ITEM: A little under a year ago, two speedway riders stood in the dock at Bournemouth Crown Court, charged with sexual offences, resulting from a drunken night out after a meeting in 2011. They admitted to some pretty serious acts, but were ultimately acquitted by a jury of their peers on the grounds that the victim, whilst drunk, still consented to their actions.
One of those men – who cannot be named for legal reasons but whose identity is the worst-kept secret in speedway – has kept his nose clean, knuckled down, and looks to be making the most of the huge opportunity he’s been given as a professional speedway rider. The other? Well, let’s just say trouble follows him around…
Darcy Stephen Ward pleaded guilty last week to a string of charges resulting from an incident at the very back end of last year. He was charged with – and convicted of – riding an unregistered and uninsured motorbike under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and failing to stop for police when requested. Pretty serious stuff, and he was banned from driving for two years and ordered to pay a fine of $5500 (Australian).
The story had been kept under wraps by some very careful management that resulted in the Speedway GP site and the Speedway Star being fed – and swallowing – a story about a lost passport as a reason for the lack of a current visa to enter and work in this country. The real reason, as you might expect, is that the authorities take a dim view of such convictions, and his application may be in doubt.
As noted above, this isn’t the first time Ward has found himself before a judge. It isn’t the first time since that Bournemouth trial that he has been caught up in something unsavoury, as anyone who witnessed his behaviour in the bar at the Norfolk Arena after the SWC round there last year, which resulted in a complaint being made to Motorcycling Australia, will attest to.
And who knows what really happened in the early hours of October 20th last year, when Ward was reportedly brutally attacked, unprovoked, but didn’t want to press charges. Ask around and you might get a few different tales, none of them making great reading.
The sad thing about all this is that Ward has a fantastic ability on a speedway bike. I’ll begrudgingly accept that, as a rider alone, he’s one of the best in the world, and one of the best for some time at finding a way from behind on any sort of track. As a speedway rider, he’s amazing. As a man, less so.
There are people who argue that it shouldn’t matter, that he should be judged on his talent alone, and that his off-track activities are a private matter and have no bearing on speedway. Those people are wrong, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, rightly or wrongly, riders like Ward are role models. I’m not sure where the world went wrong that sportsmen and pop stars are examples for our children, instead of firemen, doctors, and revolutionaries, but it’s one step above reality show celebrities, I guess. Like it or not, though, Darcy Ward is an inspiration to younger fans. It comes with the territory, I’m afraid, and as long as young people put posters of sportsmen and film stars they idolise on their bedroom walls, those stars have a responsibility to act in a certain way. Sexual deviance, drunken nudity, bar fights, and fleeing the police do not come under that remit, however loosely you define it.
Monster didn’t get into speedway to appeal to the pensioner brigade. They back certain riders, and events, because they want to push their rank, over-sugared bile (although you may enjoy it!) to impressionable youngsters who want to be like Ward, Holder, Hancock, and the rest. I’m sure they love a sportsman with an edge, but as Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and Oscar Pistorious have found recently, you can go too far. Monster, as well as BSI – who I’m sure are eager to protect their brand as much as the energy drinks giant – have yet to comment.
Secondly, what Ward does today, tomorrow, and next week, will have an impact on the rest of his life, positively and negatively. Speedway is a short career, and the earnings are good for those at the top. However, the history of speedway – and most other professional sports – is littered with those who wasted the massive opportunity they’d been given, literally pissing it away until they are nothing more than a footnote or a joke, wheeled out for comic relief.
There are riders who grasp this concept – like Hans Nielsen and Chris Louis, to pluck two examples out of thin air – and knuckle down and get on with their job. I’m sure both men had a lot of fun during their careers, and even the odd drink or two, and I imagine they were a dream to deal with. The reverse is a figure like Ward, or like Michael Lee, and because of their massive talent their off-track behaviour is ignored, swept under the carpet by a pliant press, and explained away as youthful exuberance by misguided or exploitative management.
Those who ignore, cover up, or attempt to mitigate are enablers, nothing less. They are as responsible for what happens to those who go off the rails as the riders themselves. Neil Middleditch, who hasn’t the best track record when it comes to defending a rider he claims is like a son to him, told the Evening Echo that Ward’s trangressions were, "what most young people do these days, isn't it?", which is so irresponsible as to be ridiculous. Middleditch claimed he’d been misquoted, a fact disputed by the Echo who claim that their journalist has notes to prove it, at which point the Poole & Team GB manager went quiet.
It may surprise you, but I don’t want Ward banned. Don’t get me wrong – he should be, if precedent is followed (although the SCB/BSPA and precedent have an odd relationship), and his removal from an already weak looking Poole team should ensure a poor season for the south coast club. But Ward is a young man, and God knows we’ve all made mistakes. Banning him now would waste some of that enormous talent and risk making a bad situation worse. I have no love for the man – in fact, I think he’s a low and despicable creature – but he’s a human being who hasn’t killed anyone (yet!) and there may be a redemption.
But – but! – he has to learn humility. Over the weekend, just before the story broke, he was still tweeting such guff and nonsense about only losers criticise winners, and how we shouldn’t believe everything we read, despite having admitted everything in a court of law. Then came a flurry of tweets, and an exchange with Chris Holder (who seems to have done the growing that Ward badly needs to do), since deleted, which proved that he’s learned nothing. A statement released today offers nothing more in that direction, serving only to offer excuses and buts for his actions, instead of admitting outright responsibility.
Ward’s enablers need to stop aiding and abetting his behaviour. That he was able to pay his fine in cash shows he is enjoying a good standard of life on the back of his employers and sponsors, and it’s they who need to threaten to withdraw everything he enjoys. His friends and family, if they truly care, need to realise that their boy isn’t as golden as they seem to, and that the smoke that follows him around may be a result of self-immolation.
It’s easy to kick a man when he’s down, especially one who so richly deserves it, but I actually hope that this can be a new start for Ward. Something nagging at me, however, tells me it won’t be, and that we’ll be here again in a few months, a string of abusive tweets and drunken transgressions behind us, and Neil Middleditch telling us it’s just what normal people do. Of course it is.
ITEM: Can I ask you a question? Have you cancelled - or are you going to cancel - your Sky Sports subscription because they have dropped the Speedway Grands Prix? If the answer is “yes”, do you mind if I call you a bad name?
Speedway isn’t vanishing from Sky altogether. They have, for whatever reasons, decided not to renew their contract with BSI to show the SGP and SWC, although that may still change. However, every Monday night from the end of March until the beginning of October, they will be showing Elite (or Premier) League speedway, with some fantastic – and sometimes processional – racing on offer.
BSI is big money. They’re affiliated to a massive Hollywood agency. They can take the hit from having, at the moment at least, no British broadcaster for their travelling circus. It may even make them take a look at their product and make some changes, if they think it necessary, so other than you and I missing out on watching it on our tellyboxes on a Saturday night, there’s no real problem.
The Elite League, however, needs the money Sky provides for it. We can argue all day that it shouldn’t but it does, and anything that could damage that damages the future of the sport itself in this country. The EL has always garnered higher ratings than the SGPs, so it’s understandable why Sky may keep it over BSIs Frankenstein-like championship, but nothing is going to do more harm to the chances of Sky extending the EL contract beyond the end of this season than self-admitted speedway fans cancelling their subscription.
It’s about the bigger picture. Do you enjoy both the SGP and the EL? Then why cancel in the first place? Do you not enjoy the EL, but prefer the SGP? Then cancelling may be self-destructive, because the only thing that will make Sky – or any other broadcaster – reconsider and start showing the SGPs again is good ratings for any speedway.
I can’t tell you what to do but I’m going to: if you’re a speedway fan, and you have Sky (or appropriate cable competitor), please don’t cancel your subscription – speedway needs you.
ITEM: A good news story from the National League! The fixtures came out last week and a few eagle-eyed trainspotters noticed that the Coventry Storm were due to visit the Kent Kings on the same night that the Coventry Bees travelled to Belle Vue.
The Storm, the Kings, and indeed Belle Vue, all need fans this season. Though it is an away match for the Storm, a clash with the senior side would force some fans to choose, and it’s important that the fans can feel that both sides are their side, without having to choose. For Kent, it’s their first season and if the Storm attract even half the number of travelling fans that the Bees take away they’ll welcome the extra income. And Belle Vue is Belle Vue. They need anyone they can get.
Within a couple of days of it being brought to their attention, the appropriate people at Coventry & Kent made a change, and the fixture was brought forward by a week. Speedway isn’t always about the fans, and it should be, so when clubs act so swiftly to help fans out it should be applauded. Good work, fellas!
ITEM: So who’s going to win the Premier League this year? Predictions are a fool’s game, and there’s no bigger fool than I, so here’s my 1-13, scientifically worked out to the last detail:
1st - Newcastle Diamonds
2nd - Edinburgh Monarchs
3rd – Workington Comets
4. Leicester Lions, 5. Ipswich Witches, 6. Somerset Rebels, 7. Plymouth Devils, 8. Redcar Bears, 9. Berwick Bandits, 10. Scunthorpe Scorpions, 11. Rye House Rockets, 12. Glasgow Tigers, 13. Sheffield Tigers
These predictions are based on starting line-ups only, of course, and the margin of error is massive. But let’s see, shall we?
ITEM: There was a big splash in this week’s Speedway Star on how scandalous Swindon Robins have yet to pay a transfer fee for Nick Morris, who moved to the Blunsdon club over the winter. Given the Robins’ reluctance to pay the fee demanded for Troy Batchelor’s full transfer from Peterborough, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a new strategy by the Wiltshire club, and it would be hard not to back them on it.
The simple and boring answer, however, is that it seems to be a paperwork issue, and that it should all be sorted within a week or so. The Robins were always intending to pay a fee for Morris – indeed, their reason for not signing Batchelor on the full transfer is that they could only afford one full fee this winter – and nothing seems to have changed on that front. If the Batchelor situation had been sorted sooner, the Morris transfer would have gone through by now. Like I said, simple and boring.
If I were in charge of the Robins, though – or any other club – I’d hold off on paying any sort of fee until the BSPA addresses the blatant flaws in the asset and transfer system. There are always disputes, usually resolved by tribunals and the like, but this winter has been particularly bad, and you can’t imagine it getting any better.
The BSPA had a chance, at their last meeting, to strike a blow for progress and work towards a workable, legal system of asset-retainment, and instead fudged the issue, head-in-the-sand, relying on a system of fuzzy rules and improvised regulations which pretty much decided nothing at all.
If all things are equal, we have a good seven or eight months before this will become an issue again. The BSPA have the time to set up and put in a new system that will make sense to all who use it, and will be fair to club and rider alike. The clock is ticking.
ITEM: It’s been almost three weeks since Slovenian rider Matija Duh passed away in an Argentinian hospital as a result of injuries sustained on the track at Bahia Blanca. As I’ve written before, Duh wasn’t a major star, but hopefully his death can bring a change about in rider safety in Argentina.
That’s a development for the future, though, and speedway in the South American nation will resume next week after a month-long break, when the Argentinian International Championships get back under way, a little less international than when they left off.
The foreign riders – and there are always half a dozen who make the trip each winter, including some Brits in recent years – have returned home, a mixture of grief over losing their fellow rider and having to prepare for the European season, and also a small matter of the FIM frowning on speedway in Argentina at the moment.
Which would be all well and good if Argentina was an outlaw operation, running outside the jurisdiction of the FIM and their regulations, but it isn’t – their federation is affiliated to the FIM, their riders compete in FIM competitions, and the FIM took two rounds of their under-21 championship to Bahia Blanca late last year.
It looks to all the world like the FIM is behaving like a terrible parent, allowing their child to do whatever they like as long as they’re out of sight, only bringing them into line when they have visitors, and then getting the belt out when something goes wrong.
Duh’s death was a tragedy, the worst thing that can happen on a speedway track, and if any good comes of it then it may make his passing less of the massive waste it obviously is. The FIM need to work with the Argentinian speedway authorities, not suspend their affiliation. Let’s hope that kinder, more progressive voices come to the forefront in Geneva, and soon.
ITEM: I wrote last time out at my dismay at the lack of support for British riders, and the effect it may have on the future for the sport. I was perhaps a little disingenuous at not mentioning some of the good work that is being done and being supported by the BSPA, such as the establishment of the Lakeside training academy and the sponsorship of the British youth championships, and this is to be commended.
However, two news snippets caught my eye this week that plunged my mood back into the black about what we could do, and what we just aren’t doing, and how we could easily change that.
The Danes are the reigning Speedway World Cup champions. They won the title with a mixture of youth and experience, and in Mikkel Bech, Michael Jepsen Jensen, and others, have a crop of youngsters which should see them continue to compete at the highest level for years to come. Their team manager, Andre Secher, is proactive and unafraid to make tough decisions, and this has obviously paid off. Meanwhile, the Great Britain team manager is a PR disaster who oversees a club side not famed for their support for British riders. Chalk and cheese.
Secher was in the Speedway Star this week because he arranged to take a group of predominantly young Danish riders to a training camp in southern France ahead of the new season, and has planned another session, this time at King’s Lynn, for a few weeks’ time. Team GB, on the other hand, would have no track time together before their SWC qualifying round in July if it weren’t for Swindon reacting to a fixture gap by booking a British select to ride at Blunsdon next month. Like I said, chalk and cheese.
A training camp for the GB team has been done before, when Rob Lyon was team manager, and should be an essential part of taking the job on. The benefits are obvious – the young riders gain knowledge and experience from their older teammates, everyone gets much-needed track time, and the riders get to bond together beyond a drink in the bar at the end of a meeting every once in a while.
Liam Carr would love to be part of that kind of bonding session. Then again, Liam Carr would love any track time, with anybody, of any nationality, but is restricted by his location - Carr lives in the shadow of Berwick’s Shielfield Park. Berwick have chosen to go with a young Dane at number seven and his other local sides – Glasgow and Edinburgh – would prefer to give chances to untried Australians and Germans, so his team chances are limited.
There is no National League side north of Buxton, 225 miles away, and while Carr is willing to travel that far, he’s failed to get a team place in the NL this season. Carr isn’t be alone – James McBain at Glasgow is in a similar position – and the geographical imbalance in our third tier will begin to have punishing implications for our young riders.
I’m no insider, and no financial whizz, but I’d imagine running a national league side costs somewhere in the region of around £50,000 a season. Given the obvious benefits of having a stream of youngsters on their doorstep, is it beyond the ken of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Berwick, Workington, Newcastle, and Redcar to work together to cover any losses a north of England/Scotland-based side might encounter over a season? And given the potential benefits of another source of young British talent, is it beyond the rest of the BSPA to contribute, too?
I don’t know. I’m a dreamer. But I’d love to see something happen in the NL that far north next season, perhaps in association with the Northside training track? Who can make it happen?