In 1982, Tony Palmer saw an advertisement in a local paper for player trials for the Basildon Colts – and from that point on, Palmer would be forever entrenched in Essex American Football history.
Playing running back and special teams, a promising career for #28 was cut sadly short by a knee injury one pre-season, resulting in Palmer accepting the challenge of the now-renamed Basildon Braves Special Teams coaching position. One phone call from Clive Wilton later, however, and Palmer was installed as the new manager of the up-and-coming youth development.
Coaching players such as Scott Weeden and Paul Barrett, and with league registration fees paid for by one generous father of a player, Palmer’s team donned black shirts with silver writing and white pants to compete in the countrywide 2-touch league. A sponsorship deal with a local modelling agency followed in 1985, and the team rapidly progressed into the ranks of kitted football – and the seeds of the Essex Spartans were sown.
1991 and 1992
In 1991, with players reaching the maximum age for youth football and the Basildon Braves now defunct, the Basildon Chiefs senior team became a reality – and took the League by storm. Placed in the British National Gridiron League (BNGL) First South East Division alongside Canterbury, Enfield), Invicta, Gravesend, and Southend, the Chiefs cruised to the Division title and the playoffs. In their first full season, the Chiefs defeated Exeter and Folkestone to reach the Bowl Game, where they were defeated by the Glasgow Cyclones.
In 1992, the team competed in the BNGL Premier East Midlands Division, and battled their way to a 5-5 finish. Highlights included two victories over the Carterton Wildcats, 32-3, and 44-8, and a defeat of the London Mets.
1993 saw the team secure a sponsorship deal with Basildon’s Time Nightclub, and they began with a pre-season friendly against a team playing their first competitive game – the Redbridge Fire.
1993 saw the Chiefs record the franchises biggest victory, an 87-0 destruction of the Folkestone Vikings and the team also played a charity game for Ben Moscrop against the Redbridge Fire.
The season began with a 33-12 victory over the Norwich Devils, and the team improved to 3-0 with a 34-0 destruction of the Colchester Gladiators. Two exciting matches against Tiptree resulted in a close loss and a tie, and the season sweep of Norwich was completed with a 39-14 win and 46-0 victory.
The team celebrated American Independence Day with a match against old rivals the Colchester Gladiators, and prevailed 20-14, before ending their regular season with another convincing victory over the Gladiators.
Another trip to the playoffs saw the team also win promotion into the British American Football Association (BAFA) Senior League for 1994.
A record of 7 wins and 3 losses was good enough for second-place in the Division, but the team would again taste defeat in the first round of the playoffs.
An opening-day victory over the London Mets was followed by a defeat of Invicta. The Mets were on the receiving end of a 61-0 blowout, but the Tiptree Titans brought the team back down to Earth with a bump thanks to a 22-21 victory. The Chiefs lost their final regular-season game against the Oxford Saints, and crashed out of the playoffs with an 12-18 loss to Crawley.
Chris Simpson (32 receptions, 740 yards, 13 TD’s) ended the season as the 4th-ranked receiver, Scott Weedon (79/171, 12044 yards, 23 TD, 7 int) was the top-ranked passer, and Jel Yeates 6.5 sacks were good enough for 1st place in the sacks category.
1995 saw the team end with an impressive record of 7 wins, 2 losses, and a tie, but again, the playoffs ended with defeat in the first round.
The season started brightly, with an exciting 41-35 victory over Brighton, and the team moved to 3-0 with victories over Tiptree and Olympians II. A defeat at the hands of Crawley was followed by a victory over Redbridge and a stormy tie with Brighton.
The Olympians II gained revenge for their earlier defeat, and the Chiefs gained revenge of their own with a victory over Crawley before ending their regular season with victories over Redbridge and Tiptree. Sadly, the trip to the playoffs was to be short, with a first-round defeat at the hands of the Cambridge Cats.
Weedon ended the year as the third-ranked passer (99/204, 1169 yards, 18 TD, 7 int), Shulba Hunt took second highest rusher (216 att, 1284 yards, 12 TD), Paul Simpson finished as the 5th leading receiver (33 rec, 504 yards, 5 TD’s), and again, Jel Yeates topped the sack tables with 8.
Another trip to the playoffs followed in 1996 with the team ending with 6 wins and 4 losses, but sadly, injuries forced the team to pull out of the playoff match against the Leicester Panthers.
An opening-day defeat at the hands of Milton Keynes was followed by victories over Brighton and Plymouth. A loss to Sussex dropped the team to 2-2, and they moved to 3-3 with a victory over Brighton and a loss to Leicester.
Milton Keynes completed the season sweep in convincing style, but the Chiefs ended the regular season with a victory over old rivals Redbridge.
1997 saw the team become the Essex Chiefs, and an 8-1 finish saw yet-another trip to the playoffs.
The Essex Chiefs started 1997 with some big signings – Jason Conroy, Richie Vale and Andy Smythe joined from the London O’s, and Wes Bourke joined as an assistant coach. Chiefs all-time leading receiver Chris Simpson was also declared fit to play following off-season surgery.
A convincing victory over Redbridge was followed by victories over the Cardinals, Northants, Norwich and Cambridge as the team jumped out to a 6-0 start.
The Fire were extinguished with an 8-0 victory and the Cardinals also tasted defeat, before the Devils became the first team to defeat the Chiefs this season with a 21-14 win.
1998, the organisations final year as the Chiefs, saw the team finish with 6 wins and 4 losses, and another playoff trip.
The season began with victory over Cambridge, and this was followed by victories against the Fire and Devils.
The London O’s defeated the Chiefs in a top-of-the-table clash, but the team bounced back with a victory over the Cardinals. A 14-12 victory over Redbridge was followed by another loss to the London O’s, before the Chiefs defeated Cambridge 28-14.
In 1998, then-main sponsor Gary Duce, of St. Lawrence Bay Caravan Park, was approached by the Essex Tourist Board to play an exhibition game against the current French champions, Spartiates Amiens. Duce himself footed the bill for the team to travel to France, and saw just reward for his generosity as the Chiefs emerged with the victory.
Following the trip, the Chiefs held talks with their local rivals the Redbridge Fire with a view to a possible merger. Tony Palmer from the Chiefs, and Steve Pikett from the Fire, were two driving forces behind the union, and when Palmer put himself forward for the position of General Manager, it was unanimously agreed. The Essex Spartans were born.
The Spartans – 1999
After initial training sessions, the team’s numbers were boosted by the demise of the Cambridge Cats (who later reformed), and as the team began it’s first pre-season in January 1999 in Wanstead, London, they had a roster in excess of fifty players.
After various team names were proposed and rejected, Palmer elected to name the team the Essex Spartans, in tribute to the French champions defeated earlier that year. Taking inspiration from the Michigan State Spartans, a logo was soon developed, and after watching the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL, a colour-scheme followed. Teal jerseys, purchased by Steve Pikett, arrived at the Spartans home in Redbridge the day before the Spartans first game.
As both the former teams had been competing at the same level in the British Senior League, the newly formed Spartans were granted a spot in the National Division (which was then the second of the league’s three tiers). After winning six of their games (including shutouts against the Canada Life Cardinals and the London Mets and a season-ending victory over the Devils, and losing four (including a loss to the Mets), the Spartans finished second in their conference and so qualified for the playoffs. They defeated the Southern Sundevils 19-7 in the quarter-final, but were finally beaten 19–33 away to the Gateshead Senators.
Arranging a team of over fifty players and various game day preparations is a costly business. The squad relied heavily on St. Lawrence Bay Holiday Home Park of Essex who sponsored the Spartans organisation since 1991, plus additional help from Steve Pikett, who purchased a set of shirts via his team in Minnesota, the Minnesota Maulers.
During the off-season NFL Europe got in touch with a view to starting a youth setup. Gary Duce relinquished the helm of the senior squad to concentrate on the emerging Juniors.
The 2000 season started badly with two consecutive defeats to the London Blitz, followed by a heavy defeat away to the London O’s two matchdays later. The team did, however, record victories over the Southern Sundevils, Southend Sabres, and the Bristol Aztecs. In a season which saw the team lose 13 players through injury, the Spartans finished third from bottom of their group with a 2-6 record. However, some consolation was found in some individual player performances, with Steve Berlingo ending the season as the league’s leader in interceptions, and Shulba Hunt finishing as the sixth highest rusher in the league. Manager Tony Palmer, the then Division One Director, attended the Britbowl 2000 to present the Division One Trophy.
The Spartans continued to struggle the following season. After five straight defeats (including a forfeited match) coupled with a number of injuries, a few players transferring to other teams and some US armed forces players from a nearby base unable to play, they were forced to withdraw halfway through the season and were realigned into Division Two for the next season.
2002 was a transitional year for the Spartans. With Dean Gibson taking over as Head Coach from Steve Pikett, the team moved back to the Chiefs’ old home ground in Basildon and switched to a purple uniform with “script” numbers (Palmer again looking to the NFL for inspiration from the Baltimore Ravens), but their long-time star offensive player Shulba Hunt was forced to retire through injury. They finished eighth out of nine teams with a 3-6 record, but the team had laid the basis for a solid future. Americans Drew Bader (LB) and the diminutive Kenny Wanlass (WR) led the way, and with newly-signed former Redbridge QB Aaron Griffiths settling into the starting role, the basis of an exciting passing offense was laid for future seasons.
In the 2003 preseason, Head Coach Dean Gibson and his new Offensive Coordinator Dave Thomas developed a new offensive playbook featuring an emphasis on short passing. This seemed to suit the squad and results improved, but fell short of expectations as the Spartans finished 5-4-1 and just missed out on the playoffs.
2004 saw the squad depleted by a number of retirements, and the Spartan’s young players could only manage a 3-6-1 finish to the season.
2005 saw the club’s best season since they first entered the league. The coaching staff put an emphasis on developing the young squad into one full of multi-skilled positional players, and the team was bolstered by the arrival of a number of players from the recently-folded Southend Sabres. After a winning regular season which included two comfortable wins over league newcomers Maidstone Pumas, they finished second in their group with a 5-2-1 record, enough to qualify for the playoffs. They were drawn away to the Oxford Saints, where they beaten 0–20.
2006 saw the Spartans reach the playoffs once again after finishing second with a 5-4-1 regular season record. They were originally drawn to face the South Wales Warriors in a wild-card playoff, and turned up at the Warriors’ home field to play the match. However, they complained to BAFL (British American Football League) that the Warriors’ pitch at Bedwas RFC was too short, and therefore did not comply with competition rules. After consultations between the two teams, the game was played as normal but BAFL decided afterwards that the Warriors would forfeit the game, and therefore the game was awarded to the Spartans as a 1–0 victory. In the quarter-finals, they were once again drawn away to the Oxford Saints and were again defeated by the eventual Divisional champions.
The Spartans were sadly unable to repeat their playoff run in 2007, finishing fourth out of six teams with a 3-7 regular season record.
A second poor season under Head Coach Dave Barham with the team finishing a lowly 1-8-1.
Dean Gibson was re-instated to the Head Coach position in 2009 (having previously served as Head Coach until 2007), returning with him was Offensive Co-Ordinator Brendan Bride. This combination had brought success to the Spartans in previous years, their previous tenure ending with playoff appearances in both 2005 and 2006. Unfortunately the team was unable to improve on the previous seasons mark and ended the 2009 season with an identical 1-8-1 record.
2010 proved to be a breakout season for the Essex Spartans. The close season 2009-2010 saw former Wisconsin Badgers and Detroit Lions star Cyrill Weems join the team firstly in an advisory capacity before taking over as Head Coach prior to the start of the 2010 season. Weems’ professional influence and high work ethic brought about a complete culture change at the team both on and off the field and a young Essex side began the 2010 season with a renewed hope of bringing success back to the Essex franchise following a bleak period after their last playoff appearance in 2006. The Spartans finished the 2010 season with a 6 and 4 win/loss record, narrowly losing lost two close games to Bedfordshire and Norwich. This huge turnaround in fortune led to the team finishing second in the division behind eventual league champions the London Olympians rewarding them with a trip to the Hampshire Thrashers in the BAFACL Quarter finals. An extremely entertaining and hard fought game eventually finished 29-15 to Hampshire with the deciding score coming in the final few minutes.
Coach Cyrill Weems returned to the United States in July 2010; Offensive Co-Ordinator Brendan Bride having departed the team in June 2010 due to personal circumstances. As such, a new Coaching structure which would continue with the development of the programme was required and on the 11th of July 2010 the team were pleased to announce ex-Farnham Knight,ex-Coventry Jet and current Essex Spartan Marc Saunders as Head Coach with Spartan stalwart Seán Benton taking over as Offensive Co-Ordinator. Also joining the coaching staff for the 2010 season and beyond were ex-Enfield Bullets/Hertfordshire Stags/long time Spartan stalwart Kieron Goymer as Offensive Line Coach, ex-Tiptree Titan and Chelmsford Cherokee speedster Wes Bourke as Defensive Backs Coach, long time Essex Spartan Craig Brittney as Receivers Coach and Anglia Ruskin Phantoms Offensive Co-Ordinator Chris Hunt as Offensive analyst.
2010 also saw General Manager Tony Palmer celebrate 25 years running the club and for his tireless work for the team over this period he was honoured with a special presentation of a squad signed helmet at the 2010 team awards evening.
2011 saw the Spartans continue to progress. Under the guidance of Saunders and his experienced and talented coaching staff, the Spartans improved on their 2010 record by ending the season with 7 wins, 2 losses and one tie. The team faced old rivals Kent Exiles in two closely-fought contests following the Exiles relegation from Division One, an 18-18 tie at home and a narrow 24-20 loss away, with the game decided on the final play. The Spartans only other defeat came at the hands of the Watford Cheetahs, and as such, the team finished in second place in the Division and qualified for the post-season for the second successive season.
The team travelled to Lancashire to face the Lancashire Wolverines in the first round of the playoffs. In an unseasonaly cold August day, the Spartans were unlucky to see a punt-return for a touchdown called back by a penalty and lost the game 7-0.
As a reward for their vast improvements in both 2010 and 2011, the British American Football Association National League announced the Spartans would be promoted to Division One for the 2012 campaign.
2012 saw the Spartans promoted to Division One, which proved to be a tough ask for the team, finishing with a sole victory and nine defeats.
After a tough opening-day loss to bitter rivals Kent Exiles, the Spartans bounced back with a tough victory over Hampshire Thrashers. However, the Spartans would then go on to lose all of their remaining games against Sussex Thunder, Hampshire, East Kent Mavericks, Cambridgeshire Cats, and Berkshire Renegades – the latter resulting in the Spartans heaviest defeat in franchise history, 0-81. The Spartans were also forced to withdraw from a long away game against South Wales Warriors due to a small squad size.
A drop down to Division 2, and a second consecutive season for the Spartans with a record of 1-9, seeing the team manage only a solitary victory over Maidstone Pumas. The team was defeated by Bedfordshire Blue Raiders, Kent Exiles, Milton Keynes Pathfinders, Colchester Gladiators, and Watford Cheetahs. The Spartans attempted to add some rivalry matches to their schedule, competing against Kent Exiles in “The Battle For The Bridge”, and the Colchester Gladiators in “The Essex Bowl” – sadly, neither contest saw the Spartans claim the silverware.
2013 saw the end of Marc Saunders reign, who stepped down from the role of Head Coach at seasons end. Assistant Head Coach Seán Benton was appointed to the position ahead of the 2014 campaign.
2014 saw a return to action for the Spartans Youth and Junior teams under Head Coach Steve Mitchell – the youngest team, the U17 Youth, completed a tough 12-game season with 5 victories and 7 losses, setting themselves up for a strong return to competitive football. The U19 Juniors were less fortunate, having to withdraw from competition after only two games, both defeats. Sadly, Mitchell stood down from the role of Head Coach at seasons end.
The senior side saw mixed results under Benton. In his first campaign, the team managed two victories over the Maidstone Pumas, a further victory over Ipswich Cardinals, and a convincing win against League newcomers London Hornets, but fell to defeats against Bury Saints, Kent Exiles, Ouse Valley Eagles, and Watford Cheetahs, meaning the team finished with a record of 4-6.
2014 also saw the sad passing of team founder Tony Palmer – as a mark of respect, all Spartans teams wear a memorial decal bearing the initials TP on their helmets. Tony’s jersey number of #28 was retired by the senior team in a special Saturday Night Lights ceremony in 2015, while the Academy continue to remember Tony and his legacy with their annual Tony Palmer Man Of The Year award which sees the chosen player wear Tony’s number throughout the season.
Driven by Palmer, the Spartans are proud of the organisations strong tradition and sense of family. “We try to protect the family we are,” said Palmer, “But we also remember who we are. We wouldn’t have a team without the players, shirts would be just a bunch of cloth in a bag if it wasn’t for the hard-working and dedicated individuals we have here”.
With a wry smile, Palmer recalled the many achievements of the organisation he had masterminded – reaching the Bowl game in their first season as a senior team in 1991, beating the French champions in 1998, to name just two – and laughed.
“I just hope the last 27 years have been worth it!”
2015 saw former player Steve Watson take control of the rebranded Spartans Academy. Watson, alongside a strong coaching staff including Wes Bourke, Garyjohn Warren, and Ben Gadsby, guided a much-improved U17 squad to become the first Spartan team to taste the post-season since 2011, seeing the team secure a second-place finish in the South East Division with a record of 8-2-1. The young Spartans headed to Cornwall for the playoffs, and despite losses to the Solent Thrashers and Farnham Knights, took the win over the hosting Cornish Sharks, and put themselves in a position to build on and have every reason for continued success.
The U19 Junior team also took to the field, and despite having to withdraw from one game against the Buckinghamshire Wolves, managed to claim victories over Berkshire Renegades and Hertfordshire Cheetahs against losses to Kent Exiles, Solent Thrashers, and East Kent Mavericks.
The senior side fell to 6 defeats against the Bury Saints, London Blitz B, London Hornets, and Ipswich Cardinals, however a draw with the Hornets and victories against Ipswich, Blitz B, and League new boys Wembley Stallions saw the team finish with a record of 3-6-1 and sadly out of the playoff places.
Anyone who thought the U17 team could not improve on their outstanding 2015 season was mistaken, with the young Spartans making history in becoming the first team in organisation history to post a perfect undefeated season, going 12-0 and securing the Outer London East Division title in the process. The Academy became the first team from the organisation since 1991 to secure a place in the National Championships, where an opening victory over the Kent Exiles was followed by two tough defeats by the Cobham Cougars and Chester Romans, meaning the young Spartans finished as the 4th-ranked team in the country. The BritBowl Championship saw the Academy unveil their new jerseys, calling on the vast Spartans history to revert to the original teal colour with a memorial shield to founder Tony Palmer displayed with pride on the shoulder.
Another tough year for the senior team saw Benton collect only 2 victories over Ipswich, going down to 8 combined defeats against London Blitz B, London Hornets, Wembley Stallions, and Cambridgeshire Cats to see the team finish with a record of 2-8.
2017 saw the Spartans U17 team plagued by withdrawals and forfeits from other teams, leaving them only able to play a total of 7 competitive matches. The young Spartans managed to finish with a record of 7 victories, 4 losses, and 1 draw, and narrowly missed the post-season on a tiebreaker of average points conceded.
The U19 squad used 2017 as an associate year to build for competitive competition in 2018, and put in some eye-catching performances with two victories over Ipswich Cardinals and a win over Colchester Gladiators, whilst putting up strong fights in two League games against Hertfordshire Cheetahs, giving Coach Watson every reason to be positive for the future.
The seniors saw improvement, but still missed out on the playoffs – victories over the East Essex Sabres, London Blitz B, East Kent Mavericks, and twice over Ipswich Cardinals were alongside defeats by the Blitz B, Mavericks, Wembley Stallions twice, and a controversial forfeit against East Essex Sabres to see the team finish with an even record of 5-5, the first time the Spartans had finished without a losing record since 2011 and giving Coach Benton belief his team is starting to turn the corner in their quest for a post-season place.
A new Head Coach took control of the Youth (U17) team in 2018 – Julius Hobbs, hugely successful with the Kent Exiles reaching numerous BritBowl Championships and winning multiple Division titles, guided the team with former head Coach Steve Watson shifting to Defensive Coordinator. With a large amount of players graduating up to Junior football, Hobbs began a rebuilding phase, putting together a very young but incredibly dedicated and talented squad that has high hopes for the future. Results on the field may not have gone the Spartans way, only able to pick up two victories, but the commitment and enthusiasm shown by the youngest Spartans gives Hobbs and his staff every reason to be optimistic towards the future.
With Watson continuing as Head Coach of the Junior team, and assisted by fellow coaches Jeff Garner, Tom Hatton, Simon Hatton, Simeon Clarke, and Toby Garner, the Spartans Juniors took to the field in the Junior D2 season, a 7v7 version of the game. After two dominating defensive performances in their opening two games, not conceding a single point, the stage was set for a top of the table clash with rivals Kent Exiles. In perhaps the D2 game of the season, the Spartans fell by a single point, 30-31, handing the advantage to the Exiles in the race for the Southern Conference title. A return to winning ways against Ipswich Cardinals, along with a forfeit victory over the East Kent Mavericks, took the Spartans to a 4-1 record and a crunch game against Wembley Stallions. A crushing defeat saw the Spartans fall to 4-2, and qualify for the D2 Championship as the fourth ranked team. Victory over Leeds Academy Assassins set up a semi-final battle with the Exiles – and again, the Spartans failed to take the victory, dropping to the eventual D2 Champions. The Spartans ended with a wild shootout defeat by Wembley in the Bronze Medal game, leaving the team to end the season as the fourth placed team in D2 2018.
Senior coach Sean Benton found his team playing a reduced number of games in a re-structured Division Two, facing off against East Essex Sabres, Norwich Devils, Ipswich Cardinals, Maidstone Pumas, and London Blitz B. A tough opening day loss to Ipswich saw the Spartans roar back with a convincing victory over the Pumas. An epic back-and-forth tussle against the Sabes saw the Spartans improve to 2-1 with a 33-32 victory, before falling to the Blitz B and Norwich Devils. A season sweep of the Sabres gave the Spartans hope for a return to playoff action, but it was not to be, ending the season with back-to-back losses against Blitz B and Ipswich to end the season at 3-5 and fourth in the Division.
Following the conclusion of the season, long-term offensive coordinator Chris Hunt announced his retirement from the sport, leaving Benton to again shuffle his coaching cards as the team look to finish with a winning record in 2019.