Thursday, 26 September 2013

Putting The House In Order (and other things)

ITEM: Well, we're halfway through the Elite League play-off semi-finals, and the favourites in each tie look like they're in pole position to progress to the final. Assuming nothing untoward happens in the second legs (and you can never be sure, certainly where one of the participants is concerned), we'll have a decider in which both finalists have had very public money problems. Is this what the sport has come to, the problems that have been plaguing us for the past decade finally come home to roost? Well, yes. And no.

I've been a very vocal critic of what Birmingham have done this year, how they've achieved their success, and at what cost. Put simply, it stinks. They over-reached themselves, paying over the odds to attract riders that other clubs would have found team spots for at lower rates, and left a trail of debts behind them as long as Sheffield's tail. People have suggested/mitigated/pretended to themselves that this is a case of speculate to accumulate, but it is nothing of the sport. It is blatant financial mismanagement, and is anything but fair.

Allowed to happen unchecked and uncensured, it sets a terrible precedent - why budget according to what you can afford now when the rules clearly allow you to pay later, if at all? Rival teams are powerless, having to accept IOUs (which accrue interest, as if that were any consolation), and hang them if they're foolish enough to have budgeted for any money they might be owed by such a cowboy operation (such as in the case of an SCB-mandated transfer fee going unpaid because you've decide can't afford it, after all).

If you or I were owed several months' wages, we may stop turning up to work but riders that are owed money have traditionally found themselves in hot water for refusing to ride without it. There's very much a "them and us" when it comes to that sort of thing, and since Shane Parker decamped back to Oz there's been nothing in the way of rider representation that might fix it, however badly needed.

I haven't been so hard on Swindon, however. There are a few reasons for that, not least because I've always found the management there easy to approach and genuine in their application, as opposed to the Birmingham promotion's spiky aggression and nice-but-dim sob stories. (Oh, this is where I mention Phil Morris, who has stayed professional despite the house of cards tumbling down around him. That do, Phil?) But aside from differences in PR, I honestly believe the two cannot be compared.

Birmingham have spent money they haven't got, and - unless they get bumper crowds over the next few weeks - may not get. Their unpaid bills have had a knock-on effect, stretching other clubs, Swindon amongst them. By contrast, the Robins appear to have a cashflow issue, one that has been stemmed by an input of cash from the club's two main sponsors, Excalibur and Pebley Beach. Selco, the Brummies' main sponsor, seem unwilling, or unable, to do the same thing.

Swindon had money problems in 2011 that left a good number of riders and other parties owed thousands of pounds. Although it was before I began writing this blog, I was openly criticial of their affairs, but even then understood there were reasons for it. It was on the back of two terrible seasons, propping up the league and with crowds that very much reflected that. Those fans are slowly coming back, and the success of the last two season will have been budgeted for with that in mind. At Perry Barr, however, they seem to have accounted for fans that were never there, and are never going to be there. If it weren't so sad, it would be funny.

Whatever the reasons, and however they can be explained away, the 2013 EL title will be fought over by two clubs who, if they were taking part in a competition with any balls, might have found themselves forced to cut costs (and therefore hire lower scoring riders) or subject to points deductions. As it is, one of them will most likely be champion. Pause for thought.

But! It's not all bad news. As far as I'm aware (and, as always, right of reply to anyone who knows differently), several clubs will end the season in good financial shape, and some of those that have over-reached have sugar-daddies or incredibly generous sponsors to fill that gap. However, the Elite League can't rest on its laurels. A competition is only as strong as its weakest team, and a proper structure has to be put in place to ensure that ten - or eleven, or twelve - clubs can afford to compete on a level playing field, and sanctions introduced for any that break that structure, either through ambition or negligence.

Only then can our champions actually be deserving of the name.

ITEM: Okay, something positive. If you've got a big heart, if not deep pockets, this weekend is an opportunity to give something back to speedway, and to those who entertain us, especially at the lower levels of the sport.

On Saturday night, at Berwick's Shielfield Park, the Bandits will take on Sheffield Tigers (with some special guests on both sides), with all the proceeds going to help Ricky Ashworth through what will no doubt be a petty sticky period in his life. For those of you who don't know, Ashworth crashed heavily whilst riding for Berwick at Scunthorpe on August 2nd and has been in a coma ever since, although there have been encouraging signs that he is on the road to recovery.

The Bandits' landlords, Berwick Rangers Supporters' Club, have given them the stadium rent-free, and all riders and officials are donating their time to the cause. If you are anywhere near that part of the country on Saturday night, you could do worse than drop in and be entertained for a couple of hours whilst giving money to a very deserving cause. The admission fee is a minimum donation of £13 - feel free to give more if you can afford it but don't feel guilty if you can't, just showing up says more than any grand gesture ever could.

On the same night, and in a more central location, there's another event that deserves your attention and support. The second Midland Development League Riders' Championship is taking place at Leicester's Jordan Road Surfacing Stadium, and features sixteen of the sport's unsung heroes and future stars racing for nothing but the love of the game.

The MDL is in its third year of operation, and has played its part in bringing through talent for the National League and, you would hope, beyond. Ten of last year's field have had team spots in the NL this season, last year's runner-up (Ollie Greenwood) has had over a dozen outings at Premier League level, and you wouldn't bet against the same being said of a good number of this year's finalists in a year's time.

There are still some opportunities for sponsorship open (at a very basic level of financial support) but if you'd rather just watch some of the most exciting and ambitious youngsters sliding their way onto the speedway ladder, then it's just £10 to get in. With the cream of the MDL crop racing for individual glory, you won't regret it.

Lastly, Sunday afternoon brings us to Buxton, and the Air Fence Challenge. I wrote a few weeks back about the sterling job done by Dean Felton in assembling a top, top field of the stars of yesteryear, and it's no less enticing now. A title-challenging Premier League side could be put together from the riders who've passed through the Derbyshire track, and the survival of the grassroots operation depends on them raising the cash to buy the SCB-mandated airfence for 2014.

Again, it's only £10 in, and you'll be guaranteed a full afternoon of fun (and probably more competitive than they intend it to be) racing from Gary O'Hare (Stoke, Ellesmere Port, Newcastle & Long Eaton), Jan O Pedersen (Cradley Heath & Sheffield), Kevin Little (Berwick, Edinburgh, Coventry, Newcastle, Workington & Redcar), Tony Atkin (Wolves, Bradford, Sheffield, Stoke, Newport, Berwick & Buxton), Dean Felton (Long Eaton, Stoke, Berwick & Carmarthen, Sittingbourne, Mildenhall, Isle of Wight & Buxton), Glyn Taylor (Crewe, Reading, Edinburgh, Long Eaton, Sheffield, Stoke, Berwick, Bradford & Newcastle), Alan Grahame (Birmingham, Swindon, Cradley Heath, Stoke, Oxford & Hull), Rob Grant Sr (Berwick & Edinburgh), Bernie Collier (Middlesbrough, Newcastle & Belle Vue), Sam Ermolenko (Poole, Wolves, Sheffield, Belle Vue, Hull & Peterborough), Dave Harvey (Cradley Heath & Long Eaton), Aidan Collins (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Workington & Birmingham), Andy Meredith (Coventry, Stoke & Oxford), Martin Dixon (Middlesbrough, Halifax, King's Lynn, Newcastle, Long Eaton, Berwick, Swindon & Glasgow), Ian Barney (Peterborough, King's Lynn, Exeter, Sheffield & Long Eaton), and Rob Hollingworth (Berwick, Boston, Wolves, Edinburgh, King's Lynn, Coventry, Scunthorpe & Mildenhall).

With riders who have spent time at nineteen current tracks and another thirteen defunct ones, there should be a decent turnout that should go some way towards paying for the fence. I'm gutted that I can't make it but I will be donating £10 to the fund via Go Fund Me. If you can't make it it would be super nice of you to do that, too.

And now back to people making a mess of speedway, rather than propping it up...

ITEM: There are times when you think that British speedway is in such a ridiculous state that no other country could possibly run their speedway any worse. And then, probably about once a season, something happens that makes you grateful for what we have, and glad you don't live in Poland.

Walkovers aren't unusual in the Polish leagues. The most common cause is because a club, usually in the lower leagues, can't raise a team of sufficient standard to travel away, and the home club is granted a 40-0 victory. Once upon a time, and because it was a sport and results need to be genuine, the home team would be made to take to the track, racing unopposed until enough points had been scored to secure the victory, but thankfully that doesn't happen much anymore.

Occasionally, though, walkovers are gifted for other reasons, and in the top division, often with tens of thousands in attendance, and many more watching at home, such as last year's play-off semi-final farce when Greg Hancock arrived too late to sign into a meeting, and his Tarnow team disqualified (although this was overturned on appeal and the referee banned for his actions).

This year's pantomime occured on Sunday, when Torun - travelling to Zielona Gora with a narrow three-point lead over the hosts in the play-off final - suffered the loss of Tomasz Gollob, injured the previous night in the Swedish Grand Prix. Unwilling to ride with a junior taking his place (with rider-replacement already being used for the injured Chris Holder), Torun sought a two-week delay - although there was no way that Gollob would have made even that extension, they may have been able to deploy one of their squad riders, such as Edward Kennett or Ryan Sullivan - which was rejected by the home team, well within their rights to do so.

Faced with certain defeat, Torun (or their chief sponsor, depending on which reports you believe), walked out of the stadium and Zielona Gora were gifted a walkover and announced as the 2013 EkstraLiga winners, a hollow victory, even if the history books won't record as such in a list of winners.

Although Torun's actions have been deplored by everyone, the EkstraLiga clubs are already in dispute with the Polish federation over what they see as restrictive regulations placed on their business. With league sponsors ENEA very unhappy about this latest turn of events, the future for top-level speedway in Poland is very much in flux . Remind you of anything?

ITEM: I spent the weekend at two championships featuring the lesser lights of our sport, but only nominally so. That the majority of the riders in Friday's British Under-19 Championship and Saturday's National League Riders' Championship are not households names (or even what passes for that in speedway circles these days) is predominantly down to their youth and inexperience, rather than a lack of talent and drive, and both meetings were none the poorer for that. Indeed, much of the best speedway I've seen this season has been at that level, where what the riders make up for in natural ability or honed track craft is more than made up for in terms of desire and pluck.

Friday's Under-19 Championship, held in front of an encouraging rather than blockbuster crowd at Brandon, could have benefitted from a few more accomplished competitors, even at that age, to go along with the half-dozen who progressed to the latter stages. That said, there was some good racing, especially in the second-half, and a turn of events in the final that everyone except Ashley Morris and Adam Ellis saw coming, as Stefan Nielsen repeaed his 2012 success by outgating them both from trap 4 to race into a lead he wouldn't surrender.

Nielsen was a deserved winner, although Morris, especially, can count himself unlucky not to have taken the title after five straight wins in the qualifying heats. All sixteen competitors will have learned from the experience, and several of them have further chances for success at that level. Although we've been a bit thin at youth level of late, discounting Tai Woffinden, the signs are encouraging that Phil Morris and Neil Vatcher (and an army of volunteers helping them out) will soon see results from their endeavours. Despite some grumblings from over-entitled fans expecting to see 16 finished articles, the majority of the crowd seemed to enjoy what they saw and I'd imagine that most of them will be back again next year, hopefully with others in tow.

A stronger field was assembled at Rye House the next night for the NLRC, although a few of the same names were very much in the mix. As it was, experience was the telling factor, as Steve Boxall, former Rye House Rocket and now Kent King, took the honours after an aborted run-off with King's Lynn Young Star Lewis Kerr. That Kerr would race - and score points - for Swindon in the Elite League play-offs two nights later tells its own story about the growing strength of the third tier, and Boxall himself certainly wouldn't look out of place at that level.

Dudley's Lewis Blackbird was third, although he was given a helping hand by his teammate Paul Starke, who waved him through to avoid a run-off with Robert Lambert. Lambert, although beaten into third place in two of his five rides, was a joy to behold, with a beautiful style that will captivate bigger audiences than the 2,000 or so that were there on Saurday night. To see his first steps - and those of riders like him - is one of the reasons hat watching speedway at National League level is a joy, when the Elite League can often seem a chore. If I were to be given a stark choice between the two, it would be no choice at all, and I think that Dudley and Mildenhall fans will miss it hugely when they make the inevitable step up into a higher league.

As it is, I'm lucky to be able to see speedway at all levels in this country, with tracks within easy reach offering a smorgasbord of racing action. You can keep your Grands Prix, your World Cups, and your Zlata Prilbas, I'm backing British. As Alan Partridge would say, "Join Me!"

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Rush For The Play-offs (and other things)

ITEM: All our leagues stuttered to some sort of climax, at least of part one of the campaign (the bit made redundant by everything that comes after it) at any rate, and it’s the usual story of not quite getting it right.

All four (if we include the MDL) leagues still have fixtures outstanding after the cut-off date to decide play-offs, despite the season opening on March 10th, twenty-seven weeks ago. And all this in a summer when we’ve had some glorious weather, with a below-average number of rain-offs!

Still, at least the National League and, just about, the Elite League managed to race all relevant fixtures, unlike the Premier League where Leicester have missed out on the play-offs because Rye House and Redcar have yet to complete their fixtures. Sound odd? It’s because if Redcar were to get heavily beaten at Rye, their points difference would have seen Leicester progress ahead of them. As it is, Uncle Len’s itchy call-off finger has done them a favour, although they may have avoided defeat by the margin required in the end, anyway.

The play-offs were foisted upon the Elite League by Sky, eager for a season-ending blockbuster. They were adopted in the other leagues, I assume, as a way of extending interest in a season which might have runaway leaders. There’s nothing wrong with a play-off system – most sports utilise them to decide their champions, with football being the exception (a big enough sell in its own right to avoid the pressures of television, and with an ingrained fanbase that treats every match as important, however pointless it may be).

But few of those sports are as dependent on the weather as speedway, and none of them have such a clusterfuck pile-up at the end, or go with fixtures uncompleted before the vital places are decided.

The solution is a simple one – instead of one cut-off date at the end of the season, have a number (four sounds about right), spread throughout the year, by which clubs have to have completed a percentage of their home meetings. Furthermore, there should be no  league fixtures scheduled for the final week before the cut-off, as a safety feature. This should ensure that, as the season comes to a climax, no side is rushing to complete its fixtures, and that farces like we saw at Belle Vue last week need never happen.

Of course, this being speedway, I’m sure they’d find a way to mess even that up, but in years when the weather is not so kind something has to be done to avoid the ridiculous situation we find ourselves in time and time again.

ITEM: Now we know the teams taking part in the play-offs, I can look back at the predictions I made pre-season with a little smile. Making predictions before the season starts, when injuries or avoiding them can play such a big part in a team’s success or failure, is a fool’s errand, but I’m nothing if not a fool, and so I plunged in, feet first, and if I’d put money on would probably have come out ahead.

In the Premier League I got five of the top six right, with the one I missed out on being Leicester – who, as written above, may end up in that top six by season’s end anyway. I also predicted the bottom two – there was no way on Earth Sheffield and Glasgow were going to be anywhere else with the teams they put together – and win a personal bet with Scunthorpe’s press officer, Rob Peasley, about their lower table finish.

I had similar success in the National League, getting three of the top four right. Who knew Stoke would be so bad? Obviously not me, because I had them 3rd. I did have Mildenhall 5th, though, so again I picked pretty well.

The same can’t be said of the Elite League, where I only got two of the four play-off participants spot on. Having said that, Poole’s season-ending 1-7 bears no resemblance to the one they started the season with, and I think if they’d stayed with that team my prediction of 7th might even have been a bit generous. I had Lakeside in the mix, but that was before they lost Worrall, who would have been a key man for them.

My biggest errors were placing Wolves so low (although even the Speedway Star’s Wolves fan, Steve Nock, didn’t see much of a season for them), and Coventry so high. In my defence, Wolves have been awful away since Ty Proctor got injured, and it was his points that propelled them to such success early on. And Coventry? Got it wrong, just like Mick Horton. I did think that everyone in the team had improvement in them, but Roynon’s injury seemed to knock all potential out of the side and our gradual slide to the bottom is probably about right.

So, having shown just how good I am at this prediction lark, let’s make some more, shall we? In the National League I really can’t see past Dudley making a clean sweep of the trophies, emulating Mildenhall’s feat of 2012. And in the Premier League Somerset look to have just enough to see them over the line, especially if Charles Wright continues his NL form in the PL play-offs.

In the EL I’m torn between who I want to win (Wolves, the only “clean” team in the mix this season), and who I think will win. I think it will be a repeat for Swindon, if I’m honest, and it wouldn’t be unearned after a torrid few seasons before last year’s victory.

So there you have it, that’s my three for the titles. As always, the margin for error is MASSIVE but you’ve got to have a go, haven’t you? After all, if you don’t, what reason can people have for pointing and laughing at you? Okay, there is buying a season ticket for Perry Barr and still being expected to pay extra for the play-offs, but that’s a story for another day…

ITEM: Last weekend was a bit odd, with no speedway at Brandon, and not feeling like seeking any out elsewhere. Weekly speedway at Coventry has been a huge positive in a season that hasn’t exactly been full of them and I hope it continues next year. It’s true that you can get out of the habit of going and all clubs should look at how they can do it, even if it means starting late and finishing early.

This weekend, though, I’m spoiled, with two pretty special meetings on the agenda, both of them featuring the stars of the future. First up is the British Under-19 Championship, at Brandon, with Stefan Nielsen in great form ahead of defending his title.

Although, on the world stage, we’re a little behind Poland and Denmark (Sweden are in just as much difficulty as we are lately when it comes to producing future stars it seems), we do have a fine crop of youngsters, and most of them will be on display on Rugby Road on Friday night. Kyle Howarth has to start an early favourite, but there’s realistically half-a-dozen riders who could take the title, such is the strength of the field. It’s only £12 so, if you’re twiddling your thumbs with nothing to do, point the satnav towards Coventry and I’ll see you there.

The following night I’ll be at Rye House for the National League Riders’ Championship, the big night for the stars of the third tier. It may be because it’s been a rotten season in the top league (and not just because the Bees have been awful), but the National League has been brilliant this year.

Having a team in the league has meant I’ve gotten really involved, and found heroes and villains waiting for me. I’ve enjoyed every meeting I’ve seen at this level, and come away from all of them with a warm feeling about the lads I’ve seen scrapping for points and the tiny amount of money on offer. The NLRC is the culmination of that for me (with the Storm having missed out on the play-offs), and I’ll be there, with one ear also on the news from Stockholm and (hopefully) a British World Champion.

In fact, I might even dress up the car and drive it onto the track, grabbing a random woman on my way, kicking it old school like the good old days of the NLRC at Brandon, with the Miss National League and Best Dressed Coach competitions. Join me?

ITEM: Last week’s blog was the most widely read since I started this thing. While I’m extremely humbled and grateful for all the views, and especially the kind words people have said about it, I just wish it was because I’d written about something brilliant happening to the sport.

It’s still too early to properly gauge the fallout from last Monday – or from the fact that some of our top clubs are practically bankrupt yet still pursuing success on the track – but I’m encouraged by the solidarity most fans feel against the shenanigans that will do more to damage our sport than any poorly-prepared track or contretemps between two riders on the track.

You can only hope that the promoters feel the same way – and I know some of them do – and that steps are taken in the winter to ensure that we can feel proud of our sport again, rather than be relegated to tiny columns in newspapers and no coverage on the TV because we’re a dinky little sport bent on self-destruction.

I’ve never felt less positive about speedway than in the last ten days or so, and have probably taken each hit harder than I should do, knowing what I know and having a life outside of the sport. But you know what? It does hurt, and I make no apologies for that. I care about the wellbeing of the sport because its bigger than any one club, any one rider, any one fan. I don’t care who wins (well, not Poole, obviously) as long as it’s done right. Let’s try and see if we can sort that, yeah?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Slow Death Of Speedway (and other things)

ITEM: Well, where do you start?

What happened on Monday night will have repercussions far beyond Poole (in all likelihood) making the play-offs. The anger and sadness felt by pretty much everyone outside of Dorset will pay off down the line as yet more people walk away from the sport - fans, sponsors, and promoters - at a time when it needs everyone working together.

Simply put it was disgusting. What's worse is that we all knew it was going to happen, yet like a car crash unfolding before our eyes it was hard to look away. Because of that, because of the fact that it played out so very publicly, everyone involved in Monday night's farce will be tainted by it - from plotting broadcasters and amoral promoters, to pliant team managers and enthusiastic, cheerleading commentators, and including bullied riders, weak officials, and the companies whose money props up such crap. All of them have to wear the stink, and I suspect of them won't even care.

The stench of absolute desperation coming from Poole and the Sky team was palpable. Not making the play-offs, especially after "investing" (or, more correctly, taking a dent out of the promoters' dividend) in several team reshuffles, would be unthinkable for a Poole promotion who have seen crowds of under 800 this season and have risked wrecking an entire sport in the past to maximise their chances of winning what is a token prize at best.

Sky, who still remain uncommitted to any sort of future for the sport on their channels, have been hoodwinked into thinking that showing, and continuing to show to the exclusion of all others, one dominant team will not damage their product, perhaps looking at Premier League football, which has thrived on a small cabal of successful clubs. What small difference, however - for every fan that gives up on football (and, let's not forget, it is a far more ingrained passion for most than speedway can ever hope to be) there are thousands waiting in the wings. Speedway doesn't have that luxury. If one team is seen to be dominating, and through less than wholesome means, fans walk away and are not replaced.

Speedway's various manners of levelling the playing field have always meant that, for the majority of clubs, next season really is another year, full of hope that every team starts from scratch. Start messing with that, as Poole (and now Sky) seem to have been intent to do over the years, and you upset the delicate eco-system that our unique sport survives in. My gut feeling is that Sky don't care - this is their last hurrah with the sport and they will manipulate it to the best of their ability, and that doesn't make me feel better even one iota.

Kelvin Tatum said that this season had been "vintage" but it's hard to see how he could be more wrong. Assuming Poole make the play-offs, only Wolverhampton can claim their qualification is anything but tainted. Poole have pushed the regulations to the limit (and even broken them, seemingly without censure), and both Birmingham and Swindon have very public financial issues, spending beyond their means, however their cashflow problems can be explained away.

But back to Monday, and to those last few heats which saw the best rider on display fall unmolested and a serious crash which, thankfully, resulted in only minor injuries. It was clear to all watching that this would continue until Poole had secured all four points needed for their play-off push and, even if you weren't paying full attention and didn't realise, "Scoop" made it very obvious, stating it several times in the clearest of language. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and say that this was his own small protest at the events unfolding before him, but I'm loathe - on his previous performances and "editorial judgments" - to give him that much credit.

Once ten heats had been completed (although at no point could you describe anything we saw as "speedway", resembling more my tottering around the training track at Scunthorpe last December than actual racing), and Poole had that vital 7 point gap, a stage-managed and poorly scripted meeting took place backstage - sorry, in the pits - between team managers, captains, and the meeting steward, Tony Steele. For Belle Vue, Jason Atwood remained silent, resembling for all the world a nightclub doorman attempting to ignore abuse from a drunken ejectee, while Magnus Zetterstrom, a Poole asset who hadn't looked interested all night, suddenly found his voice. On the Poole side Darcy Ward couldn't hide his amusement as Neil Middleditch expressed his concerns about a dangerous track - "it's sticky", he kept repeating - losing any modicum of respect he may still have had after the SWC debacle in the summer. Meanwhile, Tony Steele just looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but Belle Vue, although he still found time to humiliate himself further when on the 'phone to meeting referee and nominated moppet, Graham Flint, by telling him that "the damp is coming out of the track" like that was a real thing.

It was then left to the broadcast team to mop up the vomit that had been spewed all over our sport, and they still found time to interview Matt Ford, who - of course - had expressed his concern at the dangerous conditions on track all night but never showed any sign of, you know, actually doing anything about it. That they remained professional is either a testament to their loyalty to their paymasters or a sign that we really have the wrong people in such important jobs.

Social media had exploded long before the end of the meeting, as it is wont to do. But rarely have I seen such anger and such a hopelessness for the future infused in every tweet, post, or text message I read. Promoters, team managers, riders, and fans all stood united, for only the second time I can remember. The first time involved the death of someone greatly loved in speedway, a poor omen for the future of the sport. What's worse is that some riders who have had suffered very serious, life-changing injuries could be counted amongst the host. If they are of the opinion that something is dangerous, I'd say they probably know.

For some fans it was the final straw. For most of us, we'll hang on in because what else would we do with our summer evenings? And perhaps this is the problem. If we walk away, we kill the sport we love. If we stay, we have no say in how it is run. It's a horrible Catch 22 situation, and one that will not be changed in the near future, perhaps until the sport has been brought right down to amateur level and built back up. None of us wants to see that happen but the promoters - custodians, not owners of the sport - need to realise it's an increasingly likely proposition.

So what happens now? Poole - with their chief pornmeister in spin mode on the British Speedway Forum and their team manager gloating on Twitter (even going so far - and this is the TeamGB manager, remember, to tell fans that them walking away from the sport is "no great loss") - will get the prize they have long sought, but may find it less valuable than they thought. The sport's authorities will pretend that nothing untoward has happened, as they did when Poole broke the rules and called off their meeting with a rampant Lakeside earlier this season, and stumble blindly towards oblivion. Sky will take their money and run, leaving a damaged product behind them, with no remorse or compensation for the destruction they have caused, and the rest of us will pick up the pieces and try and regain some love for our tarnished sport.

I'm still angry about what happened. I'm still sad. I might need a winter to get over it. But it's a long winter, and there's a change coming, if the promoters want it. What happens next will decide if most of us are still here in March.

ITEM: And now for something positive... On Sunday September 29th, Buxton are staging a fundraising meeting towards getting the money to buy an airfence for the Hi-Edge circuit. Earlier this season, the SCB mandated that all tracks staging competitive speedway in the UK had to have an "Additional Protective Device", usually taking the form of an air- or foam-fence.

For most of the dozen or so tracks that don't already have such devices, it's going to be hard to raise the cash to upgrade their facilities to the level demanded. For a track like Buxton, which exists on thin air and the good graces of a small, dedicated team of volunteers and well-wishers, it is nigh-on impossible. However, hope springs eternal, and amongst the plans to raise the funds needed was a gem of an idea from former Hitman Dean Felton.

With some gentle nudging and probably the promise of a few beers, Felton has put together a field of former stars of the sport, with a little something for everyone. Alongside 1980s National League giants such as Martin Dixon and Ian Barney, and entertainers from the same era like Gary O'Hare and Rob Grant, he's secured the services of two former world champions - Jan O. Pedersen and Sam Ermolenko - and can expect a big turnout from (fairly) local Cradley and Wolverhampton fans. As a Coventry fan of a twenty-odd year vintage, it's good to see Andy Meredith's name in the field, back on a bike after a career-ending injury and hopefully up for riding even a tenth as fast as that day he beat Hans Nielsen around Brandon.

The key thing here is fun. Fun and a very good cause. Buxton has been the training ground for Premier League Riders Championship winners and TeamGB internationals, as well as the odd Aussie international making their first steps in league speedway. It's a facility that, for its beauteous surroundings alone, we can't afford to lose.

I hope, if you've no plans that or at least plans you can easily cancel, you'll get along and support Dean's efforts. Even if you can't, chuck a tenner into the fund at You'd only spend it on sweets and pop otherwise...

ITEM: So, after a terrible Slovenian Grand Prix, Tai Woffinden needs just a handful of points to secure the world title, and will be the first British world champion since Mark Loram in 2000, the only one of the Grand Prix era.

Much has been written of Woffinden's change of attitude this season, most of it surrounding his fitness regime (mocked, however kind-heartedly, by Australian rivals who trail in his wake), but I'd wager it's a change in how he handles himself off the track that will pay the richest dividends for the Lincolnshire-born racer.

I wrote Tai off earlier this season, predicting a basement finish, probably because I just didn't like him more than honest appraisal of his talents. I can't say he's totally won me around, or that I'll get behind him in the same way I will some of the other British riders, but he's certainly entered that neutral zone of me not particularly being bothered by him (other than those ear plug things), and that's a sea change.

Not that he cares, but if he does take the title in Stockholm or Torun, I will congratulate him and celebrate a British world champion. None of us should be afraid to admit when we're wrong, and Tai - through hard work towards his goal - has begun to win me over. No-one expected him to win the title, or probably even finish in the top six, but he's stuck to his task admirably. He deserves everything he gets.

Now as to whether a British world champion could create more problems than it solves... that's for another day!

ITEM: I make lots of plans. Most of them never come off. This isn't always my fault but it mostly is. However, it doesn't stop me making more plans. My latest one is a review of the season. Which isn't too ambitious, right? But I need YOU to help me...

What I'm looking for is a set of responses, ideally one per club, to a short list of questions - How did your club do? Best & Worst Visitors? etc - and I'll put them all together and we'll get some sort of picture of the season, as viewed by us, the fans. If you fancy helping, contact me at or on twitter (@alan_boon). You know you want to...

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Why, Sky? (and other things)

ITEM: Did you enjoy last night's televised encounter from Wimborne Road? Unless you're the most diehard, blinkered Pirates fan, I very much doubt it. Even when the competition has been somewhat closer than last night's mauling of Lakeside, the action from Wimborne Road has been less than exciting this season, and we've had plenty of chances to witness it - last night's meeting was the FIFTH to come from Poole, and the seventh to feature a team who currently lie in fifth place in the table. Meanwhile, long-time table toppers Wolves and Swindon have only welcomed Sky once each this year, despite Monmore Green perennially being voted the best track in the Elite League. Coventry, Eastbourne, and Belle Vue have also hosted the television cameras just the once, which (regardless of whether Sky switch next week's action to Belle Vue from Swindon) leaves 40% of the Elite League one meeting short of Sky's promise of 2 televised meetings per season. Still, we should be grateful, eh?

Except that, valuable injection of cash aside, what benefit does Sky actually bring to the sport? Mainstream exposure is a good thing for any sport - look at the profile of cycling since Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France - but with televised Elite League meetings seemingly randomly scheduled, skipping weeks and switching days, who is tuning in that hasn't got access to a copy of the Speedway Star or a log-in on the British Speedway Forum? To watch Sky Sports News you'd think that speedway doesn't exist - even during the massive story that was the winter of discontent we were treated to very occasional updates, delivered late at night, and revealing very little. Every other sport carried by Sky, and even those the channel does not have the rights for, is pored over in minute detail on the news channel, desperate to fill 24 hours a day, yet speedway is ignored - its best chance of attracting an outside audience editorially overlooked.

And even those broadcasts we tune into every Monday (or Wednesday, or every third Monday, or the last Wednesday in a month when you can eat oysters...) are becoming increasingly like parody. Every episode is a love-in with everything to do with Poole speedway (particularly Darcy Ward and Greg Hancock), with every story examined as to how it will affect the Pirates on the south coast. Reacting on Twitter to (much deserved) criticism of this approach, "Scoop" (who I can only assume earned that nickname on the pick & mix counter at Woolworths, such is his aversion to anything resembling journalism, never wavering from the official line) claimed it was an editorial decision he took to focus on winners - the logical extension of which implies that everyone but Ward, Holder, Hancock, and Woffinden (in the Grands Prix on Eurosport) is a loser. However Pearson may seek to justify it, it is lazy presentation which does nothing to create the stars a sport short on them desperately needs. The power of television, as proved by every reality show, is that it can create bankable celebrities, even if only in the very short term. What little exposure we have could and should be used to this purpose, advertising meetings up and down the country, discussing the talking points in the sport, and building up the minor players as very much major players.

Without this kind of assistance, and with what they have been presenting of late being very much - as someone on Twitter coined it - a #PirateWank, British speedway's involvement with Sky does nothing more for the sport than bring in cash (although even that seems to have been late to arrive), and it's increasingly hard to work out whether that injection of currency is actually a good thing, disappearing as it seems to have into the pockets of riders, and probably then into the swollen coffers of the engine tuners. It may just be that a little less money-for-nothing coming into the sport may actually be a positive catalyst, and lead to a realisation that we cannot continue to pay out what we have been, sums that have almost bankrupted one club this season and threaten the existence of many more.

The alternatives to Sky are not obvious. Eurosport have little in the way of production facilities, and ESPN have been swallowed up by BTSport, a new player and rival to Sky, who may be an option at some point, although there has been little indication they even know what speedway is. Another option would be webcasts - SpeedwayTV opened its doors this weekend, bringing us English commentary for the Polish play-offs, and I'm sure more than one promoter will have an eye on how successful it is. Pricing is obviously an issue, but the SpeedwayTV model of around £20 for a month's coverage (for 2 or 3 live meetings a week, plus access to highlights from other meetings) seems about right.

Sky haven't yet indicated whether they will renew the TV deal, which expires at the end of this season. The prevailing thought is they are unwilling to commit until they know the format of the 2014 season, but the format of the 2014 season cannot properly be decided until the BSPA know whether Sky will commit. An impasse, then, with no sense of impending climax. If only the same could be said for "Scoop" - I get the feeling of an impending climax every time he commentates on a Darcy Ward race...

ITEM: I made the plunge this week and switched from fan to sponsor, even if only in the most minor fashion. To reward the young lads for a season of Midland Development League action (of variable quality, but never less than welcome), I've sponsored the two Coventry representatives in the MDLRC at Leicester, on September 28th. It's not a massive sum - £10 per rider - but it's my little way of giving something back to novices making that first step (hopefully) to stardom.

There are opportunities of this sort all over our sport, particularly for those who really need it. I know that fans of the Dudley Heathens, although they may take the sport far too seriously for the level they're operating at, have been extremely generous with sponsporship for their riders, allowing them to buy better equipment which has aided their development. The great strides made by the likes of Lewis Blackbird, Paul Starke, Lewis Kerr, and others this season would most likely not have been possible without this kind of support, and it's not just for wealthier fans. By banding together, as I know some Heathens' fans have done, a small amount from a few individuals adds up to a significant amount presented as a lump sum.

Events such as the MDLRC present a straightforward opportunity to hand over some cash - alongside the sponsorship of individual riders (and there are still openings available for that, by the way!) you can also sponsor races, race jackets, and all manner of other things. With the event co-ordinator acting as a (hopefully!) trustworthy middleman, the sponsorship gets to those who need it, in the form of vouchers to be spent at the supplies van. But this is by no means the only way to do it - if you are interested in this sort of thing, chat to riders, their mechanics, team managers, and promoters, and see what you can do.

I don't earn a lot of money, and put a good chunk of it back into the sport every time I attend a meeting. But I can afford a bit here and there, and I'm sure you can, too. How about it?

ITEM: I travelled to Perry Barr last Wednesday not in my any hope of a Bees' away victory but because, such is the perilous state of the Brummies' finances, it might be the last time I get to see speedway there for a while. I sincerely hope that doesn't come to pass, because it's a great racetrack, even if riders race there for what amounts to late or no pay.

The highlight of the meeting - other than an angry Scott Nicholls about to land one on a fallen Ben Barker until he realised that the "brain in his toolbox" Cornishman had hurt himself in taking them both off - was reading the latest installment of Promoter Wars in the programme. It's an open secret that there has been a state of civil war at the Second City club for some time, with forces lining up behind owner Alan Phillips or his hired lackey Graham Drury. The sensible ones are the ones who've stayed well out of it, or quit the club rather than deal with one or the other or both.

The previous week's Judgement column, penned by Drury, took a potshot at Phillips over the Ben Barker transfer affair, with Drury seeimgly washing his hands of it, and claiming he had no involvement in the deal, something quite at odds with comments at the time. Drury even promised/threatened to have the BSPA take a look at certain aspects of the transfer that he felt were contrary to whatever rules are in place - the same rules that are usually ignored by promoters trying to sign other clubs' riders after those riders have already verbally agreed a deal with their parent club, I presume.

In last week's programme, Alan Phillips hit back, using his column in the programme to remind Drury that, no matter what position Drury felt he held at the club, Phillips and Chris Luty were the owners, and that was the end of the matter. It was reminiscent of a parent gently rebuking his errant child, and it remains to be seen if further Judgement columns will continue the feud, or if Drury will consider himself told off and go sit in the corner.

As funny as this all is - and, let's remind ourselves, this situation only arose because Birmingham have spent more than they can afford in the pursuit of success - it really isn't something that should be done in public, or at least not by bitching at each other through programme notes like a pair of hissy teenage girls. As always, promoters should think, "What would Charles Ochiltree do?" and try to stick as close to that as possible. As incoherent as his Talking Time programme notes were, I don't recall Ochiltree dissing Mick Bell in them...

Whatever the future is for Birmingham speedway (and I hope there is one), I can't see eith man being involved. Successive promotions have been unhappy with certain individuals behind the scenes and perhaps the Perry Barr offices need a clean sweep to sort out what seem to be longstanding issues. I wish them luck.

ITEM: With the play-offs forcing clubs to look for fixture fillers, there is often the odd interesting fixture away from the big prizes at this stage of the season. A few years back, Swindon staged a four-team tournament with the Robins taking on teams representing defunct clubs Reading, Oxford, and Cradley Heath. This, indirectly at least, led to the revival of Cradley as Dudley, and the success story that has played out at "Monmore Wood".

Sheffield, Scunthorpe, and Leicester have also looked back to the glorious past and instigated a round-robin tournament using the old 13-heat formula, with an accompanying, old-style second-half. Abandoned at the end of the 1987 season, nostalgics everywhere have called for its return, citing the reduced racecard as the perfect embodiment of a speedway meeting. The top riders met each other just once using the old formula, which meant heat 1 was the race to see - an explosive start to the meeting setting the stage for what followed. And happiness, as they used to say, is 40-38.

With an uncertain future ahead, the BSPA could do worse than consider a switch, and I'd certainly hope they keep a close eye on goings on at Owlerton, Beaumont Leys, and the Eddie Wright Raceway over the next few weeks. It might even help with prospective new tracks who have curfew issues. Nothing should be uninvestigated before the AGM, and everything considered. We're at a huge crossroads for the sport and you don't get many chances to set things right.