The Scunthorpe Steelers were a British American football team that ran from 1985-1990. During that time they went 36-23-1 and picked up one league title and two conference titles.
We have previously run a series of articles on ‘Great British football teams’. That included the Glasgow Lions, Manchester Spartans, Leicester Panthers, London Olympians, London Ravens and the Birmingham Bulls.
Strictly speaking the Scunthorpe Steelers don’t belong in this company. But they were my local team during my teenage years. They had an impact on my formative and growing love of the game.
I recently learned too that Scunthorpe once again has an American football team – the Scunthorpe Alphas. That stirred more than a few memories of their predecessors. So join me as I take a nostalgic look back at the team that wore Columbia blue and white and helped kindle a passion – the Scunthorpe Steelers.
In September 1982 the NFL exploded on to Britain’s TV screens as Channel 4 began American Football’s first regular weekly slot.
The effect of that hour-long TV slot took Channel 4, the American producers, and the viewing public by complete surprise.
The result was an outpouring of popularity for the game that few saw coming. Part of that was the creation of more than one hundred British American Football teams.
By 1984 Geoff Hulse wanted to get in on the act. So he formed the Brigg Jets. The whole thing was launched by a poster in the Lord Nelson pub in the town asking for people to come forward and be involved. That poster appeared in January 1984 and such was the response that by February of the same year the kernel of a team was in place.
There was however a better response from Scunthorpe than Brigg, so the team moved and re-named from Jets to Steelers.
Flag Football First
The arrival of Leland Sullivan as head coach in September 1984 sped up the development of the team. The American, who worked locally and had amateur experience of the game in America got them much more organized.
In 1984 as they found their feet they played three flag football games (going 2-1) to get a feel for the sport.
Wins of 43-14 against the Newark Vulcans and 31-12 against the Kingston Liberators were brought to a shuddering halt by a 73-0 thrashing by the Mansfield Express.
The most important thing however was that the team were up and running and moving towards kitted competition in the near future.
Steelers first full contact games – 1985
By 1985 the Steelers were ready for contact football. Kitting the team had been a struggle, especially as at this stage they did not have a sponsor in place.
The determination to get going can be seen in the fact that many players had paid for their own kit at a cost of roughly £250 per head. (Which according to an online inflation calculator would be £762 in today’s money).
The first full contact game was a pre-season friendly against the also newly formed Leigh Razorbacks played on Sunday April 28th 1985. Scunthopre turned out in the black and yellow colours synonymous with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game was won 21-14 by Leigh and a collection was taken from the fans to help with costs.
The original programme cost 10p and had the look of a team finding its way. Later in the season programmes were up to 25p, had advertising and looked more professional. Collections were still made as the Steelers were playing at a venue they could not charge admission to.
Amateur American Football Conference
The AAFC was formed in January 1985 at a meeting in Brigg. This was a time of great expansion for the domestic game. Teams and leagues were blossoming. The Steelers joined what were originally 7 other teams to form the league.
The teams were all from Yorkshire & Lancashire which should help reduce travel costs. The league had its results and table printed in the contemporary paper ‘Gridiron UK’.
One of the founding teams – The Sheffield Sportsmen received a sponsorship boost and moved into the British American Football Federation. They were replaced by Locomotive Derby who went on to be the dominant team in the league in 1985.
The Steelers AAFC years
The Steelers played in the AAFC in 1985 & 1986. In their first year they finished the season a respectable 6-4 in league play and missed out on the final on points difference alone.
The season finished with an exhibition match against the Sherwood Outlaws. With exhibition games added in they finished their first fully kitted season a very respectable 9-5. This was also their first game at Quibell Park in Scunthorpe, a venue that worked much better.
1986 saw the Steelers take a leap forward. They found a sponsor in local company Steel Centre 4. That company, and the Eddy family that owned it would become a driving force behind the team.
The Steelers first competitive game in their new home, Quibell Park, saw them win 43-0 against the Newark Vulcans. It was a sign of things to come for the season.
They lost just one competitive game all year (12-9 to the Wirral Wolves), on their way to a 9-1 record. That saw them take the AAFC East Division, before defeating Wirral 50-32 in the Steel Bowl final held at their own ground.
Further success came as they beat local rivals the Lincoln Bombers 57-0 for the ‘Abbey National Cup’ & the Manchester Heroes 22-8 for the ‘Christmas Bowl’ played on December the 28th.
This was their most successful year and they finished it 15-2 with Exhibitions games taken into account alongside their 10-1 AAFC record. Holding the USAF team Chicksands to a 7-0 win was a very respectable result in an exhibition match in July of the year too.
Steelers take a step up
Just three short years after a poster had appeared in a Brigg pub, the Scunthorpe Steelers had come a long way.
For 1987 they joined the Budweiser League. A definite step up in the level of competition could be expected. With some retirements and some changes in personnel, 22 players returned from the ’86 squad and 28 new faces were added. Having former Scunthorpe United goalkeeper Paul Johnson on the squad as a rookie garnered some local attention.
The new season began in fine style with a 54-7 win against the Manchester Heroes. In fact they took to their new surroundings very well going 4-0 to start the season. They were derailed by the Leeds Cougars however who were the cream of the Division when they went down 30-6. The Cougars would later say the Steelers were the toughest team they had faced during the league season.
The Steelers were 6-3 when they parted ways with coach Sullivan. One defeat had been to the much stronger Cougars. One defeat was hotly contested against the Heroes (Scunthorpe would lodge a successful complaint about playing conditions and officiating). The last defeat an upset 12-8 loss to Wrekin was the one that did the damage it seems.
Defeat to the Cougars once more saw them finish their debut Budweiser season 6-4. Not bad for a team taking a big step up.
They also retained the renamed ‘Jubilee Bowl’ beating Lincoln 36-12. They finished the season splitting exhibition games 1-1 with the Norwich Devils. All in all it was another decent showing.
Under the leadership of new Head Coach Robin Burton the question for the Steelers in 1988 was did they belong? Could they consolidate their position in the higher league, or even kick on?
Things did not start well with a shock pre-season defeat (13-6) to the Lincoln Bombers kicking things off. They bounced back however beating the Kingston Liberators 13-0 & Locomotive Derby 17-8 to go 2-1 before the ‘real games’ began.
A very poor start to the season undid the Steelers. Although they recovered from their 0-2-1 start to finish 6-3-1 it was the poor start that kept them out of the playoffs. Still, they had gone 12-7-1 over two seasons in the Budweiser league showing they belonged.
1989 – A Scunthorpe Steelers Horror Story
One certainty of the early years of American football in this country was change. So despite the consolidation of their place in the Budweiser league, it is not that surprising to see the Steelers move leagues.
1989 saw them be part of the Crown Gridiron League – placed in the National Northern Division. It would be a terrible season as the Steelers finished 2-8. Off the field was pretty difficult at times too.
It all started quite well. The Steelers brought in American players and Coach Burton was expecting good things. It was his 6th season coaching a Britball team and he said he thought they would be his best.
Pre-Season saw a 40-12 win over the Harrogate Hawks and 45-6 win against the Hartlepool Steelers.
It all fell apart from Week one. They lost 34-18 away at the London Capitals. On the way to the game the coach had broken down. Most of the team was sat two hours waiting for a replacement. Meanwhile three players got lost making their own way and never made the game!
By the time they got to 1-4 the Steelers were already talking about next year. Week five brought its own controversy however. Trailing 32-24 the Steelers found their match abandoned. The Ref claimed he was in fear of his life as the game degenerated.
It was a low point in the season that saw one Steeler retire in disgust at the way things had gone.
When the season was done with a final 35-2 defeat at home to the Heathrow Jets the Steelers were just happy to put their horror season behind them.
The Final Act
1990 was the final act in the story of the Scunthorpe Steelers. It was another season blighted by controversy, but the Steelers who had moved to the NCMMA did win their second Division title.
For this season the team would be coached by former Lincoln Bombers coach John Gurga. The Bombers had folded and he brought some of his players with him. Canadian LB Dan Brooks and American QB Kenny Jones were the imports that success was to be built around.
A 43-26 win against the Stoke Spitfires suggested this would not be a repeat of the year before. However, optimism was soon deflated because of a 26-16 defeat to the Manchester Heroes. The Steelers had been 16-0 up but Dan Brooks broke his arm and it affected the team badly.
The defeat would not count as the Heroes would fold but it had an impact on the season. Von Shepard transferred to the Steelers part way through the season and was sensational.
The Ex Nebraska Conrnhusker proved more than up to the task of the Britball game. For example he had 11 carries for 190 yards and 4 touchdowns in one game. The run heavy Steelers took their Division with a 6-2 record.
They were supposedly in talks for a return to the NCMMA (formerly the Budweiser League) for 1991, and had a playoff game to look forward to. What could go wrong?
An unhappy Ending
As it transpired that playoff game would be their last game ever. The game could not be played at Quibell Park so was moved to West Common Lane playing fields – which were far from ideal.
Scunthorpe lost 21-20 to the Crawley Raiders. Von Shepard went to the local hospital with concussion. The Steelers had two scores knocked off for dubious penalties.
What was worse was the fighting that broke out. Team owner Shay Eddy said because of it he didn’t feel his family was safe at the game. Originally they planned to lodge an official complaint with the league. Ultimately however the Eddy family stepped away and the Scunthorpe Steelers came to an end.
Now however, as mentioned above American football is back in the town. For those with fond memories of the Steelers it is an opportunity to see the game grow again.
It will be interesting to see if the Alphas can integrate themselves into the community and engender the affection that the Scunthorpe Steelers did.
Banner image from Scunthorpe Steelers Wixsite.