2018 will be remembered as the year that the Exiles made the Premiership. Many years of work have gone into this goal, perhaps really started by Tony Bainbridge and continued by others thereafter. Somewhere close to 6pm Sunday 2nd September when the final whistle blew on a rain sodden field in Southampton the Exiles plans for 2019 changed. Another season in Division 1 avoided, next year we would face the nation’s best team The London Warriors.
2018 actually started in October 2017 with a group of Exiles coming together in The Grind. Led by OL coach Sean Mitchell players flipped tractor tyres and swung sledgehammer to get bigger and stronger . In January we came together for practice and this culminated in a two day camp at Ardingley school for two days of intensive football in preparation for the year ahead. A first for the Exiles . So we felt ready when we travelled to Cambridge for our first game of the season. That game started well and with less than two minutes to go we found ourselves up. Then came Cambridge great comeback. A TD followed by an onside kick recovery and another score, they win by one point. I maintain to this day that losing in this fashion whilst painful actually served us well. It taught us as a team that we could take nothing for granted in this Division. Flipping tyres and camps don’t win football games, playing good football does.
And so another crazy season had started. It is said that our Conference is perhaps the most hotly contested in the country. So it would prove to be again. Three teams would finish 7-3 and it would all be decided by head to head results. Our victory over Cambridge at home took care of that head to head. We defeated the London Hornets at home 17 to zero. Going into our final regular season game against the Hornets at their ground saw a very simple equation. Win or lose by less than 17 points and the Divisional crown would be ours. A strong Hornets team took a quick lead and at the half the Exiles were behind by 26. A second half fight back from the Exiles saw them claw a TD back, difference now 19 points, not enough. In the last two minutes the Hornets were driving and decided to take the field goal. Difference now 22 points. It was at this point that perhaps the single strangest finish to a game I have experienced. The Hornets kicked off and put the ball into the hand of standout RB Dan Exell. Kick return had been perhaps the most practiced of Special Teams all year. We all watched as Exell fielded the return and with some committed blocking returned the ball the length of the field for a TD. Harry Kent kicked the Extra point. Point difference 15, time left just over a minute. The kick off team took the field, kicker Harry Kent with instructions to kick the ball hard along the ground to kill some time and keep the ball away from the Hornets own star returner. We all looked on amazed as Harry kicked the ball as hard as he could against the face cage of a Hornets player. The ball bounced back towards our goaline where it was recovered by Harry Kent. Two kneel downs and the victory was the Hornets, but the title and home field advantage was ours.
Onto the playoffs with a home tie against the Sussex Thunder the very next week. Another epic struggle with our 3 time play off opponents was close at the half. The second half though saw a stronger Exile team get in front and dominate to eventually run out 35 -14 winners. A strong performance from the Exiles defence who really stifled the Sussex Offence and 220 yards rushing from Dan Exell worthy of note. With no rest whatsoever We Then travelled to Solent Thrashers for the semi final. In scenes reminiscent of a previous play off game a few years ago the Exiles arrived in monsoon like conditions. A delayed kick off and a 4g field flooded so that water was ankle height would only make the challenge more difficult. The Exiles were underdogs, the British Football media gave us little chance against a dominant Solent team. Sorry chaps but once again you underestimated the Exiles. A 99yd TD drive was finished off with James Cook TD pass to the season leading receiver James Bertram Smith. In a game where the weather conditions made life difficult it would be the Exiles Defense which would have the final say. With less than two minutes remaining Solent had a 1st and goal on the Exiles 2yd line. A score and that would be that. The Defense then proceeded to rip apart the Solent front and push the offense further away from the endzone. The final attempted pass from the Solent QB batted down by what seemed like the whole Exiles Defense. With that play Premiership status was earned as well as a trip to the Britbowl final in Leeds to face the 12 -0 Leicester Falcons.
Sunday 9th September saw the Exiles descend on the city of Leeds. The opponents the much fancied Falcons, unbeaten all year a big strong team filled with US players from the University of Derby. Again the British Football media had its say. One pundit was even heard to say the Falcons would shut out the Exiles. We may have been underdogs in others eyes, not so in ours. It was our Defense who would put points on the board first, stand out Middle linebacker Miguel Pascal Johnson scooping up a Leicester fumble to run in a score. Johnson would go on to score a safety and rack up 8 points in a final which for a defender is something special. The pattern of the game was set . The Exiles offense moved the ball effectively all day and the defense stopped the Falcons run game enough to force them to pass more than they had all year. The game was watched by nearly 7 thousand people on line and 300 in the stadium. The Exiles supporters and their horns never letting up. Too and fro the game went, no team able to completely dominate and take control. The half time TV show contained some pundits eating humble pie and reveling in the Exiles performance. The second half continued in the same vein, perhaps defences having more of a say as adjustments were made. In the end a failed onside kick by the Exiles enabled the Falcons to kneel out the game and emerge the victors by one score 36-29.
I’ve been asked if the loss to Falcons takes the edge off the season. I say not. Our goal was always to make the Premiership. That, we achieved . We all play this game to win, we didn’t beat the Falcons but the entire British Football community saw us play a great game and achieve our goals based on the ethos of football development from Kids Flag to the Premiership. That makes us winners.
We need to thank everyone who contributes to the Exiles Adult team. Coaches without whom we don’t make players better. The committee without whom nothing happens. The volunteers who make the stuff we take for granted happen.
Finally to the players – thank you for your attention, commitment and never say die attitude. This is truly a special group of people and we are humbled by the sacrifices made in pursuit of this thing we call Exile football