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.

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