Sunday, 24 March 2013

Worrall, Worries, Western Springs & the Speedway Mail

ITEM: With Richie Worrall as a trump card at reserve, Lakeside Hammers looked an easy bet for the play-offs this season. Worrall failed to ride enough meetings last year to gain an official average, and would have come in on a three (although he would have gained a “proper” average by the next set of greensheets) when he was averaging five and a half in his Elite League meetings last season – seven and a half if you include all meetings and bonus points, a truer sense of a rider’s scoring power.

As it is, Worrall won’t be riding for the Hammers in 2013 and their odds have lengthened enormously, although they should be commended for sticking with a young Brit and giving Richard Lawson a chance at reserve in Worrall’s place. Lawson, although a solid scorer at Premier League level, hasn’t set the EL alight thus far, though hope springs eternal.

And what about Worrall? Will he be riding in the EL this season? At the moment, no, but you can never rule it out, especially when he’s just signed as an asset of perennial strugglers Belle Vue – but more about that later.

So what went wrong? How did Lakeside lose their advantage over their rivals? What caused the breakdown in their relationship that saw an angry statement issued by Lakeside, dripping with venom about “agents” and broken agreements? Let’s start at the beginning…

Worrall was announced in Lakeside’s 1-7 last season to the surprise of more than a few fans and journalists. Yes, he’d had a decent enough season the year before, but the EL? Too early, surely? Yet he grasped his chance with both hands, and put in some impressive scores, before a broken leg suffered in June while riding for his Premier League side Newcastle put him out for the rest of the season. Still, he’d done enough that Lakeside were willing to track him again in 2013, and even complete a full transfer from his parent club Scunthorpe to ensure they’d have first dibs on his future.

This is where things apparently went awry. Scunthorpe and Lakeside agreed a deal, with both sides seemingly happy. Then something happened – if I were to speculate I’d guess it was the uncertainty over the future of the asset system brought about by the winter’s shenanigans involving Coventry, Birmingham, King’s Lynn, Swindon, and Peterborough – and Lakeside called off the deal. Scunthorpe, for their part, were surprised, and insist that they had nothing to do with the deal being broken, adding cryptically that they were “not unhappy” the deal had fallen through.

What seems to have happened next is that a clause in the contract agreed between Worrall and Lakeside was activated due to the deal changing from a full transfer to a loan agreement, much to the disappointment of the rider. Quite what it was that changed is unknown at this point – although Worrall, at one point, was willing to show the original contract to his Twitter followers, so you can guess it must have been a considerable change – but it led to the next chain of events, which soured the club on the rider and led them to, in Worrall’s words, “sack” him.

Worrall is twenty-one years-old. At that age, and when you’ve been concentrating on riding motorcycles for the past three years, sorting out business deals probably isn’t one of your stronger skills, so Worrall engaged the nous of his sponsor Mark Hennessey, of Autogate (a former sponsor of Belle Vue), to negotiate a better deal for him, one nearer the original agreement he had with the club. As Worrall apparently saw it, “Once a contract is signed you can't change it. Unless something happens...” and that something was the transfer being called off, which Worrall seemingly did not see as his problem.

Lakeside, who did not reply to a request to elaborate on their side of the story, apparently saw this as a final straw, an irrevocable breakdown, and cancelled their agreement with Worrall, signing Lawson within 24 hours as his replacement.

Worrall, according to family and friends, was excited about the new season at Arena Essex and was incredibly upset by this turn of events. Perhaps a little rashly, he instructed Hennessey to contact Belle Vue, to see if they wanted to buy his contract from Scunthorpe. Although you can accuse the Aces’ management of not performing as they should in recent seasons, they knew an opportunity when they saw it, and Richie Worrall is now a Belle Vue rider, even if there is no place for him in their side at the current time.

Who’s to blame for all this? No-one and everyone, you could say. Perhaps the only truly blameless party are Scunthorpe, who saw a deal they’d agreed with Lakeside called off at the eleventh hour for reasons beyond their control. Lakeside themselves cannot be blamed for not wanting to invest in an asset that may be rendered worthless by the next challenge to what is an illegal system, but can be considered rash and a little na├»ve by altering Worrall’s contract (legally, it must be stated) and then cancelling the agreement altogether.

As for Worrall, it doesn’t seem to have been his fault that the full transfer collapsed, and while he signed the original contract which contained the reduced clause, he did so in good faith and expecting no hiccoughs with the deal. I would argue that employing Hennessey, with his ties to the Aces, was perhaps unwise, but perfectly within his rights, and I don’t doubt for a moment that he considered Hennessey would get a better deal for him at Lakeside than the one he was facing. Whether Hennessey deliberately sabotaged negotiations in order to force a move to the Aces is always going to be subject to conjecture, but there seems to be no evidence to back this up,m however tempting it may be to tie up the loose ends.

So where are we? We have probably the best young English rider sitting out riding in the Elite League this season, although on his average guest bookings, especially filling in for riders missing through doubling-up conflicts, will be coming in thick and fast. We also have Belle Vue sitting on an asset they can’t use at present, although if I were Kauko Nieminen or Artur Mroczka I’d be a little nervous right now. And we have Lakeside Hammers having to revert to a Plan B which, with no disprespect to Richard Lawson, has turned them from contenders to also-rans before a wheel has been turned in anger. As is so often the way in these kinds of scuffles, no-one wins. Sad.

ITEM: The economic malaise sweeping Europe, with Cyprus the latest victims, has undoubtedly hit speedway where it hurts, right in the pocket, with fans often having to pick their meetings faced with choosing between entertainment and heating their homes. But it may have a further, more serious effect on the sport, particularly in Poland, the current cashcow being milked by the world's top riders.

The Guardian newspaper carried a story this week on as proposed crackdown on the debts owed by Spanish football clubs to the national government and local authorities. The total owed is reportedly billions, and the EU moneymen argue - perhaps quite rightly - that they should not be expected to bail out countries like Spain when they are passing over such an obvious income stream themselves.

With several La Liga giants owing hundreds of millions to the authorities this could have a catastrophic effect on Spanish football, and the ripples are also beginning to be felt further afield. Why shouldn't we, it is argued, also clamp down on the subsidies given to professional sporting teams, which allow them to make profits on the largesse of the taxpayer? The current focus of such attention is France, where football and rugby stadiums are often owned by the local authority, who receive peppercorn rents from clubs who can have wealthy backers and are in receipt of millions of pounds in sponsorship and prize money.

It's not too much of a leap of imagination to see this applied more widely, with such agreements coming under scrutiny across the EU. As far as British speedway is concerned, this shouldn't be too much of an issue, with stadiums owned by the clubs themselves, or leased from third parties such as Ladbrokes or the Greyhound Racing Association. But the dominant model used in Europe could be very much affected, with many Polish clubs renting their stadiums - and in some cases receiving futher financial support - from the local authority. If this support were withdrawn, and the clubs made to pay a "fair" rent, it could have serious implications on their spending power, throwing the balance of European speedway out of kilter.

It's early days, but this depression is here for the forseeable future, and nothing will be sacred or not considered for cuts. Time will tell whether the Polish model is unsustainable, and whether the "stars" will come back to our shores, begging and with their tales between their legs. Let's hope so.

ITEM: This ridiculous weather - who ever heard of a meeting being snowed off?!? - and subsequent lack of speedway action led to me getting up to watch the first Speedway Grand Prix of the 2013 season at the obscene hour of 3am on Saturday morning, and while it was nice to see some bikes going round an oval track for a couple of hours, it won't go down in the record books as a classic of the era.

There were perhaps two and a half good races out of twenty-three, which is terrible odds, and this can be lain squarely at the door of BSI, with their insistence on targeting new markets and plush stadiums (rarely both at the same time, you'll notice) over racing tracks which would provide excitement for all concerned.

Jarek Hampel was a worthy winner - rarely thrilling but always consistent - and you have to wonder what might have happened in 2012 if the Pole hadn't been injured halfway through the season. The usual faces filled the minor places, but there were encouraging starts for newcomers Darcy Ward and Tai Woffinden. The thought, though, of another twelve meetings with these same riders, on predominantly identically-prepared tracks, is daunting, but I guess they have their fans, for some odd reason.

The New Zealand Grand Prix was the first broadcast by BSI's new outlet, Eurosport, and it was at times a refreshing change from the Sky presentation of previous years, although it should be pointed out that Eurosport merely took the international feed from BSI, slotting in their own adverts at the appropriate times. The commentary, from Wade Aunger and Steve Johnston, was different, and at times the right mix of irreverent and informative, but wore out its welcome as the meeting progressed. Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum will be back in the saddle for the next GP, at Bydgoszcz in April, and the usual dissenting voices will reappear (although I, for one, could do without "Woffy! Woffy! Woffy!" or the bizarre trolling love-in Pearson has for Darcy Ward).

So, yes, I got to see some speedway, if you can call it that, and maybe the action will get better on an actual racetrack in Poland next month, although the odds are pretty much 50/50. It's speedway on TV, though, right? And that's a good thing. Just don't make it out to be the best thing in the world when it's sub-par, okay?

ITEM: Lots of nostalgia flying around this week as Tony McDonald, former editor of the Speedway Mail and current Retro Speedway publisher, asked for memories of his former publication for a feature in an upcoming Backtrack magazine.

I always preferred the Mail to the Star for some reason, nothing I could ever put my finger on but a feeling - perhaps misplaced - that it was a little more "outside, looking in" than the seemingly pro-establishment Star. Yes, I've always been contrary, it's not a recent development!

I also liked its use of cartoons and spot illustrations, by the wonderful Jeff Baker, rather than relying on the same old photos, and the editorials by Tony Barnard always raised a few heckles in the corridors of power - something sadly missing (though for understandable reasons) in the current speedway media.

I raised the possibility, through Twitter, of a "Best Of The Mail" book, even if just an e-book, and I'd certainly be first in the queue to purchase a glimpse into our past, should that prove a possibility.

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