As the current Senior Offensive Assistant for the Oakland Raiders, Al Saunders is well aware of the emotions linked to the game of gridiron, but for the man with 31 years of service in the NFL it was he himself who was emotional this past week as he was in London for the Week 4 of the season as his side went down 38-14 to the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium.
Saunders spoke to A Head For The Game following the Raiders’ NFL International Series and in this second part of our interview he talks about his early life in England and his emotional visit following in the footsteps of a relative.
Read Part 1 HERE where Al talks about the team loss and their experience in London.
“I am a Brit as I was born in Hendon but left when I was five years old,” explained Saunders about his early years in north-west London. “All of my family stayed but my mother and father actually moved to Canada first. We stayed there for three years and then we moved to the United States.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to come back here but I’ve got my dual British/American citizenship; I’ve got my British passport, so it’s been great coming over here – I walked through immigration without any queues and I waited for all the Raiders’ guys on the other side – that was terrific.”
Al has English sporting pedigree – he is the great-nephew of English football manager Ron Saunders who won the league cup at Wembley with Aston Villa in 1975 and 1977 and took them to the league title in 1981.
Unfortunately for Al he cannot call himself a Wembley winner like his great uncle, but was in no doubt about how important the game was for the franchise and the NFL itself.
“It was an important game because we had a chance to be on the biggest stage in the world,” he explained. “We played in New York and Boston in the past few weeks and now London, so some of the largest media markets on earth.
“Of course it was another game for us but just the experience of a different culture for our players was really positive and the time together was positive too.”
As one of their official home games this season, despite being over 5,000 miles away from their home in Oakland, the ‘Raider Nation’ made themselves known with loud and colourful displays of their support both inside and outside of Wembley.
“The support here was phenomenal,” said Al with a wide smile on his face. “I told a couple of people as we walked out onto the field how it felt exactly like it was a home game for us and that London hadn’t seen people like that since Guy Fawkes Day.
“Our fans here have been waiting that long to put those Raider masks on and have been ready for someone to say ‘penny for the guy’ and have to give them a penny.
“It’s really a universal fan base that we have; we’ve got great supporters and fans and that’s why we it’s frustrating that we didn’t play as well as we were capable of playing. They’ve got a great passion, they’re great people and great supporters. Hopefully we’ll get better down the road and give them something to cheer about.”
Whilst the focus of the Raiders week-long trip to the capital of England was the match against the Dolphins, Al, like many of the other NFL coaches and players who have participated in the NFL International Series took the opportunity to catch up with old friends and relatives whilst they were in Europe.
“I had a chance to meet up with my Aunt and a couple of cousins at the hotel so that was really nice,” said Saunders who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at USC under the legendary John McKay from 1970-71. “Coming here really makes you realise that you want to come back.”
“I took time to walk over to Buckingham Palace before the match today and went to the Guards Museum (Editor’s note: the museum contains a wealth of information and artefacts relating to the five regiments of Foot Guards in the British Army – Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh).
“My Grandfather on my mother’s side, Ernest James Ansell, was a Grenadier Guard, so I went to the museum and was able to get a badge of his regiment. That was very, very special to me and a real emotional thing because that museum was just terrific; it went through all the wars and the origination of all of the Queen’s Guards, it was real special for me.
“My wife and I are going to plan a trip and come back after the season and spend a good bit of time here and catch up with a lot of people we haven’t seen for a long time.”
With his dual American and British citizenship and with the NFL International Series having singers perform both the British and American national anthems pre-game, which one did Al opt for?
“I didn’t sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ but I did sing ‘God Save the Queen’,” he joked. “I was upstairs in the booth and I did it very quietly with respect to the guys around me, because of my voice.
“I mumbled it, but one of my fellow coaches asked me if knew the words to it still. I said absolutely.”
Photo by: Tony Gonzales/OaklandRaiders.com