Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Coventry Bees, a season review of sorts

Right, let’s get it out of the way – there’s no way you can describe this as anything other than a terrible season. We failed to compete when it mattered, and off-the-track events de-railed the Bees further. We clear on that? Good.

For many reasons, 2011 was also a terrible season, but one where we almost made the play-offs, and saw one of the hottest prospects in world speedway wear the fighting bee. So, given that, and the success of 2010, the new promotion was always facing an uphill battle to impress – replacing the Sandhu/Trump partnership, with all the positives and negatives that brought, was an impossible job.

They didn’t make the best start of it, offering Alun Rossiter a deal he couldn’t possibly accept, and then throwing the fans a bone in the shape of Scott Nicholls to divert attention from it, giving us an awfully top-heavy team from the get-go. To then put up the prices, and install a “friend of the family” as joint team manager, made it a triple whammy. A fourth hiccough soon followed, meekly accepting the BSPA’s assessment of Aaron Summers’s average leaving us few points to play with at the bottom of the team, and a place for another “old friend” in the shape of Henning Bager. This was not the start anyone could have hoped for.

Still, optimism usually abounds at the start of every season, even if Matt Ford had once again manipulated his fellow promoters into rescinding the “one over eight” rule to keep hold of Ward and Holder, and every team (with the possible exception of Belle Vue) feels they can have a tilt at the title. A fantastic Midland League campaign further encouraged the fans, with even Bager weighing in on occasion, but it all came crashing down on Good Friday, with home and away defeats to the hated Poole Pirates. Suddenly the weaknesses were apparent, and even at that early stage, play-off success looked far, far away.

The Bees struggled on their travels all season, winning only once away, and were no better at home - beaten by an average Birmingham team, and a terrible Eastbourne side, amongst five home losses and a draw in their fourteen home fixtures. The home losses hurt the most, because the Bees were set up to be a team of racers, who could claw back the points when they missed the gate. However, for whatever reason, the track was often devoid of a racing surface, giving the Bees a disadvantage on their own track. Furthermore, it led to boring meetings, whatever the result.

A stop start campaign, disrupted by rain and the horrid Grand Prix series, meant no momentum could ever be gained, and while there were highlights – the Elite League win away at Wolves, and the Knockout Cup victories over Lakeside – the season limped along with only the promise of success in that Knockout Cup dragging us towards the inevitable conclusion. Which was that we put up no fight at all to a rule-bending Poole side, and all slumped off home for five months’ rest.

So, yeah, it was a crap season. There’s no denying it. And when things go wrong, you look at why. You tear down every facet of the club, until you find the fault, and then try and fix it. So let’s start with the management team…

Mick Horton made mistakes. He’s the first to admit this. He also listened to criticism from the fans, and acted on it where possible. This bought him good will that he didn’t have when he first took over the club. He risked all that by sidelining Colin Pratt, who eventually quit when his position became further undermined, but questions over Pratt’s suitability to manage a team in modern speedway, with all that brings, possibly kept the wolves at bay. When you buy into Coventry Bees, your best asset is the fans. They are loyal and turn up in good numbers each week. Keep them onside, and half your battle is won. I think Horton is beginning to understand this, but it needs to be an ongoing process. Don’t get me wrong – I understand perfectly that Mick Horton has put the money into the club, and earns the right to make the decisions on the back of that. All I – and other fans, I’m sure – ask from any promoter is that even potentially unpopular decision are explained rather than implemented blindly. A successful second season, with careful planning and good communication, could wipe the memories of a disappointing first, and I’m sure the fans will be watching closely.

Blayne Scroggins was thrown into the deep end. It’s worth considering a couple of things, though. Where do you learn to be a speedway manager if not on the job? And if your mate bought a speedway club and offered you the team manager job, wouldn’t you take it? There really is no apprenticeship for speedway management. You could argue that, ideally, you’d start at National League level (because second-half matches don’t really operate under the same circumstances), move up to the Premier League, and then into the Elite. That’s how it usually works in football, and other sports, but in so, so many ways, speedway isn’t like other sports. A quick glance at the team managers around the Elite League reveals half to be former riders, and the rest to be – like Blayne – associates of the promoter. So, yes, while Blayne was woefully under-qualified to take the job, everyone has to start somewhere, and should be given time to be judged on their merit. There was a time, in the middle of the season, after some “clear the air” talks with senior riders, that it came together for Blayne, and results on the track improved. However, there were also times either side of that when it seemed things were falling apart, where perhaps a more forthright personality would have asserted control. This was Blayne’s major failing this season – he didn’t seem tough enough, to his own riders and to opposing team managers. He’s a “lovely bloke” to those who know him (and he’s been fantastically approachable to fans), and I’m not sure this is in the desirable criteria for a speedway manager. However, given a second crack of the whip, I’m sure he’ll do things differently.

The management came in wielding a new broom, sweeping away things that probably could have been left alone, and ignoring things that needed attention. It took time to realise their mistakes, but – for the most part – they did. However, there’s still much work to be done. The matchday experience needs to be improved, with changes made to the presentation well overdue, and a system put in place to fix things that are wrong with the occasionally-crumbling stadium. They need to be vocal about what they are doing right, and what they have done wrong, and take the battle to the rest of the Elite League on our behalf. They need to understand we have certain prejudices, and expectations, and work with us on those. It’s not been a great season for the new management of Coventry speedway but they seem to have got through it without major disaster, so expectations will be much higher for 2013.

So how about the riders? Well, there was obviously one major success, in the shape of Adam Roynon, who improved on his starting average by well over two points. And there was one major failure, Edward Kennett, who lowered his average by a point and a half. As for the rest, they fell somewhere between no improvement and around half a point on their averages, very much treading water in an mediocre league.

Roynon really was a revelation, earning platitudes in all three divisions (and becoming a better rider for all those rides, naysayers), and if he could only stay away from the safety fence we’d all be happier people. Already signed for 2013, subject to recovering from his latest terrible injury, Roynon can go on to be a major player in British speedway, and I’m proud to have him wear the fighting bee.

That can’t always be said about Kennett, however, who was frustrating at times, to say the least. All riders have bad patches, but to the untrained eye it looked as if Kennett was making poor racing choices, leading to rumours that he was deliberately lowering his average to be able to double-up in the Premier League next season. While I’m sure this was totally wide of the mark, those suspicions, once raised, never completely go away, and although he managed to keep his average above the (presently) six-point mark, it will be interest to see where he ends up next season. I can’t, for the life of me, see him at Brandon next year, but you never know. Hopefully they’ll change the rules and he’ll be able to double-up, anyway, and perhaps that will see him improve his fortunes. I’ll be watching with interest.

Roynon aside, the biggest success looks to be Michal Szczepaniak, who did everything expected of him at reserve, and a little more, and was often the only highlight of a meeting, with his calm style a refreshing change from the usual out-of-control lower-end Pole. That he’s twenty-nine years-old is the most disappointing thing about him, and I’m glad he’s back in the side next year.

Aaron Summers, too, improved his average, but didn’t have the season most were hoping. He missed too many meetings due to fixture clashes with Redcar (whose home meetings will always potentially rule him out of trips to Swindon, Peterborough, and Birmingham), and this wasn’t helped by his double-up partner, Leigh Lanham, also riding for a Thursday evening track. Already announced for next season, I’d hope that the management work with Redcar to avoid fixture clashes, and also find a double-up partner who is nearer Aaron’s scoring power and doesn’t also ride Thursdays! I’d also expect his average to creep over six points a meeting – anything less would be a disappointment from a rider of his undoubted talent.

Kenni Larsen seemed to stand still this season, with dreadful performances at a couple of tracks he obviously doesn’t fancy, and points lost through equipment failures, falls under no pressure, and questionable last bend decision making. If those issues were sorted, Larsen could be an eight-point man in this league, but too often relies on making the gate for his points. It’s a quandary that I’d like to see solved, because he’s keen, and likeable, and really seems to enjoy riding for the Bees, but I’m not sure – on a six and a half point average – if he’s good value at present.

Which brings us to the top two… There seems to a schism forming amongst Bees’ fans – you’re either a Scott Nicholls fan or a Chris Harris fan – probably informed by the probability that it will have to be one or the other at Brandon next season if, as rumoured, the management want to bring in a power-scoring number one. I’ll lay my cards on the table – I’m a Chris Harris fan. That’s not to say I don’t like Scott Nicholls, or appreciate him as a rider, but if the choice were to be made between the two, and I was making it, I’d plump for Harris. I like his style, and one swoop from the back, around the aside, to the front is enough to make a speedway fan out of anyone. For this reason alone, he is worth having in your team, and worth all the detractions that seem to have developed this season. I think that next season, with no Grand Prix headaches and personal issues resolved, will see a different Chris Harris, one who can fulfil to his undoubted potential. I just hope that it’s at Brandon, or the Bees may risk losing a few fans to a rival track.

Scott Nicholls had a reasonable year, though not a massive improvement on what he could consider a poor 2011. He rode through injury for the Bees, and never seemed to give less than his all, and won a record seventh British title, bringing a little bit of glory to Brandon in a season devoid of it. He’s also one of the more open riders, communicating through Twitter with his heart firmly pinned to his sleeve. However, he’s thirty-four years old, and takes up a big chunk of a team’s averages, so I’m not sure I’d have him back at Brandon in 2013. That said, if he is, I wouldn’t be too disappointed.

Jason Bunyan, Leigh Lanham, Josef Franc, and Henning Bager also rode. Far more than they should have, if I’m honest, and the management really need to be on the ball when it comes to finding the correct double-up partnerships for next season, chopping and changing if necessary, if meetings aren’t going to be surrendered to apathy.

The riders, with two or three exceptions, let us down this season. While the team was nowhere near the “team we asked for”, a line peddled by the management to deflect criticism from their team building, it was good enough, on paper at least, to make the play-offs. The fact that they didn’t, when mediocre Birmingham and Lakeside did, and then compounded that by surrendering the Knockout Cup Final, is criminal, and their farewell speeches at Brandon at least seemed to acknowledge that they knew it.

So that was 2012. A disappointing season all round, with poor-to-middling results, bad track preparation, and an occasional feeling that ticking the boxes seemed enough for the management. I won’t look back on much too fondly, except for one or two races here and there, and the emergence of a new cult hero in Szczepaniak, and am eagerly awaiting 2013. We have a National League side to get behind, with all new British riders to get behind, and hopefully a more balanced approach to team building, throughout the league as well as at Brandon. Mick Horton has another chance to get things right – let’s hope he takes it.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Competition, Legislation, Regulations & Recovery

ITEM: Swindon Robins are the 2013 Elite League champions. Swindon aren't a club I have particularly strong feelings about either way, but I welcomed their victory as if it were my hometown club winning the title.

Why? Because another Poole championship win would have been terrible for the sport is so many ways. This opinion will come as no surprise to regular readers - I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to Poole and the dark lord that rules that corner of Dorset - but nonetheless I feel it's worth stating.

If Poole were to win again, and highlight a domination of the sport that the title history doesn't accurately represent, the semblance of competition that we currently cling to - that all teams are created equal at the start of each season - would continue to fall away. Elite League speedway is often reminiscent of Orwell's Animal Farm - all teams are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

Through fair means or foul - and more of that in a moment - Poole consistently make the top two which, despite what FA Premier League mandarin Peter Scudamore would have you believe, is terrible for competition. Swindon's win made it five different teams winning the title in the last seven years - a Poole win would have been their third in four years. An illusion of competition, perhaps, but an important one to sponsors and broadcasters.

From a horrible campaign in 2011, Gary Patchett and Alun Rossiter assembled a solid 1-7, with each rider capable of picking up the slack if (when!) their teammates went missing through poor form or injury. Poole, who successfully campaigned to change a rule which would have seen them forbidden to use both Chris Holder and Darcy Ward this season, were ultimately undone by their top heavy approach - a team-building tactic which led to so many processional, uneven races involving the Pirates, particularly at away tracks.

More importantly, there are no suspicions over the way Swindon went about their business this season. Poole started off the season by "stealing" Adrian Miedzinski, ironically from the Robins, compounded that misdeed by using the non-committal (and on a bargain average) Pole to improve their team when bottom of the table Wolves could not, and then were fined several times by the BSPA due to his, seemingly agreed by the Pirates, non-attendance. They also operated an illegal line-up against Lakeside, three days after the death of Lee Richardson, although this was, predictably, swept under the carpet by all concerned.

Poole were not alone in breaking rules this season. Several other teams - including my beloved Coventry Bees - made team changes that should not have been allowed, used rider replacement facilities that were illegal, or were fined for using no facility at all. But for the champions to have been guilty of such misdemeanors would have been a step too far.

So, yes, well done Swindon, enjoy your victory. But beware the Ides Of November - the last team to cross Poole Pirates didn't exactly come out of it very well...

ITEM: Neil Vatcher spoke in the Speedway Star this week of his hope that British clubs would give British riders a chance. He went further by suggesting legislation should make it compulsory, and you won't hear any arguments from this blog.

At last winter's AGM the 2.5% average reduction for British riders was removed, citing EU employment rules which forbid discrimination, positive or negative, by nationality. However, Sweden and Poland - both members of the EU - both have rules that stipulate a minimum number of home-grown riders in each team.

They do this because, until someone brings a challenge under EU law, an organisation is free to choose its own rules. If Vargarna or Tarnow, for example, were to challenge the rules, they would be ruled illegal, and a spotlight thrown on such practices to ensure it doesn't happen again. What this would do for the future of Vargarna or Tarnow is anyone's guess, but there it is: if everybody's happy, there's no problem.

Ignoring the question of whether teams not known for employing British riders may have raised the issue, or implied they may take it further, there is a simple way to get around the regulations.

Each British rider plying their trade in the UK is licensed by the ACU. Without such a license, a rider cannot compete in British speedway. You do not have to be British to apply for an ACU license, merely meet its criteria. Therefore, if they wished to circumvent EU legislation, the BSPA could insist on a minimum amount of ACU-license holders per team.

This could lead to a glut of foreign riders applying for ACU licenses, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this may hamper the very thing the rule was designed to help - a lack of opportunities for British riders. On the other, these riders would, to all intents and purposes, become British, with all the advantages to both sides that carries.

Or, like the Swedes and Poles, we could just suck it up, go ahead and make the rules, and see what happens down the line. It's not as if speedway is going to be at the top of the EU problem pile right now.

Regardless of how it could be implemented, Vatcher's call for team places for young Brits won't improve our international chances overnight. The riders have to work hard, and those that can have to help them with financial backing. But, for young riders, guaranteed racing time, against quality opponents can't be underestimated. What are we prepared to do to ensure they get it?

ITEM: Put Dudley and Mildenhall together and controversy won't be far behind. I've already written about the events of a few weeks ago, where Mildenhall were allowed to use a rider not in their declared 1-7, a move backed up by a threat to pull the meeting.

That decision has subsequently been waved through by the SCB, despite precedent set for them amending the results of incorrectly declared National League sides earlier this season.

The two teams met again this week, with a relatively uneventful meeting at Monmore Wood marred only by Louis Carr, Josh Bates's "advisor", breaking the pits 'phone, and threatening to pull the lad from the meeting. That's a bit of a theme at Mildenhall, it seems.

Similarly, the final tussle between the pair, held at King's Lynn's Saddlebow Road due to fixture congestion, was straightforward, at least until the last heat - which just happened to be a decider for the NL title.

Whatever the correct decision about who to exclude when Adam Roynon and Stefan Nielsen came together on the back straight - and every different camera angle brings a different opinion - the referee appeared to have excluded Mildenhall's Nielsen. Though no announcement was made, Mildenhall team manager Robert Henry was heard in the pits to be shouting, "he's excluded blue!", Nielsen's helmet colour.

At this point, Fen Tigers' co-promoter Chris Louis left the pits, ran along the home straight terrace, and entered the referee's box - contrary to SCB regulations 4.1.2 and 14.9.2 - where he apparently talked the ref through a replay of the race. Louis can be heard in the background of BBC WM's radio commentary saying, "white's got to go," and, indeed, this is what referee Dave Robinson finally announced.

The issue isn't whether the decision was correct - as I've said, each viewing gives you a different position, and I'm led to believe the referee had already looked at video prior to his original decision - but whether Louis, intentionally or not, affected the referee's change of heart by his presence in the box, the very thing these regulations are designed to avoid.

It's been a banner year for wilful disregard of speedway's regulations, with illegal approaches, illegal line-ups, and frivolous protests aplenty. The National League has been riddled with issues this season, and faces a difficult winter - what a shame that it finished in such acrimonious and questionable circumstances.

ITEM: Adam Roynon is a great kid. He races hard but fair, and gives everything every time he takes to the track, whether for Coventry, Workington, or Dudley, and has been rewarded with a growing army of fans of his style and attitude, as well as increasing his average in both "senior" leagues.

He's also the unluckiest rider in speedway, with a catalogue of injuries that would look excessive in the career of a rider twice his age. Broken bones, torn ligaments, concussions and compressions, Roynon has suffered them all, multiple times, and still come back to a sport he obviously loves.

His latest crash, on Wednesday at King's Lynn, whilst riding for Dudley Heathens in the NL play-off final, left him with a broken leg and shoulderblade, and unsurprisingly questioning whether he wants to continue in the sport.

I don't know if he ever reads this blog - the odds are against it - but I'd like to say this: don't even think about quitting, Adam!

If he makes a successful recovery - and he's come back stronger from much worse - the path is there for Roynon to reach the top in the sport. He has the talent, his skill and attitude will bring in the backers, and teams up and down the country will be queueing up to give him the opportunities - that is if they can prise him away from Coventry!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Rain, Sky, News & Tai

ITEM: I initially delayed this week’s blog so that I could write about the climax of the British speedway season, the Elite League play-off finals. With the semi-finals affected by rain, and the finals delayed by a week, Swindon held their leg of the final last Monday, and came away with a seven-point win (even if it should have been thirteen if it wasn’t for that ridiculous tactical ride rule!). Poole were due to host their leg of the final on Wednesday, only for that to fall victim to the weather, too. No problem, they said, we’ve covered the track and we’ll go ahead on Friday night. Only they didn’t, and they didn’t.

So, as I write, it’s scheduled for tonight, and two weeks after we should have crowned the champions of what has frankly been a bizarre and horrible season, we still don’t know who will go into the record books as Elite League winners 2012.

No man can legislate for the weather, of course, and it’s been a terrible summer for rain. You can’t help but wonder, though, whether the showpiece finale - one part of the season salivated over by Sky (and broadcast live on Radio 5 Live Xtra) – should be left to the whims of the staging promoters. This is absolutely the one part of the season that has to be run right, and on time. I’m not privy to discussions held by Elite League promoters, but I do wonder if more couldn’t have been done by them, as a unit, to ensure the final went ahead as planned.

As it is, we wait until tonight. Injuries have disrupted both teams but that’s speedway, and whoever wins will have done it on the track as much as in the boardroom and the promoter’s office. Roll on 2013, though, eh?

ITEM: News broke last week that the Sky TV deal to show the SGP series had expired. And also that there was only one year left on the current deal to show the Elite League. This came on the back of a gossip piece in several newspapers that, owing to the obscene amount they’d paid for Premier League football, the channel would have to make cuts elsewhere, and a couple of newspapers even specifically named speedway.

The reaction was mixed. Some view Sky as the great saviour of the sport, and others regard them as a disruptive influence. The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in between.

British speedway survived, even thrived, before the Sky deal. However, the cyclical nature of entertainment fortunes – and let’s be straight on this, speedway is entertainment, just like the cinema and bingo – means that you can’t get a clear picture of just how much Sky has affected the success (or otherwise) or the sport: If having a weekly outlet on a major satellite broadcaster coincided with an upswing in attendances, you couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t happening anyway, and vice versa.

One thing that is without doubt is that Sky has brought in some much-needed cash to the sport. Whether that has always gone to the right places, or been used as a crutch by promoters unwilling or unable to find that cash themselves, is another point of argument, but let’s pretend that it’s been a bonus, and has allowed the sport to develop beyond where it would ordinarily have been. Only we can’t, because all he evidence – team kevlars aside – points to the opposite, that despite the Sky cash the product has been steadily decreasing in quality, with constant tinkering of the rules, and petty point-scoring between promoters playing a huge part in that.

Sky does not need speedway, either SGP or Elite League. Audiences have been gradually decreasing for both (although interestingly, and given the high profile attached to the moribund series, the EL consistently outrates the grands prix), and the money spent could be better spent elsewhere, they could probably argue.

However, speedway is treated like something of a red-headed stepchild by the channel. There are few, if any, bulletins on the 24-hour, desperate for content, Sky Sports News channel, and the show is constantly shunted around the channel listings, sometimes relegated to the dreaded “red button”. While other sports receive magazine-style shows, dedicated to the 95% of action that doesn’t take place on live broadcasts, speedway misses out, despite the plethora of footage available from domestic providers (often in HD) and overseas TV.

And to those people who argue that the perceived poor quality of the Elite League means that it gets all it deserves from Sky, I would point in the direction of the British Basketball League, a twelve-team league devoid of international stars, yet somehow deserving of live games and a two-hour weekly highlights show.

So given Sky doesn’t need speedway, and acts like it a lot of the time (and that’s no slight on those who work very hard on the shows we do get), does speedway need Sky? Specifically, because although the Premier and National Leagues have their own issues, they get very little from the channel in the first place, does Elite League speedway need Sky?

It’s a no-brainer that the loss of the cash paid upfront each season would be a huge blow to some promoters. Also, and I’m no promoter so I couldn’t tell you exactly how it figures into discussions, I’d imagine that being shown three or four times a year on TV is a big bargaining tool for sponsors. Although, it must be said, being shown weekly hasn’t managed to attract a banner sponsor for the league or associated competitions…

But as far as bringing people in through the door? I’m not so sure. It certainly hasn’t helped get coverage in other media outlets - save for a few dedicated local radio channels, reporting on speedway in the national newspapers, and on the BBC and ITV, is woeful, almost criminally so. The disruption caused, and loss of attending fans, by running on a Monday night must also be unwelcome to most promoters, and the rumoured eagerness to race in “tricky” conditions must also be a worry to some riders.

So would the Elite League miss Sky? Certainly in the short term, and with an effect on the financial ability of some tracks to compete, but we have that anyway now. Yes, the product would have to be reduced further, but if carefully managed that could be a good thing.

I don’t want to see the back of speedway on Sky. I enjoy my Monday night fix, even if I do spend most of it moaning about what I’m watching on Twitter. I also want more, from both sides, out of the deal. I want the Elite League to provide a better product – closer racing and fairer team-building, with fewer riders clearly out of their depths, and no season-long gaps in teams plugged by R/R or constant guests. I want Sky to work out how a weekly, two-hour magazine show for speedway is as possible as it is for basketball, and I want regular – and enticing – news pieces on Sky Sports News. I want both to work together to create stars from the riders dedicated to riding for British clubs, rather than those who treat British speedway as a training track.

The benefits for both sides are obvious. For the Elite League enhanced coverage should increase their visibility with non-fans and sponsors, bringing more people and money into the sport so they are less dependant on Sky’s teat. For Sky better, closer racing, and the full story of a speedway season, is exciting and compelling TV, and probably inexpensive compared to other, more high-profile, sports. Let’s hope they can work together to achieve it.

ITEM: So, a week later than usual, BSI finally got around to naming their permanent wild cards for the 2013 Speedway Grand Prix series, and three of the names were greeted with no surprise at all. Jarek Hampel is a title-challenger who had his 2012 season ruined by injury, Martin Vaculik performed well as Hampel’s replacement and even won a grand prix, while Darcy Ward, whatever you may think of him off the track, is a prodigious talent. That just leaves Tai Woffinden, whose receipt of the final wild cards may explain why things took a week longer than usual.

Put simply, Woffinden does not deserve to ride in the series. That’s not a slight on him, although I find his public persona to be a little obnoxious, it’s just a fact. He’s been constantly outscored in Poland and Sweden* by other contenders for the slot, and has never even reached a Grand Prix Challenge Final. Only in the Elite League, where he now threatens to pull out of, has Woffinden ever approached anything like top-rider status.

No, Woffinden’s inclusion is political. It is because he, for the purposes of speedway, is British, and BSI (and possibly the FIM) seem to think this is important. True, TV ratings and attendances at the British Grand Prix are on the slide, despite Chris Harris’s best efforts to stay competitive at this level, so maybe they have a point. I’d argue otherwise, and a straw poll conducted on Twitter by Sky’s Nigel Pearson seemed to indicate as much.

Woffinden has been given a huge “gimme” and I hope he grasps it with both hands. He’s still a young man, with a lot of growing to do, and may yet represent this country – and himself – with ???. We’ll all be watching with interest, I’m sure.

* Those non-GP riders averaging more than Tai in both Sweden & Poland - Janusz Kołodziej, Grzegorz Walasek, Piotr Protasiewicz, Tomasz Jędrzejak, Patryk Dudek, Jason Crump, Daniel Nermark, Przemysław Pawlicki, Michael Jepsen Jensen, Krzysztof Buczkowski, Leon Madsen, Adrian Miedziński and Thomas H Jonasson.

ITEM: Speedway’s relationship with its fans, through the media, has always been very carefully stage-managed. Fans are told exactly what the promoters want them to know, and nothing more. Often that amounts to zero, for a number of reasons running from not wanting to look like dicks to trying to maximise crowd levels.

This worked very well back in the day, when the only access fans had to their clubs was though the official programme, a compliant speedway press, or pieces placed in the local and national media by the same journalists who wrote for the first two.

The world is an utterly different place now, however, moving at a breakneck speed, and speedway just hasn’t kept up with it. The internet has changed everything. Something can happen at a track and within seconds be in the public domain, with all the checks on accuracy you’d expect from such speed. Fans get half a story and it grows from there, with speedway clubs unable – or unwilling – to take ownership of it, with predictable results.

This was never more vividly illustrated than by the non-arrival of Darcy Ward and Troy Batchelor at Saturday night’s Elite League Riders’ Championship. Riders failing to turn up for the ELRC is nothing new. It used to be the jewel in the crown of British speedway, with a line-up often better than that year’s World Final (which had to include some pesky Poles and Russians) but in recent years it has fallen from favour, with some of the “stars” that deign to ride in the Elite League feeling it beneath them. So, at first glance, Ward and Batchelor not showing (with the former having a big match in Poland the day after, the latter having no-showed the event before, and both involved in a play-off final on the following Monday) seemed a simple case of riders treating fans with contempt.

However, and before too long, the story developed. That Ward was in hospital after being beaten up, with some even suggesting that Batchelor had been arrested for doing it! While the former proved correct, the latter was well wide of the mark, and poor old Troy just had a bad throat. With the news of their absences not reaching the fans until they entered the stadium, however, an opportunity had been lost – both men would have been ruled out of the contest much earlier in the day, and the chance for the BSPA – and Poole and Swindon – to take ownership of the story was clear.

For whatever reason, however, they chose not to, instead leaving it to conjecture and rumour – the shallow puddle where people like me play – to win the day. One may say we had no right to find out what had clearly been a personal matter for Ward, at least, but this ignores two very important matters.

Firstly, those fans who paid an exorbitant £25 to watch the ELRC deserved every available news about the line-up in order to make that choice, especially in these hard times. While, for most, speedway is the biggest attractor to meetings, there are some who pick and choose based on who they will see. I don’t like it, but it’s their right to do so, and we shouldn’t risk alienating those fans by treating them with contempt.

Secondly, and most importantly, the “news” IS GOING TO GET OUT. You can’t stop it. An off-the-cuff remark becomes gospel, an overheard snippet becomes testimony, and a worried look on the face of a promoter tells a thousand words.

In the close season speedway needs to re-consider its position on the internet and, in my opinion, open up further. All Elite League clubs have dedicated press officers, and there are pliant and not-so-pliant outlets for their sides of the story all over the world. They have a chance to seize this opportunity to bring the sport into the 21st century. Or they could just keep blaming the gossipmongers, ostrich-like. I hope I’m wrong on which choice they make.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Biggart, Bates, Balls-Ups & Beelzebub

ITEM: Fantastic news from Glasgow last weekend, when long-time Tigers' fan Alun Biggart became the latest member of the "somewhere-based businessman" club that is speedway owners - Denmark, in Biggart's case.

Joining with former promoter, Isle of Man-based businessman Gordon Pairman, Biggart's intervention has saved the Tigers from a similar extinction to that facing their wildlife counterparts, and ensures that speedway continues in Scotland's biggest city.

Biggart grew up attending Friday night speedway at whatever Glasgow stadium the Tigers called home during the '80s, and wants to take the club back to that tradition. There is a small stumbling block in that Edinburgh also run Friday's, just 30 miles away, but I'm sure common sense can prevail.

Biggart seems smart, enthusiastic, and passionate about Glasgow speedway and, while these qualities have been found in abundance in many a failed speedway promoter, he's made a good start to what I hope will be a long association with the sport.

Now we just need someone to sort out Workington and Plymouth, and the Premier League looks good for 2013...

ITEM: For someone who looks so young, Josh Bates caused a whole heap of trouble last weekend. It's not strictly his fault - past recovering from injury sooner than expected, anyway - but his inclusion in the Mildenhall team to face Dudley in the first leg of the National League KO Cup final almost brought the meeting to a halt.

Until he broke his arm in August, Bates had been a valuable reserve for the Tigers, racking up a 5.30 average and scoring vital points for the double-chasing side. With his injury seemingly ruling him out for the rest of the season, Tigers recalled Aaron Baseby from the Isle of Wight, only for Baseby to be ruled out due to injury himself.

Having redeclared the side with Baseby in it, they redeclared again, signing Gareth Isherwood, late of Buxton and Stoke, to plug the gap. This seemed to be the team that was to take them into the NL play-offs, and KO Cup final - Baseby may have been averaging less than Bates, and Isherwood less than Baseby, but the team still averaged a full 7 points over the limit agreed at the start of the season.

When Dudley arrived at West Row on Sunday they found Bates listed in the Mildenhall team. The Tigers claimed they had been given permission by National League co-ordinator Peter Morrish to include Bates in their 1-7 in September, after Baseby's injury, but also given permission to use Isherwood as an injury replacement in the interim, though this is not apparent from the published team declarations on the BSPA website.

For their part, Mildenhall claim they have an audit trail backing this up, although the BSPA position seems to be that Bates was not legally allowed to ride - with Bates not named in the 1-7 (and Mildenhall had ample time to correct this) the only replacement for the absent Isherwood should have been an unattached 3.00 rider. It is also worth noting that Mildenhall have two injured riders declared in their 1-7 aside from Bates - if riding was important to his development (and I'm a fan of giving young riders as many rides as possible) they could have legally and fairly redeclared with him in place of Lewis Blackbird, himself out for the season.

Dudley, understandably, raised the issue with the meeting referee, and with the Tigers, who - it is reported - refused to ride without Bates at reserve. With a stadium full of fans, including Dudley's usual large travelling contingent, Peter Morrish was put on the spot and ruled that the meeting should go ahead with the team Mildenhall wanted.

The result was a massive 28-point win for the Tigers, though this was in small no part due to the horrendous crash, and subsequent broken leg, suffered by Heathens' skipper Byron Bekker. Lacking an old head, the Dudley team simply fell apart.

There has been bad blood between the two teams already this season - understandable between the two biggest fish in a tiny pond - and this will not have helped one bit. The fans, for their part, seemed blissfully unaware of the row, and enjoyed what entertainment there was. The respective managements, however, seem at loggerheads - further proof can be found by looking at Mildenhall's proposed date for  their leg of the play-off final (should they get there) - a Friday, in no way a usual Tigers' race night (and not their declared "off" night) but one which will see Dudley missing Tom Perry, who doubles-up with Somerset.

As I've written before, rules should be rules. They're written down and published for fans, riders, and promoters alike to see, and should be adhered to. According to the rules, and the published team declarations, Mildenhall were unable to use Bates, yet chose - backed by the NL equivalent of the Wizard of Oz - to go ahead and do so. If there is any consistency, Bates's points should be removed - lining up a juicy second leg with only 18 points between the sides - and the Tigers ordered to redeclare their team to include him (which would require some jiggery pokery but is by no means impossible!).

However, as we've seen, consistent application of the rules is not something speedway gets on with, so I expect it'll be swept under the carpet, despite Dudley making a formal complaint this week. As for Morrish, it calls into question his position - if the NL is to be run as a semi-professional league, with fixed rules and regulations, you have to wonder why we need a "co-ordinator", whatever one of those is. Especially one who seems to have made such a hash of this particular situation...

ITEM: This season has been horrible. Do much has gone wrong, and so many unpleasant things have happened, that we may as well write it off. At the least we should attach a new slogan - "British speedway - what a shambles!' - to the sport and try and cash in on what seems to be an endless stream of crap.

That stream almost broke its banks this week with the farcical KO Cup settling one tie on the basis of one leg, and another on the toss of a coin. Let's forget for a moment that we're having quarter-final (effectively the first round) ties in October, and reflect on that...

It's hard to get your head round, isn't it? Can you imagine it in any other sport? Can you imagine any other sport allowing two teams to decline to take part in one of only two competitions available to them because of a worry about fixture congestion? Only for both those teams to finish their seasons with eight weeks of the season remaining?

Put simply, the KO Cup has been treated like a red-headed stepchild from the outset, which only makes it worse for the sides who have taken it seriously - Coventry, Lakeside, Poole, and Wolves all managed to stage their quarter-finals in the summer - and Coventry and Poole have been waiting some time to find out their opponents. For a team like the Bees, drastically out of contention for the play-offs months ago, the cup represents a chance of silverware, keeping their season alive - and crowds interested - long after King's Lynn and Eastbourne have packed up for an extra-long winter.

Critics of the KO Cup point out that Sweden and Poland do not have a cup competition. Like many of those who eulogise speedway in those countries, they ignore the facts. What Sweden provides could barely be called a season (which is why any Swedish rider who takes the sport at all seriously can be found in the UK and/or the GPs), and Poland fills its calendar with so many supplementary competitions that it's hard to list them all without missing the Upper Silesian 22-25yr olds' Handicap Pairs Trophy, held over six legs, or something ridiculous like that. Besides, for all their attractions, Sweden and Poland are not Britain. We have our own peculiarities and these should be celebrated: knockout cup competitions being a British tradition, of course.

The KO Cup, in its present form, may not be attractive to many promoters. Some fans, it is said, don't take it seriously, and adding in laughable tweaks like "man on man" action is not going to help.

Running it earlier in the season would obviously help - using it as a curtain raiser would overcome the smaller crowds, with fans desperate to see any action, with the final left as a showcase later on, perhaps a one-off tie at a neutral stadium? Or resurrect an inter-league aspect to the competition, for those PL tracks willing to upgrade their sides for a couple of meetings a season? I'm sure the collective brainmass of fans, riders, and promoters have the answers - it's just asking the right questions.

Whatever is done, the tradition of knockout cup speedway in this country cannot be allowed to lapse. I only hope the BSPA feel the same way.

ITEM: The less said about Chris Holder's triumphant homecoming the better! Having said that...

Poole had arranged a challenge match with auld enemies Coventry to welcome their new World Champion home (or celebrate his silver medal, I guess) and hoped for a big crowd - what with the Pirates not having faced the Bees since Easter.

What few fans bothered to turn up - home fans mindful of the upcoming play-off double-header with Swindon, and away fans unwilling to travel in numbers to line Matt Ford's pockets for a meaningless challenge - were treated to the sight of four vehicles driving slowly round the track, trying to pack down a surface seemingly so poorly prepared that Belle Vue fans might have laughed at it.

The fans then got to see Holder receive a new engine from Ford, before watching Chris Harris practice-start into the fence and Darcy Ward teeter round before declaring he wouldn't ride. And that was it. No 15pt maximum from the new world champion, no humiliating defeat of the Bees, nothing.

Fans were then told they had to queue for a refund - with only the play-off final left inked onto the fixture list, taking an extra £4 on the night was seemingly beyond the ken of the Poole administration - and many were unhappy at the attitude of those in the office. This included some newcomers, brought to the stadium by the local publicity surrounding the new world champion, and they are hopefully not lost to the sport.

Whatever you think of his dirty tricks, and there have been many, Matt Ford has always been a superb promoter for his business, and events run smoothly at Wimborne Road. He dropped a massive ricket on Wednesday, and seems to have gotten away with it. His pet journalist has been silent when similar happenings at other tracks have felt the lash of his tongue, and I can only imagine the outcry if it was Belle Vue, and not Poole.

Still, it's nice to know that even the Dark Lord of Dorset gets things wrong sometimes - "British Speedway, what a shambles!"

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Holder, Holdings, Hopes & Happiness

ITEM: So, we have a new world champion. It may surprise you, but I’m not going to say he’s not worthy of it. All of them would have been. Even Peter Ljung. But to reach that point in your chosen sport, even if your bikes are suspiciously fast to my untrained eye, takes a level of skill many will never possess, whether by hard work or natural talent. Nothing I can say could ever take that away from him.

The manner in which it was won, however, leaves a poor taste in the mouth. Eight times out of ten Holder would have been excluded for that move. Anywhere other than the first bend, and you could make it ten out of ten. Pedersen clamped him down, and Holder had a choice – come off the throttle, or take your chances that Pedersen would move over. He chose the latter, Pedersen maintained his line, and the rest should be history.

It would have made for excellent drama, too. Pedersen still needed to make up six points, and would not even have been guaranteed to make it to the final in a re-run. But, no, instead we were treated to a farce and the sight of jumped-up little scrotes getting involved in something they had no business being anywhere near.

Still, Pedersen found it within himself to be the bigger man, and history will not record how the championship was won, just that it was, over twelve rounds. So, for twelve months at least, Chris Holder is the undisputed world champion. Let’s hope he grows into the role.

ITEM: There was a meeting of the BSPA in Rugby this week to discuss what they’re going to discuss at the AGM next month. It sounds silly, but it makes a twisted kind of sense. Well, it does if you don’t then change what you agree on to the detriment of two of your member clubs. But I digress.

I hope they wore their thinking caps, because the sport – at all three levels – in this country  is at a crossroads. The National League has to decide what kind of league it is – professional or development, or if it’s possible to be both – and the Premier League has to work out how to maintain interest through to the end of the season without Frankenstein competitions. By far the biggest challenge, however, faces the Elite League.

Put simply, we cannot go on as we are. We have an unwieldy fixture list which has meant the biggest rivals of the past few season meet just once home and away this season, and which has seen some clubs finish their fixtures in September rather than the traditional Halloween cut-off. We also have a massive imbalance, not only between the top and bottom sides – which is to be expected, to some degree – but also in the make-up of the teams themselves. No-one wants to see two races in one, but due to the huge gulf in class between the top and bottom riders in the Elite League, it’s become a permanent fixture this season.

There seems to be two options. We can either bring back the “stars”, who for some are a panacea, an all-dancing fan-magnet, despite no concrete evidence to back it up, or we can take a hit and reduce the number of those star riders we have already, in an effort to make the racing closer, and more affordable to struggling promoters. In a perfect world, the former would be the choice every time, but is it the answer we need?

The stars we are talking about are the GP riders. They have name recognition within the sport, though I wonder how many non-regulars, or lapsed fans, know who they are. The debut of Emil Sayfutdinov, and the return of Nicki Pedersen, last season enhanced some crowds, but I doubt that, if they had been EL riders again this season, that would have lasted. What the GP riders do bring is a disruptive schedule, and extra costs.

To accommodate them we may have to switch to 1 or 2 uniform race nights, which is entirely unsuitable for some tracks for historic or availability issues, and there is no guarantee that their presence will do anything but increase the gap between the best and worst riders in the league. You do have to speculate to accumulate, however, and it may be a gamble worth taking. It’s not my money, so it’s easy for me to say that!

The other option is to try and increase the excitement and closeness of the racing by losing some quality at the top, and adding it onto the bottom. This should bring costs down, but square pegs have a habit of asking a king’s ransom to fit into a round hole. It would mean that clubs could keep their favoured and convenient race nights, without disruption by the BSI cash-cow, but also that the “stars” would disappear overnight. Clever promoters would create new stars, as we have discussed in these pages before, but others may still look for that crutch to lean on.

I’ll go on record and declare I’m in favour of the second option. To reduce costs would enable some clubs to get on a level footing, without throwing good money after bad, year on year, and it may tempt other clubs up into the top division, increasing competition and variety. We stopped promoting an “Elite” league long ago, and finances dictate that we may not get there for some time. This way, at least, we can safely televise the action without worry that Justin Sedgmen – and I mean no slight on him – is trailing in half a lap behind Darcy Ward.

Either way, I just hope that the promoters are ready to commit. There’s a long history of chopping and changing – rules, points limits, names – and very little in the way of long-term strategy. Pick a direction, work out a five-year plan, and stick to it. The rumours of the demise of British speedway are greatly exaggerated – let’s make sure they stay that way.

ITEM: The asset system is broken. Poole proved that this season by riding roughshod over precedent with Adrian Miedzinski, though the writing had been on the wall for some time. It doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked for some time, and it is quite probably illegal under EU law.

As things currently stand, once a rider becomes an asset of a club, he stays an asset of that club until they go out of business. At which point the rights revert to the BSPA, and can be bought by another member club. The rider has no say in this. The clubs are trading his right to ride in the league system in the UK – ie, his right to earn a living.

The mechanics of just how a rider becomes an asset are arcane and mysterious. I think it involves human sacrifice, but I could be wrong on that. I know that there are a certain number of meetings a rider has to complete before he can become an asset, but there are also protected assets, whereby a rider doesn’t have to ride any meetings at all for a club, and still becomes an asset, Like I say, arcane and mysterious.

Even if a rider hasn’t ridden in the UK for years, and quite possibly ended his last stay being fired by his club, he still remains on their books, and if another club wants to use him they have to come to an arrangement with that club.

Wacky and ludicrous. And very, very familiar to fans of football and/or EU law. Because that’s how football worked until some idiot Belgian club ruined it for everyone by trying to give Jean-Marc Bosman a pay cut at the end of his contract, and refusing to release his registration when he demanded a transfer. This led to all football players becoming free agents at the end of their contracts.

In speedway, riders sign contracts from season to season, if at all. Technically, though, they are self-employed, and thus regular contractual obligations shouldn’t even apply, but let’s pretend they do. According to EU law, as established by the Bosman ruling, a rider not given a contract for the next season should become a free agent. This obviously isn’t happening, and so Coventry can still call Greg Hancock an asset, even though he hasn’t ridden for them for 11 years, and has spent the last 5 not even in the UK!

All it takes is for one promoter to challenge the system and it will all fall down. They stick together, though, the speedway lot (except if you’re Ronnie Russell, and you have a hard-on for a crappy German), and so I don’t expect much will happen on that front. They must, however, realise it’s a doomed concept, and try to come up with a new way of doing things pretty soon. A way that doesn’t penalise asset-heavy clubs like Poole, obviously.

What I certainly wouldn’t do is spend a five-figure sum on any up & coming British riders, like a certain Elite League are rumoured to be considering, or bank on the value of any assets in a possible club sale that correct due diligence would see right through.

There are sensible ways of getting around all this. Another challenge for the winter, then!

ITEM: I want to finish on a positive this week by talking about two success stories for this season. It’s been a horrible season for most fans, and so any ray of sunshine is most welcome. And I’ve found it in two unusual places…

Firstly, the success of second-half league racing up and down the country. From 2010’s Northern Junior League, to the Midland Development League last season, and the further addition of the Anglia Junior League and South West Development League this year, second-half league racing has made quite a comeback in the last few years.

There are now over a dozen tracks that stage such contests regularly, from Elite League to National League, and Premier in between. It’s too early to say whether the riders gaining valuable experience on these tracks will go onto bigger things – though a couple of them look well capable of it – but from someone who remembers fondly the earliest rides for the likes of Stonehewer and Screen, the chance that they might is exciting. So, to all those who help out and make these matches possible, a big thank you, and a big well done. Onwards and upwards!

My second little ray of sunshine is the form this season of Ashley Birks. Overshadowed by other graduates of the Scunthorpe production line like Woffinden, Auty, and the Worrall brothers, Birks has quietly gone about putting three points on his Premier League average this season, gained a few valuable outings in the Elite League, and has swept all before him – save an injured Adam Roynon – in the National League. He continued by winning the National League Riders Championship last weekend, and may end up with winners medals in both the PL & NL this season.

Tidy work, by any standards, and well worthy of praise. Wouldn’t even mind seeing him at Brandon next year…