American football is back in Basildon after a three-year break.

The Essex Spartans have returned to Gloucester Park with a new name and high hopes for a bright new future.

Known as the Chiefs for the nine years they played in the new town, Spartans are padding up for the 2002 season and a battle to regain British Senior League division one status.

Three years playing in East London following a player shortage and a merger with Redbridge Fire took its toll when the side was relegated last year.

But the move back to Basildon has already brought benefits as it becomes easier to attract players from across London and East Anglia.

Head coach Dean Gibson said: "With the roster we have for the coming season we are stronger than we were in division one last year. The whole intention is to win the second division."

The 35-strong squad, bolstered with a smattering of US talent from the airbases at Lakenheath and Mildenhall, is looking to strengthen its American connections.

Coach Gibson has played since the late 80s, but five years at college in San Diego has given him a valuable new stock of experience.

Now back in the UK, he is looking forward to sharing the US approach with his players, including veterans Shulba Hunt, Craig 'Taz' Brittney and the Simpson twins.

"My head coach out there has now moved on to San Diego State, which is one of the top ten sides at that level, while my personal coach played in the NFL with Oakland Raiders," he said.

"The quality and experience I have learned from them is second to none."

But the sport is not just about Americans -- the aim is to make the club part of the local sporting community.

And building up a youth squad -- players aged between 12 and 18 -- is crucial to developing both the Spartans and the sport.

"There was a time when British football was similar to America's Junior High level, but not any more," added Gibson. "We have gone backwards and any college team would thrash any of our sides.

"The youth team is something we want to develop because that is our future."

The season kicks off on May 5 with a local derby against Southend Sabres. Until then the team trains every Sunday at 10.30am in Gloucester Park.

Published Thursday, March 21, 2002