The Colchester Gladiators traveled to the John Charles Stadium in Leeds on Saturday to take on the Gateshead Senators in the British American Football Association National Division final and came out winners in a tighter contest than the final scoreline suggests. The satisfaction of clinching the title was marred however by a late injury to Casey Campbell who twisted a knee and left the game, but not before putting in an MVP performance to help his team to victory.
In clinching the title, the Gladiators completed a perfect season, winning all 13 games and bringing a national title back to Colchester for the first time in 25 years. The Gladiators last won a title in 1988, when they also remained unbeaten winning all 17 games, including the final against Brighton B52s who they defeated 47-28. In both finals, the scores were tied at half time before the Gladiators took control in the second half.
The Gladiators started stronger after receiving the opening kick off, collecting a couple of first downs on their way to the Gateshead 31 but good defence stopped Casey Campbell on a fourth down play and the ball turned over to the Senators.
The northern area winners however, failed to make an impression and their opening drive lasted just two plays when, after an incomplete pass, a fumble was recovered by Luke Box, who lead the Gladiators in tackles with 11.
Colchester took full advantage, driving the 28 yards in eight plays, culminating with a one yard run by Campbell. Nathan Brownâ€™s extra point was good and the Gladiators led 7-0.
The Senators failed to register a first down on their second possession and after GB international AJ Crabbe knocked down a third down pass, Gateshead elected to punt. Disaster struck however when the snap soared over the punterâ€™s head who scrambled back to retrieve the ball but was tackled on his own 16, giving the Gladiators a short field.
The Senatorsâ€™ defence dug in however to keep their team in the game and after Campbell was stopped on the one, stopped the Gladiators on four consecutive plays short of the goal line, although the Colchester players were convinced that on at least two of the plays, the ball had broken the plane of the goal line. But the touchdown was not given and Gateshead escaped from being in an early 14 point deficit.
Neither team could move the ball on their next possessions and after an exchange of punts, Gateshead finally picked up their first first down with the last play of the first quarter. They followed this up with another three as they moved the ball 55 yards in 11 plays before facing a 4th and goal on the nine. A pass into the corner from Senators QB Lee Fraser was picked off by Crabbe in the end zone for a touchback and the ball was back in the Gladiatorsâ€™ hands.
The Gateshead defence was getting to grips with the Colchester offence and was making life difficult, forcing a three and out, and they were threatening again after running back Gavin Barr sprinted down the sideline for a 69 yard run, hauled down by a desperation tackle by cornerback Sam Gennings who had sprinted across the pitch from the far side to make the last ditch, touchdown saving tackle.
After Barr ran seven yards for another first down, on fourth and goal on the three, he found a seam through the Gladiators defence for a touchdown, and after kicker Jon Thompson nailed the extra point, the game was tied at 7-7.
It didnâ€™t take the Gladiators long to reclaim the lead though. The Gateshead kick off was fielded by Raul Barclay who handed the ball to returner Ash Latter who found a gap, turned on the after burners, and scorched through the Senatorsâ€™ coverage team untouched, for a spectacular 77 yard touchdown return. Brownâ€™s kick was blocked but the Gladiators were back in front at 13-7.
The Senatorsâ€™ offence was starting to click behind the powerful running of Barr and they showed why they were champions of the north and replied immediately with a four play, 59 yard scoring drive. After QB Fraser connected with wide receiver Darren Mould for a 35 yard gain, he followed it up with a 21 yard connection to tight end Craig Lenahan for six points. Thompsonâ€™s point after attempt was also blocked so the game remained tied at 13 apiece, and that was how it remained until half time.
Colchester defensive coaches Neil Oâ€™Hare and Karl Bourke, both veterans of the previous Gladiator championship, refused to panic after the relatively easy score given up to the Senators and stayed true to the defensive system, and their confidence was rewarded with a second half shut out of a strong Gateshead offence, allowing their own offence time to work out the issues and put more points on the board.
The one-two punch of Gateshead runners Barr and Spencer Hind threatened the Colchester confidence, taking the ball to start the second half, and driving into Gladiator territory, but another bad snap to the punter on fourth down gave up good field position again when Adam Dickens, who had flown in from Denmark to join up with his team mates in the final, recovered the ball on the Senatorsâ€™ 29.
The Gladiators made the most of the short field and after Chris Jackson picked up 15 yards and a first down, Campbell scored his second of the day from four yards out. Brown nailed the extra point to give the Gladiators a seven point cushion, 20-13.
The Senators drove to the Gladiators 29 before another fumble turned the ball over but the Gladiators could not take advantage and had to punt after a long Campbell run was negated by a holding penalty. Punter Gennings was having a great day with the boot, and pinned the Senators deep in their own half, early in the fourth quarter, but they could not get beyond half way and also had to punt the ball away setting up the key play of the game.
Facing a third and seven on their own 37, Head Coach Matt Roberts called a play to Campbell, and he took the hand off from QB Bourke, and carved a path through the Gateshead defence, showing his speed and outrunning the defence for a stunning 63 yard touchdown run. Brownâ€™s kick failed but with a thirteen point lead at 26-13, the Senators were facing an uphill struggle.
The strength of the Senatorsâ€™ offence is in their running game but with time ticking away and two scores behind, they were forced to take to the air. Raul Barclay and Alex Robinson batted down passes to set up a 4th and five but a short pass completion was inches short and the ball turned over to the Gladiators on downs, deep inside the Senatorsâ€™ half.
Campbell secured a first down but in doing so, fell awkwardly and twisted his knee, forcing him off the field. Bourke ran 18 yards for a first down to the two before Campbellâ€™s replacement Chris Palmer, ran in the gameâ€™s final touchdown. Brownâ€™s extra point kick extended the score to 33-13.
Phil Moreton sacked QB Fraser and Josh Milgate made a fourth down stop to turn the ball over again and it was just left to Palmer and Bourke to see the game out and clinch the national division championship to ice the clubâ€™s 30th anniversary season.
Defensive lineman Tim Rowe played in the last championship year in 1988 and thought back to that day compared to this and his thoughts went to the head coach of the 1988 squad, George Baldwin, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year said: â€œHaving been part of George Baldwinâ€™s championship squad of 1988, it fills me with immense pride and emotion to have been a small part of this seasonâ€™s team to emulate those past achievements. With an incredible group of players and coaching staff whose training ethics and desire to succeed has matched those past endeavours, it has been very humbling to have been part of it. Hope you were looking down on us George, that was for you.â€
Head Coach Matt Roberts was understandably emotional after the game and said: â€œI’m obviously so pleased for everyone associated with the club. This win is the culmination of a yearâ€™s hard work from all coaches, players and support staff and although the Solent game was the one which guaranteed us promotion to the Premier Division, to get to sign off the year with a perfect record and a great win against a team who by rights should have been in the Premier Division is grand.
â€œIt really was a team effort on the day, with Luke Box leading the day at middle linebacker with 11 tackles really helped control their offence which, whilst they showed real promise, failed to break down the fitter and stronger defence on the day. Special praise needs to be reserved for junior graduate and senior GB player AJ Crabbe who killed a drive of theirs with a great interception in the end zone and also finished with ten tackles.
â€œOffensively whilst it wasn’t our best performance of the year, it was fitting that both Chris Jackson and Curtis Bourke helped carry the load, and whilst Caseyâ€™s hard fought three TDs and 145 yards on the day will always steal the spotlight and the gameâ€™s MVP award, it’s great to see Bourke and Jackson combine for 115 yards to really keep the Senatorsâ€™ defence on the back foot. The whole season has been one of development, and second year player Ryan Vaughan played his best ever game at the vital left tackle spot, and to finish with two of this yearâ€™s junior graduates at the guard spots is so encouraging to see the youth coming through.
â€œWhilst offence and defence get most headlines with some great plays, it was our special teams which won the game for us. Sam Gennings had another massive day with the boot punting, pinning them deep in their half and special teams stand out Ash Latter added a return for a TD at a vital moment after the Senators had tied the game. Throughout the game it was excellent field position which helped us over the line in a fantastic day for the club. However next year will be more than one step up in quality so we can’t sit back. We have to recruit strongly, have another great pre-season, and with our first residential training camp lined up we just hope we can attract the best talent in the area to push us onto Premier Division glory!â€
Club Chairman Neil Oâ€™Hare reflected on a fantastic achievement and gave credit to the whole programme over the last ten years to get to this point. He said: â€œWe are delighted that the hard work of players, coaches and off-field staff including the support of our sponsors, has been rewarded with a national title. This result is a vindication of the whole club and its policies of youth and junior development. It is truly gratifying that so many graduates from those programmes were able to contribute during the season. We are already planning for next year and the years thereafter and hope that we will continue to help to develop young athletes who want to play the greatest team sport there is. There will be a series of recruitment events held throughout North Essex between now and March 2014 and we hope that as many people as possible will come and try our great game and join a championship programme.â€
Roberts and Oâ€™Hare will allow the players some time to enjoy their achievements but will remind the players that â€œif youâ€™re not getting better, youâ€™re getting worseâ€ and encourage them to find a suitable off-season strength and conditioning programme to give them a head start in preparation for the new season.
Further information about the Club and contact details for all sections can be found at www.colchestergladiators.com.