Only a few days from their opening game of the 2017 season, aspirations are high for the Essex Spartans seniors as they hope for a winning season and a return to the playoffs.
Following a frustrating 2016 campaign that saw just two victories from ten games in a multitude of circumstances and tight score lines, the Thurrock-based outfit have dusted themselves off and are looking forward to big things.
“As always we had healthy attendance at this year’s Come and Trys, and the best retention rate through the Football 101 course we’ve ever had,” said Head Coach Seán Benton.
“We’ve also had excellent player retention from last season, several returners who sat out the 2016 season for various personal reasons and additional varsity-level recruitment that is going to be invaluable.
“My aspiration for this upcoming season is a winning one. We want everyone fit and well and we want a return to playoff football.”
The Spartans opening game is away at league newcomers East Essex Sabres on 9th April, now the third American Football team in Essex along with the Spartans and the Colchester Gladiators.
The Sabres entry into the league was 18 months in the making and they will be based primarily in Benfleet.
“We’re excited to have a new county rivalry!” said Benton. “A local derby is a going to be great season opener for all of us and we welcome them to the league and our level of football.”
All ten games for the 2017 season are Sunday afternoon kick-offs, notably missing the ‘Saturday Night Light’ games that have in previous years been so popular with fans.
“Like all American Football teams at our level, we share facilities,” explains Benton, “we are extremely grateful for the excellent home ground facility we have but this year the dates just didn’t work out for any Saturday games unfortunately.
“They will certainly make a return for 2018!”
With a 12-strong coaching team comprising split co-ordinators on Offence and Defence, along with seven positional coaches and a Strength and Conditioning expert, recruitment and development hasn’t stopped with the players.
“We’re very serious about promoting from within and it’s great to have Harry Shelton as a player-coach at Co-Ordinator level. We have also been joined this year by Joe Cartwright, who is busy learning all three sides of the ball to move into a positional role next year.
“We’re very lucky to have an outstanding team of coaches who do a fantastic job week in, week out.”
The Essex Spartans organisation also features a flourishing Academy with two competing teams, the younger of which last year made their way to the BritBowl finals in September and were named 4th best team of their age group in the country.
The U19 team, absent from the competitive circuit last year, are back in full swing and several players have made the transition from Academy to seniors in recent years.
“The kids and young people in the Academy programme are all outstanding,” says Benton, who himself began his career in youth football at the age of 15.
“Seeing young people enjoying the game is massively important to me, and rising up through the ranks to senior level, and playing for their university teams, is what we’re all about.
“It’s really encouraging to have the U19s back on the field. Every player we’ve had come up to us from the Academy has done a great job and I have no doubt that more will do so.”
So if it’s not the promise of silverware, Championship rings and sure-thing victories under the lights, what is it that keeps men and women coming back to the Essex Spartans year after year?
“We do things in the right way,” says Seán, “we have fun but we’re not a hobby team; we’re serious about development, we’re serious about running this organisation in as professional a manner as possible behind the scenes.”
“We have strong traditions and high standards, and Tony’s [Palmer] legacy was all about building upon and maintaining those standards. That’s the single most important thing that we’re trying to do.”
The Essex Spartans regular season runs from Sunday 9th April to Sunday 6th August 2017; anyone interested in joining should email the team.