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.