Tuesday, 24 December 2013

And If You Believe That... (and other things)

ITEM: There’s a myth being pedalled around the various social media sites that host speedway discussion, one that hides a more unpleasant truth and allows a few unscrupulous teams to feign innocence in their dereliction of duty to the sport in this country. That fallacy – that the Fast Track Draft is costing a few already-established British riders jobs in the Elite League – is damaging and insidious, and cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

First, let’s look at why the draft was introduced. Several reasons, of course, but chief amongst them was a desire to cut costs. There’s no getting away from that – at its 2013 level the Elite League doesn’t support itself. There are - of course - many, many reasons for this, but that’s a subject for another day. Let’s all agree that costs outweigh income and build from there.

Having accepted that, the obvious – and previously accepted – way of cutting costs is to cut team strengths, usually by the imposition of a lower points limit. This never works in isolation because the top riders are retained and ill-balanced by lesser and lesser makeweights, increasing the gap between the best and the worst, with no other result than an artificial inflation of average riders’ averages.

A far more sensible way, if you’re going to achieve a cut in team strength that actually saves money, is to replace the middle order riders that are flown in from God knows where with locally-based lads (on cheaper pay rates, to boot). Yes, the top riders will still be heads and shoulders above the rest, but there’s a shuffling up in the middle which should negate the effects of that on the overall entertainment value of a meeting.

Unfortunately, certain clubs love their useless, middle order riders, and short of prying them from their cold, dead hands, the only way to ensure that the likes of the Drymls, the Nieminens, and the Miskowiaks are removed from our league like the malign moles they are is to legislate them out – difficult when you can’t explicitly ban individual riders or even their nationalities (as desirable as that may seem).

So the decision was made to balance out the surgery with some holistic therapy, and impose (mostly) young British riders on teams who would usually faint at the sight of them, in the form of the Fast Track Draft. The unfortunate aspect of this is that they have been sold as reserves. This is an understandable error – they are, after all, (in most cases) the least of their sides, and occupy the traditional reserve positions…

As evidence to the contrary, I hold up the points limit set for the five open slots – 32 points, ten and a half points lower than the 2013 limit for the full seven riders. If you want to accept that the reserves are valued at 3 points apiece (although a couple of them actually have GSA’s above that figure), then the total limit of 38 points is roughly a 10% reduction in team strength. However, if you accept that the "reserves" are there to replace the crappy, middle-order riders, the ten, ten and half point value is about right, and so the top five – so to speak – isn’t reduced in strength at all. And given that there's been no corresponding 10% reduction in admission prices...

Now, I don’t blame you if you think I’m trying to sell you something that’s not all it seems. I am. But that’s because it’s been sold badly in the first place, and the intentions behind the decision-making not made clear, but believe me when I say that the big intention was to remove those riders – foreign-based, averaging 4-6 points a meeting – from the league.

Unfortunately, as I’ve said, some clubs have a raging hard-on for those riders, and would rather pick them over anyone with a British passport. They mask this behind a stated intention to pick the best team possible, as though the two were incompatible, and latterly brush aside any criticism of such a policy by pointing out that they’re doing their bit with the young Brits at reserve this year. It’s enough to make you bang your head on the desk.

The riders most commonly named as victims of the Fast Track Draft are Josh Auty, Adam Roynon, and Ashley Birks. They are three very different riders, with very different sets of circumstances, and their absence (so far, and it may change, with some slots still open) is not as clear cut as blaming the Fast Track Draft would make it handy to do.

Birks, of course, had a team place – at Swindon – but was unceremoniously dumped when the Robins decided to go in another direction – a foreign one, naturally. It would have been no surprise to see Birks sit out the start of the season in both senior leagues, due to the serious nature of the injury he received at the tail end of last season, and to hear that he’d been considered for a place for the Robins was both encouraging and heartbreaking. If Alun Rossiter was certain enough of his fitness to include him – up until a few days ago – in his planned 2014 team, then he must be ready to resume racing in March. That he’d been sure of a place at Blunsdon probably meant him not touting his availability, to top flight - and second-tier Thursday – tracks, and to be dumped at such a late stage leaves him out in the cold. Luckily, there are still a couple of PL tracks still to declare their full seven riders, and so he should be fixed up in that division, at least.

Birks had a place, despite the draft, and then lost it. Being available from the outset, rather than being shelved by Swindon, may have seen him – on a very attractive starting average – picked up by one of their rivals, allowing more points for the rest of their team-building. As it is, we’ll never know if anyone might have gone down this route.

Roynon, similarly, is recovering from (yet another) injury, and few even considered the prospect of him starting the season in the Elite League. A far better plan – which will happen by happenstance more than design – would be to recover race fitness in the second division before slotting into a team mid-season. And that will still most likely happen. Yes, there is the outside chance that Adam, on a handy 4-something average, would have slotted into the last place at any number of clubs, but that’s still the case regardless of the draft occupying the reserve slots. I’d argue that Roynon, as with Birks, is a victim of his uncertain fitness – more comebacks than Sinatra – more than anything else.

Auty has had a solid couple of seasons at Birmingham and probably would have stayed their this season had the Brummies’ two double-up spots not been taken by two of their heat leaders. This is its own issue – that the Brummies’ numbers two and three are number ones in the second division – and one that needs to be addressed by the BSPA as a whole. Doubling up wasn’t supposed to work this way, and this is partly a consequence of that. Having said that, there are riders occupying double-up spots – and few could argue that Auty is exactly the sort of rider who should be doubling-up – that are taking his place. Riders like Josh Grajczonek and Ricky Wells, and it is these names – alongside Jakob Thorsell, Simon Gustafsson, Kim Nilsson, and others – that are occupying slots that Auty could – and should be filling. No rider has a divine right to a team spot, but this is the brutal truth.

There is a further argument to be considered – should these lads have been put into the Fast Track Draft themselves? Again, there’s not one answer for all three, and there are differing levels of merit for that suggestion based on the rider in question. I’d argue that, of the three, Birks had the greatest shout – only averaging 3.00 in the top flight and coming back from a career-threatening injury – but you also have to consider that he finished 2013 as his PL team’s number one rider. Roynon, too, with that injury, could possibly have been thrown in, but this would had both gifted Coventry a massive head start on their rivals (assuming asset-protection still applied) and ignore that Roynon has been an EL rider for several seasons, with only injury preventing him becoming more established.

And Auty? I can’t think of any definition which would see him included, without also throwing in the likes of Richard Lawson and Richie Worrall. This highlights the weakness of the draft – that it should have been done at something approaching its present level in the Premier League, and a super draft, including Auty, Lawson, Worrall, Roynon, and others of or around their level, done for the top flight.

Ignoring that, we have the draft that we have, and as a result twenty team slots will be filled by developing British riders. Playing devil’s advocate, you might argue that the numbers means this is worth the risk of three others being left out in the cold, in the top flight at least, but that’s to play their game. There’s no one way to build a team, the numbers game can be played in many different ways. King’s Lynn and Belle Vue have shown that you can build a 1-5 in the same way as a 1-7, with a three-pointer at the bottom balancing out a high-averaging rider at number one, and this is proof enough for me that the draft has had nothing to do with Auty, Birks, Roynon, and others not gaining EL spots in 2014.

No, the truth is that their kind was never going to find favour at certain tracks, and that it’s the same old faces ignoring British talent in the same old way. This is the real story – don’t blame the draft, blame Poole, blame Eastbourne, and their chums, for ignoring the bigger picture. In a year when supporting British riders took a massive leap forward, some people are still trying to hold it back.

ITEM: It's not all bad news, which is especially welcome at this time of year. Peterborough have been saved! Okay, so they'll be running in a lower division, and they won't have the sugar daddy that's been propping them up for the last few years, but speedway will continue at the East of England Showground in 2014, and hopefully beyond that.

The saviour, although I doubt many will ever regard him as such, is Coventry promoter Mick Horton, who has organised a consortium including former Panthers' rider Adrian Smith, Julie Mahoney, and Trevor Swales. The Panthers will race on a fixed racenight - Tuesday - and have already made a good start to their teambuilding by signing Ryan Fisher, Lasse Bjerre, and Ulrich Ostergaard.

They've added Lewis Blackbird to that, which is exactly the kind of signing a second-tier Panthers need to make: locally-based, hungry for success, and a rider they'll for whom have first call on his services. If they can continue their team building with another couple of young, British riders, the future for the new Peterborough looks very encouraging.

As a Coventry fan, however, I do have some slight worries. Although a successful businessman, Mick Horton is not exactly swimming in cash - certainly not to the level of Rick Frost - and I am slightly concerned that the Panthers may be a drain on his speedway resources. Horton will effectively be running three speedway teams - one in each division - and the last time this was tried, by Gary Patchett in 2010 (Swindon, Birmingham, Dudley), was a self-admitted failure. Still, in the spirit of the season, I'm going to concentrate on the positives and leave the things I have no power over to someone else to worry about!

Having a "nursery" side will benefit Coventry in the long run. There have been some worries expressed by Peterborough fans that their club may become a "feeder" club to the Bees, and there are two ways of looking at this. Firstly, it's a natural consequence of the current speedway set-up in this country. There have been de facto arrangements of this kind before - Poole and the Isle of Wight, for instance - and it would be foolish to ignore a close link between the clubs as a pathway to top flight speedway for riders developing in the second division at Peterborough. The other side of it is that it would be a beneficial relationship to both teams, with Peterborough able to call on the services - as they have with Fisher - of Coventry assets, and young British talent starting out at Coventry's National League side. For Coventry's investment in the Panthers they get first call on any Panthers' assets ready for the top flight, and get to place their developing riders at a club they know will bring them on.

I'd worry more if I were a Panthers' fan and there was any danger of the club's identity being absorbed into the Bees' brand, but - as far as I know - there are no plans for them to ride in yellow and black, or to adopt a new logo or nickname. Business as usual, just with a link-up with a top flight club while top-flight speedway isn't feasible at Alwalton.

Time will tell how successful it will be. Some have written it off already. Most of them don't have clue one about running one, let alone two, speedway clubs, but there have been warning tones from those who do, as well. All I know is that Mick Horton's heart was in Peterborough speedway. He was never going to let them go to the wall. It's now in Coventry speedway. He won't (if he can help it) jeopardise what should be a comfy promoter's job at Brandon. We're awful at judging things and people before we give them a chance. Let's try and change that, eh?

ITEM: So the World Champion is all signed up and he'll be taking to the track in the 2014 British leagues. It was never really in doubt, especially after the structure of the top flight was left to allow his inclusion with no drawbacks, but it's good to see it confirmed, nonetheless. It also shuts up the naysayers who claim that the Elite League is broken, and that we should fix it to allow the top boys to ride here once more. If the world champion - and world number three (and four other GP riders) - can race here, it's not too broken, after all.

Ivan Mauger was very vocal in the past that Britain did not make enough of its world champions. I can't speak for that - Michael Lee was almost forgotten by the time I started watching speedway, and I was on a long break when Mark Loram won the title - but it's probably not far off the truth, and definitely something that needs to be put right. The fact that the reigning world champion will visit nine tracks twice this season - as well as at least 18 appearances at Monmore Green - and that he's charismatic, with an interesting look, and British, is something that the BSPA can ill-afford to pass up on this time around.

No doubt each club will have its own strategy for marketing the appearance of the world champion at their track but here's something where I think they really need to work together, perhaps with a centrally-administered fund for advertising, and with a clear strategy of ensuring that Wolverhampton visit these tracks when Woffinden is available to ride. If we're going to prove Mauger wrong, at long last, we need everyone pulling together for once.

Yes, this will benefit some tracks more than others. Yes, it protects Wolverhampton from those occasions when fixtures have to be run at the same time as Grand Prix practices. But there is a bigger picture here, one of opportunity and investment, and we can hardly look a gift horse in the mouth - even if that mouth is covered in tattoos that would make your granny tut.

ITEM: Finally, I want to finish by wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas! There are times when writing this blog is more of a chore than a pleasure, but knowing that a handful of you appreciate what I do is reward enough for those endeavours. If I had one Christmas wish it would be for more bloggers to take up the challenge - if only because I'm short on things to read about our sport once I've devoured the Speedway Star and Backtrack. I'm not quite ready for Classic Speedway just yet, so come on, join me!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Brady Botch (and other things)

ITEM: Let me get one thing straight from the off - Brady Kurtz is an Australian, and as far as I'm aware, will represent Australia at the earliest opportunity. Given that, the decision to overrule his patriality, whether on the solid ground of his competing in the Danish professional leagues or the shakier grounds of his participation in the Australian under-21 championship (which some declare an "open" championship), is the correct one.

However, as with so many things in our glorious sport, there's more to the story than it first appears, like an iceberg in the Atlantic, and this bears reporting, although it should not affect the final outcome of his assessment.

Somerset first made moves to bring Kurtz into their side last season. At that point he would have come in on a 5.00 average, as all Australians do in the second division. However, keen to make use of the patriality granted to his by dint of Scottish ancestors (and taken advantage of by his brother, Todd), which did not kick in until his seventeenth birthday in September, it was decided by the Kurtz family that Brady should sit out the 2013 season. Keen, though, to not see it as a wasted year, plans were made for him to ride in the Danish second division, where he competed in every meeting for Holsted, as well as two meetings in the DanskLiga, the Danes' top league.

According to those close to the rider - and those with an interest in signing him - none of this was decided without first referring to the BSPA for approval that this would not affect his patriality gift of a 3.00 average in both the Premier and National Leagues, where he was lined up for 2014 spots with Somerset and Cradley Heath. Indeed, Poole even made moves to substitute him into one of their reserve spots for the upcoming season, before relenting when the rider would not agree to sign the 5-year guarantee that he would represent Great Britain in international speedway (a guarantee Robert Branford happily signed to enable him to take part in - and win - the British Under-21 Final).

Cradley announced last week that Kurtz had been disallowed from riding in the National League and have gone a different way in their team-building plans, although Somerset have kept tight-lipped on the affair, subject to appeal, I believe. Nothing has been concretely reported, but it is thought that Kurtz will be given a 5.00 average in the PL, even though his Danish adventures should see him on a 7.00.

And it is that last concession that probably confirms that the Kurtz family were given a bum steer by somebody at ACU House. Otherwise, young Brady is a stone-cold 7.00, and anything else is a compromise. I'm informed that the complaint against his initial 3.00 came from a rival PL, and presumably a 5.00 average is agreeable enough to them.

Kurtz is a thrilling young prospect. Unlike his brother, he may just have the talent to go on to the higher echelons of the sport, and it is occasionally nice to bear witness to such rises. However, we have to protect our own, and also the integrity of our competition, which comes under threat from so many shenanigans (and probably always has). I wouldn't even be against Kurtz riding in the NL, but on a more sensible 8- or 9-point average, rather than the gift of a 3 he doesn't deserve.

Whatever the final decision, it's unlikely that we'll see such a mess again. There aren't too many more riders on the horizon who are able to take advantage of patriality, and even if there were I'd imagine that they'd double-check, and get ironclad assurances, what would and would not affect its status. The whole affair seems to have been badly handled, but the correct result, perhaps by luck more than judgment, seems to have been arrived at. And how often do we get to say that?

ITEM: The National League AGM was held last week and, as feared, we lost the Isle of Wight. All hope is not lost, though, and they have a deadline of January 31st to re-apply (a formality, should they be able to confirm their ability to run). Stepping up into the Islanders' place are Plymouth, returning to third tier action for the first time since 2010, and this time in addition to competing in the Premier League. Thus the league stays at a neat 8 teams, although it could probably benefit from a few more.

The National League is perhaps more easily defined by using its long-form title - the National Development League. The addition of some "big", standalone clubs (who would probably find their natural home in the PL or even higher) has led to a certain part of that development criteria being eroded. This is not necessarily a bad thing - young, developing riders often improve more quickly if they are racing against more accomplished opponents, and the presence of some old-stagers can often be beneficial if they are prepared to act as mentors or coaches to the young lads.

This year will be a transformative year of sorts, because seven of the league's top riders will have been "promoted" into the EL and PL. With only Simon Lambert looking like replacing them, and with Rob Branford also doubtful to return from Australia due to monetary reasons, the top of the league has been sliced off, which should restore a little of the original purpose of the competition to most sides. There is a steady stream of promising youngsters ready to take their place as reserves in NL sides, thanks to the efforts of those hardy souls involved in the MDL and NJL, and this can only be a good thing in the long term.

The mid-term future of the league is uncertain, but not in any way that should raise too much concern. Rather there may be more attention paid by the top league to what's going on at NL level because, if the Fast Track Draft is to stand (and it certainly has to, and even expand into the PL), those top clubs will want to be sure of a decent pick come draft time. The only sure way to do this is to tie up the talent at a young age, and I'm a firm believer that the regulations should be altered to prevent young riders being made assets without first riding for a club. This would encourage the EL and PL clubs that don't currently support NL racing to get involved, either directly (as with Coventry and King's Lynn) or by partnering with an existing NL club. You can easily imagine Poole supporting racing on the Isle of Wight, and Wolverhampton backing Buxton, to imagine just two such deals.

There should also be a concern that the NL isn't reaching as far north as it perhaps could (and should). Despite the stellar efforts of the Branneys at Northside, this season will most likely see a Glasgow side with no British riders and a Berwick team with just 1. Add Edinburgh and Workington, with 3 apiece, and it's a bleak picture for talent emerging north of and around the border. I've suggested before that the clubs involved team up to back third-tier racing, and reap the benefits, but it may also be something that could be considered by an EL side, given the importance of the reserves in this and future seasons.

As a fan of the National League - and it certainly saved my 2013 - I'm not unduly worried about its future. It is doing its job well and, while it could be supported a little more by everyone involved in the sport, should be around to do it for some time yet. If you value your speedway this can only be a very good thing, so if you haven't checked out your local NL side yet, try and do so in 2014. You will be pleasantly surprised.

ITEM: So Chris Harris is back in the Grand Prix series and my happiness upon hearing the news was only equalled by my delight at the wailing and gnashing of teeth of his critics as they heard it, too. Hating Chris Harris seems to be the sport of choice amongst many an SGP diehard, and his continued appearances must be the mosquito-like bane of their existence.

Harris, on his day, is worthy of a place in the series. He is capable of beating the best, and in doing so often performing the most exciting of manoeuvres on a motorbike. However, especially in recent years, his form hasn't been consistent enough to score big points in that company, and the too slick tracks too often served up do not aid a rider with - let's put it politely - issues with gating.

What Harris has, though, is a bankability that few others amongst his peers have. Although Tai Woffinden's efforts have just about won the majority of British fans around, I believe he would still be very much number two in a straight popularity contest between the two. Harris has an indefineable quality that makes you want to like him, and maybe the fact that he isn't always successful despite trying to damnedest makes him the most British hero of all...

ITEM: So I bang on all the time about Brits. You know that. And the fact you keep coming back (and thank you for that!) means you don't mind it too much. Maybe you even share my concerns and enthusiasm for our British youngsters, which may make what I'm going to say next a bit confusing.

I don't have a problem with the likes of Gino Manzares and Aaron Fox riding in our second division.

That's right, I said it. I also don't have too much of an issue with the likes of Joszef Tabaka, Facundo Albin and David Bellego, and wouldn't with Loktaev, Manev, or Bjerk. These riders are the best in their countries, speedway scenes in nations which are either down on their speedway luck, emerging from a recent start (or re-start), or just never able to grab too much attention/financing/support in a country that has other interests.

Over the years there have been many famous American riders, most of which graced our top flight with their personalities and points-scoring. The Hungarians and Norwegians, too, played their part, with Sandor Levai and Reidar Eide legends of the game. I don't think, if we're going to give places in our leagues away to foreign riders, that supporting the establishment/continuation/revival of speedway in these places is too much of a bad thing.

What undoubtedly is a bad thing is giving places to the 54th ranked Dane, or the 37th best Australian, because that helps no-one. Argentinean Champion? Yes, please! US SWC star? Brilliant? Journeyman Czech? No, thank you but no.

Foreign riders can enrich the flavour of our speedway, and the more exotic the better. The announcement of Nike Lunna, a young Finn, for the Christmas Cracker at Coventry was made so much more exciting by the fact that he won the Estonian Championships last season! Rareity is to be treasured, mundaneity not so much...

Monday, 9 December 2013

114 for 2014 (and other things)

ITEM: Regular readers will know that I'm something of an enthusiast for British riders. This isn't born out of any sort of jingoism or patriotism, but out of necessity and practicality - using local lads often brings increased interest from sponsors, the media, and fans, and a smart promoter will find them cheaper than flying in riders from overseas (and paying for vans, mechanics, hotels...). There's also the pay-off down the line - more British riders means more chance of better British riders. Better British riders means more fans and sponsors and media coverage, and the cycle continues. I can often be single-minded in my obsessions, and Alun Rossiter last week called it as "crusade", and perhaps he has a point. But, like all crusaders, I firmly believe I'm in the right, and so I'll continue - for the time being - to campaign for the likes of Workington, Ipswich, and Somerset to back British instead of being predominantly foreign in team make-up.

With all that in mind, I've compiled a list of 114 British riders that I expect to be in and around team spots in the 2014 season. Most already have places, some look to be sitting out at least the start of the season, and others haven't quite reached a league level but should kick on pretty quickly. I've split it into leagues, with the aim of an average of 4 Brits per team in the top two divisions, and 7 (obviously) in the National League. Already some sides (the aforementioned Comets, Witches, and Rebels) have dipped under that 4-rider mark, but others may pick up the slack - Rye House, for instance, have announced 6 Britis for 2014 - and 48 across the league doesn't seem too much of an ask. Anyway, on with the list...

114 FOR 2014

EL only: Lewis Bridger, Chris Harris, Danny King, Scott Nicholls, Tai Woffinden

EL/PL: Olly Allen, Josh Auty, Ben Barker, Ashley Birks, Lewis Blackbird, Craig Cook, Jason Garrity, Kyle Howarth, David Howe, Edward Kennett, Lewis Kerr, Simon Lambert, Richard Lawson, Kyle Newman, Adam Roynon, Simon Stead, Andrew Tully, Richie Worrall

EL/PL/NL: Josh Bates, Max Clegg, Adam Ellis,  Joe Jacobs, Ben Morley, Ashley Morris, Stefan Nielsen, Tom Perry, Ben Reade, Lewis Rose, James Sarjeant, Paul Starke, Steve Worrall

EL/NL: Daniel Halsey, Robert Lambert, Lee Smart

PL only: Steve Boxall, Jason Bunyan, Andre Compton, Richard Hall, Ritchie Hawkins, Leigh Lanham, Chris Mills, Stuart Robson, Chris Schramm, Derek Sneddon, Carl Wilkinson, Charles Wright

PL/NL: Robert Branford, Liam Carr, Brandon Freemantle, Oliver Greenwood, Jake Knight, Darryl Ritchings

NL only: Richard Andrews, Jon Armstrong, Josh Bailey, Matt Bates, Ryan Blacklock, Dan Blake, Scott Campos, Luke Chessell, James Cockle, Connor Coles, Benji Compton, Luke Crang, Reece Downes, Kelsey Dugard, Adam Extance, Tommy Fenwick, Tyler Govier, Nathan Greaves, Dan Greenwood, Luke Harris, David Holt, Ben Hopwood, Kyle Hughes, Danyon Hume, Gareth Isherwood, Brendan Johnson, Steve Jones, Jack Kingston, Adam Kirby, Martin Knuckey, James McBain, Ryan MacDonald, Darren Mallett, David Mason, Arron Mogridge, Connor Mountain, Michael Neale, Lee Payne, Danny Phillips, Luke Priest, Liam Rumsey, Liam Sanderson, James Shanes, Rob Shuttleworth, Daniel Spiller, Danny Stoneman, Nathan Stoneman, Shaun Tedham, Ryan Terry-Daley, Danno Verge, Tim Webster, Chris Widman, Matt Williamson, Ben Wilson, Tom Woolley, Alec Wright, Tom Young

Lets see, shall we?

ITEM: Talking of British riders, there's a new one on the block, hotly-tipped for success, and with an individual title under his belt already. So why isn't there a hubbub over his arrival on the scene? Probably because his brother has been over here for a little while already, largely stinking things up in the second division, and also because he wouldn't be able to find Britain on a map with a very large BRITAIN stamped on it...

Brady Kurtz is a very talented young rider. Those who obsessively follow overseas speedway will have marked him down as one to watch as early as 2009 when, as a 13-year old, he made the A-final of the New South Wales under-16 championship. Since then he has continued his upward climb, winning the under-16 title in 2010 and 2012, and competing in the under-21 championship as a 16-year old. He spent the 2013 season in Denmark with Holsted, where he raced twice in the DanskMetal SpeedwayLiga and competed in every meeting for the club's Division One side, racing with and against Rasmus Jensen, Claus Vissing, Ulrich Ostergaard, Claes Nedermark, and Kenneth Hansen, and ending up with a CMA of 8.97 (ostergaard, by comparison, averaged 9.12). Young Brady completed his stellar 2013 by taking the NSW senior title at Kurri Kurri on Saturday night, setting himself up nicely for the 2014 season at Somerset.

Somerset did want to use Kurtz in 2013, but were denied using him on the bargain average he’s since been given because patriality – the back door into British speedway for a certain generation of Australian riders – doesn’t kick in until your seventeenth birthday. He’d have made a mockery of the 5.00 average he’d have started on, anyway, but the Rebels – as seen by their ditching of Stefan Nielsen for Charles Wright late last season – don’t like to take chances, and so he was off to Denmark to learn his trade for a year.

Come 2014, though, and with patriality now a factor, and he’s installed in an already powerful looking side on a basement figure. But should he be? The patriality regulations are there largely to aid those with a tenuous link to the UK become active players in this country. It’s usually expected that, by using the patriality loophole, they will become – to all intents and purposes – British, but the Kurtz family have already snubbed their nose at that opportunity once, with Todd turning his back on the education he gained as a National League rider at Newport to represent the country of his birth. Put simply, why should we help Australia train the next generation of speedway stars any more than we are now?

I’ve no doubt Kurtz jr will be an asset to the British speedway leagues. But he will be as much an asset to the speedway scene as a whole – if not to Somerset – on his correct average. While patriality enables him to avoid the 5.00 starting average that Max Fricke, for example, had to begin with, his participation in the Danish professional leagues should, in fact, see him begin on a 7.00 average, and should override any other consideration. To leave him on a 3.00 is a leg-up to Somerset, a hindrance to their rivals, and ensures he can take a place that, rightfully, should be held by a young British rider. In a year when we’re Backing BritishTM in the top league, it would be disappointing to see gamesmanship used to hinder them in the league below. Over to you, BSPA...

ITEM: From the stars of the future to the stars of the past, and the decision of Tomasz Gollob to turn down a Wild Card for the 2014 SGP series. Although reported widely last week, it wasn’t confirmed until the weekend, and now discussion turns to who replaces him in the series.

Before we get to that, however, let’s look at why Gollob might have turned it down... Firstly, and there’s no getting away from it, he’s not getting any younger. Although Hancock is older, by a year, the strains of competing at that top level for a further twelve meetings alongside his league campaigns, must have been a consideration for Gollob. He withdrew from the 2013 SWC despite recovering from injury in time to compete, and has had some serious injuries in the last few years. Secondly, he’s been World Champion and is unlikely to repeat that performance. Although, as a Monster-sponsored rider he must have earned more than the average SGP participant last year, money isn’t everything to someone who has made himself very wealthy through his speedway endeavours, and it might have just lost its lustre for him. Lastly, and probably most importantly, he’s chosen to do the European Championships instead...

The war between OneSport, the Polish marketing company behind the European Championships, and BSI has been brewing for some time. Recently the FIM – one would assume under pressure from BSI, although they, of course, claim otherwise - declared that it intended to restrict riders from competing in both the SEC and SGP. Nothing has been put in the regulations but the Poles has reacted furiously to such a suggestion and Gollob, if nothing else a loyal, company man, might be the first shot across the FIM’s bows that making riders choose will have unfortunate consequences.

Whatever the reasons for his departure from the series, Gollob will be missed by a good proportion of SGP fans, and his replacement can only – for the time being, at least – lessen the series. If the regulations are adhered to, that replacement should be Chris Harris. Nominated as first reserve, the rider occupying that position is supposed to replace anyone who drops out after the SGP line-up is published, as it seemingly was on October 22nd. However, as Gollob was a Wild Card, and with the deadline for applications from those qualifying and chosen to be in the series not until last Monday, BSI could easily go against their own regulations and install another Pole in Gollob’s place. Miedzinski, say, or Dudek. It’s all very unclear at the moment.

This is the downfall of a series where only 3 riders actually qualify by merit (although four of the 2014 line-up did, through virtue of Niels-Kristian Iversen’s belt and braces approach), but it is what it is, and people seem happy to go along with that. I expect we’ll get a decision soon but until then all the talk should be about what “Mr G” achieved in at the very top of the sport.

ITEM: There are times when I can be a right miserable sod, but - on the whole - I can see the positive side of most things. And as a Bees' fan, I've witnessed my fair share of whining and moaning about my speedway team's fortunes, and there are some for whom Mick Horton will never put a foot right, even if that foot is climbing onto the Elite League winners' podium. But nothing that even the most cynical Bees' fan can conjure up can match the bile emitting from the Leicester area right now.

The return of Leicester to the sport after 27 years was a success. Yes, there were things that you or I might not have done were we in promoter David Hemsley's position, but we are not in Hemsleys position - we didn't put in the hard work or front up the cash to ensure that the dreams of the Leicester Speedway Supporters' Club (who did so much in the intervening years to keep the Leicester Lions name alive in the city) were fulfilled and that bikes were sliding in anger once more in the LE postcode.

Not that all that gives Hemsley carte blanche to run a dictatorship at Beaumont Park - a club can only thrive and survive with the complicity of its fans - but as a interested observer there seems to have been more positives than negatives in their short history - even allowing for Ilya Bondarenko, a rider I once saw fall off twice in one race. Yet to listen to some of the more vocal "fans" on the British Speedway Forum you'd think that Hemsley was deliberately running the club into the ground, contrary to the wishes of everyone in red & yellow (even the thousand or so I saw at the East Midlands Bowl in October?), and won't stop until he's driven the last fan out of the stadium.

It's natural to be concerned when something you care about isn't being taken care of in a way you approve of. But there's a bigger picture, and an ultimatum at play here. Stories aren't told in one day, one week, one month, or even a year. The tale of the new Leicester Lions is very young, and has a long way to go, and has only just reached chapter 2. As a fan you have to assess just what the club means to you - if you cannot accept what has been done so far, and don't think it will get any better, then maybe Leicester speedway isn't for you any more, and unless you have the financial backing to buy Hemsley's share in the club, you may want to find something else to do with your Saturday nights. On the other hand, if you're a patient sort, you might want to wait it out a while, see how the story develops, and then make a decision, fully in possession of a flavour you may or may not find to your liking. To poison the efforts and enthusiasm of others is just spiteful and doesn't help anyone, least of all those who inject the venom into the situation.

Leicester speedway will succeed or fail on its merits, but it needs the backing of its fans to do stand a chance of success. It's far better to encourage and cajole than accuse and throw tantrums. Work from the inside, don't throw bricks from the outside. Try that, and you might find that you can enjoy your speedway again, whatever the results on the track.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Post-AGM Fallout! (and other things)

Before I finally start this week’s blog – and thankyou for your patience while my real life kept getting in the way – I want to highlight the efforts of my club Coventry, on behalf of the whole sport, at this year’s Motorcycle Live Show at Birmingham’s NEC.

For nine frenetic days, they manned a stall (at their own expense) which promoted the sport – and every club was featured in its promotional backing and handouts – to tens of thousands of bike fans, one demographic oddly absent from our fanbase. If only a fraction of those who stopped by the stall start attending their local track – handily found for them by the volunteers on the stand – then it’s been a worthwhile exercise.

There were even some celebrity visitors – Charlie Boorman stopped by and I’m also going to pretend that Prince William, who visited the show on his way to watch the mighty Villa, left dreaming of skidding a bike around a specially built track in Buckingham Palace gardens.

Coventry’s liaison officer Trevor Randle, and his hardy band of helpers, deserves a massive pat on the back for organising it, as do the riders who gave up their time to help him, and the Coventry promotion should also be congratulated for backing him with whatever he needed to make that splash our sport badly needs. Good work fellas!

ITEM: So the AGM is done for another year, and the dust has settled on what could be The Most Important AGM For YearsTM (see also previous Most Important AGM For Years...). Radical surgery was needed to overturn a steady decline that had resulted in not only the worst Elite League season for quite some time but also the perilous financial state some clubs – in all divisions - find themselves in. When the EL Play-Off finalists are not paying their bills, something is very, very wrong!

What came out of the three-day meeting in Coventry (a far cry from the jolly boys' outing to Spain that used to categorise these end-of-season get-togethers) is a mixed bag. Some very positive changes have been made, but also some things that needed changing have been left alone. Still, it's a time to be positive, so let's look at what they got right...

Top flight reserve berths will be occupied by young British riders: this is not a new idea. Indeed, it was put into practice in 1986, and in the 1990s, with mixed results. However, the state of British speedway – and depth of British talent – at those times was so much greater than it is now, and any positive results from those experiments may have been masked by the general fortunes of British riders. I don't think anyone can argue that we're at an all-time low when it comes to the impact British riders are making on the international scene, and – sadly – in our domestic leagues.

It's been mooted before, but never put into practice for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's basically contrary to EU employment law, which guarantees no discrimination by nationality, although the finer points of that law are for lawyers and politicians to argue. They've been quite clever here, though (or at least I hope they have!), by wording the regulations in that the riders' nationality is not explicitly stated, just that they have to have come through the National League. Which, at the present time, is for British riders only. To challenge the reserves rule would first need a challenge to the National League rule, and so the problem is kicked down the road, for a while at least. I've always been a fan of “seek forgiveness rather than ask permission”, and the decision to take away the British discount in anticipation of a legal challenge was wrong in that regard. It's good to see them taking the bull by the horns and making changes based on what needs to be done rather than worrying about something that may not happen.

The second reason this has not been put into operation before now is that the Premier League, the natural place for such a system to begin, has always been reluctant to do it. I know of several EL promoters who have spoken of their PL counterparts in gynaecological and scatological terms after their steadfast refusal to back British. Some are worse than others – no-one can accuse Len Silver, whatever his motives, of not using homegrown talent – but there seems to be a unitary reluctance to use British riders ahead of (presumably cheaper) Australian, German, Danish, and Argentinian bottom-feeders. Ideally, the progression for the young British riders drafted into the top flight would have been for two places in the Premier League, and one place in the EL for the very best. Some have argued that it might be too far, too soon for some of these riders, and they may be right, but the EL has to be applauded for taking this step when the PL wouldn't. Look at the buzz created by the draft and tell me that the staid old PL couldn't have done with some of the same! But, no, you carry on with filling your league with foreign riders who will never set the world alight...

I've argued before about the longer-term benefits of creating local heroes, and they're certainly going to be more valuable to the “brand” than the Lubos Tomiceks, Henning Bagers, and Todd Kurtzs of this world. I only ask that EL fans who are unfamiliar with the great majority of these riders give them a chance to show you what they've got, and also for patience to see this thing play out over a season (and in future seasons). Those of us who've seen these boys at National League level know they're not novice wobblers, and James Sarjeant – way down in the list graded by Phil Morris and Neil Vatcher (no poor spotters of talent) – was on the pace in Coventry's late-season challenge at Leicester. The benefits outweigh the negatives on this one, and I'm excited and encouraged that it's happening in my league in 2014.

For more on the actual draft, see below…

More meaningful fixtures: Both leagues have recognized that this is an issue, and not before time. For the past three seasons, as a direct result of the Winter Of Discontent (and speedway promoter Bob Dugard’s reluctance to promote speedway meetings), the Elite League has operated a lopsided fixture list, with some teams meeting home and away just once, while others meet twice. Left to the promoters to choose, some odd choices led to anomalies like local rivals Swindon and Poole, and arch-rivals Coventry and Poole, meeting only once in recent years, robbing both promotions of much-needed gate money. In the Premier League, a small reduction in team numbers was met with a League Cup that was more league, less cup, and what should have been an early season filler competition stumbled on into late autumn.

This time around, the top flight has gone for home and away, twice. It means each team will have eighteen meaningful home fixtures, up four on last year, and clever manipulation of the fixture list should ensure that teams are at home three weeks out of four. People so easily get out of the habit of going to speedway when its not a regular thing – when there are weeks between fixtures, or fixtures are squeezed in on off-nights, crowds suffer. The one saving grace of Coventry’s awful 2013 season was almost-weekly speedway, with the National League Storm filling the gaps left by the Bees. And we’re carrying it on into 2014, if everything goes to plan. We needn’t be alone – with young assets being ever more valuable as a result of the fast-track draft and a rumoured new priority system, even clubs unable/unwilling to commit to a full season of NL racing should stage challenges, like Birmingham did with the Bulls in past seasons. Everything to gain, very little to lose.

Down in the Premier League, they’ve gone for the odd format the EL has just ditched, with fourteen home league meetings per team (and only eleven unique opponents) but haven’t yet explained how the extra fixtures might work. The obvious system to me would be geographical, with the league split into three sets of four, and the extra home meetings coming against teams in your group. So, for instance, Glasgow would race Edinburgh, Berwick, and Workington twice, and all the other teams once. But common sense and speedway don’t often pal up so, you know.

Quite why they’ve chosen fourteen meetings is odd. And leads me to wonder whether they’re there as a safety valve for late entries into the league. The future of the National League looked decidedly ropey a few weeks ago, with doubts over the Isle of Wight’s feasibility (doubts that are still there, sadly), and questions over whether Mildenhall, Dudley, and Kent might take a step up. The 2014 National League looks much more viable – and, indeed, even healthy – and at the league’s AGM on Tuesday they should announce a league of anywhere between eight and twelve teams. But there was a real possibility, tied in with the speculation that Ipswich and Rye House would take a step up into the top flight (which I can confirm they did consider, even going so far as to sound out the EL, but chose not to follow up on), that those three sides would step up. As it is, Dudley decided that the Premier League hasn’t reformed itself sufficiently for them to take that step at this point, and so they – and the “junior” partners of the Witches and Rockets – remain third-tier sides in 2014. Of course, there’s the hope that Peterborough might ride PL next season, and they could take one of the empty fixture slots, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

New blood in the EL: Although we had to lose Peterborough to get them, it’s nice to finally welcome Leicester into the top flight. As I’ve written before, they applied last season but were rejected when Peterborough objected on the grounds that a good chunk of Peterborough’s fans came from the Leicester area. The Panthers threatened to withdraw from the league if Leicester were elevated last year, and the other EL promoters chose to placate Rick Frost. Come this year’s AGM, and Leicester are up, and Peterborough are gone. Read into that what you will.

For those of you who haven’t been to Leicester before, I can tell you that the club has a great set-up. For a stadium built from nothing, it’s a super place to watch speedway, and will only improve as the years go on. The car park is a fair walk away from the track, but the stadium was (still is?) supposed to be just one part of a multi-sports facility, and the empty land between them will presumably be filled one day. But the track! Oh, God, the track! I think they were going for a Wolves when they built it, but they got it very wrong – staggering considering they had a blank slate. It has improved a little since the early days but passing is still at a premium there, and anything more they can do to it would be very welcome. Having said that, it’s still a better track than Belle Vue or Lakeside, so one shouldn’t moan too much.

As I mentioned earlier, Leicester were not the only early applicants for promotion, and it’s a shame that – for whatever reason – Ipswich and Rye House chose not to take up their option. The top flight needs more clubs, if for no other reason than it would finally be able to outvote its lesser partner at BSPA meetings, and get real progress happening in our sport. Still, if the draft works out, and Leicester have a good year, there’s always 2015…

The return of the British League: I hope I’m not jumping the start on this one, but it certainly seems to be the plan that the Elite League will revert to its pre-1995 name (a title used successfully for thirty years before that). There are some that claim the Elite moniker is tied up with Sky, forgetting that the EL existed for two years before Sky came on board, and I’m led to believe that when the new TV deal is announced that retaining the name shouldn’t be a condition of that deal. However, things change, so excuse me if I look a fool down the line.

The term “Elite” has always been contentious. Yes, it contains the Elitest riders willing to ride in this country, and is undoubtedly the top league in British speedway, but as the years wore on it became less and less Elite, and thus open to ridicule. I can understand why it was changed, and as a rebranding exercise it seemed to pay off (securing that Sky deal in the first place) but it’s worn out its welcome now, and I hope we’ll be watching BL action once more in 2014.

So what to do with the Premier League? They kept the 1995-96 title when they reverted to being a second division once more, but it’s always been a ridiculous title. Premier means first, and if there’s a stronger league above you it’s hard to argue that you are premier. Some football leagues have Premier divisions, but they also have first, and second, and third, divisions beneath them. The PL doesn’t even have that. In an ideal world, the PL would call itself the British League Division 2, but I can see how promoters trying to sell speedway to a local public largely ignorant of other leagues might not want to appear inferior, even when they are. Perhaps a midway point might be British League Division 1, with an understanding that the top flight is the BL Premier, but that would mean a level of co-operation and compromise that is probably beyond some members of the BSPA these days. Still, what’s in a name, eh?

No teams lost (well, one, but we'll come to that later): There were, as always, serious doubts over the future of some speedway clubs this year. Birmingham and Swindon struggled to pay bills in the top flight, Glasgow lost a huge amount of money, and Sheffield are up for sale. However, Peterborough apart, we didn’t lose anyone (touch wood – Newport is still fresh in the memory), and may even gain on some “reserve” sides in the National League.

Keeping what we’ve got is vitally important. The threatened clubs are either geographically isolated, or situated in big cities in which it is paramount we keep a presence. Ideally, we need to expand the sport into other areas, but doing that from a base of twenty-eight clubs is easier than from much less.

So what did they get wrong? Well, not much inasmuch as they didn’t really make any bad decisions. The negatives come out of what they could have done and, indeed, what had been proposed by various parties to be tabled.

There was serious discussion leading up to the AGM of requiring riders to sign an agreement to put British speedway before any other commitments, which may have seen the back of some overseas commuters, especially the Poles. It would also have curtailed some disappearing acts for odd competitions, and may have also impacted on Grand Prix riders. Tai Woffinden’s win in Torun in October put paid to that, and so we still left with the parlous state of inter-federation agreements and the FIM calendar, both of which the Swedes and Danes ignored in 2013 (the Poles, as always, do what they want).

There was also thought given to restricting the number of riders per team flying in from Europe, a backdoor way of reducing costs and giving team places to British riders (and the colonials that base themselves here). I think that is happening in a de facto way, even if it is not mandated, but we’ll see how long it lasts when teams look to quick fixes for mid-season slumps.

As I’ve written above, Rye House and Ipswich, and a couple of others, were interested in top flight speedway, but decided in the end it wasn’t for them. For this to have happened, the top flight would have had to have weakened a little more than it did (a 10% reduction was made, by my calculations), and also the Premier League would have taken a step backwards (with a further knock-on to the National League). For whatever reason, the Premier League have decided that they want to stay as they are, despite some of their clubs struggling with finances, and them losing more teams than they’ve gained in the last few seasons (from 16 to 12 in five seasons). Some of their clubs are charging EL entrance money for a much weaker product, with little ambition (and some geographical difficulty) in actually moving up. But what do I know? I’m not a promoter, never will be, and it’s not for me to tell them what to do. Except I will – fall in line, PL!

Overall, they did a fair job this year. The top flight will have a brand new coat of paint for 2014, and with a bit of patience from promoters and fans alike will pay dividends down the line. The second tier will do what it will do. And the third division may have an injection of teams which will help the progression – and geographical spread – of young British talent as we move into the “Woffinden era”, when every man and his dog – carefully corralled by Nigel Pearson – wants a piece of the champion.

I spent the first few days after last year’s AGM horribly disappointed, because they’d seemed to be willing to take some steps to solve some problems and chose not to. We were left with the same old thing and it gave us the worst EL season for many, many years. This time around I’m brimming with confidence – perhaps more than is natural or realistic – and it’s a good feeling. Positivity!

ITEM: What to do about Peterborough, then? To be honest, I’ve never felt comfortable with the Panthers being a top flight side – they weren’t when I first got into speedway, and have never seemed to have the fanbase to support it. A competitive EL side needs to have a core attendance of over 1000, minimum, or a wealthy benefactor willing to subsidise those missing fans. If that benefactor grows tired – as Rick Frost seems to have done at Alwalton – that side is no longer sustainable at its current level. We don’t see it happen so often in speedway, but it sure as Hell happens all the time in football, and this is a reality check we probably could have done without.

With a core fanbase of around 500 fans, and a floating attendance of about the same (drawn by the attraction of second division speedway and one of the best racing tracks in the country), the Panthers can certainly be competitive at Premier League level, if an agreement can be made with their landlords at the East of England Showground. They need to go back to basics, however – a solid, locally-based team (your Kevin Hawkins and Ian Barneys) and a fixed racenight (just pick the one with most free dates throughout the year), and they could be golden.

There are reported to be five interested parties, and the PL is holding open a spot should one be successful (and, you presume, the NL would do the same if the new owners decided to start there) so all is not lost for Panthers’ fans. Fingers crossed.

ITEM: So how about that draft! Were you following it on the day? Exciting, wasn’t it? Okay, so whoever was tweeting the picks from ACU House got a bit carried away and splurged them all at once, but it was a lot of fun seeing teams being constructed in front of our eyes. The US sports do their drafts live on TV, and I’m told that if (when!) it happens next year it will be done like this, even if that TV is a YouTube channel rather than Sky Sports News. I can only hope that the Premier League – who really should have been doing this instead of the EL – saw the buzz and want a piece of the action. Imagine two drafts… double fun!

As for the results, I think it’s a pretty even bunch, which was certainly the intention. The original system – a complicated list of 26 riders slotted into three groups (graded A, B and C) and with some picks precluding others – was smoothed over by Phil Morris, who not only came up with a more workable formula but also gave a little introduction on each rider to unfamiliar EL promoters and gave advice based on knowing those riders and their styles, preferences, and personalities, and I don’t think too many EL management teams are unhappy with what they’ve got in reserve for 2014.

Looking at it purely on paper, Wolves, King’s Lynn and Coventry look to have gotten the best pairings, while Swindon, Belle Vue, and Birmingham didn’t do so well. But speedway meetings are not won on paper, and if the clubs back their new recruits with advice, coaching, and proper equipment, none of them will let their sides down.

Whatever the results, and whoever chose who, though, the simple truth is that each team will give at least 288 rides to young British riders in 2014, and that’s why there are no losers in this. One – or two or five – of these riders will join Tai Woffinden at the top table one day, and while we may not be able to point at this draft and say, “that’s why!”, it certainly will have played its part. Get behind the draft, get behind the boys.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Marquee Stars? (and other pre-AGM things)

With the promoters gathering for their annual shindig in Coventry this weekend, this week’s Speeding Motorcycles is an AGM-special, discussing three points that may arise out of the meeting…

ITEM: Is Wayne Rooney worth £250,000 a week? Well, he has the ability to turn games on their head, and scores his fair share of goals – and goals win games – but, more importantly, he sells merchandise, brings in sponsors, and people buy tickets to see him play. The same could be said for other football superstars – who can doubt that, placed against the massive turnover their clubs are making on the back of their endeavours, that Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi aren’t equally worth such sums?

What about Phil Jones? Or Bacary Sagna? Or James Milner? They are all on huge wages, but are arguably replaceable, and nobody ever bought a ticket to watch a right back play. But, such is the reality of modern football, the journeymen and average players that play alongside the superstars have seen their wages, too, balloon out of all sensible proportion. Football died a little bit for me when I read that Jloyd Samuel – who, as well as not even having a proper name, played left back in an average Aston Villa team – earned enough to buy a Ferrari, in cash. I’m shaking my head as I write this. You can’t see it, but I am.

What does this have to do with speedway? I’ll tell you. I always do. I was thinking about the current situation we’re in, whereby clubs have to cut costs and the sensible place to start is the wage bill. Now the easiest way to do this is to stop paying the top earners so much, or to cut them out of the top league altogether. This plan has its merits but a massive spanner was thrown into the works when Tai Woffinden last month became the first British rider to win the world title for thirteen years. How can we, in all honesty, deny Woffinden – and his fans and sponsors – a place in our leagues?

And what of the other top stars (although this is relative, given the current state of British speedway)? If Chris Holder or Niels-Kristian Iversen are prepared to commit to the British leagues, without exception, why shouldn’t they be used as a drawing card for fans and sponsors?

Perhaps there is a way it can be achieved, because these top stars, although their drawing power is a fraction of their counterparts from years before, can actually pay for themselves. But – using the football example above – we can’t carry those below them, who are demanding and commanding comparable money without bringing in the same results.

Speedway is an odd sport in many ways, none moreso in the way fans lionise the strangest of heroes. However, no matter how much a minority of fans might cheer for the likes of Lukas Dryml, Martin Smolinski, Magnus Zetterstrom, or Maciej Janowski, the truth is that these riders (and I’m using them as an example – you can probably think of many more) are a drain on the pocketbook of British promoters without giving too much in return. I’d even extend it to some “number ones”, such as Andersen or Kasprzak, but that may be too controversial for some.

If we are to keep the top riders – who are already pulling away from the herd in terms of scoring and spending power – these are the sacrifices we may have to make. Realism is a harsh master, but hard decisions have to be taken, and sacrifices have to be made. As much as I love watching Nicolas Covatti ride, I hope I’ve seen him take to a British track for the last time, at least for the time being.

ITEM: The ideal outcome of the AGM – well, one of them, because I have a wishlist as long as my arm – would be an expansion of the top division, whatever form that may take (and can I just say I always loved “British League”?). A couple of teams making the step up into a powered-down top flight would make all the difference to the fixture list, and freshen up a tired product. It would also rid us of the Dugard-placating ridiculous and lop-sided formula whereby teams meet some twice and others only once.

But who could realistically make the step up? What teams thriving (or at least surviving, because the Premier League isn’t the dreamland some second-tier fans make it out to be) in the second division would risk that to have to deal with Matt Ford’s shenanigans? It’s not a long list, but let’s have a look…

·       Leicester: This is pretty much a given. They applied last year and were only rejected because Peterborough seem to think that a good portion of their 700 fans come from Leicester. With votes having to be unanimous, and the Panthers apparently threatening to withdraw from the league if the Lions were admitted, they were turned down. This year, though, I sense that Peterborough will not get their way, whatever they may threaten, and the Lions will join the top league, and have ripe pickings of local derbies with Coventry and, yes, Peterborough, as well as King’s Lynn, Birmingham, and Wolves. It makes perfect financial sense, despite the higher costs, for Leicester to step up, and Dave Hemsley is nothing if not ambitious.

·       Ipswich: Let’s be honest about this – Ipswich only dropped down because they couldn’t put a successful side together to save their lives. This was probably down to their budget, although I have a sneaking suspicion it may also have been poor rider choice, year after year. They’ve been in the second division for three full seasons now, and still haven’t set the world alight, despite being one of the bigger clubs in that league, so you have to wonder whether it was such a good decision to take the drop. Add that to the added travel – with two northern tours if you’re lucky, rather than local derbies with Arena Essex, Peterborough, and deadly rivals King’s Lynn, and – like Leicester – stepping up again may actually make more financial sense, despite the added costs, than staying put.

·       Sheffield: Whoah there, I can here you shouting at the back, “but Sheffield are up for sale! They might not even run next season!” And to that I say, “poppycock!” Sheffield are, traditionally, one of the biggest clubs in the land. If you were to put together a top league of ten sides, based on history, they’d be in it. They’ve had a lean few years, as Neil Machin has sensibly had one eye on retirement and as such been unwilling to bankroll success beyond their means, but the infrastructure is still in place to promote the club as one of the best. All it takes is someone with a little bit of money and a large amount of vision, and Sheffield could rightly take their place in the top flight once more.

·       Somerset: The Highbridge club has a fantastic set-up, a loyal band of followers, and one of the best racing tracks in the world. They’ve finished runners-up and winners of the Premier League in the last two seasons, and as such should be chomping at the bit to test themselves against mightier opposition. They are still a young club, but older than Birmingham or Leicester in their current incarnations, so shouldn’t find that a hindrance, but may find their small town base an obstacle towards securing the fans and sponsors they might need to step up. An outside bet, at best.

·       Rye House: Rye House, in many ways, are the quintessential second division club. Tucked away in the suburbs of a middle-sized town, with a tidy stadium that wouldn’t disgrace a good non-league football side, and with a longstanding promoter cum owner driving them through season after season. Never in a million years would you consider that the Rockets might take the step up to the top league, except that’s been suggested on the British Speedway Forum this week… What’s in it for them? Local derbies with Arena Essex, and Peterborough, and with a clutch of other tracks an hour or so away? A natural step if nursery club Kent make their own step up into the second tier? Big away followings from Coventry, Wolves, and Poole to snaffle up Uncle Len’s fish & chips? Stranger things have happened – let’s file this under “wait and see”…

So, there you have it, some contenders for a top division slot from five of the second division’s leading sides. Other clubs with the infrastructure and fanbase to make the step might include Newcastle, Edinburgh, or Workington, but geography is a harsh mistress, and they need their local derbies with Glasgow, Berwick, Redcar, and the like. Plymouth, too, may find it hard to capitalise on one of the major reasons for promotion – big away followings from some of the top flight’s bigger clubs – with their geographical location and Friday racenight. Scunthorpe, neither north nor south, and out on a bit of a limb, have shown no ambition to step up from their current spot, and are comfortably getting on with looking after young British talent.

Whoever makes the step up – and it’s not guaranteed that anyone other than Leicester will – it’s not going to be easy. The last time a big clutch of sides made the step, when the two leagues amalgamated, they received little to no help from the bigger clubs, who wouldn’t release their better riders to aid the smaller clubs. I dearly hope things will be better this time around, and that all efforts will be made to ensure the new clubs, should there be any, are competitive and able to build for a stable future. My fingers are so crossed they’re a mess. Hopefully yours are, too.

ITEM: What’s the future for the National League? A league of just eight teams is a little on the slight side, as much as it does provide great opportunities for young talent to emerge and filter up through the divisions. When those eight teams include three who may well make the step up to whatever the second division looks like next season, two reserve sides, and three standalone clubs eternally teetering on the brink of extinction, it’s clear we need a small revamp, to go with the bigger ones happening further up the food chain…

If Mildenhall, Dudley, and Kent do leave the National League for greener pastures, as befitting their fanbase and set-up, there’ll be a big hole left behind. Stoke have gone quiet, and failed to complete their fixtures in 2013, but they and Buxton must seem like certain starters for next season. There is a big question mark over whether the Isle of Wight will line-up at the tapes, although I can’t believe that a club of their quality would allowed to go to the wall for the want of a loan of an airfence or the money to buy one. Coventry have confirmed they will look to compete in the third tier once more, whatever the make-up of the top flight, but King’s Lynn have struggled at times to squeeze in their fixtures, and even dropped out of the Elite League knockout cup to enable the Young Stars to run alongside their senior counterparts.

This could result in the third tier being down to just a handful of sides – three in the worst case – which would obviously be unsustainable. The simple solution would be to invite other clubs to run junior sides - Belle Vue, Rye House, Scunthorpe, Redcar and Poole have done just that in recent times, and may be willing to do so again. Another solution would be to encourage the likes of Iwade, Northside, and Lydd to enter teams, although the necessity of an airfence, even at this level, would in all likelihood be beyond those tracks (of whom Lydd isn’t even SCB-licensed).

Like so much at the present time, the future of the National League is in flux. Nothing could change this weekend, in which case it would be business-as-usual for the third tier. However, there may an upheaval which could see it needing to restructure itself entirely. Can we expect an NL with Buxton, Stoke, Isle of Wight, Coventry, King’s Lynn, Scunthorpe, Leicester, and Plymouth next season? It’s as likely as anything else. After a season of really, really enjoying the NL, I hope so.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Coventry Season In Review (and other things)

ITEM: When trying to review Coventry speedway's 2013 season it's almost necessary to split the review into three. As a whole, the club took some tentative steps forward, helped by a prudent financial plan, better PR, a more assertive attitude with rival clubs, and a successful return to third division racing. It can’t be ignored, however, that the Bees had a rotten season - the worst in almost a decade - and that's where the headlines are written large. I would counsel, though, that things aren't as bad under Mick Horton as some would, rather simplistically, try to make out.

So, the Bees, then. What a horrible, horrible season. From almost the second the tapes went up on the home opener against Birmingham, it looked destined to be a bad one. Some of the damage was done before that, however, with a curiously backward team building process - three of the 2013 bottom four being announced at the 2012 Dinner & Dance - and a protracted "will he, wont he" tug of war with the Brummies over the services of Ben Barker. Horton is adamant that Barker verbally agreed terms for 2013 - having already signed for Ipswich, he would be unable to return to Perry Barr on their shared Thursday racenight - but that the Cornishman did a volte face as the Brummies decided to move their Thursday to Wednesday (and didn't that work out for them financially!) That Barker did the dirty on Horton seems obvious, although they seem to have patched things up and he may well be in the plans for 2014, and it only illustrated the pitfalls of suddenly finding yourself without a third heat leader.

Barker's replacement, Grzegorz Zengota, would - at Brandon, at least - prove to be one of the few bright spots of the season. Coming back from a serious injury, he was always going to be a gamble, but I'd wager that it paid off. With the rest of the team being, at best, indifferent, it would be harsh to lay any of the blame for the poor season at the young Pole's door, but his inability to master tracks on his travels would preclude him from my 2014 thinking, were some ludicrous and terrible accident to happen and I would actually be in that position.

Zengota's inclusion gave the Bees a very Polish look, with Michael Szczepaniak retained from 2012, and joined by his younger brother, Mateusz, and 2010 hero Krzysztof Kasprzak. The elder Panic brother was never intended to be a trump card - at 29 years old he is very much the finished article - but still upped his average (the only rider aside from Zengota to do that). His brother was a victim of circumstance, and was never allowed to find his feet wearing the Fighting Bee. Pushed into the main body of the side by Adam Roynon's injury - or more importantly, the woeful replacement secured by our rookie team manager - he struggled for points and was soon jettisoned to make way for the first of a couple of "returning heroes". I still maintain that he could have - and would have - improved his average, especially with a good start at reserve, but it wasn't meant to be.

Roynon's injury was horrific for all the witnessed it, and catastrophic for the Bees' season. It wasn't so much that the loss of Roynon was a disaster - although the lad, when fit, has the potential to match, and possibly eclipse, Barker, Bridger, Worrall, and the like - but that every step taken afterward seemed to be poorly considered. The Bees could have recovered from his loss, but that they didn't told its own story. Few of us who saw Roynon hit by an unfortunate Josh Auty thought we'd ever see him ride again, but he did return to the Bees' team later in the season, only to be injured once more. I like Adam. He bleeds speedway and seems to have a genuine affection for Coventry that our team manager could learn from (and more of that later) and I would have no qualms about seeing him line-up for 2014. I just wish he'd have some better luck, is all.

The first of Roynon's replacements, Joe Screen, was altogether the wrong man at the wrong time. As was seen by his eventual retirement later in the season, Screen was very much on the decline, a situation obscured by his almost total mastery of Glasgow's Ashfield track. This kept his overall average up when it was clear to most - although, curiously, not his best friend in the Bees team manager role - that his chances of competing anywhere other than Ashfield had dwindled to almost nothing. That we wore tassels on his kevlars brought a nostalgic smile, but that was the only joy he brought to Coventry fans last season. I'm sure he'll be missed by many, but Bees fans are unlikely to count themselves in that number.

After it became clear that Screen just wasn’t working out, and in a double-whammy with Mateusz Szczepaniak also going, club assets Olly Allen and Stuart Robson were recalled, as doubling-up riders, and with the club no doubt hoping that they'd bring some goodwill from the fans with them to Brandon, as well as scoring a few points and earning some much-needed home victories. Truth told, they stopped the rot (although we were no better on our travels), but it seemed a very odd Coventry team that was taking to the track at times. With four of the side reflecting past glories, and only Zengota as anything resembling a star of the future, this backward-looking approach seemed to reflect the demographics found at most speedway tracks. It did little to whet the appetite and, while I can understand the reasons behind almost all the decisions taken in 2013, you would hope that lessons have been learned.

No-one illustrated that nostalgic feeling better than Scott Nicholls, the Bees most successful captain of all-time, but one who hasn't won anything in Coventry colours for almost a decade. The problem with Nicholls is that he's super nice, super professional, and has the look of a man pained when things just aren't going right. It became a standing joke that he was trying hard, even if big points were beyond him, and that just isn't good enough in a struggling side. There's also a question over whether his motivational skills have declined, because there seemed precious little team spirit at times, although perhaps that is because a fish rots from the head down, and the Bees were a very rotten fish by the time September rolled around.

That the Bees needed an out and out number one was never up for debate. That Kasprzak, despite his issues with Birmingham and remembering how inspirational he was in 2010, could be that number one seemed logical enough. After all, he'd just averaged over 9 points a meeting for Poole in the second half of 2012, and why wouldn't he carry that form on, especially in his testimonial year? Two points dropped off his average later, and after a string of lacklustre performances when any points he did score seemed to come after the result was in no doubt (never in the Bees' favour, mind), and he was released with one meeting to go, replaced by Linus Sundstrom - although I'd have accepted Linus from Peanuts by that time. Kasprzak is the ultimate enigma. So good when brought in as cover, and with the sniff of a title in his nostrils, but so disinterested at all other times. The biggest mystery is why clubs continue to employ him, but never underestimate the seductive qualities of someone who can qualify for the Grand Prix series two years in a row (even if he scores just 3 points for his club the night before...). Sunstrom's tenure at the Bees lasted just 2 rides, only finishing one. He was still better than Kasprzak.

The appointment of Gary Havelock as team manager seemed, on the face of it, a decent move. Although he was sometimes incomprehensible in his television appearances, he seems a genial fellow, and has a wealth of experience in the sport. However, his tactical naivety and seeming inability to motivate his team told their own story, and the Bees suffered as a result. There's an old maxim in football that goes, "once they step across the white line, the manager's job is done". It could easily be applied to speedway, with "helmets on" replacing the not-terribly-applicable white lines bit. However, with speedway 1-7s pretty much picking themselves (or at least largely being picked by who a promoter signs at the beginning of the season), you have to wonder how a manager should be judged. If not on their ability to influence proceedings between heats 1 and 15, then how? Also, there's also an old maxim that goes, "good riders don't become bad ones overnight". So, yeah. Havelock compounded his poor performance as manager with some ill-considered comments about Poole, ignorant (wilfully or otherwise) of the history between the two sides. Fans are often willing to give a chance to succeed to people they like – it’s fair to say that no-one really likes Havelock on the terraces at Brandon, and so his every move will be met with a shrug of indifference or howls of anger from this point on.

The 2013 Elite League season will go down in history as a nadir in the sport. That Coventry overplayed their role and stunk up the league seems somehow fitting - you could argue that, despite what claims Poole may make to be the top club in the land, the fortunes of Coventry speedway are a bellweather for the sport as a whole. The story of 2013 was a simple tale of getting it slightly wrong, putting it enough right to engender some hope, and then misstep after misstep, to its inevitable conclusion. The one thing that can be said for the Bees is that they didn’t bankrupt the promotion, although the team was by no means a cheap one. Rather Mick Horton was unwilling/unable to dip into the overdraft to try and turn things around once they started to go awry. For some that is unforgiveable. I'd much rather have speedway guaranteed than risk the future of the club and end up winning nothing, like our neighbours up the road. Coventry, as always, paid their bills, and that is something that shouldn't be a badge of honour but weirdly is in 21st century speedway.

Off the track, the club made some good advances in public relations, partly down to letting cooler heads rule the communication channels between club and fans. Mick Horton is a passionate man, and at times has let this passion rule his head. Neil Watson seems more considered and it is to their credit that they have worked out this new path. There have been mistakes made, too, and some fans grumbled that they didn’t receive their promised 16 meetings for their season ticket money, although the weather did not help on that front. Unfortunately, promoters are not born fully-formed. Even the most seasoned make mistakes and, unless there is any wilful negligence or a deliberate attempt to cheat or mislead their customers, I think we have to err on the side of their mortality.

There are still those, and their number is not inconsiderable, who would swap our current promotion team for another in a heartbeat. We were spoiled under Sandhu and the C.O., and our present position is not befitting of a club of our stature. However, we should be careful what we wish for. In its current state there are few benevolent millionaires queuing up to run a speedway club, when success depends on ploughing any profits – and much more – back into the money pit created by wealthier promoters. Horton and company have not destroyed our club, far from it. Their actions over the next few months, though, will decide their fate in the minds of the fans. I wish them every success.

Let’s finish on a positive! Against the warning words of the naysayers, the return of third division racing to Brandon was a cautious success. The brief given to Blayne Scroggins and Laurence Rogers was to bring through some new assets and ensure that National League speedway was self-financing. On this score they succeeded, with Luke Crang becoming a club asset (alongside Ryan Terry-Daley, a cult hero in the making), and showing every sign that he can progress in the sport. Crowds were not fantastic, but sustaining, and generous-enough sponsors were found to back the project.

More importantly, they brought fun back to a sport which has missed that important quotient for so long. I’d watched a bit of National League speedway in the past, but not having a horse in the race, so to speak, kept me at a cool distance. Having a Coventry team to watch – win or lose – heightened the enjoyment, and the trips I made to Buxton and the Isle of Wight were the highlight of my season. Even better, for much of the season I was able to convince myself that I shouldn’t take it too seriously, and even when we lost we were still witnessing the progression of young British riders, for both teams. This is an attitude held by most NL fans (even if Dudley and Mildenhall do take it a bit seriously), and it does the league credit.

The Storm will be back in 2014, should there be a National League for them to compete in, and I’d urge Bees’ fans to get along and support them. It’s a cheap night out, with some surprisingly decent racing, and you’re only cheating yourself if you stay away out of some notion of Elite League superiority…

So, yes. Very much a two steps forward, one step back season for Coventry speedway, even if that backwards step was a painful and avoidable one. I’d like very much to be able to lock the 2013 season, as a whole, away in a cupboard and never speak of it again. There are some, however, who will bring it out to beat the current promotion no matter how 2014 goes. Next season really is a new opportunity, for British speedway and the Coventry Bees/Storm. We should grasp it with both hands and approach every meeting, every decision made by the BSPA and the Coventry promotion, with one simple truth: we are the greatest club in speedway and everyone else can eat our dirt.

ITEM: It’s war! I warned long ago that the European Championships (SEC), backed by Polish marketing firm OneSport, and the BSI-promoted Grand Prix series (SGP) were on a collision course, and this week the FIM finally engineered that crash.

The FIM, acting unilaterally (as if anyone would believe that), have banned any rider “accepting an invitation” to take part in the SGP from also competing in the SEC. They claim that no other sport allows such a duality, ignoring all those sports that do and trying to justify their intrusion on a commercial market by treating speedway as if it were any other motorsport.

FIM-Europe, who oversee the SEC, have maintained a silence, outflanked by their senior counterparts in Geneva, and it has been left to series’ sponsors NICE to take point in the charge. NICE, of course, claim that this is a commercial decision taken to protect BSI’s interests, without actually suggesting it was at their behest, and that there are several options open which will allow the SEC to proceed as planned next season.

These may include launching legal proceedings, with EU competition law very much on their side, and tying the decision up in the courts – allowing both sides to carry on promoting their respective competitions until a decision is made either way. They may also decide to drop any pretence of a legitimate title, effectively running four open meetings – four Zlata Prilba, if you will – televised by Eurosport and with a field selected from the best in the world. If the FIM were to outlaw this, they would also have to outlaw every open meeting held across Europe, and beyond, and so their power to forbid this option seems limited at best.

There are also steps that could be taken by the SEC’s chief allies, the Polish motorsport federation, the PZM. They have previously limited the number of SGP riders in their top league, and could decide to ban them altogether to force the riders to make a decision between the SGP and the SEC, or they could move their league programme to Saturdays, directly clashing with the SGP (the SEC would, of course, switch to Sunday), and again forcing the riders to choose between the exposure of the SGP and the money on offer in the Polish league.

This latter sanction has some support in Poland, with 97% of fans polled by Sportowefakty in support of taking a stand against the FIM, and with clubs increasingly annoyed by riders turning up for their Polish clubs tired or injured from their SGP exertions the night before. With two or three Polish meetings paying more than an entire season of SGP racing, it is not unthinkable that riders may choose the EkstraLiga over the Grands Prix, which must be a worry for BSI and the FIM. The PZM meets on November 17th to make its decision.

However it concludes – and it may rumble on for some time - this isn’t going to end well…

ITEM: In a previous life, as you may as guessed from some of my more bizarre ideas and comparisons, I was involved in professional wrestling. For most of that time, I spent more time on the microphone than in the squared circle (although I was very big in Wiltshire for a while…), and as part of that I appeared on various television and radio programmes, spreading the gospel of British wrestling. One of my favourite gigs was as an occasional guest on The Tommy Boyd Show on TalkSport, and I’d eagerly jump on a train to London to take part in a 2-hour ‘phone-in, where I’d get to have a pre-show chat about football with Lawrie McMenemy and then wind-up the teenage wrestling fans of Great Britain with my controversial opinions on Rob van Dam.

I’d been thinking about this show a lot recently, and how useful it might be to get a similar slot on TalkSport for British speedway, and then Tai Woffinden made his well-received appearance on Colin Murray’s Sports Brief and it all fell into place…

Speedway already has an “in” at TalkSport. Nigel Pearson and Dave Rowe, quite aside from their speedway jobs, are match reporters for the station, with Pearson also making guest appearances on The Sports Breakfast on occasion, and so it would take be a leap of the imagination for them to host a show. In my experience, and I accept it’s a decade past, programming can be very presenter-driven, with the wrestling show growing out of Boyd’s teenage sons’ interest in the sport, and a nudge in that direction from Pearson, perhaps with the backing of interested observers like Murray (who really seemed to take to Woffinden and the sport), would go a long way.

It’s also true that TalkSport is very football-focussed, and so short on discussion-fodder in the summer months (not that it holds them back any), and with speedway more like football than cricket or any other summer sport, it would fill a small hole in the schedules, and attract a new demographic to the station.

If it wasn’t so true, I’d be sick of saying “2014 is a big year for the sport” and we should aim high in our ambitions to take advantage of the possible restructure of the sport and our first world champion in thirteen years. A weekly radio show on a national station may seem unthinkable or unattainable but I’ve lived that experience with another minority sport and I can tell you it’s not. Over to you, Nigel and Dave…