Monday, 27 May 2013

Weak Governance, Difficult Decisions, Grand Prix Moans & Is Nicholls Done?

ITEM: Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" could very well have been written by the BSPA/SCB, who have remained tight-lipped in extremis this week over the shenanigans pulled by Poole last week. The Pirates, you will remember, pulled the plug on their home meeting with Lakeside just 27 hours before tapes up, because they didn't want to run with a 6-point Premier League replacement for their injured new signing Przemyszlaw Pawlicki. Lakeside apparently reluctantly agreed - though they could have forced the issue, I'm sure - and were financially recompensed for the postponement. The rest of the league, and the sport as a whole, was robbed blind.

The regulations don't allow a team to call a meeting off in these circumstances. Yes, the regulations have holes in them, but they're pretty clear that a meeting can only be postponed when racing is impossible. I'm not sure that tracking a weakened side comes under this clause, but then again racing is pretty much impossible if the promoter doesn't open the doors!

When the SCB punished Belle Vue for their hilarious call-off a few weeks ago the statement they released included the line, "the SCB believes this will give the public confidence for the future". I dare say they probably envisaged "the future" lasting longer than a couple of weeks, but to ignore what Poole did undermines any confidence the public will have that a fixture will take place on the day it is advertised. Well done SCB!

The day after Poole were supposed to have ridden against Lakeside, Swindon took to the track against Birmingham missing three riders, and were beaten at home by the in-form Brummies. There were no complaints from the Robins' management, who accepted that these things happen in speedway. Tonight Poole actually open their gates to the King's Lynn Stars live on Sky, and the away side are missing key riders, but there is no clamour from Matt Ford to postpone the meeting, fearful of cheating his knowledgeable public. Perhaps that's because Sky will top up his crowd money and the Pirates might actually win this one? Cynical? Can you blame me?

If the SCB fail to action on this - and it looks like they've just accepted it, perhaps fearful of upsetting someone who isn't Belle Vue - we all lose, including Poole. Because it's another stick to beat British speedway with and God knows we need to avoid any more of those. Then again, if those running the sport are wilfully kicking it, why should we care?

ITEM: Luke Crang made his debut for the Coventry Storm yesterday, away at Mildenhall, and could have proved a match-winner were it not for a bizarre exclusion in heat 14. Crang scored solidly throughout, providing back-up to the Storm's heat leaders that has been missing at times in the short history of the side, and will be a welcome addition to the team.

However, to sign Crang Coventry had to drop Rich Franklin, a local lad and former Coventry mascot, and as tough a decision it must have been for management to do it, it's also tough to decide whether making changes based on early season form goes against the stated aim of using the Storm to develop talent for the future.

It was decided early on that the Storm should stand on their own feet, commercially, and that the enterprise should - if at all possible - not drain money from the Bees. Reserve teams - and that's pretty much what the Storm and King's Lynn Young Stars are - haven't always attracted the support their senior sides depend on, but one way of ensuring that the fans come along is to have a winning team. Thus the dichotomy - do you use the team purely to develop talent or do you actually have to worry about results?

It's a balance, obviously, and one made a little easier by the fact that the two Storm riders to have been released so far have been around the block a few times and, as such, are not really exciting youngsters. Nobody could say that about Luke Crang, and I'm excited to see how he comes on, and glad I'll get to see it at Brandon.

ITEM: It's British Grand Prix week, and I hope you enjoy yourselves. It might not surprise you to learn I won't be going, given my stated aim of never putting a penny into BSI's pockets, but I will hopefully be seeing two meetings: Coventry Storm vs Stoke Potters, and the Kauko Nieminen Testimonial, a much better prospect for speedway's well-being, I'm sure you'll agree.

I do like the idea of some kind of festival of speedway, which is what the British Grand Prix has turned into, and I wrote some time ago about whether it would be possible to do a Rugby League-style Magic Weekend down the line. I'd still like to think that's possible, especially with some of our tracks clustered together so closely.

Wouldn't it be fantastic to have, say, three meetings - perhaps at Birmingham, Coventry, and Leicester - with a fan festival held centrally? Maybe the National Speedway Stadium, assuming Belle Vue don't build it on an old Indian burial ground, might be the place to hold it?

It's probably just me being selfish and wanting to meet all you lovely people without having to go to Wales and give money to the biggest parasites this sport has seen since Danny Warwick got head lice, but a man can dream, can't he?

ITEM: Talking of Cardiff, after all his bluster about missing out on the Wild Card, Scott Nicholls had the perfect opportunity to make BSI eat their words by qualifying for the next round of the Grand Prix Challenge from his quarter-final at Abensberg last Monday. Up against a field with only half-a-dozen genuine contenders, Nicholls looked sure to finish in the generous top ten placings available to progress onto the semi-finals, but could only place 11th, and will now be sweating on an injury or withdrawal down the line.

Although the track wasn't in the best of shape, for a rider of Nicholls's experience this really shouldn't have been an issue, and given that the likes of Cameron Woodward, Timo Lahti, Tobias Kroner and Max Dilger qualified ahead of him, he has to be disappointed. In fact, I can't help but wonder if his place shouldn't have gone to the likes of Danny King or Craig Cook, so much in form so far this season.

It's a tough decision to know when to stop chasing world championship glory and concentrate on your bread and butter. While a rider has a responsibility to his sponsors to give them as much exposure as available, it can do no good to go chasing rainbows. Nicholls isn't likely to make the Grand Prix series again, let alone win it, so is it time to take a bow and step back gracefully?

It's a decision only he can make, but while he still has so much to give in league speedway, I hate to see him struggle on the world stage. Furthermore, if he's not representing British speedway in the World Cup, should he be able to choose to do so in the individual championship? Questions, questions, and not an easy answer to be found. Life in a nutshell.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

EXTRA! The Curious Case Of The Called-Off Meeting...

ITEM: So I wrote on Monday that, despite your view of his various misdemeanours and the strokes he's pulled over the years, Matt Ford can at least be described as a shrewd and capable promoter. Well, I take that back. He's a cowboy, a charlatan - no better than Belle Vue. Okay, maybe that's going too far...

Speedway promoters have long harped that the only meetings that draw crowds are league fixtures. This is perhaps unsurprising - league competition dominates pretty much all sports in the UK, and has done since William McGregor created the Football League back in the 19th century. But for this to be true those matches have to mean something, the competition fair and seen to be fair, and each team should approach its fixtures with the team it has at that time, whether carrying injuries or out of form riders - it's just how it is, the luck of the draw.

Yesterday Matt Ford did a bad thing. Having reacted to Poole's poor start to the season by changing his team around, he received the news that one of his new signings, Przemyszlaw Pawlicki, wouldn't be able to ride because of a minor injury sustained in the pursuit of world championship glory. Since Pawlicki was yet to ride for Poole, a quirk in the regulations meant his absence could only be covered by a 6-point PL rider, thus weakening Poole's team to unacceptable (to Ford) levels.

Ford did have another option - to revert back to his previous 1-7, without Pawlicki and Thomas H Jonasson, but with a new average coming into effect for Rohan Tungate, he would have been unable to once again declare the new side. This, he claims, would have unfair to the new riders, and have financial considerations with contracts already drawn up (although his contracts with Darcy Ward & Kyle Howarth are okay to be ripped up, it seems), although few outside Dorset believe that he wouldn't consider this for anything other than he wouldn't be able to make his desired changes, regardless of any monetary concerns.

Plenty of Elite League teams have run with a 6-point PL rider in place of an absent team member. This season, Swindon were forced to go to King's Lynn without their number one, and Poole themselves faced Eastbourne without Maciej Janowski. In 2011, Coventry were left with no choice but to track Todd Kurtz in place of Emil Sayfutdinov on several occasions, and all got on with it without much complaint. The one team that did try to engineer a situation which would have seen them avoid such a sanction was Belle Vue, a few weeks ago against Poole, and look how that turned out!

Ford's argument is that, by running with a 6-point PL rider in place of Pawlicki, the meeting would not have been worthy of the Elite League. As I've just said, plenty of other meetings have taken place under these conditions, an they were all deemed worthy by the Elite League, the BSPA, and SCB to be declared as Elite League results. It's just one of those things, an unfortunate side effect of modern speedway.

What he really meant was that he was worried that he wouldn't attract a decent crowd to watch a meeting with a weakened Poole team, especially against a Lakeside team that won at Wimborne Road a few weeks ago. That the full-strength Pirates couldn't handle a lacklustre Hammers side (in front of less than 800 fans it is rumoured, although I'm happy to be corrected), is unfortunate, but it happens to teams in all sports.

Poole's crowds are down because they don't want to see a losing team. But somebody has to lose, unless we are to engineer home victories for all our teams now, in the interest of helping promoters earn - or not lose - money. And this is the crux of the matter - if we are postponing meetings to avoid the chance of home defeats (and this is why the fans won't come - if Poole were top of the league, with 6 riders in great form, Ford wouldn't give a second thought to running with a PL 6-pointer), then what does the fixture list mean anymore? What does the league mean anymore? Can we call speedway a sport? Or is it sports entertainment, closer to professional wrestling than a bona fide, actual professional sport?

Belle Vue were fined £5000 and deducted 3 league points for their abysmal attempt at a postponement a few weeks back, and rightly so. They sought to gain an advantage over their opponents, and thus the rest of the league, by artificially manipulating their fixtures beyond the already-lenient elbow room given to teams when deciding the fixture list to avoid  clashes with riders' other commitments. What is so different about what Poole have done? Nothing, that's what. Oh, except one tiny thing...

Lakeside appear to have "reluctantly" agreed to a postponement, according to a statement on their website. It's not "reluctantly" at all because they could have insisted the fixture went ahead. They also claimed that they were eager to continue their run of form - well, what better way to return to a track where you've already won against a further weakened home team? A cynical observer may surmise that there was an inducement, or they perhaps agreed to avoid a sanction threatened by the home promoter, because nothing else makes sense, but I'm sure that's not the case. Maybe Lakeside will give their reasons, but I won't hold my breath.

Ford told his local paper, the Evening Echo, that he will escape sanction because of Lakeside's collusion. This is probably true, but it doesn't make what he's done any easier to swallow. The BSPA now have a choice to make - do they allow this to happen with no complaint, no censure, no punishment, or do they stand up for proper league competition? Too many people are eager to run down British speedway, and the quality of our league - let's at least try and maintain the illusion that it is a league, with a proper fixture list and meetings that mean something, yeah?

Or we can allow it to happen without comment. And give up any pretence of proper competition. Either/or.

STOP PRESS to the STOP PRESS! Lakeside have released a statement this morning that claims they "reluctantly" agreed to the cancellation because they were given no choice, and that they were in no position to "force" a meeting to take place. Interesting...

Monday, 20 May 2013

Pirate Woes, Final Winners, GP Glee & Sky Goes PL Again

ITEM: Of all the accusations levelled at Matt Ford over the years the one that is pretty much agreed on by all parties is that he's a shrewd promoter. He showed that once more this week with his reaction to Poole's disappointing start to the season, dropping three riders - including the injured enfant terrible Darcy Ward - and bringing in replacements he considers will turn the Pirates' season around.

The new arrivals - former Coventry rider Przemyszlaw Pawlicki, Poole asset Thomas H Jonasson, and untried Latvian Andreij Lebedevs - should make their home debuts on Wednesday, against King's Lynn, and all eyes will be on how they perform. Pawlicki is certainly a better rider than his average suggests and, while he won't score what a fit Ward would contribute, he should have no trouble winning the Pirates fans over.

Lebedevs is a risk, but has been scoring well for Daugavpils in the Polish 1.Liga and in open meetings in that part of the world. Whether he can translate that form to the Elite League is obviously open to question, but fresh faces are often welcome in British speedway.

As for Jonasson, he's an enigma. So talented, often able to mix it with the best in the world, but he doesn't have a five-and-a-half point average in the Elite League for nothing. His commitment to British speedway - and the effort he puts in when he actually turns up - varies wildly, and he's probably the biggest risk of the three. Opposing fans will be hoping that the usual Jonasson turns up, but Wimborne Road regulars - ever hopeful - are sure he'll be a success.

An unfortunate casualty of these changes is Kyle Howarth, a young British rider and Poole asset, who finds himself without an Elite League berth. Poole made no little noise about giving Howarth a chance, and he's performed to expectations, so his axing at the first sign of trouble is galling for fans of British riders, and must be heartbreaking for the lad himself. It's all the more disappointing given that the Pirates' team manager also manages Team GB and can't back a Brit if his life depended on it - as opposed to Team GB's junior managers, who have filled their EL sides with British riders.

You also have to ask what the future holds for Darcy Ward, who will be unable to return to the Poole side without another bout of major surgery down the line. There were rumours in the off-season that Ward's various transgressions had pushed Ford to the limit. This, like so many speedway rumours, proved not to be the case, but you wonder if his latest bout of troublemaking in Poland, together with his poor early season form, haven't led Ford down that path in the end...

ITEM: Last week's British Final was an entertaining affair, and - to my mind, at least - wasn't lessened by the loss of the Cardiff wild card reward for the highest placing non-GP rider. As it turns out, it would have been Scott Nicholls, although you can't say how thins may have turned out if that extra carrot were dangled in front of the other riders.

Tai Woffinden continued his magnificent early season form to take his first title, at last on his home track (although in the form he's been in he most likely would have won it anywhere), and further pushed on to win his maiden Grand Prix in Prague at the weekend. There are still some - and I must admit I'm one of them - who can't quite take to him, but I'm sure our numbers are lessening by the day and it may not be long before he's a true British champion we can all get behind.

One of the more sparky entrants into the final was Jason Garrity, a late call-up after the withdrawal of Stuart Robson, and he certainly made the most of his opportunity. Garrity scored more in his qualifying round than Ben Barker, who was quizzingly given a wild card into the final he didn't deserve, and finished in a higher qualifying round placing than Kyle Howarth, who had also been given a fee ride into the final despite finishing way down the qualifiers.

Although that must have puzzled and disappointed him, Garrity did his talking on the track, and could have qualified for the night's semi-finals if he'd won his last ride, but found himself ridden wide at the first bend - a tactic he loves to employ himself - and ended up in 7th place, one outside the semi-final places. As (bad) luck would have it, Garrity broke his leg three days later, and will sit out 6-8 weeks of the season, but certainly put his name on many fans' radar with his efforts.

Of the rest, Craig Cook continued his improvement be beating Edward Kennett into the final, and a 4th place finish that cements his growing reputation. Although British speedway is in the doldrums right now, there are encouraging signs all over. Time to be positive, and time to get behind our boys, yeah?

ITEM: Woffinden's win at the Prague Grand Prix is the culmination of a fantastic season so far - whatever he's done to his bikes, his body, and his mind is paying dividend after dividend, and is shown even more starkly when his usual British rivals are struggling badly.

The Prague GP wasn't a classic by any stretch of the imagination, and continued a run of poor meetings at the Czech track, which will host the latter stages of the Speedway World Cup in July. This was despite a handful of fantastic races involving Woffinden and particularly Emil Sayfutdinov, but the rest of the field was much of a muchness. It must have been particularly galling for series sponsors Monster to see none of their riders - a quarter of the field - make the semi-finals, especially given rivals Red Bull's successes thus far.

The GP circus moves to Cardiff next, and the artificially-laid track at the Millennium Stadium. This usually guarantees a poor spectacle but Cardiff occasionally produces some excitement - the year-on-year dwindling crowd will certainly hope so - and Woffinden's form gives a good chance of a British winner for the first time since 2007.

Chris Harris, who won that time out, has been given the wild card contrary to popular opinion and will be eager to prove the naysayers wrong, although his current form is worrying and he may end up vying with Ales Dryml, subbing for the injured Darcy Ward, for last place. Let's hope not, for every possible reason!

ITEM: Sky's cameras pitch up at Berwick tomorrow night for the Premier League clash with Newcastle. Although both sides will be missing riders, the Premier League encounters on Sky are usually good value (with the possible exception of that mauling Rye House delivered, live on Sky, a few seasons back).

One absence from the meeting - although he ma very well be at the stadium - will be David Bellego, who has been banned by the French authorities for turning down a place in their team for the SWC qualifier in Hungary today. The French would have been unlikely to qualify from a meeting which also features the Hungarians, the USA, and the Italians, and it's disappointing that the FFM have taken this action.

Still, it shows that their federation are taking the competition seriously, something which can't be said of the Finns, who have not entered a team and allowed their top rider, Joonas Kylmakorpi, to race on a Swedish license this season.

You have to wonder what the reaction would be if the ACU took this stance with British riders - I'm not sure Scott Nicholls, or Coventry, would take too well to him being banned for refusing to compete for Team GB at the SWC this summer!

Even without Bellego, the efforts of Edward Kennett and Richie Worrall will be worth tuning in for, and it's always interesting to see how the young Brits like Lewis Kerr (flying at the moment, and averaging more than several established Elite League riders) and Paul Starke get on.

Berwick may not be the most salubrious of surroundings but that's half the fun. Sky Sports 1, 7.30, okay?

Monday, 13 May 2013

SCB, BSPA, FIM & more

ITEM: With the Speedway Star maintaining their customary (and baffling) silence on all things controversial, I didn't expect to read much more about the Belle Vue "wrong postponement" farrago until the SCB published their inevitably whitewashed decision. But a snippet in the Manchester Evening News on Friday revealed that the SCB would be taking no action - or at least that's what Belle Vue themselves claimed.

In any other sport, and with the weight of evidence and an admission of guilt going against Belle Vue, you'd expect a weighty sanction, if only to deter anyone else from doing the same. However, this is British speedway, and a whole different set of disciplinary standards seem to apply to clubs found guilty of serious wrongdoing.

This is, of course, a symptom of the clubs having all the power in British speedway, and there being so few of them means that any club that can stay in business season-on-season can expect pretty much a free ride. This has been obvious on more than occasion over the last decade, with clubs accused of offences deemed serious enough to bring before the SCB given flimsy punishments, if any at all.

What's all the more galling, particularly from a Coventry fan's perspective, is that this is exactly the sort of thing that an independent overseer would deal with - that being one of the conditions the Bees put on returning to the Elite League, and one which we were told would be installed in the fullness of time. It may be that, when the instigators for change left Coventry (and the sport) that it was swept under a carpet that has so much dirt under it that it must almost be touching the ceiling at Rugby House.

The news from Belle Vue was met with howls of derision but no real surprise, but I'm told that it might not be the end of things after all. Perhaps someone at the SCB has found a backbone and didn't like being gazumped by a club they'd allowed to escape sanction-free from the shonkiest of cons? There's a first time for everything.

ITEM: Someone else not happy with the powers-that-be that run British speedway is Scott Nicholls. He fired a massive broadside at the BSPA in this week's Speedway Star, accusing them of failing in their duty to support and encourage British riders.
Nicholls cited, particularly, a lack of fixtures at Elite League level and no support for riders like himself wishing to enter the European Championships. He also tried to lay the blame for the loss of the Cardiff Wild Card from the British Final winner at their door, although - as I wrote last week - this is purely a BSI decision and Nicholls's ire should be turned on them for that particular slight.

In some kind of petty tit-for-tat move, Nicholls has removed himself from consideration for the Speedway World Cup, damaging Team GB's chances of progressing from the qualifying round at King's Lynn in July. Who does this really punish? The fans, Neil Middleditch, and his fellow riders. The BSPA? On recent form, I doubt they even care.

There is a proactive way of responding to disappointment, of course. Nicholls, one of the sport's more sensible and mature riders, would be ideal to lead a reformed Speedway Riders' Association, perhaps involving David Howe, who has himself had plenty to say about the sport from a rider's perspective. With the top riders holding more power than they ever have, there is a real chance that they could get things done if they banded together.

I did suggest this to Nicholls but, predictably, the response was, "we tried this before and it didn't work". He might be right but it does work, however, in just about every other sport, so I fail to see why speedway should be so unusual given the right application. Besides, what's the alternative? Moaning in the press but not actually doing anything about it? That's been tried before, too, and look where we are...

ITEM: Showing that it's not just British speedway that can make a hash of things, the FIM threw their hat into the ring at the weekend with a ridiculous world under-21 championship semi-final at Rawicz, Poland.
The meeting, which saw young Brits Ashley Morris and Robert Branford trying to qualify for the three-round final, was run in apparently terrible conditions, and saw several competitors fall early on and take no further part in the meeting. This meant, as is customary, that their rides were taken by the meeting reserves, but this is where things got bizarre.

Rather than the usual track reserves, the Polish federation chose their two best non-qualifiers, and - on a home track however much affected by the weather - they racked up the wins and points against their non-Polish opponents. And, against all usual precedents, the meeting reserves were allowed to qualify, despite not taking a ride in the first four heats, and one of them taking two rides in one "set of four".

Fans at the track, and several of the riders involved, claim the meeting should never have been started, but that conditions were no worse after heat 16, when the proceedings were called to a halt, than they were before. Coincidentally, abandoning the meeting at that stage allowed all five Polish riders (the three "official" participants and the two reserves) to qualify.

Just why or how this was allowed to happen is unclear, but Lasse Bjerre and Timo Lahti, as the next two in line to qualify, can have every right to feel aggrieved. Further weakening the qualifying process is the anomaly that two of the semi-finals saw five qualifiers and the third only four - Kyle Howarth, who finished fifth in Lonigo, Italy, the one semi-final with a reduced qualifying quota, can also have every right to feel cheated out of a final place.

Armando Castagna was elevated to FIM Track Commissioner this year with a self-imposed brief to sort this kind of thing out. Let's hope he gets to work because at present it's a bit of a shambles.

ITEM: Is speedway entertainment or sport? Or a curious hybrid of the two? Its origins lie more in the former camp, a dazzling and thrilling new spectacle designed to draw in crowds and earn money from enterprising showground owners. Few other disciplines can claim such an origin, save perhaps boxing - for most sports the competition came first, and the fans (and professional athletes) much later.
As the sport developed, league speedway dominated the sport in this country, although there were still high profile non-league events held at each track - the Brandonapolis, Golden Hammer, and Blue Riband - as well as the prestigious Northern, Midland, and Southern Riders' Championships.

Lately, though, promoters will tell you - and they should know - that fans are interested only in league speedway, with crowds dropping alarmingly for non-competitive meetings, although I wonder how much of this is a result of the downgrading of such encounters over the years.

If I wanted to run speedway at my stadium in 2013 there are a number of hoops I would have to jump through, assuming I could get the usual permissions and licenses from the local authorities, a far cry from the sport's early years. Some of our best and most innovative promoters came from outside the sport with radical ideas that might not fit squarely into the three-tier league structure that pervades in the UK.

I wonder if there isn't room for something else, alongside and including what we have now, involving tracks who only want to run three, four or five meetings a season, as availability of facilities decrees. As it stands, unless you can fit into the very rigid system we have now, it's a non-starter. And I have to ask: does speedway exist purely to service the league or does the league exist to provide speedway matches?

Monday, 6 May 2013

BV, Bomber, British Final & Being Real

ITEM: Oh, Belle Vue, why do you make it so easy to mock you? Just when it looks like you might have gotten things together a little – council approval for the new stadium, a team that isn’t utterly rubbish – you go and pull one of the most ridiculous stunts seen in British speedway since Nigel Wagstaff renamed Oxford after his favourite David Essex movie.

When the news broke last Monday that Belle Vue’s meeting with Poole was off due to a waterlogged track, there were chuckles and gasps of surprise from the north west, where it had remained unusually rain-free for some time. Not only that, but the forecast was for fine weather, allowing any wetness on the track to dry up before tapes-up, surely?

Upon realising that people can put their heads out of the window and tell that it’s not raining, Belle Vue changed their story to a burst pipe, soaking the track and waterlogging the base, leaving it unfit for racing. Only Dakota North, staying with locally-based fellow Pirate Kyle Howarth, took a photo of the track looking in pretty good condition and posted it on Twitter.

Ah, said Belle Vue, you can’t see the second bend in that photo, and that’s where the problems are. Cue Poole number one Chris Holder, who revealed – also on Twitter – that two of Belle Vue’s riders, Matej Zagar and Magnus Zetterstrom, had missed their flights back to the UK, which would have left the Aces with no facility for their top two, and already operating rider replacement for their number three, Artur Mroczka, who was injured.

With the comedy increasing by the minute, the Speedway Control Bureau obviously decided enough was enough, and despatched local referee Darren Hartley to assess the situation. A statement to this effect, released by the SCB later that night, heavily implied fault on Belle Vue’s part, and the Aces subsequently released their own statement apologising for a “wrong postponement”, but stopping short of admitting they made the whole thing up to prevent a home loss.

So what’s to be done? Should Belle Vue be punished for trying to protect their own business? Do the Poole team – and fans – have the right to claim compensation for wasted journeys? What form should any punishment take? And does the fact that the Aces’ track man is an SCB official – Colin Meredith – make the whole farrago even worse?

There’s something to be said for trying to prevent your fans witnessing a heavy home defeat. I’d argue that the best way to do it is to ensure that you have seven decent riders in your team, but my own Bees have shown that’s not the prevailing thought at the moment. That said, decent or not, having seven riders is a good start. It’s not particularly Belle Vue’s fault that Zagar and Zetterstrom were stranded in Germany by industrial action, although you have to wonder why they chose that particular route home when Adam Skornicki, who rode in the same meeting as Zagar, made it back to ride at Coventry with no issues.

However, this is the risk teams take in employing riders with such busy schedules. It’s pretty much impossible these days to find a number one rider who doesn’t ride in Poland, but if it is your business to have all seven riders there, you take extra care to make sure that happens. This isn’t Sunday League football, where you turn up at a match and pick from who shows up. Was the route taken by these riders unusual? Half a dozen others made it back to race on Monday, so you’d have to assume it was. Did Belle Vue take all the steps necessary to ensure that Zagar and Zetterstrom would be there or did they leave it in the lap of the gods?

Even so, riders miss meetings because of this kind of thing every so often – as it happens Poole were punished for the exact same thing two days before as Maciej Janowski missed a flight out of Poland for their match at Eastbourne, and both rider and club were fined, and the Pirates lost the match as a result. It’s part and parcel of speedway in the modern age. I don’t like it, but there it is.

You have to ask, though, what good they thought pulling the meeting would do. On a fine night, with the “Turbo Twins” in town, a big crowd was expected, and the majority of them would have understood the situation, passing the blame onto the riders rather than the club. There would have been grumbles about paying £17 to watch a sub-standard team but then the Aces’ fans have done that for the last decade anyway.

By the sounds of it, a good number of fans did not check the internet before leaving for Kirkmanshulme Lane – because why would they on a fine night? – and were confronted only with a hastily-scrawled A4 sign announcing the meeting was off. Even those who did check would have confused and angered by losing yet another meeting to a substandard track, and there’s only so many times they will come back after that.

Did the promotion make the right decision to protect their business? Obviously not, because they’re a laughing stock, and have turned their own fans against them because they got caught – and it was not exactly the crime of the century – pulling a stroke. Was it worth the risk? It’s not my money, but I can guess what they’d say if asked now.

So what happens? How should Belle Vue be punished? Any fans who can prove they reached the track should be compensated, especially those who booked hotels. Obviously it’s not the easiest thing to prove, but in the absence of advance tickets there’s no simple answer. Poole’s riders and management should also be compensated – not for flights or any expenses into the UK but from their home base to Manchester. This is just good business.

And past that? What sanctions should be imposed on the club? Given that they failed to complete their fixtures last season and did actually call off a meeting in perfect weather because the track was unfit? The mitigating factor is the fans – they should not be punished by the loss of seeing Poole Pirates in action at Belle Vue, so the meeting should be re-run. In any case, it would be unfair to the other teams in the league to gift the points to Poole, who by chance happened to be the scheduled opponents on that day. Belle Vue should be punished with a hefty fine, a points deduction, and no guarantee that their new stadium should hold shared events for five years.

I wrote some time ago that Belle Vue should have considered a year out until the new stadium was finished. Not many agreed with me, but this is exactly the reason why. The current promotion cannot be trusted not to pull strokes like this, and the whole Elite League suffers as a result. Kirkmanshulme Lane, whether it is victim to phantom burst pipes or not, is largely unfit for racing, and the world champion has said that the riders take their lives in their hands every time they race there.

And what should be done with Belle Vue track man Colin Meredith, who actually holds the role of SCB track inspector? Was he in on the decision or agree to turn a blind eye? How can the SCB investigate and possibly punish Belle Vue without taking this into account?

We’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure that any SCB investigation will be transparent and comprehensive, and the right decision will be released. I’m also heavily medicated. These two things may be connected.

ITEM: So Chris Harris got the Wild Card nomination for Cardiff, then. And everybody’s happy, right? What’s that? Oh.

Harris has carried the torch for British speedway in the Grand Prix series for the past few years, with very mixed results. Only once qualifying by right, and the recipient of series wild cards on many other occasions, he’s been rarely competitive, despite beating his GP rivals in league speedway in three countries. Although some were disappointed when he was overlooked for the 2013 series in favour of Tai Woffinden, most understood that he’d have to earn his chance again if he wanted to race in the GPs in the future.

And earning a chance is usually how the wild card for Cardiff is decided, with the highest-placed non-GP rider in the British Final gaining the spot. In recent years that’s been Scott Nicholls, because the British Final is latterly a shoot-out between Harris, Woffinden, and Nicholls, and Woffinden has had rotten luck in the winner-takes-all final. Given that, it appears the wild card this year would have been a straight shoot-out between Nicholls and Harris, and so BSI jumped the gun and gave it to Harris before the final even took place.

There are a couple of questions that come to mind – how and why was the decision taken? Firstly, what needs to be understood is that the wild cards for each round are decided in a three-way process between the FIM (who divest most of their decision making in the GPs to BSI), series promoters BSI, and the individual event promoters, in this case BSI. So I think we can be pretty certain that this was a BSI decision.

When it was initially announced, some fans and riders jumped all over the BSPA, assuming that – as they oversee the British Final for the ACU – it was their decision to forego the highest-placed option, except that the BSPA seemed as surprised as anyone when it was announced, live on Sky, by Nigel Pearson.

Why did BSI decide to change the way the Cardiff wild card is decided? They haven’t said, but there are a number of possibilities. It may be that ticket sales for the British GP are slow – crowds are down, year-on-year, for Cardiff – and that Tai Woffinden hasn’t captured the imagination of the British public. Harris, as a heart-on-his-sleeve, die-hard Brit, may have been seen as a way to sell a few tickets, especially to fans of Birmingham and Coventry, who may have been reluctant to back a Wolverhampton rider in their home GP.

It may also be that they feared a more open field in the British Final resulting in a rider qualifying for Cardiff who would not fit their criteria – Edward Kennett and Danny King both have good chances of making the rostrum at Wolverhampton next Monday, but would probably not be seen by BSI as enhancing their showpiece event. It could also be that, having been kicked off Sky, BSI did not want an event shown by Sky to be used as a qualifier for their meeting, or even that Sky themselves would be reluctant to have the British Final openly used as such.

Whatever the reason, Harris has the wild card. The majority of fans are not happy – not at Harris, because why shouldn’t he take that shop window for his sponsors? – but still fail to understand the crux of the matter: BSI have turned the speedway world championship into a circus. It’s sports entertainment, in a way, rather than pure sport – more Superstars than the Olympics, and this was illustrated last season when Holder wasn’t excluded for his move on Pedersen in the final Grand Prix.

There’s a decision to be made: do you continue to support whatever BSI serve up to you, or do you make a stand? Because if you go to Cardiff, enjoy yourselves, but don’t moan about Harris getting the wild card, or a suspect decision that favours a favourite over an unfancied rival, because that’s what you’re buying into.

ITEM: So where does that leave the British Final? Does it cheapen the final to have no carrot dangling at the end of it? Will riders stop entering the competition with no prospect of reaching Cardiff if they take the title (or finish second, or third)?

The British Final started out as a qualifying round for the world championship. Before that, the British (and Commonwealth) Final pretty much was the world championship. But the emergence of those pesky Swedes as a force to be reckoned with meant that a separate round had to be created for riders on these shores (still including the Aussies and Kiwis) to qualify for the World Final, and it remained that way – in name, at least – until the mid-1990s.

But from its earliest stagings, even though it only paid to finish in the top twelve or so, riders wanted to win it. The roll of honour reads like a Who’s Who of British speedway. And I can’t believe for one minute that it’s any different today.

Okay, the number of realistic contenders is fewer than it’s ever been, with Woffinden a massive favourite, and Nicholls and Harris the only two on past form who can stop him (although, as I said earlier, Kennett and King will get amongst the points). But every one of the sixteen riders lining up at Wolverhampton next Monday will want to be British champion. It carries an enormous cache, especially as their chances – at the moment – of becoming World Champion are pretty remote.

So, no, the British Final hasn’t been cheapened and, no, riders will not stop entering it, not least because it does lead into the qualifying rounds for the Grand Prix series later in the season, when riders are nominated based on their finishing position to enter the Grand Prix Challenge.

We need to reorient British speedway to putting ourselves first. The Grands Prix are a nice distraction and something to watch on TV every couple of weeks, but they’re not our bread and butter. What happens in Poland and Sweden is nice if you’re bothered by it, but it doesn’t put food on our table. No, British speedway – whatever you may think of its current standing in the world game – is, and should always be, our priority. We need to stop talking down the product, stop trying to cheapen our own championships, and get behind what we have on track twenty times a week in this country.

British Final? Can’t wait. My money’s on Harris.

ITEM: There were quite a few eyebrows raised at what was probably a throwaway comment by Nigel Pearson on Sky last week, when he called the Premier League – Sky were broadcasting from Scunthorpe’s Eddie Wright Raceway – a feeder league for the Elite League, most of them from fans of PL clubs.

Fans of all clubs ruthlessly defend their teams against all manner of slights, imagined or real. Some of them are grounded, and will offer a true assessment of their clubs’ position, while emphasising the positives, while others will just flat out refuse to admit that the precious team, and anyone associated with it - can do any wrong at all.

Surely, though, in this instance, no case can be made for the contrary. The Premier League is the second division of speedway, and the quality of rider and the infrastructure of the clubs largely reflects this. Ambitious riders and clubs will always want to progress into the higher league, should their ability and backing allow.

Yes, the Elite League has some “Premier League” riders in it, through the doubling-up rule, and geography and a lack of a squad system means that injuries for the lower EL riders will be always be covered by PL guys, but that’s what a feeder league is for, is it not? It’s how it works in baseball in the US, and no-one ever accuses the Major Leagues of being watered down!

There is uncertainty ahead in British speedway, whether the Sky deal is extended beyond this season or not. The current thinking – and it changes weekly – is that there probably has to be a reduction in the quality of the top league to match the money coming in through the turnstiles. If that happens, some current PL teams may find themselves in an expanded top division, and I wonder what their fans will be saying then when they borrow riders from whatever Division Two is in place?