If you’ve played in the BAFA leagues for any length of time, the chances are that you’ve ran into Neil Henderson once or twice. He’s paved the way for many since he first took the field. Since founding the Glasgow Hornets and cutting his teeth north of the border, Neil has won national championships with his current squad, the Chichester Sharks. We got an excellent insight into the earlier years of the league, and how the Sharks remain competitive in the SEC!
Position: Primarily QB but can and have played pretty much every position.
Team: Chichester Sharks
How did you get involved in Football?
My older brother got into Football in the mid-1980s when it used to be shown on Channel 4 and I then followed suit but it was always just watching on TV. Growing up in the far North East of Scotland there was no football of any kind locally, and Flag/touch didn’t exist (I think).
When I started University in Aberdeen in 1993 (yes, I’m really that old) I trained for a short time with the local senior kitted team, the Granite City Oilers, but they were struggling for numbers and there would be a dozen people at most for training, in the depths of winter, and it just wasn’t much fun. I trained for a month or two at most but then gave it up. The team then folded in 2005.
I continued to watch the NFL on TV and then started to go to all of the Scottish Claymores games when NFL Europe started in 1995. It was when I moved to Glasgow in 1999 to do my PhD at Glasgow Vet School (if you want to know anything about parasites in sheep, I’m your man….just remember, always wear two pairs of gloves just in case) and through a Claymores Supporters Club, the West Coast Offence, that I was first exposed to Flag.
I can’t quite remember how it all started but I got involved with the bunch of folks who were coaching kids teams (there was a very good junior structure back then through the NFL/Claymores) and started to help out. Such teams included the Carluke Cobras, where a certain GB Head Coach started out, as well as the Grangemouth Broncos (with Jimmy T et al), who have been at the heart of Scottish Flag for as long as I can remember.
As well as coaching the kids we decided we should get to play too and a number of adult teams formed. We played a number of tournaments locally and did very well and I then instigated the formation of a Senior Flag league (I believe the first in Scotland). As the number of kids wanting to play was growing my friend and team mate at the time Andy Chapman and I decided to form our own kids team, and the Glasgow Hornets were born (in early 2002), later becoming the senior team that is doing so well now.
Availability of work forced a moved from Glasgow to Southampton in the summer of 2002 and I was keen to continue playing Flag. I approached the local kitted team at the time, the Southern Sundevils, to see if they were interested in setting up a flag team but there was no interest at all so I had to look further afield. Equidistant from me were the Bournemouth Raiders and Chichester Sharks. I can’t even remember now why I went first to the Sharks but I’ve been there since and never looked back.
When I first joined teams in England (under the ESFL banner) played both 9 man semi-contact and the 5 man non-contact game we still play now. The number of teams playing 9man was getting smaller and smaller and this disappeared with 5man non-contact prevailing. I soon became heavily involved with both team organisation and admin at the Sharks as well as within the league.
It was in those early years at the Sharks that saw me start playing QB, something I had never really done before, when our QB, ex GB kitted QB and subsequently QB for the GB flag team Nick Watson, left the Sharks to return to kitted football. Nick would return to flag with Team Voodoo who we beat in the 2007 National Final, something I like to remind him about as often as I can. When Nick left I was the only person left at the Sharks that could just about throw the ball (something I can still just about do) so got the starting QB spot be default. Things haven’t worked out too badly since as I’m currently (ahead of 24th June fixtures) sitting on 589 career regular season TD passes since the BAFA league started in 2008 (Nick Watson will tell you most of these shouldn’t count because I don’t/can’t throw it properly!) (Editors Note – Since this interview, Neil has crossed 600 career TD passes! Congratulations Neil!)
You have quite the history within the sport! What are your main highlights as a player and coach?
2017 is my 15th full season with the Sharks. I joined them during 2002 after playing a couple of years in Scotland.
In that time I won two National (English Senior Flag League) titles with the Sharks in 2003 and 2007 before the leagues merged under the BAFA banner for the 2008 season. Although a Scot and never actually played for Scotland as I’d moved to the South of England so it was more convenient to play for England, and did that several times, including leading a party of only 5 players (myself included) to play every down both ways against two Scotland teams in Glasgow, winning both games.
I’ve represented Great Britain twice, at the 2007 and 2011 European Championships, starting on defence both times, and back-up QB for the former. I didn’t go for selection in 2009 as my first son was born the week before the tournament so thought it safer not to go for selection.
As well as playing, and more recently coaching (I coached the SEC Capitals to second place in the first Super 5s event earlier this year) I was also league Chairman/co-ordinator for the ESFL for several years and was instrumental in getting Senior Flag incorporated within BAFA and was then the BAFA Senior Flag League co-ordinator for the first few seasons (from 2008), which I then had to give up to work and family commitments.
We understand you have stood down from the SEC Capitals Head Coaching role, what lead to that decision?
Mainly the time commitment required to do the role justice. I’d really love to be able to carry on but with my kids both starting school come September they’re both starting to do more things themselves at weekends (swimming, running, hopefully flag too), plus my wife run, and while I’m still playing there just isn’t enough time.
What is it about Flag that makes you comeback every season?
Because I want to beat the London Rebels just one more time! While there is definitely an element in truth to that it’s because I still enjoy playing (and reffing), and am still physically able to do so. I like to think my experience makes up for the step that I’ve probably lost.
When I think about the number of teams that were in the league back when it started in 2008, where we had just two divisions (Scotland and England) with a handful of teams in each and which meant we as a South coast team had regular season games against the Woodham Warriors from the North East (we used to meet and play in the middle of the country), and compare that to where the league is now, with 49 teams (at least at the start of the season), I see this as part of my legacy and of which I’m extremely proud.
Have you noticed a difference in style or quality with the larger league?
I don’t think I noticed any real difference back when I first moved, or indeed now. What I think we’ve seen is a gradual and overall improvement in quality across the UK. When certain new players or new teams have joined the league and lit things up everyone has had to up their game. I’m thinking of players/teams like Bobby Black and the Milldenhall Mayhem, the Kirkcaldy Bulls who obviously won things for so many years, the London Rebels and the Baker Street Buttonhookers with all their US players and the Birmingham Lions and the experience they bring (as long as they aren’t playing golf).
The Sharks are one of the more consistent teams in the league. How do you keep continuity and what do you do to try and progress the team?
We have had a small core of players who have played together for over a decade. Around that consistency we’ve had players come and go, each bringing their own skills and abilities, which has enabled us to stay competitive for so long. Given our location on the coast, and the size of the town, I think it’s remarkable that we’ve been able to do as well as we have. As with many things though success breeds success and I’m always amazed, and somewhat humbled, by the distances that players will travel in order to play and train with the Sharks week in week out as we have a number of players who travel significantly more than an hour to get to Chichester with the majority of the team at least 30 mins away.
How are the Sharks doing this season?
I think we’re doing OK. We play in what has easily been the toughest Conference for years. Just getting into the playoffs is a challenge each year. Geographically I think the divisional break down is probably the most accurate yet, but that does mean the Victoria Park Panthers have totally lucked out by being stuck with the Rebels and Buttonhookers. We put up a decent fight against the Rebels and the Buttonhookers and it was a late single score in a shootout vs the Panthers that beat us. We’ve had good wins against the West Essex Showboats and the Aylesbury Vale Spartans and against divisional teams which leaves us in a strong position to win the division and into the playoffs.
Which teams do you consider to be your biggest rival?
I’m not sure we have a rivalry in particular. I like to think we get along with most if not all teams and there is friendly rivalry against everyone that we play. We have a long history of playing some teams like the Leicester Eagles, the Cardiff Hurricanes and the London Rebels, the latter who we now have to play very regularly. We’ve also got good local rivalries with our divisional teams.
What are your ambitions personally and for the Sharks in 2017?
We aim to do the best we can in every game, try to make the playoffs each season and continue to have fun while we do so. On a personal level I try to continually push myself, have fun and hopefully stay injury free. #onemoreseason
I’ve always done as much as I can to develop the players at the Sharks and to give them the best opportunities to show what they can do. We’ve had a number of players represent Great Britain over the years but it’s some of our youngest players who joined as very raw rookies and who’ve recently been selected for the GB programme of whom I’m extremely proud. Kate Bruinvels joined us from the Chichester University Spitfires women’s team a couple of years ago and has become a solid member of our team with the advances she has made being recognised by selection to the GB Women’s team that will play in the European Championships this year. Following this our WR Corey Bedford, who last year set the team season TD receiving record (and is already on nearly 20 TD for this season) has been selected to the Men’s GB Silver Squad. We have a number of other young players with lots of potential and of whom I also have high hopes for the future.
We have seen you regularly at NuOla tournaments, but with all these large European international tournaments now available such as Big Bowl, Pink bowl and the ever growing Flagging New Year are we likely to see the Sharks try their luck outside of England?
I hope so. We have a combination of older players like myself who have young kids (which can make getting away for a whole weekend difficult) together with a group of much younger players who often have work and/or struggle a bit more with getting the necessary funds to travel to such events which means we’ve never quite been able to make it so far.
I expect to have a team for Flagging New Year in January at the very least and hope to make Big Bowl at least once before I’m unable, whether it be as part of a Sharks team or elsewhere (I’m always open to offers).
Over your time in football are there any teams and players that have really impressed you or that you admire?
I’ve mentioned a few above but really there are too many to name these days as the quality of players now is better than ever and you can name stand out players in virtually every team.
The structure has changed this season in preparation for 2018 season; do you think it will benefit the league?
I honestly think it’s impossible to tell. I agree that there is too much of a gulf between the best teams and the worst (no one likes a 100 point drubbing) but I’m not sure if the way the split is being decided is the best or fairest way. Unfortunately like many things to do with the league in recent years we’re kept in the dark about future, and indeed often current plans, which means we’ve had no information at all about how exactly the two tier league will run next year. If this is known why hasn’t this been shared?
I get the impression that a lot of people think it could be a whole lot better. The main thing that is lacking I think is communication. The split to a 2-tier system is a case in point. Where did this come from? BAFA presumably approved this but there was little to no consultation around the league. Teams then sign up to the league without having any idea what they are signing up to.
Do you have any recommendations for the league and growing the sport in the UK?
The sport has grown gradually over the years and continues to do so at what I think is a manageable rate but existing teams, and the wealth of experience that they bring, should be consulted and communicated with better in order for that growth to be managed for everyone’s benefit.
Something that has become somewhat of a personal crusade that the league has still not fully addressed how and why some teams still think it is acceptable NOT to provide basic facilities such as a toilet when they host league games. I can’t believe this is even something that has to be discussed, or listed as a rule (for the first time this season) because it shows contempt and utter disrespect for visiting teams but it is still happening this season and the league are doing nothing to fix this.
Thanks for your time Neil, and good luck with the rest of the season! Last of all If any players were interested in training or playing for the Sharks where can they find you?
With about 20 people in the wider squad we aim to train (almost) every Sunday throughout the year from 10am to 12.30 in central Chichester. Feel free to contact us via the club FB page or website at www.chichestersharks.co.uk. Always best to contact us first to ensure training is on just in case!