without a Steeler Nation flag. With the flag, it was almost impossible.
Andy enthusiastically unravelled the flag and Gabrielle eagerly volunteered to take the other end as our journey began. Swimming against the tide comes close to describing our slow progress as every Steeler fan wanted their photo taken with the flag that had now become an icon.
Foreign tourists were intrigued by this display of reverence and joined in the experience, cameras snapping away. Snails could have made more progress as the procession edged its way along the crowded street.
Franklin Roosevelt once said, “There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” Steeler Nation UK had found that one way. The flag had become the Holy Grail and Steeler fans gathered to pay their respect.
The agreed time for Steeler Nation UK to meet up faded with each photo stop. I am convinced that an Ice Age glacier would have moved quicker, but when we came upon the Scottish Steelers, the photo opportunity was too good to miss – as the clock continued to tick.
When we eventually reached Nike Town, it was now time to turn back to greet the Steelers who were due on stage at 1300. Despite the approaching deadline, our headway proved no faster.
A sense of concern set in as I anticipated we wouldn’t reach the stage in time as our progress continuously stalled. Eventually, my sense of urgency took hold of our procession and the posing for photos ceased.
We made the stage just before the Steelers came on but the area had now become well crowded and we had to stand well back. Fortunately, the sound system was good so even if we couldn’t see our heroes, we could hear them.
When the Steelers finished, we began another slow procession along Regent Street. Although it didn’t seem possible, even more photographers emerged from the throng. We did happen on the Steelers’ photographer Karl, who was proudly flying the flag for us by wearing one of Steeler Nation UK’s polo shirts.
HENRY'S SATURDAY EVENING
I arrived at Henry’s ahead of Steeler Nation and immediately hit a problem as our reserved area had been taken over by a foreign politic group. I won’t go into details, but it was the reason that we were unable to decorate Henry’s as we intended. There may have not been any black and gold decorations, but Steeler Nation’s shirts put the colour into the bar.
We gradually took over the place as non-Steeler customers departed to be replaced by more of Steeler Nation. I was overwhelmed by Alex who had brought a T-shirt each for Andy and me in appreciation of what we had done. Romy gave us some beads and a small black and gold foam football that I am now using to teach my granddaughter how to throw a ball.
Ramon Foster was spotted eating with his cousin so Andy arranged that Ramon would be left in peace until he had finished his meal. When he had finished eating, Ramon was very accommodating signing anything put in front of him and having his photo taken with everyone. The flag received its third Steeler autograph.
The appearance of the masked Steeler was the other celebrity who caused a commotion as he swept through the bar. I disappeared early again as Sunday was going to be a long day.
GAME DAY: STEELERS vs VIKINGS AT WEMBLEY LONDON
Who would have ever believed that we would get to see the Steelers at Wembley? Years of exhibition games played in London and then with the International Series always passing Steeler fans by, the day was finally here.
Andy and I were up early and walked to McDonalds for breakfast. We were surrounded by other NFL shirts, including Steelers and it would set the pattern for the day. The NFL was going to take over this part of London.
We had been given the OK to decorate from 1100 so we had time on our hands and I decided to watch my bit on SteelersTV.com. Scott had told me that I was not embarrassing, so I thought I would give it a view. Unfortunately the hotel’s broadband was about as effective as a 128k modem from the eighties and I didn’t get the opportunity.
Watkins Folly let us in at 1100 and we began to turn an Irish bar into a Steelers’ bar. Andy had accumulated a lot of bunting, balloons and flags (including a Pirates’ one) over the previous months, and now Steeler Nation UK was going to put it to good use.
We were joined by Gabrielle, Clare and Pete as we busied away blowing balloons up and hanging the decorations around the bar. Of course the Holy Grail – the Steeler Nation UK flag – was given prominence outside the bar.
Gabrielle’s work wasn’t finished when we completed the decorating. She nobly went up to Wembley Park tube station to direct Steeler Nation our way. Amazing dedication!
A trickle at first before the flood as Steeler fans flowed in. Andy played the congenial host again while I sat back and waited to greet my family and friends. It was good to greet Daniel, who had been affected by a virus and it had been touch and go if the young man made it to his first Steelers game. The thought of the Steelers had kept him going through his traumatic times.
The Watkins Folly became an extension of Pittsburgh for those hours as Steeler Nation became Steeler World as fans from everywhere arrived. It was good to see Colin Stephen, now living in Albania, and his brother Kenny and their wives. Colin presented me with an Albanian medal awarded for meritorious service to the Nation.
Colin had been part of Steeler Nation UK from when it began in the eighties and I was overwhelmed he was recognising the effort I had put in for three decades.
Fans from around the world came together as one. The power of Steeler Nation could be seen as they merged into a unique union with the sole intention of enjoying themselves.