Thirteen years later, the pair will travel to London together when their favorite American football team tries to pick up its first win Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
“It just so happened we were both Cleveland Browns fans, and we met in a tiny pub, in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere,” said Howard Clegg about his first meeting with Gareth Hubbard.
The tale is not joke, but a true story of how a Browns Backers Club in the United Kingdom originated.
This weekend, Browns and NFL fans are expected to travel to Twickenham Stadium in London to see the Browns play the Vikings as part of the NFL International Series. Kickoff is at 9:30 a.m. EDT. The Browns are one of 10 NFL teams featured in the series.
The franchise will make its second trip to London. The first was for a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1989.
Clegg, a founding member and director of the North Cotswolds Browns Backers, said he’s excited about the weekend. He attended the 1989 preseason game in Wembley Stadium. The Cotswolds Backers are one of two fan groups in the U.K., the other the longest active group, the British Bulldawgs Browns Backers.
Origins: Becoming a U.K. Backer
Whether it was watching highlights on television, learning about the team through friends or playing video games such as Madden, Backers have many stories on how they became fans.
Kelly Burgess Taylor, a native of Ohio, moved to her father’s home country in 2003. During her move, Taylor’s parents Lynne and Tony Burgess encouraged her to find a Browns Backers group. It was during the same period that the Bulldawgs began to form, led by founding members Steve Maybury and Norman Whitlock.
“It’s a slice of home in the U.K.,” Burgess Taylor said. She was surprised by the group’s passion for the Browns. Since her arrival, the Bulldawgs have increased their membership to 135, and helped grow her enthusiasm for the team.
Another surprise was the Bulldawgs’ knowledge of the franchise.
Clegg of the North Cotswolds echoed the same sentiment stating, “I think if you’re a Browns fan over here you’ve got to be obsessed. As a sporting nation, we are very loyal. No one over here grows up supporting one sports team and switches to another. It doesn’t happen, and we’re thick and through with them.”
With the growth of NFL games shown online, Burgess said pubs have drawn football fans, U.S. military members and visitors touring London. The Bulldawgs typically watch games at the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square while fans outside of London find a local pub such as the North Cotswolds with about 21 members.
Challenges: Watching games, being a Browns fan in the U.K.
Watching games from United States can be a challenge when living in the United Kingdom.
On Sundays, Browns fans in the U.S. typically wake up to watch their favorite team play in the early afternoon — or perhaps late morning on the West Coast. However, living five hours ahead in the United Kingdom is not easy for the Backers. A U.S. prime-time game, which the Browns do not have this season, typically starts past midnight in the U.K.
Burgess chuckled as she confessed that “you have to be a die-hard fan if you’re going to be watching games at 2 in the morning.”
The British Bulldawgs vice president said on a few occasions she’s gone to work after viewing parties. On Dec. 3, the Browns will have their latest start this season against the Los Angeles Chargers at 4:05 p.m. The Backers will watch the game at 8:05 p.m.
“Football should always be played at 1 o’clock on a Sunday (in the U.S.) because that’s just perfect for us,” Hubbard said about the North Cotswolds. “It gives us an opportunity to enjoy our traditional Sunday roast, head off to the pub in the evening, have a few pints of Guinness and watch the Browns play.”
Fans in the United Kingdom said the 0-7 Browns have been disappointing. But they continue to be supportive of the team and its young players.
“I think with them going young, they must see that out otherwise it will be a failed experiment,” Bulldawgs president Steve Maybury said.
Whitlock from the British Bulldawgs added, “We’ve got to give them time to develop. I think we keep shooting ourselves in the foot trying to get smart with the draft acquiring billions of draft picks and missing out on players like Carson Wentz and Mitch Trubisky. I get what they are trying to do, but we seem to be missing all the time.”
The losses don’t deflate the watch parties serving as a social gathering.
Clegg and Hubbard said they’ve done their best to urge fans to continue supporting the Browns.
Clegg said, “The catchphrase is, ‘We’ll get them next week’ and they’re saying that every game; but if we keep losing, it doesn’t look good for numbers.”
Hopes: Kosar, Byner and Thomas on Backers’ wish list
Retired Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar and running back Earnest Byner are at the top of the wish list for Backers to meet in Week 8. The Browns’ success in the 1980s and the drive to improve has been a catalyst to attract fans in the U.K. to become Browns supporters.
“If Byner were to come, I’d be over the moon,” Whitlock said.
Whitlock is a big supporter of Byner. He’s also a fan of underdog stories and Byner’s story in the 1987 AFC Championship was something that he’ll remember, praising him for the comeback against the Broncos. Despite the 38-33 loss, Whitlock said that was the game that made him a Browns fan.
Kosar is another favorite. Maybury said he hopes to see the quarterback after missing him play in Cleveland in 1993 during his first trip to Cleveland. It was in the same week of Maybury’s trip that the franchise released Kosar after nine seasons.
“He’s such an icon from the Browns in ’80s; a local boy and when he speaks he helps you understand football fantastically,” Maybury said. “If there is someone we could meet it would be Bernie Kosar.”
When it comes to current players, Hubbard and Clegg are big fans of offensive tackle Joe Thomas and his show, “The Joe Thomas Hour.” The pair attended their first game in Cleveland the same year Thomas was drafted in 2007.
“He’s the funniest bloke with all of the stuff he does online and he cracks us up,” Clegg said. “It would be an emotional experience to meet someone like that for sure.”
Last year, the Backers said they were elated when they learned the Browns would be playing in London. This is the 11th year of the NFL International Series.
Hubbard, who is bringing his sons, said “it was really exciting when we heard the news.”
He and members of the Cotswolds Backers will be traveling close to 100 miles for the game from their hometown of Stretton on Fosse. They will also be giving some of their close friends from Cleveland tours of their hometown and pub, The Plough Inn.
To help kick off the game, Burgess Taylor said the Bulldawgs are working with the Browns to help coordinate a private party Saturday at the Admiralty Pub, which has already sold out. The Browns’ drumline, mascots and alumni are expected to attend the event. The franchise will also have pop-up events in London offering opportunities for fans to interact.
An NFL Live event at the Landmark Hotel will be on Saturday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. It is a ticketed event and requires an RSVP. Donations go to help the England-based group, Sport Relief, whose mission is to focus on mental health, malaria and maternal health.
As for game day, Burgess added that fans will be scattered around the stadium. She’s planning to design T-shirts so fans can find each other.
“We were really excited,” Maybury said. “To see them in London will be absolutely fantastic. I know some of our members that I’ve known for 15 years can’t afford to get across to Cleveland or America. So, for them to watch a game will be a dream come true.”