Contributed by: Aaron Richard
This year the Birmingham Bears are bringing footy in Britain's second-largest city out of its 15-year hibernation, set to compete in Aussie Rules UK's new central division in addition to friendlies against other local clubs.
Despite being Britain's second-largest city, Birmingham hasn't yet made a mark on the English footy scene. The city had a side known as the Crows back in the early 1990s, but the club disappeared after only a little over a season.
The new side, sharing its colours and Bears mascot with local county cricket side Warwickshire, is lead by local Mat Mitchell, who got hooked on the game while playing cricket with expat Australians. WFN spoke to Mitchell about how the club is progressing in the lead-up to its debut season.
Background to the Bears
Mitchell tells us he discovered Aussie Rules whilst at Uni through talking to Australians about cricket. As he recalls, "they kept going on about this game, about the players, about the Footy Show on and on. Eventually I caved and gave a game a watch and once I understood the basics just got hooked. Naturally the next step was wanting to play, I got in contact with Brian Clarke at Sport England about maybe setting up a club at Bangor University where I was studying, he was very keen and sent out a couple of balls to get going. It never really took off but culminated in a game of about 6 a side on the beach one evening."
"I moved back home to the Birmingham area after finishing my studies last summer, still wanting to play Aussie Rules and got a call from Brian in about September time asking if I wanted to give setting up a club in Birmingham a go. I took him up on it and since then we've been steadily progressing with weekly training sessions that have seen a huge improvement from those guys that had never played with an oval ball before, encouraging for the season ahead."
"In my mind Aussie Rules has a huge link with cricket, it's played on ovals, in the MCG, it's how I got into the sport, that it seemed appropriate to rip off Warwickshire cricket's nickname of the Bears. I think until the 1970s Birmingham was in Warwickshire, now it's in the West Midlands, but Warwickshire cricket still play at Edgbaston near the heart of the city so I felt it wasn't a problem."
"Another name that I thought about was the Bulls, given the Bullring being one of the pinnacle sites of central Birmingham as well as the brass bull that's outside of there, but then it transpired there was a rugby league team that had that name, plus I preferred the Bears anyway really."
For the club's colours and jumper, Mitchell chose the West Coast Eagles pattern from the mid-90s, the colours the same as those of Warwickshire cricket in Twenty/20 matches.
The ARUK Central division
The Bears have been in steady contact with other local sides, with the ARUK Central division to finally kick off this season. Plans have changed slightly, with league originally hoping to include Leicester, Nottingham, Stoke and Derby, however Mitchell tells us that besides Nottingham, the others haven't yet reached the stage of being able to take the pitch this year. "Because of this we're now in a more North West + Us division and Nottingham are focusing more on London again."
This season the Bears will be joined by the Huddersfield Rams, Leeds Bombers and Liverpool Eagles, with each of those sides playing nine games each. Rounding out the division will be the Manchester Mozzies, who will play three ARUK central matches in addition to the AFL Britain Social League season, and the Sheffield Thunder, a side formed mainly of students who will play three matches.
"I've been up and met the Manchester guys at an open training session they hosted at the beginning of March that also gave me chance to meet with some of the Huddersfield guys."
"Lee at Nottingham has been in touch a few times and it's a strong possibility we'll play them in a friendly at some point this season. Also have quite a bit of contact with Mike at Sheffield, who are largely student-based and will play a couple of games this season."
Recruiting, Development and the Future
Recruiting has been a slow steady process, picking up numbers from various places, largely a combination of Gumtree and Facebook. Mitchell says the Bears are yet to find many Australians in Birmingham, saying "we have two currently training with us, with hopefully another one this week, but then we've also got an Irish guy, a New Zealander and a guy born in Germany, so it's a interesting mix."
"We have Pete, who spent a year at school in Australia and, after being shown up by 11 year olds, practiced huge amounts. As a result he's so far ahead of us that have only just started. When he starts bending them in the goal from the line it usually ends up with us all stood around watching him. All the more disappointing he's going to shoot off to the US for the whole summer."
"The short term goals are to get up on our feet first and play a few games. Once that's sorted then we can look at the extra things like junior development, the ground we're at, Kings Norton RFC, caters for rugby at many age levels so it wouldn't be a huge leap to transfer some of that structure to Aussie Rules once we felt we were capable to do that."
"Hopefully with enough interest in that area we could produce an U-16 team for that league or help create a Uni team for Birmingham, there's huge possibilities but they all depend on us getting established and not as a flash in the pan."
WFN thanks Mat Mitchell for his time, readers can look forward to more news from new clubs and the new footy season in England shortly. For more information on the Birmingham footy club, visit their website at www.birmingham-bears.co.uk.
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