Thursday, 17 October 2013

Was It Worth It? (and other things)

ITEM: So Poole Pirates are the 2013 Elite League champions. Well done them. From the moment they reached the play-offs they were obviously the best team in it, and from that point on deserved to win the title, and I'll congratulate them on their application and professionalism. The story of how they got to those play-offs has been told so many times that if you haven't picked a side (plucky underdogs or cheating scum) yet, you're probably not likely to. So, yeah, they won the league. But just what did they win? The Elite League has just finished its seventeenth season. In that time it's had its fair share of ups and downs but never has it looked in worse shape than it does right now. For Poole to triumph in the last days of a dying competition has no real worth, like bald men fighting over a comb. That is covered in dead, flaky skin.

And what of the teams who don't even get to pretend they've won something worth winning? Birmingham, as has been detailed in this blog on a number of occasions, have experienced massive financial problems this season, choosing to ignore payment demands from other teams rather than cut costs, and all in pursuit of a title they didn't win. As it is, the 2013 season for Birmingham looks exactly the same as it does for eight other teams - trophyless. And, unless something miraculous happens, 2013 also sees the end of Alan Phillips and Chris Luty's time at the club, with the promotional rights reportedly reverting back to Tony Mole. Although Mole would never see the Brummies close, if it was within his power to ensure otherwise, he's not a fan of EL speedway, and certainly never was for Birmingham, and so it's unlikely that they will take their place in the top league in 2014 unless new blood - with fresh money to be bled by carny promoters - is found to take over. Was it worth it, Brummies?

The league's most northern club, Belle Vue, also had a season-to-forget, publicly shamed by being caught with their trousers down trying to postpone a fixture against Poole for all the wrong reasons. As a result, they were fined heavily, and lost the ability to call off their own meetings without SCB approval. This had a massive knock-on at the televised meeting with Poole later in the season, when the Aces were forced to stand by, looking like spare parts, as the TV people, the SCB, and the Pirates carved up a contrived result. The repercussions of that night will echo down the years, and it will be Belle Vue, as the staging club, that may feel them more heavily than others. The Aces finished ninth, only three points above a woeful Coventry, and were rumoured to be paying their number one a guaranteed £3-4000 a meeting. With crowds not the best, a good chunk of that money (and some overdue bills) was probably paid by wealthy backer George Carswell, but you can't help but think it might have better used for when they eventually move into the fantastic new stadium down the road. Farcical waterloggings, paying over the odds... was it worth it, Aces?

Bob Dugard revealed last week that Eastbourne's average crowd was a worrying 770 people (even under Poole's season low of 784 against Lakeside), and that he'd lost £5000 per meeting this season. Dugard has a similar story every winter, which makes you wonder why he continues to promote EL speedway at Arlington. I'm sure his love for the sport is as strong as it ever was, and perhaps he dreams of seeing another generation of Dugards (Connor & Kelsey are almost ready for senior speedway) pull on an Eagles' race-jacket, but with an average take per punter at EL tracks being around £13 he's missed his break-even attendance by 400 people per meeting, a ludicrous/super-optimistic budget error. This can only have been compounded by an all-foreign EL-only line-up, flying in riders from Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Russia rather than paying petrol money for a drive from the Midlands. Even faced with an opportunity to lower costs when Lukas Dryml got injured (again), the Eagles chose to fly over a young Dane rather than use a young Englishman. They finished eighth, and will continue into 2014 only through Bob Dugard's continued charity. Was it worth it, Eagles?

Like Dugard and the Eagles, Peterborough's continued existence (at least at the level of spending they currently "enjoy") is down to one man - Rick Frost. Frost's cash was used to assemble a side to win the EL at last, gambling heavily on a septet of riders focussed solely (in the UK, at least) on racing in the EL for the Panthers. A mid-season reshuffle, which claimed the scalp of Jan Staechmann - undoubedly a nice man but with one of the worst records of any team manager in speedway - and several riders, tells you all you need to know about how [i]that[/i] turned out, but a subsequent increase in form almost saw them sneak into the play-offs. Until, that is, an SCB appeal committee and an SCB-backed farce at Belle Vue combined to wreck their hopes on the very same day. As it is, Peterborough finished in seventh place, and Frost must be wondering why he keeps throwing his money at a sport which seems determined to keep him off the honours list. More money spent, no real results - was it worth it, Panthers?

I could go on - fans and promoters of just about every club has to be asking themselves the same question, whether publicly or privately, and just about everyone bar a handful of Pirates fans agrees that there has be big changes made this winter. For once speedway has to look to the long-term, and ensure that all the leagues are fit for purpose well into the 2020s. We can't go on with a league structure that allows wealthy men to prop up unprofitable clubs, even if they're happy to do so, and we can't allow clubs to leech off others in pursuit of success. Contracts have to be transparent at the point of registration - and rejected if they do not make financial sense - and regulations have to be transparent to all. Unlike many other professional sports, speedway is almost entirely dependent on its fans' generosity, and those fans have to be included rather than excluded as far as possible.

The Elite League - and I'd start by scrapping that name and re-branding afresh, for one - has to be worthy of its position as one of the top leagues in the world. It has to have strong competition, strong governance, and a strong selling point. Get all three right and whoever wins the title in 2014 - even if it is Poole - can genuinely call themselves champions of something worth winning.

ITEM: It's usually around this time that they announce the wild cards for next season's Grand Prix series. Last year they took an unprecedented amount of time - ironically, I'm told, because there was some discussion over whether the Britain should receive a wild card, and if they did whether Tai Woffinden was the right man for it - but there's nothing to suggest that this year won't be a mostly straightforward decision.

Chris Holder, injured partway through the series as reigning champion, is one hundred percent, nailed-on to receive one, and if you can find a bookmaker willing to give you any sort of odds on him [i]not]/i] getting one, bite their hands off. Similarly, Tomasz Gollob has competed in sixteen straight SGP series, was world champion only three years ago, and finished in ninth place, just one outside the top eight seeds. Although age counts against him, he is not the oldest man in the field, and as long as he retains his enthusiasm (and popularity in the important Polish market), he'll be welcome in BSI's house.

The third choice has to be a Swede, although none made the top eight in 2013. Sweden will once again have two Grands Prix in 2014 and it's unthinkable to consider there won't be a permanent wild card wearing the blue & yellow flag next year. Just who will be gifted that place is less certain. Freddie Lindgren finished eleventh in the series standings, two places and nineteen points ahead of Andreas Jonsson. However, Jonsson missed two rounds due to injury, and it's thought that this might give him the upper hand on his compatriot. Antonio Lindback, marketable but frustratingly erratic, came last of the series' fifteen regular riders, and faces a season in limbo, since he didn't qualify for qualifying (if you know what I mean!) in 2014. The other outside chance, perennial event wild card Thomas H Jonasson, is injury-prone and unproven at this level. Interestingly, Jonsson has aleady been announced as a series wild card for the 2014 European Championships - as have SGP regulars Nicki Pedersen and Emil Sayfutdinov - and whether the bubbling tensions between BSI and SEC break out full-scale war may have a bearing on BSI's decision.

Also nominated as a wild card for the European Championships is the man widely tipped to be in the driving seat for the final wild card nomination - Grigorij Laguta. Laguta is arguably one of the top riders outside of the current SGP series, with consistently good performances in the Swedish and Polish leagues not going unnoticed by the organisers. Laguta is also popular in Latvia, who again will stage a GP in 2014, and was once reported to have been seeking citizenship (it is thought he would not pass their stringent language tests). However, the Lagutas have had all kinds of issues with visas to ride in western European nations (brother Artem, a GP rider in 2011, missed the British and Italian rounds through visa problems, and both men have missed several other FIM commitments due to this issue), and the Russians have firmly thrown themselves behind SEC. These aside, it should be hard to ignore Laguta's claim.

Other long-odds contenders include Michael Jepsen Jensen (disappointing year by his early standards, and with two Danes already in), Patryk Dudek (World Under-21 Champion, but would be a fourth Polish rider), and Martin Vaculik (who never really got going in 2013, and has expressed a desire for a year out). Beyond that, a second British rider seems implausible, and there is no-one at the required level from any nation outside the top two who wouldn't look out of place in that company. You might, as an extremely outside bet, look to Finland's Joonas Kylmakorpi, who has won several world titles in the Longrack discipline, is a capable speedway rider in good competition, and would help sell the inaugural Finnish GP to a new market. Worth a quid, at least.

Whoever gets the nod, it's another SGP series with far too many rounds to sustain serious interest but should be competitive, at least at the top end. Although it has received minor tweaks over its eighteen season history, and has doubled the amount of rounds in a bid to expand its appeal, you have to wonder whether it's not time for something a little bit different. Still, a lot of fans seem happy with what they're being served up, so I will err on the side of their happiness, for once. For me, though (and others like me), the politics behind the series will always be far more interesting than what takes place on the track.

ITEM: Australians don't arrive on these shores as novice riders, never having ridden a speedway bike, and find themselves handily in possession of the necessary talent to fill half the team slots available in British speedway. There is a thriving youth speedway scene down under, and it is this - and a parallel flat track scene - that provides these future world champions with the skills they put to such good use in the northern hemisphere. Similarly, the Danes, Swedes, and Poles - all of whom have dominated world speedway at various points over the last two decades - have their own junior speedway competitions, with pre-teen youngsters riding scaled-down bikes in Europe-wide championships, gaining a solid grounding to become the stars - and second-strings - of the future.

Britain has been slow to put any kind of structure in place that would ape the success of its rivals, previously relying on the generosity of parents, individual clubs, and the grasstrack scene (which [i]has[/i] looked to youth for some time) for its new blood. For the large part, promoters - and fans - have expected the finished article to appear at the pits gate at 16, ready to race and eager to please, without thinking where this production line actually started. When it began to dry up - and, it must be remembered, even our first world champion for thirteen years is largely a product of the Australian youth system - they scratched their heads and looked to ever more average Europeans and Antipodeans to fill the gap. The result? Less and less British riders in team slots, and less and less able to compete on the world stage. Oh, and Lubos Tomicek.

I'm not here to bury youth speedway in this country, however, but to praise it. In recent years, steps have been taken - and fully supported by the BSPA and the majority of its member clubs - to arrest this chain of events, and youth speedway is firmly back on the agenda in the UK. The British Youth Championships encompasses half a dozen rounds, and is staged on Elite, Premier, National, and non-league tracks, and graduates from that system have begun to filter into 1-7s, alongside their more traditionally-recruited compatriots. With EL team managers Phil Morris and Neil Vatcher overseeing things, there is a clear path for youngsters to follow (or there will be once the PL gets its house in order, [i]vis a vis[/i] British riders), and if we aren't competing on the biggest stages in years to come it won't be for lack of effort on their part.

Clubs that aren't directly party to supporting the Youth Championships have also played their part, by including youngsters as "souped-up mascots", familiarising fans who are perhaps unwilling to give a chance to lads starting out with the names they'll be watching in future years, but I'd like to see it formalised a little more, if it is in any way possible. At Leicester for the Midland Development League Riders' Championship the other week, in between blocks of four races, we were treated to four races featuring under-16s, on 125cc bikes. The lads took to the track with increasing confidence, and the times got faster, and it helped break up the boredom between those "two rides on the trot" breaks in individual meetings. In the German second division they go a step further, and include the scores of 125cc races (with one rider per club in a four-team format) in the final meeting result. Something similar was tried at last weekend's free meeting at Redcar, and if it all possible it should be encouraged here.

More and better British speedway riders benefits every one of us, down the line. They will make British speedway cheaper to run, enable more clubs to thrive and survive, and give our kids local heroes to idolise. It's up to all of us to support it, wherever we can, because if nothing else I'm sick of these Australians doing it right when we're not. That's just not cricket!

ITEM: Redcar face Somerset tonight in the final Premier League play-off semi-final meeting, the semi-finals in the second division being run in a mini-league format. Any one of the three teams in the mini-league - Newcastle are the other one - could progress to the final, but it's going to take a freak result for it to be anyone other than the Rebels*. Allowing for the quite reasonable assumption that either Somerset or - their opponents in the final - Edinburgh will be unable to stage a meeting tomorrow night, that leaves just 13 days to fit in - and promote! - a two-legged final, where both participants race on a Friday. Obviously one of them is going to have switch race-days - easier for the Rebels than the Monarchs, who share their stadium with some flea-bitten mutts - but even so, and allowing for the weather at this time of year, it's going to be quite a squeeze.

This situation has been brought about by the unwieldy format, as much as by some inclement weather, and it's obvious that it's not a workable solution to include six teams in the end-of-season play-offs. It doubles the amount of fixtures required to find a winner, and allows the prospect of the sixth-placed team winning the title when fourth place is stretches credibility to its limit. It also requires an earlier cut-off date, plunging the rest of the league into staging fixture fillers or shutting down early, with most teams having shut up shop before the leaves start to turn orange on the trees.

In the Elite League, the demands of Sky TV have seen the play-offs stretched out over a four-week period, with clubs forced to run on Monday nights to suit the broadcaster. There's no doubt that play-offs are good for the sport - they provide an end-of-season bang when, in most years, the season might just whimper out, but allowing clubs to stage their home legs on their regular race nights would not only help them maximise revenues, it would also squeeze the play-off meetings closer together, and allow for a later cut-off date in the EL, too. Hopefully, if Sky finally deign to tell us whether they're going to be showing the EL in 2014 or not, this can be taken into consideration, and the season can truly end in a suitable fashion.

There's no simple answer to scheduling meetings in a sport so vulnerable to the extremes of British weather, but we're not helping it at all. A little more thought, and a little more care taken over the placing of cut-off dates and play-off reserved dates, and we might just get there. Another thing to sort out - I'll add it ot the list!

[* Redcar win by 36 points or more - Redcar progress. Redcar win by 21-35 points - Newcastle progress. Redcar win by less than 20, or any other result - Somerset progress]

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Tai Woffinden, World Champion (and other things)

ITEM: Tai Woffinden is the World Speedway Champion. If you'd told me I'd be typing that seven months ago I'd have laughed at you and tried to sell you some invisible clothes. However, far from floundering down around the Drymls and Lindbacks, Woffinden has plugged away, consistently, and through a couple of (what were once thought of as, before he made a mockery of them) serious injuries to claim the world title. Would Sayfutdinov have pipped him to the post if he'd not been horribly injured by a dangerous Adrian Miedzinski? Perhaps. Would Darcy Ward have taken the title if he'd raced a full season? Maybe. And would Chris Holder have had more of a say in retaining his title if he hadn't ridden so hard (to be fair, the only way he knows to or wants to) at Brandon in the summer? Possibly. The truth is that history isn't written by ifs, buts, and maybes, it's a tale of certainties, and one thing is certain - Tai Woffinden rode well enough season-long to win the title. That's all the history books will say and anything else demeans his achievement.

It does make you wonder, with Tai only actually winning one Grand Prix on his way to the title, whether he'd have achieved this honour in under the old system, with a one-off world final at the end of a series of qualifying rounds. The simple answer is we can never know, but it does raise a question of just how valuable it is to win one of these damn things! Mathematically, you could win every round and still not be guaranteed to win the world title, although it's difficult to imagine that ever coming to pass. The GP series rewards the most consistent rider over a six-month period and, while it occasionally serves up some dull champions, there's certainly an argument to be had for that, even if it does lose a little something of the excitement of the olden days.

So what happens now? Well, it has to be said that Woffinden's victory couldn't have come at a worse time for British speedway. Our first champion in thirteen years represents a sport that is, organisationally, on its knees. At a time when we should be shouting from the roof tops about our great sport, and how people can get in on the ground floor and support their local team, a lot of them have already closed up for the winter, and there's no clear picture of how next season will look. How wonderful it would have been to have been able to say, "If you want to try this speedway thing, get down to [insert local track here] on [next possible date here] to see [name of celebration event here]!" As it is, we can't even say when the 2014 season will start, what teams will be in what leagues (or even if those teams will be here at all!), and who will be on show to thrill these potential new fans! It used to be that the new World Champion was crowned in the last week of August/first week of September, allowing everyone - Europe-wide, but especially this country - to capitalise on the buzz. Now only a handful are in a position to make hay, and with Woffinden not in the best of shape those opportunities are diluted even further.

So where does the new World Champion fit for next season? I've written before, and Matt Ford has expressed similar concerns to his local Pravda, that to survive (in order to eventually thrive once more) speedway needs to cut costs dramatically in 2014. The simplest way to do that is to cut the top off the league, with the Grand Prix riders - and others of their ability and price range - being overlooked in favour of UK-based middle-order men. This would either mean that the World Champion does not ride in his home league next year or, if a special case is made, that he's head and shoulders above his competition for race wins. Sure, this latter scenario could make him the one everyone wants to beat, and that in itself is a good selling point for away promoters, but it would do little for Wolverhampton's home entertainment levels and bank balance! Do the promoters back-pedal on what's already been privately discussed, and more or less agreed to be necessary, because we lucked into having the World Champion? Or do they sail a straight course and try to make the best of an unfortunate situation? They could do what they usually do, of course, and just let things happen, with little or no planning, but that's how we've ended up here in the first place...

I would suggest a third option, however - one borrowed from the world of wrestling. Hey, don't stop reading - it's perfectly applicable to speedway, too! Back in the day, over in the US, there was no national wrestling company, unlike today's WWE. Instead there were dozens of smaller "territories", each running their own book, and with their own pool of wrestlers. Occasionally, wrestlers would be sent from territory to territory to freshen things up, but mostly home favourites stayed where they were, and where the style of that territory suited them best. Most of these regional territories belonged to an umbrella organisation, the National Wrestling Organisation (NWA). The NWA had its own title belts, competed for by nominated wrestlers from the territories, chief amongst which was the NWA World Heavyweight title. The holder of that belt would no longer work in his home territory (or at least not exclusively) but rather be sent around the US (and to Japan, on occasion), facing challengers on the circuit. In that way, no matter who "owned" the champion, every promoter got to share in a piece of the pie. I would argue that, if we are to see the back (a least temporarily) of riders of Woffinden's class in the British leagues, that this set-up is ideal for maximising interest in the sport. Imagine that, rather than compete in 28 league meetings for one club (14 at just one track), the opportunity was found for the World Champion to appear in meaningful fixtures at all 29 tracks currently promoting speedway! In that way, Woffinden gets to ride in his home country, the fans (old and new) get to see the champ ride, no matter where they live, and the league can restructure without the imbalance his presence might introduce.

I aleady know what you're saying - some of you said as much when I teased it on Twitter - but it's a creative solution to a thorny problem. As it is, I have little idea, and there's also very little blowing in the wind, about how the leagues will look next season, or whether Woffinden - and Ward, Holder, Iversen, or Zagar - will be welcome on these shores. I can't stress enough, though, how important it is that the right decisons are made for the whole of the sport, regardless of whether they hamper any one club's ambitions, and I hope we can trust in the custodians of our sport to do the right thing. Interesting times!

ITEM: Given that I've just supported not renewing the contract of a rider who's given good service to his club for the past half-dozen years (including riding in Coventry on a Friday night before taking a red-eye to Moscow, and onto Togliatti, for a Saturday evening European Championship meeting), it might seem a little disingenuous of me to broach the subject of loyalty. However, no-one ever accused me of being genuous, so broach it I will...

What price loyalty? What do we expect of the people who represent our clubs, and what should they expect of us? "Fickle" is a horrible word. It is used as badly and as often as such other wordcrimes as "banter", "random," and "sick". It's usually thrown at those who change their position on something because of actual events rather than the proper definition of the word, which requires a frequent change, and implies little concrete cause for such changes. It's entirely reasonable for someone to like something or someone until events make them their change their mind, often doing a 360 on their original position. That doesn't mean you are fickle, it means you are honest. As a good example, my own position on Coventry promoter Mick Horton has changed several times since he took over the club, and probably still isn't anywhere near a fixed constant. This is natural and a world away from the default position most sports' fans seem to take - that of blind loyalty. As long as I perceive him to be doing an honest job under difficult circumstances, he'll have my backing. Do something utterly at odds with the ethos of Coventry speedway, fail to take notice of the fans' concerns, or explicitly go against the wishes of the majority, and he won't.

There are certain things we expect of our clubs' representatives, and if they tick those boxes they can enjoy our full support. Chief amongst them should be an appreciation of who they are representing, and what those people care about. Riders, promoters, and team managers should understand that they are fortunate to occupy the positions they hold, and they do so at the good graces of the supporters. Unlike football which, at the top level at least, has marginalised the views of its fans in accordance with how much their ticket money keeps a club afloat, speedway cannot afford to so blindly trample on its supporters' affections. Without that backing, a club fails. So when a club employee goes so blatantly against the grain, and then repeats his misdemeanour a week later despite having been warned about it, what's to be done?

Gary Havelock spent five seasons at Poole. He didn't win anything while he was there, but still holds Wimborne Road in such high regard that you can only assume he was extremely well-paid. He's having a Farewell Meeting there next year, which seems odd considering he spent seven years at Redcar. And that Redcar was where he finished his career. And that his dad owns the place. But still. That Havelock loves Poole is obvious by looking through his Twitter feed, his public mouthpiece to the world. He also waxed lyrical about their wonderful team in interviews earlier this season, even going so far as to admit that the Bees - who he is paid to manage, remember - would struggle to beat them at home. In the Bees' programme. All that is fair enough - you can't help who you fall in love with, even if it's the dirtiest girl on the estate. Fair enough except for one thing - it's Poole, and he's employed by Coventry.

Now I'm not sure if you're aware, but there's a bit of history between the two clubs. It covers quite a few years, and quite a few incidents, but takes in accusations of cheating and threats hurled across crowded pits, through firework-hiding, champagne-stashing, and disappearing hot-water, and ending up with AGM kerfuffles, rider-poaching, and all manner of troubles at ACU House. It's safe to say that there's bad blood. Poole love to hate Coventry, and Coventry want Poole to die. Painfully. Of course, you all know this. Everyone knows this. And despite a change of promotion at Brandon, the same fans are still there, and the Ford-assisted fall from grace of the 2010 Elite League champions still rankles with the majority of those who pay their money on a Friday night. So if you were the Bees' team manager, and the one who had just guided the club to their lowest league placing for 10 seasons, you'd keep your trap shut about your love for the one thing Coventry fans are united about, wouldn't you?

I'm not sure what happens next. No-one wants to see Havelock in the Coventry pits on Sunday when we take on Leicester. To be fair, his welcome had worn out long before the past two weeks' Twitter guff, but this has added fuel to the fire. If the club have any sense, and want a good piece of PR going into the dying embers of the season, they'll get rid, just as they did with Kasprzak (who returns, like a bad smell, one Sunday, too). The least they should do is remind Havelock of his responsibilities, and give him a crash course in the history of Coventry speedway. All riders, managers, promoters, and other club representatives should understand the culture of the clubs they represent. To fail to do so is not just foolish, it's suicide.

ITEM: To cap a good year for the West Midlands - with Tai Woffinden winning the world title and the Birmingham Brummies doing their best impression of Wimpy from Popeye to get into the Elite League Play-Off Final - the Dudley Heathens finally won the National League! I say "finally" because, although it is only their fourth tilt at the title, the Heathens have been massive favourites for every one of those years, able to call upon huge support and solid home advantage, but have always fell short until now. Last night, in front of their partisan travelling support, they finished the job at King's Lynn, and lifted the trophy that their fans have slavishly desired for so long.

Last year they were seemingly robbed of the title in the last heat of the play-off final away to Mildenhall (although actually, ironically, at King's Lynn's Saddlebow Road), when the referee appeared to change a decision upon "advice" from Fen Tigers' promoter Chris Louis. The Heathens withdrew their complaint to the SCB and drew a line under the matter, although the usual handwringing dithering from NL co-ordinator Peter Morrish wasn't encouraging in terms of a decent outcome. Instead, they refocussed their efforts on this season, and it paid dividends with the Black Country side completing a clean sweep of team trophies, as Mildenhall did in 2012.

There's plenty to like about the Heathens, with their fan-oriented set-up ensuring that club and riders benefit from the largesse of some very generous individuals as well as generating a genuine feeling of belonging at the club for all involved, and also to dislike. The passion of their fans is impressive but a small minority allow it to spill over into intimidation and threats. Thankfully, the large majority - although they take it very seriously for what is cheekingly referred to as a junior league by their local rivals - are good-natured, and with a little self-policing these 1970s hangovers (and I'm not talking about the haircuts!) should be shown the door.

Where now, though, for the former Cradley side? There was talk last year of a move up into the Premier League, and a fan poll revealed 90% were in favour, despite the increased costs. Not taking that step this time around may rankle with fans who were placated with a "one last season at this level" impression, even if it was not directly stated as club policy. There's still the thorny issue of them sharing at Wolverhampton which, despite what one of the Heathens' fans at Coventry felt this season, is a big issue. Is there a future for a "squatting" club? And how long should that occupation continue? Do the Heathens continue to bank profits in anticipation of a move (and, let's not beat around the bush, running with crowds every bit as big as EL Wolves in the NL is very profitable) or do they take a step up and reduce their war-chest for a stadium of their own? And even if a suitable site was found tomorrow, it's clearly not going to be ready for 2014, so what decision do you take while it's being built? It's a difficult issue, and one I'm glad I don't have to make. One thing is certain, however - if the Heathens do step up, the rest of the NL will miss their travelling support!

Although it was less fun watching the progress of Dudley this season than in previous years, mainly because they were racing against (and beating, four times!) a Coventry team, I still want them desperately to succeed in getting home and making it work. When I look back at the British League of 1988, my first season watching speedway, only Coventry, Wolves, Swindon, Kings Lynn, and Belle Vue remain of the top flight clubs (and the Robins and the Stars have been down and come back up again). Ipswich and Sheffield are in the second division and there's no Bradford, no Oxford, no Reading or no Cradley Heath. I want them all back, and Dudley in Dudley would be a small step towards achieving that.

ITEM:I've written before about the lack of third-tier opportunities in the north, and nothing seems to have changed very much regarding that. Berwick did stage a National League level challenge match, and Scunthorpe (which is nominally in the north, but very much in the Midlands if you are looking down from Scotland) have run several, with mixed results, but there doesn't seem to be much appetite for risking an NL enterprise in a region where the Premier League clubs often face a parlous existence. Which is a crying shame because so much is being done at Development level and below, without a clear progression for those who graduate (unless they are prepared to travel hundreds of miles for almost no money).

Although it runs with three-man teams rather than the (in theory, at least) four-man teams of the Midland Development League, the Northern Junior League is still the main outlet for young (and not so young) riders based north of Sheffield. This year it expanded from four teams to five, with Glasgow and Edinburgh also staging rounds of the Northern Open Championship. After beginning the season in the NJL, Liam Carr, Luke Crang, Tommy Fenwick, and Danny Phillips all went on to secure NL team places in 2013, and Ryan MacDonald and James McBain have made the odd appearance as last-minute guests at PL level, usually for short-handed visitors to Scottish tracks.

It's a scene that grealy needs encouraging by the rest of the speedway nation, who should be mindful that the future of British speedway is at least partly in the hands of riders from the north, with Craig Cook, Richard Lawson (both Cumbria), Richie Worrall (Lancashire), and Kyle Howarth (Manchester) all representing the region. If you're of a mind to show these lads some support, and have a good time yourselves while you're at it, you could do worse than get yourself down to Redcar's South Tees Motor Park this Saturday, where you can watch the Northern Junior League Four Team Tournament - for FREE! It starts at midday, and you're promised 50 (fifty!) heats of speedway for your (lack of) money, with teams representing Redcar, Workington, Berwick, Newcastle, Northside, Castleford, Linlithgow, and the return of Barrow! If you live anywhere near Redcar you'd be a fool to miss it.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Wobblers (and other things)

ITEM: This is where, if I were any kind of decent human being, I'd write about the play-off semi-finals, and the upcoming final. However, there'll be plenty of stuff written about that, all of it congratulatory and masturbatory, so for once I'll err on the side of the redundancy. Suffice to say, this year's final is the nadir of the Elite League's 16-season history, and a fitting death rattle as we go into the most important winter the sport has seen for almost fifty years. Will that do?

ITEM: What entitles you to a say in how your club should be run? Note that I say "should be", because we know - from bitter experience - that speedway fans have almost zero input into the structure, wellbeing, and future of our sport, perhaps less than any other fan-supported sport. That accepted, what actually makes your opinion worthwhile, over the cacophony of rubbish spouted by people who can barely spell their own name?

Do you have to be a fan-sponsor? Putting money into clubs' and riders' pockets so that there's a little more money to waste on frivolities than there would be without you? How about a season-ticket holder, stumping up cash in advance, with no guarantee of anything other than a minimum number of meetings for your buck, yet ever filled with hope that this will be the year? Or a regular attendee, paying your £10-17 a meeting on the gate, and able to duck out of going if something better (or less worse) comes up? Maybe you're even one of those fans, who don't go any more (or just a few times a season) yet still think that they should be heard on just where their club (who they no longer support, remember) is going wrong, without offering anything positive to change it, or provide finance for those changes to happen?

The truth, as always, is a huge mass of grey, and - of course - everyone who cares enough about their club to be hurt by a defeat or lifted by a victory deserves to have their voice heard, at least a little. However, I'd argue that by going to meetings and actively supporting your team you become a stakeholder, which is one of those horrible modern words that politicians like to use for people who are affected by something without having much of a say in how that thing is run.

Worse still are those who no longer go to meetings all that much but still spend "speedway money" on overseas trips to grands prix. I've argued before about how much money is "lost" to British speedway every time the British GP is staged in Cardiff - millions of pounds, if you remember - and, while the total isn't so great, to avoid league speedway in favour of GPs abroad is worse still. It shows an utter lack of awareness for the bigger picture, and a contempt for the sport bordering on insulting. Still, better Stockholm and Prague than Swindon and Redcar, eh?

All of that, which is an unfortunate and growing phenomenon, is made worse by those people expecting a say, even at social media level where the words and ideas expressed are unusual and unrealistic and mostly illuminating for all that, in how domestic speedway is run. It's like leaving your wife for a trashier model (although ugly as sin under all that make-up) and still expecting to tell her what to do, who to see, and how she should perform in the bedroom. In that situation you'd expect to be told to "do one", although perhaps not quite in those terms, and also maybe the subject of a police enquiry into your behaviour.While no-one is calling for the police to investigate the GP whores just yet, I think the sentiment should remain the same: if you want to tell the DJ what songs he should play, you have to dance with the one what brung ya!

You'd have to be an eternal optimist to believe that, one day, we might get a say in how the sport is run. Maybe a handful of us might come into some money and buy a place at the table as club owner or promoter - currently the only way to have your voice heard - but in the event that the unthinkable happens we have to be in a position to take advantage. That means all of us with an interest in the future of the sport staying loyal to our national leagues, and playing an active role as - shudder - stakeholders.

The administration of speedway in this country is in poor shape but the product is largely right. Carry on going to meetings, keep on suggesting changes and point out the potholes that the BSPA often seem so intent on driving into, and we may get through this. Together. As it should be.

ITEM: Whatever the outcome of the 2013 World Championship, after Saturday night's final SGP at Torun, we're going to have witnessed an incredible effort of one kind or another. Either Tai Woffinden recovers enough from a re-broken collarbone to score enough points to secure his first title, or Jarek Hampel rides exceptionally well to overhaul Woffinden and win his first championship.

It's been a stop-start season, GP-wise, which is perhaps a side effect of a too-long series where each individual event means less the more they add, and the timespan between the first and last almost six and a half months, a full nine weeks longer than the inaugural series. Injuries have also played their part in the continuity of the series, with Sayfutdinov, Ward, and Holder all potential winners affected, to different degrees, by serious injury.

This has all contributed to no clear narrative, so important in telling the story of a season, and if Woffinden wins the title with anything but a blockbuster performance in Torun it will be well-deserved but anti-climactic. If Hampel triumphs, it will be a great on-the-night story, but his win will always have a "but" attached to it.

Regardless of the result, the Torun GP has become an end-of-season party for fans, and I know more than a few of you are making the trip out there (after spending lots of money on domestic speedway all season!). Enjoy the trip and don't worry too much about "narratives", "ifs, buts, and maybes", and whether we get a British world champion for the first time in thirteen years or not. There should be nights when it's about four blokes racing around a track. Make it one of those, yeah?

ITEM: In a couple of ways, I witnessed a possible future for British speedway this past Saturday. In the Midland Development League - whose Riders' Championship I attended at Leicester - we have a grass-roots organisation providing opportunity and track time for future stars and those who can turn a bike enough to race but will, in all kindness, never progress beyond this level. Also at Leicester was a demonstration of Pete Seaton's Formula2 Speedway bikes, ridden by Les & Aidan Collins, and intended to be a cheap entry into the sport for less-affluent aspirants and hobbyists alike.

If you look at the history of British speedway - and why wouldn't you? - it's, for the majority of its existence, a story of a handful of professional racers backed up by thousands of local heroes working a nine-to-five before setting off for the track. They didn't expect to earn enough from their speedway endeavours to make a living, unless they hit the very, very top - in which case their billing on a racecard probably bringing in enough extra fans to make them worth every penny. For the rest speedway was a hobby, one that earned them a bit of pocket money and the attentions of some female fans but a hobby still. John Berry wrote a few years back that, of his all-conquering Ipswich team of the mid-1970s, only two or three were full-time speedway riders, and the rest had regular jobs. That was a title-winning side in one of the sport's heydays.

For some reason, and I'm not quite sure where it changed but it probably had something to do with the wholesale introduction of foreign makeweights into the British leagues, clubs are expected to find enough cash to allow their whole team to go full-time, even in the second division, despite incomes falling across the board. I'm not arguing that the riders don't deserve it - if it were up to me we'd all be swimming in cash, and none more so than those who do a risky job - but that we need a sea change in how we view the sport in this country.

For some people even National League speedway is a joke. For wobblers, has-beens, and never-weres. Quite what those people would make of the MDL or NJL (if they bothered to stay after meetings and watch them, that is) is another thing altogether, and that's before we even get to amateur events. There is a lack of respect shown to the lower ends of speedway that just doesn't exist in other sports, and that filters upwards into the higher leagues when graduates from the grass-roots levels progress. In the last week we've seen Lewis Kerr score points in the Elite League play-offs, yet as recent as a few weeks ago he was derided by some as "just" a National League rider, ignorant of the progress he has made in the last twelve months.

I write a lot about the future of speedway in this blog because I care a great deal about it, beyond what happens to my favourite riders or how well my own club are performing. That's because my favourite riders cannot race against themselves, and my club cannot win a league of one. Every level of the sport in this country has to be cherished and encouraged and supported, because without the grass-roots we have no foundations, and a house with no foundations is likely to collapse.

So, if you're one those people with no time for lower level speedway, think about that next time you sneer at the wobblers or hobbyists, and try and imagine what kind of speedway you'll be watching in twenty years. I wouldn't mind betting it's nearer my vision of the sport than yours.