Saturday, 26 January 2013

One Less Brit, One Last Slave, One More Year & One Crazy Day!

ITEM: Scunthorpe's Gary Irving decided to call it a day this week, which leaves the Lincolnshire club with a tricky spot to fill. They're supportive of his decision, however, and you'd expect nothing less from such a well-run, family-oriented club. That Irving feels he has to quit speedway because it may interfere with his day job is unfortunate, but the reality of the modern sport.

Irving may only have averaged 4.00 in the Premier League last season but he had no small amout of promise and, while the likes of Richie Worrall and Ashley Birks were a step ahead of him, he had what it takes to make a Premier League heat leader down the line.

Losing Irving from the Premier League is a blow, but may open the door for Charles Wright, without a club despite raising his average last season, and a victim of the northern clubs shipping in untried Australians, Germans and Argentinians.

There was a small victory in this regard last week when Glasgow had their applications for Harley Horwood and Joey Ringwood turned down, although Horwood was reinstated on appeal. On what grounds is not clear, because the BSPA's own traditional method of deciding whether Australians can ride in the Premier League is that they finish in their state's top 4, which would mean only Ryan Douglas of the five newcomers qualifies. Max Fricke may have an argument, having beaten several established (although underperforming) Premier League riders to the Australian under-21 title last week, but Horwood, Ringwood, and Sheffield's Damien Koppe have nothing to recommend them to our leagues save a willingness to ride for the money on offer.

The cream rises to the top, and water seeks its own level, and Glasgow, Scunthorpe, Edinburgh & Sheffield will reap what they sow in shipping over these riders. It's just disappointing that they sought this route when there are riders keen to fill those places. Plus ├ža change, as they say.

ITEM: So Barker's signed for Birmingham on a full transfer, and Andersen & Iversen have gone on loan from Peterborough to Swindon & King's Lynn, respectively. Peterborough signed Bjerre, and only Batchelor is unsure of his destiny as it stands, but will probably end up at Swindon alongside Andersen, one way or another.

Thus ends a ridiculous series of events that threatened to bring down the asset system, but really probably never got anywhere near that, such was the level of self-interest in not rocking the boat amongst the members of the BSPA. It may leave the riders as indentured servants, but as long as the promoters are happy, right?

Except, without major surgery, we'll be here again next year. The asset system as it stands is illegal and increasingly unworkable. That's the one clear thing from this winter, yet - publicly, at least - there seems to be no acknowledgment of this from the powers-that-be. Indeed, in this week's Speedway Star, the Leicester promotion talk of using a Development League-level side to increase their asset-base. More slave riders, more grist for the mill.

Myself, I favour a one-year rolling contract, voided if a rider is not included in a side's 1-7 the following season. For under-21s who have been developed by a junior side or training track, a three-year deal, followed by that same one-year contract. Clubs can still decide to purchase riders, but what they are actually purchasing is first options on team-building, with the riders free to agree to ride for whoever they like.

How this would work is as follows: Johnny Smith rides for Basildon. They offer him a place in their 1-7 for the following season. He accepts and remains a Basildon rider. The following season he rejects a place and goes on loan to Felixstowe, with Basildon receiving a loan fee. If he then returns to ride for Basildon he remains a Basildon rider. If not, he becomes a free agent, and begins a rolling deal with that new club.

This gives teams control over their "assets", allowing a degree of flexibility due to points limits, but also gives some control of their own destiny to the riders. I'm sure it's not a perfect system, and I welcome other ideas. I'm sure the BSPA do, too.

ITEM: We're less than two months away from the start of the 2013 Speedway Grand Prix series, and we still have no idea whether it will be shown on Sky. Now regular readers of this blog will know that I'm not actually too bothered by it, especially now there are no Brits in the series, but I understand that many of you do like to watch them, and even enjoy it from time to time.

The last I heard, and I'm not massively in the loop on this, is that Sky had asked BSI to move the Grands Prix to Friday evenings, better to fit in with their schedule, and as an anchor show for that timeslot. Unable to make such a change at such short notice, and perhaps unwilling to do so at the whim of one broadcaster.

But that was two months ago, and there's been little to add since. The deal with BSI also covers the SWC, and while that may be good news for King's Lynn (who stage the UK round and will be grateful for the extra attendees who would ordinarily watch it on TV), it's bad news for the majority of you who want to watch the Czechs get outclassed in the final round on a shonky track in Prague.

The inclusion of the European Championship on Eurosport will soften the blow a little for speedway-hungry TV viewers, and a good number of you will find your way to illegal streaming sites on the internet, but it's a poor show from both sides to have no announcement so far.

As for league speedway, it has always garnered higher ratings on Sky than the SGPs, and still has that final year left on the contract. I'd expect a new deal to be announced later rather than sooner, and hopefully the purchase (and prudent use) of covers will negate some of the difficulties Sky have had in recent seasons with rained-off and rain-affected meetings.

Speedway doesn't need Sky but it is better off with it than without it. Sky certainly doesn't need speedway, but it does need variety and excitement in its schedules. Let's hope that somewhere there's enough common ground for a new deal to be struck.

ITEM: The new double-up rules will face a stern test on Good Friday, when all ten Elite League sides are in action, alongside ten Premier League teams. Leaving aside different staging times, which may ease the burden, the following riders will be missing from the Elite League fixtures: Craig Cook, Kauko Nieminen, Jason Doyle, Josh Auty, Ben Barker, Adam Roynon, Kozza Smith, Rohan Tungate, Nick Morris, Ashley Birks, Ty Proctor & Sam Masters. That's TWELVE riders to be replaced, and only five Premier League teams not in action. Name your price 6-8 point Premier League riders!

Monday, 21 January 2013

FUDGES, FOOLS, NEW TITLES & NEW KEVLARS...

ITEM: So the big day came and went, and nothing really happened. King’s Lynn were told that they could loan Niels-Kristian Iversen for a third successive season, with no announcement as to whether they’d eventually have to buy him, despite an appeal by Peterborough that the rider had, effectively, put in a transfer request.

The usual way of doing things is that, when a rider asks for a transfer, he is made available to buy – Coventry have been forced to purchase riders under this “rule” in the past – but this latest decision by the BSPA flies in the face of precedent and logic.  The decisions seem to have been made on the basis of who can afford to buy – the BSPA accepted that Troy Batchelor had effectively handed in a transfer request, and thus Swindon will have to buy him if they want to use him in 2013.

The decision on Hans Andersen has been bafflingly set aside for a month, perhaps in the hope that Andersen, who has maintained a steely and professional silence, can be talked into spending a year at Belle Vue, who desperately need a number one rider. The chances of that happening – when there’s the chance he could return to 2012 champions Swindon, are slim to none.

Swindon are still adamant they will not pay a transfer fee in the current climate, and who can blame them after being stung over Miedzinski last season? Why shell out money on a system that is built on such shaky ground?

The BSPA had an opportunity to firm up their regulations, and to ensure that all promoters - and riders - were committed to the status quo. As it is all they've done is create further confusion.

ITEM: One decision missing, either way, from the BSPA meeting was the fate of Ben Barker. Faced with an impasse, and with Graham Drury clearly getting nowhere, Birmingham owner Alan Phillips has stepped in to re-open negotiations with Coventry owner Mick Horton over the Cornish rider.

With Barker's duplicity clear for all to see, Coventry were faced with a tough decision - include a rider who has made himself very unpopular with once-loyal fans, and who clearly wants the easier life of riding for the Brummies, in their side, or forego some teambuilding points and look elsewhere. They chose to do the latter, and Grzegorz Zengota was so excited to sign for the Bees that he leaked the news himself on his Facebook page.

While the Coventry fans are fond of homegrown riders, and having only two in their side will be slightly odd, a choice between a super-keen, promising Pole and Barker is no choice at all.

As for the details of the transfer, I'd like to think they would include some kind of agreement to buy, especially now the rider has made his position at his parent club untenable with a series of fantastic allegations, but you never know. It's not as if you can count on the BSPA to back you up, is it?

ITEM: A strange fixture appeared in the UK calendar last week - the UK Speedway Series.

It would seem to be a series of individual meetings, along the lines of the SGP, but restricted to UK-based riders, possibly at Premier League level only, although much of that is supposition given their official site and Twitter feed reveals little to nothing.

It's a novel idea, and one that's been floated before, and 2013, the 85th anniversary of the first speedway meeting in this country, is an ideal time to start it.

There are dozens of exciting speedway riders in all three of our senior leagues who would provide fantastic entertainment at a fraction of the cost of going to a grand prix. That should be British speedway's USP - it's here, it's affordable, you never know quite what you might get.

Let's hope that the UK Speedway Series is all that and more.

ITEM: Now an idea, and a plea for some money. Not for me, you understand, although God knows we could all do with it, right? No, I'm wondering if there's the support out there to help out a young British rider in the National League...

You all know I'm a Coventry fan. And you should all know by now that I'm fully behind the National League adventure the Coventry Storm are embarking on this season. My idea is to raise some funds to buy some kevlars in team colours for one of the Storm.

Is it workable? We're talking about £500-£600, but I've already had a promise of £50 from one dedicated reader - surely between the rest of us we can do it?

Drop me an e-mail at alan.boon@gmail.com if you'd like to help. Every little bit would go a long way...

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Contenders, Champions, Also Rans & Decision Makers

ITEM: The new National League adventure for Coventry took a step nearer its realisation this week with the announcement of the opening fixtures for the Storm, a home and away challenge series with Dudley Heathens.

The Heathens - auld enemies of the Bees from their Cradley Heath days - will be making their first appearance on Brandon shale since their reformation in 2010, and will provide a tough test for the Coventry youngsters. In a perfect world, the spoils would be shared, with two home wins and some great racing. The world is so often far from perfect - particularly in speedway - but you would hope that both teams would have enough to secure home wins in front of eager fans, and give the Storm fans a great start to the NL campaign.

It's a tester of a season for the Storm. Although Mick Horton has admitted that the primary reason for running a team in the National League is to create young, British assets, with the aim of an all-British Bees' teams within five years, the venture still has to pay for itself. With a breakeven fo (I imagine) somewhere around 400-500 fans - and with the Bees getting 1000-1500 regularly - it shouldn't be too difficult, but the previous third tier team at Brandon - the Cougars - did struggle for fans.

That was a different time, however, and there were mitigating circumstances. They often ran on a Tuesday and didn't enter the Conference League proper, so you'd hope that the Storm, running on the Bees' regular Friday night and in the thick of the action from the off, will do a little better.

I hope the Coventry fans get behind the Storm in enough numbers that it's a success. It's the best of all worlds - young, British talent wearing the fighting Bee, and speedway (just about) every Friday night from March to October. Let's get things off to good start on March 22nd, eh?

ITEM: Troy Batchelor didn't win many friends by arrogantly proclaiming himself "the real Aussie champion", especially when his contemporaries included former world champion Jason Crump, soon-to-be world champion Chris Holder, and world champion in waiting Darcy Ward. But today, at the Kurri Kurri track in New South Wales, he became the actual Aussie champion, winning the title, held over three rounds, by some distance from Dakota North in second.

Batchelor is one of speedway's marmite (vegemite, I guess) riders - you either love him or hate him, with most falling firmly in the latter camp, even fans of his own team - but he's had a strong six months to win the Elite League with Swindon, come close to qualifying for the Grand Prix series, and now win his first Australian title.

His critics will point out that neither Holder or Ward (or Rory Schlein) took part in the national championships this time around, but Batchelor still beat a strong field, with every rider having British league experience, and as the old adage goes, "you can only beat what's put in front of you."

Success won't change my opinion of Batchelor - he's one of the riders I most love to hate - but it's good to see any young sportsman making the most of their talent, even if they are an arrogant piece of work. Well done, Troy, enjoy being the real Aussie champion at last.

ITEM: While we're on the subject on Australians, regular readers will know that one of my bugbears is the lack of opportunities given to young British riders. In recent years this is largely because (particularly) Premier League sides are signing young Australians in their place, with the excuse that they've come halfway around the world and thus are more dedicated to succeeding.

While you can point to recent massive success stories, like Chris Holder and Darcy Ward (and to a lesser extent Sam Masters and Dakota North), there have also been some absolute disasters, proving that it's far from an exact science.

This season there are a brand new clutch of young Aussies winging their way over, assessed on 5-point averages, and occupying slots in (mostly) northern sides. Glasgow have gone with Harley Horwood & Joey Ringwood, Edinburgh with Max Fricke, Sheffield with Damien Koppe, and Scunthorpe with Ryan Douglas. Five new Australians who may either become valuable assets to their clubs, or join the long list of those taking away spots from young Brits.

Last season Glasgow brought over Mason Campton (who failed to make his assessed average and has been sent out on loan to Workington this year) and Jayden O'Malley (who averaged under 2 points a meeting). Rohan Tungate was a success story at Ipswich, and has secured an Elite League berth at Poole this season on the back of that, but Tom Armstrong only scored a point from 10 riders before injury cut short his stay at Scunthorpe. Meanwhile, James Holder, Todd Kurtz, Robert Ksieszak, Jake Anderson, Jade Mudgway, Robert Branford, Mark Jones, Cameron Heeps, and Micky Dyer all averaged below the 5.00 average that new Australians (at least those without British connections) are assessed at.

The attractions are obvious: these boys become assets of the club as soon as they complete the requisite number of meetings, and you may - may - unearth the new Chris Holder. But the law of averages is against it, and young British riders are being denied the opportunity to find out if they have what it takes because of it.

Clearly something has to change, but while those who stand to benefit from the lax entry requirements recently placed on Australian riders are making the rules, it's not likely that it will. Sad.

ITEM: Tuesday January 15th seems to becoming an increasingly important day in the recent history of British speedway. Not only is it the National League AGM, where Coventry and Kent should be ratified as bona fide members of the league, it's also a full meeting of the BSPA which should thrash out some of the issues that have blighted the off-season, particularly the asset system.

I'm not expecting a quick fix from the powers-that-be over the Iversen, Andersen, Batchelor & Barker situations, more a fudge that solves nothing but leaves the parties involved feeling a glimmer of satisfaction. The real battle is to come, and the asset system has to be overhauled or abandoned, otherwise we'll be in the same situation, year-on-year.

As far as the National League is concerned, there's a slight chance the league may swell its numbers further, and the third tier is badly crying out for a track north of Buxton. It's hard to see where that could come from, however, with most of the northern tracks sharing facilities with other sports and finding race nights restricted. This, again, is something the BSPA as a whole have to look at - the geographical picture of British speedway is very uneven.

Presuming things go according to plan, the next week should be full of news for speedway fans starved of serious developments for a few weeks now. It can't come fast enough - there's only so far gossip and rumour can take us, and a fuzzy picture can be inaccurately interpreted far too easily by those who just don't have the first idea about the situation (myself included, on occasion).

Or it could all carry on, with no side willing to give ground and we'll end up in the courts. Sound familiar?

Monday, 7 January 2013

Monster, Magic, Mayhem & Mudmen

ITEM: Last weekend saw the biggest meeting held in the USA for many years, the Monster Energy Invitational thingimajig. It's a sign of just how far the US has fallen as a speedway power that the field - although augmented by three of Monster's team riders (the other two missing through injury and idiocy) and some Hagon-backed Brits - was probably on a par with a low-level testimonial meeting in the UK. Still, from small acorns, eh?

The invitational was won by former Coventry Bee Billy Janniro (indeed, the top six - and ninth place - riders were all assets of the Bees), who rode well throughout, and headed home an all-American final to take the... well, whatever it is they gave to the winner. If Janniro's victory proved anything it was that the Americans could once again be a world power if all meetings were held on 200 metre tracks, and their opponents had to use borrowed machinery.

The track, constructed especially for the event, rode well by all accounts, and was protected from some un-California rain by a roof, with the sides left open to the elements to allow the track to breathe and any fumes to dissipate. This is where this meeting could prove to be something more than a vanity exercise by an unhealthy drink sponsor and actually become something useful for speedway clubs in Europe to learn from.

While a fully enclosed and roofed stadium may be well beyond the budget of most tracks, a barn-style set-up like that used in Industry Hills may be practical, obviously more so for the smaller tracks rather than 400 metre giants, and would allow 365 days-a-year access to facilities for practice and events. It would take a brave promoter to make the leap, and may be more useful for new tracks rather than convert existing ones, but we've now seen the option is there and works well.

While Janniro performed well, he is unlikely to return to British action, having found it too taxing at times, and few of the younger riders in the field showed enough to change the current perception of American speedway as an expensive hobby for all but a handful of its participants. It's going to take a lot of work to get the US back to anywhere near where they used to be on the world stage - let's hope that Monster are prepared to back with the work that Steve Evans, Billy Hamill, Martin Hagon and others have already put in. It'd be a shame if they just saw it as a market to exploit.

ITEM: There was a great little interview with Dean Felton in this week's Speedway Star, covering the last twenty years of his career up to his retirement at the end of last season. Felton was never a world-beater, although he dreamed of it like every other rider starting out, but provided entertainment wherever he went, and was still capable of big scores (albeit at National League level) right up to the end.

One of the most interesting aspects of his career is that he saw the second-half - pretty much from when he was left without a Premier League place in his early-30s - as a paid hobby, riding for fun and to help out his younger teammates, which showed in his efforts on the track and in the pits. If you ask some, the National League should be no place for this kind of rider, and should be the training ground of the next generation of stars rather than a playground for thrillseekers, but I think it can be both. Indeed, I think it needs to be both - with the weekend showboaters providing value-for-money entertainment while the youngsters learn their craft.

With only one over-25 spot available in each National League team, places for the likes of Felton are few and far between, and quite often older riders who lose their place in the Premier League are driven out of the sport altogether, with only the amateur scene (where they'd surely clean up) as an option. This may change if the mooted Formula 2 Speedway gets off the ground, and let's hope it does.

For now, though, I'd like to wish Dean Felton well, and hope that he continues to be involved in the sport in some capacity. In a sport which often forgets how simple and fun it can be, we need those who never lost that feeling more than ever.

ITEM: Once a year Rugby League stages what it calls the "Magic Weekend", held at a large-capacity stadium, and with all the teams in its Super League playing a match. The idea is to have a festival atmosphere, bringing fans of all clubs together in a stadium with superb facilities, and easy to televise and package for TV. It makes me wonder if there's any mileage in this idea for speedway?

The closest we have at the moment is the British Grand Prix, held in Cardiff, which attracts gates of around 40,000, and raced on a temporary track laid especially for the event. It's expensive to stage but the gross gate receipts are somewhere around £2 million. Furthermore, the publicity it attracts dwarfs anything domestic speedway has to offer, and for most fans it is the highlight of their speedway year. The big problem with Cardiff - as I've written before - is that none of the money generated stays in British speedway, and so finding an event which can compete with it for a slice of that money is not only desirable but pretty much essential for the long-term health of the sport on these shores.

With the Elite League's already imbalanced fixture list, adding an extra meeting, raced on a neutral track, shouldn't provide too many logistical issues, with the ten Elite League teams paired off by a random draw, held live on Sky Sports. Or, taking a leaf out of cricket's T20 book, a new format, with shorter meetings and involving as many teams as possible, could be cooked up, with a banner advertiser attracted to help cover the costs.

It's pie in the sky thinking, but that's what our minds turn to in the off-season, denied our regular fix of speedway action. It's not even one of the more ridiculous ideas I've had lately, and I genuinely think it could happen, with the right minds working on it. Who's up for a magic weekend, then? First round's on me.

ITEM: In what could be the defining theme of this closed season, the asset system was once again threatened this week with Peterborough standing firm in the face of what they consider to be illegal approaches for their riders from rival clubs.

The Panthers claim to be still considering their options over their number one rider, with a contract apparently having been offered to Hans Andersen, who spent last season at title winners Swindon. Andersen has turned down Peterborough's offer, and Swindon have made a bid to buy the rider, which the Panthers, too, have rejected. Meanwhile, Kenneth Bjerre, who many believe the Panthers really want to be their number one, must be feeling pretty unwanted by the Alwalton club for them to make such a fuss over his fellow Dane. The situation took an interesting turn this morning when Swindon, refused permission to speak to Andersen while Peterborough dither, asked for permission to speak to Bjerre, quite reasonably assuming that the Panthers can't employ both.

Meanwhile, Niels-Kristian Iversen, who has declared that he will not ride for Peterborough this season and will only ride for King's Lynn, has not been considered by the BSPA Management Committee to have asked for a transfer and thus will be allowed to go on loan to the Stars, against the Panthers wishes. Troy Batchelor, who has made some derogatory comments about the Panthers' management on his Twitter feed (since deleted) has been considered to have asked for a transfer, and thus if Swindon want to use him (they do) they will have to negotiate a purchase. So very tangled, so very inconsistent.

The situation has arisen because Peterborough "own" the registrations of six of the top twenty riders, and they can only use two. Common sense would dictate that the Panthers get fixed up early with so many to choose from, allowing other clubs to offer contracts to whoever is left. As it is, with the Panthers either dithering or playing games (depending how charitable you are feeling), there is uncertainty over who will be riding where or, indeed, at all.

In a sport which relies on the sale of a product to potential sponsors and season-ticket holders for much-needed operating capital, it is important for teams to be sorted and settled as early as possible. The actions of the Peterborough management, in denying this to forty percent of the Elite League (because bottom feeders Belle Vue are caught up in this, too, waiting to see what scraps fall off the table to complete their team), are dangerous to the sport as a whole, and should be dealt with by the BSPA at their meeting next week.

This cannot go on. If the asset system in its present form is to continue without legal challenge all clubs need to play ball, and stop playing silly buggers. Having a large asset base gives you options, not the right to hold the rest of the league to ransom. Agree a loan or name your price or take it to arbitration - whatever's necessary. Just do something other than use your local newspaper to score points, yeah?