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British Bills fans make annual trek to Orchard Park

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Bills fans, from left, John Manning, Brad Clayden, Nick Manning and Greg Zalka, make their way into Ralph Wilson Stadium for today's game. Photo by Mark Mulville / Buffalo News

ORCHARD PARK -- Three lads from Great Britain got their annual dose this weekend of the woes Buffalo sports fans have come to expect.

Nick Manning, his father, John Manning; and Greg Zalka, of London, England, joined by their friend Brad Clayden of Toronto, watched the Bills improve to 3-10 for the season in a rain-soaked win over the Cleveland Browns.

It was a contest most locals couldn't be bothered to watch -- Ralph Wilson Stadium was half-filled and the game was blacked out on TV.

They watched their first NHL game Saturday and saw the equally disappointing Sabres fall to the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins led by star Sidney Crosby.

But they were undeterred by foul weather or losses. They were just happy to be in Orchard Park.

"Tailgating is absolutely fantastic," said Nick, 31, president of the UK Bills Backers, which is part of a worldwide network of Bills fans.

The miserable game-time weather was no bother, they said. In fact, it was reminiscent of foggy London town.

"It makes us feel at home," said John, 57.

On Sunday they were dressed head to toe in Santa costumes complete with long, white beards. Nick was flying a homemade Union Jack modified to incorporate the Bills' charging buffalo logo.

"This is hand-stitched by me," he said holding it proudly. "I broke two sewing machines making it. My wife and my mother are very annoyed."

Nick estimates there are about 300 Bills fans in the U.K. His interest in the NFL team was sparked when his dad took him to see the Bills play the Philadelphia Eagles in July 1991 in an exhibition then known as the "American Bowl." The Bills beat the Eagles at Wembley Stadium in London, 17-13.

"The NFL is huge over there," he said. "We have a great game in London every year. And hopefully they'll get the Super Bowl and the Bills will be in it."

Just how far does his dedication to the team go?

Manning even got engaged at the Ralph after a Bills win. And he wears a Bills jersey with his last name on the back and the number 79 -- the year he was born and his number when he played left guard for the London Blitz.

He watches every Bills game on the Internet -- even the Monday Night Football games that go into the wee hours of the morning given the time difference.

These Bills Brits make a point of enjoying more than just a football game during their annual visit to Buffalo. They've toured the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House and City Hall.

Nick Manning, who works for Britain's Defense Ministry, likened the mansions and area around Delaware Park to London's posh Regent's Park.

"It's a really lovely area," he said.

He's disappointed in this season's team but pleased with Chan Gailey's coaching style.

"My big complaint with the Bills is they didn't make enough of a change in the front office," he said. "Talent evaluation has been poor for a decade."

He's also not a proponent of Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills quarterback who has at times shined this season.

"Let's get a quarterback in here that's going to succeed for Buffalo," he said. "Let's get a line built around Eric Wood and Andy Levitre and let's move this team forward."

He has a seven-month-old daughter who he plans to indoctrinate into Bills fandom.

"She is definitely going to be a Bills fan," he said. "It's compulsory now in my family."

--Joseph Popiolkowski

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