Thursday, 14 November 2013

Marquee Stars? (and other pre-AGM things)

With the promoters gathering for their annual shindig in Coventry this weekend, this week’s Speeding Motorcycles is an AGM-special, discussing three points that may arise out of the meeting…

ITEM: Is Wayne Rooney worth £250,000 a week? Well, he has the ability to turn games on their head, and scores his fair share of goals – and goals win games – but, more importantly, he sells merchandise, brings in sponsors, and people buy tickets to see him play. The same could be said for other football superstars – who can doubt that, placed against the massive turnover their clubs are making on the back of their endeavours, that Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi aren’t equally worth such sums?

What about Phil Jones? Or Bacary Sagna? Or James Milner? They are all on huge wages, but are arguably replaceable, and nobody ever bought a ticket to watch a right back play. But, such is the reality of modern football, the journeymen and average players that play alongside the superstars have seen their wages, too, balloon out of all sensible proportion. Football died a little bit for me when I read that Jloyd Samuel – who, as well as not even having a proper name, played left back in an average Aston Villa team – earned enough to buy a Ferrari, in cash. I’m shaking my head as I write this. You can’t see it, but I am.

What does this have to do with speedway? I’ll tell you. I always do. I was thinking about the current situation we’re in, whereby clubs have to cut costs and the sensible place to start is the wage bill. Now the easiest way to do this is to stop paying the top earners so much, or to cut them out of the top league altogether. This plan has its merits but a massive spanner was thrown into the works when Tai Woffinden last month became the first British rider to win the world title for thirteen years. How can we, in all honesty, deny Woffinden – and his fans and sponsors – a place in our leagues?

And what of the other top stars (although this is relative, given the current state of British speedway)? If Chris Holder or Niels-Kristian Iversen are prepared to commit to the British leagues, without exception, why shouldn’t they be used as a drawing card for fans and sponsors?

Perhaps there is a way it can be achieved, because these top stars, although their drawing power is a fraction of their counterparts from years before, can actually pay for themselves. But – using the football example above – we can’t carry those below them, who are demanding and commanding comparable money without bringing in the same results.

Speedway is an odd sport in many ways, none moreso in the way fans lionise the strangest of heroes. However, no matter how much a minority of fans might cheer for the likes of Lukas Dryml, Martin Smolinski, Magnus Zetterstrom, or Maciej Janowski, the truth is that these riders (and I’m using them as an example – you can probably think of many more) are a drain on the pocketbook of British promoters without giving too much in return. I’d even extend it to some “number ones”, such as Andersen or Kasprzak, but that may be too controversial for some.

If we are to keep the top riders – who are already pulling away from the herd in terms of scoring and spending power – these are the sacrifices we may have to make. Realism is a harsh master, but hard decisions have to be taken, and sacrifices have to be made. As much as I love watching Nicolas Covatti ride, I hope I’ve seen him take to a British track for the last time, at least for the time being.

ITEM: The ideal outcome of the AGM – well, one of them, because I have a wishlist as long as my arm – would be an expansion of the top division, whatever form that may take (and can I just say I always loved “British League”?). A couple of teams making the step up into a powered-down top flight would make all the difference to the fixture list, and freshen up a tired product. It would also rid us of the Dugard-placating ridiculous and lop-sided formula whereby teams meet some twice and others only once.

But who could realistically make the step up? What teams thriving (or at least surviving, because the Premier League isn’t the dreamland some second-tier fans make it out to be) in the second division would risk that to have to deal with Matt Ford’s shenanigans? It’s not a long list, but let’s have a look…

·       Leicester: This is pretty much a given. They applied last year and were only rejected because Peterborough seem to think that a good portion of their 700 fans come from Leicester. With votes having to be unanimous, and the Panthers apparently threatening to withdraw from the league if the Lions were admitted, they were turned down. This year, though, I sense that Peterborough will not get their way, whatever they may threaten, and the Lions will join the top league, and have ripe pickings of local derbies with Coventry and, yes, Peterborough, as well as King’s Lynn, Birmingham, and Wolves. It makes perfect financial sense, despite the higher costs, for Leicester to step up, and Dave Hemsley is nothing if not ambitious.

·       Ipswich: Let’s be honest about this – Ipswich only dropped down because they couldn’t put a successful side together to save their lives. This was probably down to their budget, although I have a sneaking suspicion it may also have been poor rider choice, year after year. They’ve been in the second division for three full seasons now, and still haven’t set the world alight, despite being one of the bigger clubs in that league, so you have to wonder whether it was such a good decision to take the drop. Add that to the added travel – with two northern tours if you’re lucky, rather than local derbies with Arena Essex, Peterborough, and deadly rivals King’s Lynn, and – like Leicester – stepping up again may actually make more financial sense, despite the added costs, than staying put.

·       Sheffield: Whoah there, I can here you shouting at the back, “but Sheffield are up for sale! They might not even run next season!” And to that I say, “poppycock!” Sheffield are, traditionally, one of the biggest clubs in the land. If you were to put together a top league of ten sides, based on history, they’d be in it. They’ve had a lean few years, as Neil Machin has sensibly had one eye on retirement and as such been unwilling to bankroll success beyond their means, but the infrastructure is still in place to promote the club as one of the best. All it takes is someone with a little bit of money and a large amount of vision, and Sheffield could rightly take their place in the top flight once more.

·       Somerset: The Highbridge club has a fantastic set-up, a loyal band of followers, and one of the best racing tracks in the world. They’ve finished runners-up and winners of the Premier League in the last two seasons, and as such should be chomping at the bit to test themselves against mightier opposition. They are still a young club, but older than Birmingham or Leicester in their current incarnations, so shouldn’t find that a hindrance, but may find their small town base an obstacle towards securing the fans and sponsors they might need to step up. An outside bet, at best.

·       Rye House: Rye House, in many ways, are the quintessential second division club. Tucked away in the suburbs of a middle-sized town, with a tidy stadium that wouldn’t disgrace a good non-league football side, and with a longstanding promoter cum owner driving them through season after season. Never in a million years would you consider that the Rockets might take the step up to the top league, except that’s been suggested on the British Speedway Forum this week… What’s in it for them? Local derbies with Arena Essex, and Peterborough, and with a clutch of other tracks an hour or so away? A natural step if nursery club Kent make their own step up into the second tier? Big away followings from Coventry, Wolves, and Poole to snaffle up Uncle Len’s fish & chips? Stranger things have happened – let’s file this under “wait and see”…

So, there you have it, some contenders for a top division slot from five of the second division’s leading sides. Other clubs with the infrastructure and fanbase to make the step might include Newcastle, Edinburgh, or Workington, but geography is a harsh mistress, and they need their local derbies with Glasgow, Berwick, Redcar, and the like. Plymouth, too, may find it hard to capitalise on one of the major reasons for promotion – big away followings from some of the top flight’s bigger clubs – with their geographical location and Friday racenight. Scunthorpe, neither north nor south, and out on a bit of a limb, have shown no ambition to step up from their current spot, and are comfortably getting on with looking after young British talent.

Whoever makes the step up – and it’s not guaranteed that anyone other than Leicester will – it’s not going to be easy. The last time a big clutch of sides made the step, when the two leagues amalgamated, they received little to no help from the bigger clubs, who wouldn’t release their better riders to aid the smaller clubs. I dearly hope things will be better this time around, and that all efforts will be made to ensure the new clubs, should there be any, are competitive and able to build for a stable future. My fingers are so crossed they’re a mess. Hopefully yours are, too.

ITEM: What’s the future for the National League? A league of just eight teams is a little on the slight side, as much as it does provide great opportunities for young talent to emerge and filter up through the divisions. When those eight teams include three who may well make the step up to whatever the second division looks like next season, two reserve sides, and three standalone clubs eternally teetering on the brink of extinction, it’s clear we need a small revamp, to go with the bigger ones happening further up the food chain…

If Mildenhall, Dudley, and Kent do leave the National League for greener pastures, as befitting their fanbase and set-up, there’ll be a big hole left behind. Stoke have gone quiet, and failed to complete their fixtures in 2013, but they and Buxton must seem like certain starters for next season. There is a big question mark over whether the Isle of Wight will line-up at the tapes, although I can’t believe that a club of their quality would allowed to go to the wall for the want of a loan of an airfence or the money to buy one. Coventry have confirmed they will look to compete in the third tier once more, whatever the make-up of the top flight, but King’s Lynn have struggled at times to squeeze in their fixtures, and even dropped out of the Elite League knockout cup to enable the Young Stars to run alongside their senior counterparts.

This could result in the third tier being down to just a handful of sides – three in the worst case – which would obviously be unsustainable. The simple solution would be to invite other clubs to run junior sides - Belle Vue, Rye House, Scunthorpe, Redcar and Poole have done just that in recent times, and may be willing to do so again. Another solution would be to encourage the likes of Iwade, Northside, and Lydd to enter teams, although the necessity of an airfence, even at this level, would in all likelihood be beyond those tracks (of whom Lydd isn’t even SCB-licensed).

Like so much at the present time, the future of the National League is in flux. Nothing could change this weekend, in which case it would be business-as-usual for the third tier. However, there may an upheaval which could see it needing to restructure itself entirely. Can we expect an NL with Buxton, Stoke, Isle of Wight, Coventry, King’s Lynn, Scunthorpe, Leicester, and Plymouth next season? It’s as likely as anything else. After a season of really, really enjoying the NL, I hope so.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Coventry Season In Review (and other things)

ITEM: When trying to review Coventry speedway's 2013 season it's almost necessary to split the review into three. As a whole, the club took some tentative steps forward, helped by a prudent financial plan, better PR, a more assertive attitude with rival clubs, and a successful return to third division racing. It can’t be ignored, however, that the Bees had a rotten season - the worst in almost a decade - and that's where the headlines are written large. I would counsel, though, that things aren't as bad under Mick Horton as some would, rather simplistically, try to make out.

So, the Bees, then. What a horrible, horrible season. From almost the second the tapes went up on the home opener against Birmingham, it looked destined to be a bad one. Some of the damage was done before that, however, with a curiously backward team building process - three of the 2013 bottom four being announced at the 2012 Dinner & Dance - and a protracted "will he, wont he" tug of war with the Brummies over the services of Ben Barker. Horton is adamant that Barker verbally agreed terms for 2013 - having already signed for Ipswich, he would be unable to return to Perry Barr on their shared Thursday racenight - but that the Cornishman did a volte face as the Brummies decided to move their Thursday to Wednesday (and didn't that work out for them financially!) That Barker did the dirty on Horton seems obvious, although they seem to have patched things up and he may well be in the plans for 2014, and it only illustrated the pitfalls of suddenly finding yourself without a third heat leader.

Barker's replacement, Grzegorz Zengota, would - at Brandon, at least - prove to be one of the few bright spots of the season. Coming back from a serious injury, he was always going to be a gamble, but I'd wager that it paid off. With the rest of the team being, at best, indifferent, it would be harsh to lay any of the blame for the poor season at the young Pole's door, but his inability to master tracks on his travels would preclude him from my 2014 thinking, were some ludicrous and terrible accident to happen and I would actually be in that position.

Zengota's inclusion gave the Bees a very Polish look, with Michael Szczepaniak retained from 2012, and joined by his younger brother, Mateusz, and 2010 hero Krzysztof Kasprzak. The elder Panic brother was never intended to be a trump card - at 29 years old he is very much the finished article - but still upped his average (the only rider aside from Zengota to do that). His brother was a victim of circumstance, and was never allowed to find his feet wearing the Fighting Bee. Pushed into the main body of the side by Adam Roynon's injury - or more importantly, the woeful replacement secured by our rookie team manager - he struggled for points and was soon jettisoned to make way for the first of a couple of "returning heroes". I still maintain that he could have - and would have - improved his average, especially with a good start at reserve, but it wasn't meant to be.

Roynon's injury was horrific for all the witnessed it, and catastrophic for the Bees' season. It wasn't so much that the loss of Roynon was a disaster - although the lad, when fit, has the potential to match, and possibly eclipse, Barker, Bridger, Worrall, and the like - but that every step taken afterward seemed to be poorly considered. The Bees could have recovered from his loss, but that they didn't told its own story. Few of us who saw Roynon hit by an unfortunate Josh Auty thought we'd ever see him ride again, but he did return to the Bees' team later in the season, only to be injured once more. I like Adam. He bleeds speedway and seems to have a genuine affection for Coventry that our team manager could learn from (and more of that later) and I would have no qualms about seeing him line-up for 2014. I just wish he'd have some better luck, is all.

The first of Roynon's replacements, Joe Screen, was altogether the wrong man at the wrong time. As was seen by his eventual retirement later in the season, Screen was very much on the decline, a situation obscured by his almost total mastery of Glasgow's Ashfield track. This kept his overall average up when it was clear to most - although, curiously, not his best friend in the Bees team manager role - that his chances of competing anywhere other than Ashfield had dwindled to almost nothing. That we wore tassels on his kevlars brought a nostalgic smile, but that was the only joy he brought to Coventry fans last season. I'm sure he'll be missed by many, but Bees fans are unlikely to count themselves in that number.

After it became clear that Screen just wasn’t working out, and in a double-whammy with Mateusz Szczepaniak also going, club assets Olly Allen and Stuart Robson were recalled, as doubling-up riders, and with the club no doubt hoping that they'd bring some goodwill from the fans with them to Brandon, as well as scoring a few points and earning some much-needed home victories. Truth told, they stopped the rot (although we were no better on our travels), but it seemed a very odd Coventry team that was taking to the track at times. With four of the side reflecting past glories, and only Zengota as anything resembling a star of the future, this backward-looking approach seemed to reflect the demographics found at most speedway tracks. It did little to whet the appetite and, while I can understand the reasons behind almost all the decisions taken in 2013, you would hope that lessons have been learned.

No-one illustrated that nostalgic feeling better than Scott Nicholls, the Bees most successful captain of all-time, but one who hasn't won anything in Coventry colours for almost a decade. The problem with Nicholls is that he's super nice, super professional, and has the look of a man pained when things just aren't going right. It became a standing joke that he was trying hard, even if big points were beyond him, and that just isn't good enough in a struggling side. There's also a question over whether his motivational skills have declined, because there seemed precious little team spirit at times, although perhaps that is because a fish rots from the head down, and the Bees were a very rotten fish by the time September rolled around.

That the Bees needed an out and out number one was never up for debate. That Kasprzak, despite his issues with Birmingham and remembering how inspirational he was in 2010, could be that number one seemed logical enough. After all, he'd just averaged over 9 points a meeting for Poole in the second half of 2012, and why wouldn't he carry that form on, especially in his testimonial year? Two points dropped off his average later, and after a string of lacklustre performances when any points he did score seemed to come after the result was in no doubt (never in the Bees' favour, mind), and he was released with one meeting to go, replaced by Linus Sundstrom - although I'd have accepted Linus from Peanuts by that time. Kasprzak is the ultimate enigma. So good when brought in as cover, and with the sniff of a title in his nostrils, but so disinterested at all other times. The biggest mystery is why clubs continue to employ him, but never underestimate the seductive qualities of someone who can qualify for the Grand Prix series two years in a row (even if he scores just 3 points for his club the night before...). Sunstrom's tenure at the Bees lasted just 2 rides, only finishing one. He was still better than Kasprzak.

The appointment of Gary Havelock as team manager seemed, on the face of it, a decent move. Although he was sometimes incomprehensible in his television appearances, he seems a genial fellow, and has a wealth of experience in the sport. However, his tactical naivety and seeming inability to motivate his team told their own story, and the Bees suffered as a result. There's an old maxim in football that goes, "once they step across the white line, the manager's job is done". It could easily be applied to speedway, with "helmets on" replacing the not-terribly-applicable white lines bit. However, with speedway 1-7s pretty much picking themselves (or at least largely being picked by who a promoter signs at the beginning of the season), you have to wonder how a manager should be judged. If not on their ability to influence proceedings between heats 1 and 15, then how? Also, there's also an old maxim that goes, "good riders don't become bad ones overnight". So, yeah. Havelock compounded his poor performance as manager with some ill-considered comments about Poole, ignorant (wilfully or otherwise) of the history between the two sides. Fans are often willing to give a chance to succeed to people they like – it’s fair to say that no-one really likes Havelock on the terraces at Brandon, and so his every move will be met with a shrug of indifference or howls of anger from this point on.

The 2013 Elite League season will go down in history as a nadir in the sport. That Coventry overplayed their role and stunk up the league seems somehow fitting - you could argue that, despite what claims Poole may make to be the top club in the land, the fortunes of Coventry speedway are a bellweather for the sport as a whole. The story of 2013 was a simple tale of getting it slightly wrong, putting it enough right to engender some hope, and then misstep after misstep, to its inevitable conclusion. The one thing that can be said for the Bees is that they didn’t bankrupt the promotion, although the team was by no means a cheap one. Rather Mick Horton was unwilling/unable to dip into the overdraft to try and turn things around once they started to go awry. For some that is unforgiveable. I'd much rather have speedway guaranteed than risk the future of the club and end up winning nothing, like our neighbours up the road. Coventry, as always, paid their bills, and that is something that shouldn't be a badge of honour but weirdly is in 21st century speedway.

Off the track, the club made some good advances in public relations, partly down to letting cooler heads rule the communication channels between club and fans. Mick Horton is a passionate man, and at times has let this passion rule his head. Neil Watson seems more considered and it is to their credit that they have worked out this new path. There have been mistakes made, too, and some fans grumbled that they didn’t receive their promised 16 meetings for their season ticket money, although the weather did not help on that front. Unfortunately, promoters are not born fully-formed. Even the most seasoned make mistakes and, unless there is any wilful negligence or a deliberate attempt to cheat or mislead their customers, I think we have to err on the side of their mortality.

There are still those, and their number is not inconsiderable, who would swap our current promotion team for another in a heartbeat. We were spoiled under Sandhu and the C.O., and our present position is not befitting of a club of our stature. However, we should be careful what we wish for. In its current state there are few benevolent millionaires queuing up to run a speedway club, when success depends on ploughing any profits – and much more – back into the money pit created by wealthier promoters. Horton and company have not destroyed our club, far from it. Their actions over the next few months, though, will decide their fate in the minds of the fans. I wish them every success.

Let’s finish on a positive! Against the warning words of the naysayers, the return of third division racing to Brandon was a cautious success. The brief given to Blayne Scroggins and Laurence Rogers was to bring through some new assets and ensure that National League speedway was self-financing. On this score they succeeded, with Luke Crang becoming a club asset (alongside Ryan Terry-Daley, a cult hero in the making), and showing every sign that he can progress in the sport. Crowds were not fantastic, but sustaining, and generous-enough sponsors were found to back the project.

More importantly, they brought fun back to a sport which has missed that important quotient for so long. I’d watched a bit of National League speedway in the past, but not having a horse in the race, so to speak, kept me at a cool distance. Having a Coventry team to watch – win or lose – heightened the enjoyment, and the trips I made to Buxton and the Isle of Wight were the highlight of my season. Even better, for much of the season I was able to convince myself that I shouldn’t take it too seriously, and even when we lost we were still witnessing the progression of young British riders, for both teams. This is an attitude held by most NL fans (even if Dudley and Mildenhall do take it a bit seriously), and it does the league credit.

The Storm will be back in 2014, should there be a National League for them to compete in, and I’d urge Bees’ fans to get along and support them. It’s a cheap night out, with some surprisingly decent racing, and you’re only cheating yourself if you stay away out of some notion of Elite League superiority…

So, yes. Very much a two steps forward, one step back season for Coventry speedway, even if that backwards step was a painful and avoidable one. I’d like very much to be able to lock the 2013 season, as a whole, away in a cupboard and never speak of it again. There are some, however, who will bring it out to beat the current promotion no matter how 2014 goes. Next season really is a new opportunity, for British speedway and the Coventry Bees/Storm. We should grasp it with both hands and approach every meeting, every decision made by the BSPA and the Coventry promotion, with one simple truth: we are the greatest club in speedway and everyone else can eat our dirt.

ITEM: It’s war! I warned long ago that the European Championships (SEC), backed by Polish marketing firm OneSport, and the BSI-promoted Grand Prix series (SGP) were on a collision course, and this week the FIM finally engineered that crash.

The FIM, acting unilaterally (as if anyone would believe that), have banned any rider “accepting an invitation” to take part in the SGP from also competing in the SEC. They claim that no other sport allows such a duality, ignoring all those sports that do and trying to justify their intrusion on a commercial market by treating speedway as if it were any other motorsport.

FIM-Europe, who oversee the SEC, have maintained a silence, outflanked by their senior counterparts in Geneva, and it has been left to series’ sponsors NICE to take point in the charge. NICE, of course, claim that this is a commercial decision taken to protect BSI’s interests, without actually suggesting it was at their behest, and that there are several options open which will allow the SEC to proceed as planned next season.

These may include launching legal proceedings, with EU competition law very much on their side, and tying the decision up in the courts – allowing both sides to carry on promoting their respective competitions until a decision is made either way. They may also decide to drop any pretence of a legitimate title, effectively running four open meetings – four Zlata Prilba, if you will – televised by Eurosport and with a field selected from the best in the world. If the FIM were to outlaw this, they would also have to outlaw every open meeting held across Europe, and beyond, and so their power to forbid this option seems limited at best.

There are also steps that could be taken by the SEC’s chief allies, the Polish motorsport federation, the PZM. They have previously limited the number of SGP riders in their top league, and could decide to ban them altogether to force the riders to make a decision between the SGP and the SEC, or they could move their league programme to Saturdays, directly clashing with the SGP (the SEC would, of course, switch to Sunday), and again forcing the riders to choose between the exposure of the SGP and the money on offer in the Polish league.

This latter sanction has some support in Poland, with 97% of fans polled by Sportowefakty in support of taking a stand against the FIM, and with clubs increasingly annoyed by riders turning up for their Polish clubs tired or injured from their SGP exertions the night before. With two or three Polish meetings paying more than an entire season of SGP racing, it is not unthinkable that riders may choose the EkstraLiga over the Grands Prix, which must be a worry for BSI and the FIM. The PZM meets on November 17th to make its decision.

However it concludes – and it may rumble on for some time - this isn’t going to end well…

ITEM: In a previous life, as you may as guessed from some of my more bizarre ideas and comparisons, I was involved in professional wrestling. For most of that time, I spent more time on the microphone than in the squared circle (although I was very big in Wiltshire for a while…), and as part of that I appeared on various television and radio programmes, spreading the gospel of British wrestling. One of my favourite gigs was as an occasional guest on The Tommy Boyd Show on TalkSport, and I’d eagerly jump on a train to London to take part in a 2-hour ‘phone-in, where I’d get to have a pre-show chat about football with Lawrie McMenemy and then wind-up the teenage wrestling fans of Great Britain with my controversial opinions on Rob van Dam.

I’d been thinking about this show a lot recently, and how useful it might be to get a similar slot on TalkSport for British speedway, and then Tai Woffinden made his well-received appearance on Colin Murray’s Sports Brief and it all fell into place…

Speedway already has an “in” at TalkSport. Nigel Pearson and Dave Rowe, quite aside from their speedway jobs, are match reporters for the station, with Pearson also making guest appearances on The Sports Breakfast on occasion, and so it would take be a leap of the imagination for them to host a show. In my experience, and I accept it’s a decade past, programming can be very presenter-driven, with the wrestling show growing out of Boyd’s teenage sons’ interest in the sport, and a nudge in that direction from Pearson, perhaps with the backing of interested observers like Murray (who really seemed to take to Woffinden and the sport), would go a long way.

It’s also true that TalkSport is very football-focussed, and so short on discussion-fodder in the summer months (not that it holds them back any), and with speedway more like football than cricket or any other summer sport, it would fill a small hole in the schedules, and attract a new demographic to the station.

If it wasn’t so true, I’d be sick of saying “2014 is a big year for the sport” and we should aim high in our ambitions to take advantage of the possible restructure of the sport and our first world champion in thirteen years. A weekly radio show on a national station may seem unthinkable or unattainable but I’ve lived that experience with another minority sport and I can tell you it’s not. Over to you, Nigel and Dave…

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Pedal Power (and other things)

ITEM: I was going to use this space to write a review of the Coventry season. I did one last year, and it’s only fitting that this year’s disaster gets its fair kicking. But that can wait until next week because, for once, I’m giddy with some happy news about speedway!

Ricky Ashworth’s dad announced this afternoon that Ricky is officially out of his coma, three months after his horror crash at Scunthorpe. There’s still a long, long way to go until Ricky is back to full health but this is a hugely encouraging step towards that. It’s probably too soon to talk of what the future holds for Ricky but I hope, one day, to see him ride four laps in anger, and prove that some of these guys that ride these 500cc machines with no brakes really don’t know what a limit is until they’ve broken it.

ITEM: Cycle speedway and our version of the sport share more than just a name and a four-lap racing connection. The fortunes of the two sports - desperately unfashionable yet clinging on in outposts up and down the country - have always been similar, and in the motorised speedway's heyday of the 1950s and 1960s more than a few speedway riders had their first taste of shale action on a pushbike, before grasstrack took over as the primary feeder for speedway talent. The two disciplined used to be further entwined, with some tracks - such as Brandon - even playing host to their own cycle speedway sides alongside their bigger, methanol-powered brothers, but this has fallen away in recent years, to the benefit of neither.

One advantage cycle speedway will always have over regular speedway is its ability to penetrate the inner cities. A few longstanding tracks aside, our version of the sport has retreated to the suburbs and the provinces, but cycle speedway retains clubs in the major cities, including London (long-since dead for speedway, unlikely ever to grace the inside of the M25 again), Birmingham, Manchester, and Edinburgh, but also Norwich, Bristol, Southampton, Exeter, and Hull. There are also cycle speedway teams still operating in areas where speedway has lost its foothold, such as South Wales, West Yorkshire, and Oxford.

Another advantage that pedal-powered racing has is its inclusivity and relative cheapness. Kids as young as 6 or 7 can start riding, and sometimes competitively, without too much travel or financial outlay on the part of their parents. And with the sport running at an amateur level, the vast majority of its events are free to watch, and often get big crowds - the British Finals at Coventry this year attracted over 1000 fans for its August Bank Holiday climax!

Some speedway clubs have close links with their local cycle speedway sides - I've attended meetings at Birmingham and Coventry this season where the local cycle speedway clubs have publicised their events and joining opportunities - but there is so much more that could be done, both on an ad hoc local level, and on an organised team-up with the BSPA. The advantages to both sides are obvious. The cycle speedway teams would gain access to a new stream of fans and sponsors, and a link-up with their bigger brothers (perhaps accompanied by a re-branding, in some cases) would also open the door to increased media opportunities. The speedway clubs would also be able to tap into new fans, and provide a free alternative to lapsed fans who could then be tempted back to the sport they fell out of love with/could no longer afford to go to. It would also establish a "grass roots" element for those clubs who are lacking such a thing, with the accompanying funding and talent opportunities that may provide.

More importantly, the existence of cycle speedway teams in towns and cities that no longer have their own speedway tracks, and the relative ease and affordability of establishing further tracks in other towns, provides a testing ground, and access to local communities in a "safe" way, that may well lead to opportunities for new motor speedway tracks in those towns down the line. Far better to expand from cycle speedway, with its grassroots, community aspect into the noisy, smelly version of the sport than simply appear with the latter, no? And even if that's a pipe dream, simply having a cycle speedway presence (linked to, and with advertising for the nearest, if somewhat distant, speedway track) can do no harm in attracting new fans and sponsors to the senior discipline.

There is little to lose from pursuing a link, and everything to gain. How satisfying it would be to find a John Harrhy (Coventry speedway legend who learned his racing trade on a pushbike) again! How refreshing it would be to spend a Sunday afternoon watching the Swindon Robins Cycle Speedway team in-between gaps in fixtures at the Abbey Stadium! And imagine how different to a failed radio DJ droning on about nothing important it would be to watch some cycle speedway on the centre green in-between races at your local track! The opportunities are bountiful...

ITEM: It used to be a staple of British speedway that touring teams - the Swedish champions or a Soviet test side, perhaps - would open the British season with a series of challenge matches up and down the country. In a scene starved of exotic foreign action, except for the odd and strange meeting on Screensport, it was a chance for the British & National League teams to blow out the cobwebs against unfamiliar opposition, who would attract local fans eager for a slice of the unknown. The proper result - a plucky display by the visitors but a comfortable home win nonetheless - was usually adhered to, and everybody then went about their respective serious business, whether it be winning the National League (of old) or taking on Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Italy in a World Team Cup qualifying round.

There'll be a return, of sorts, to this kind of pre-season action in 2014 when Peterborough play host to Zielona Gora (a "Mickey Mouse club" due to their emblem, rather than one like Birmingham) and one other Polish EkstraLiga side, probably Czestochowa, in a mini-tournament. The Polish leagues are regarded as heads and shoulders above our own, a fact never more ably illustrated than by this week's "cost-cutting" announcement, whereby clubs will "only" be able to pay signing on fees of £40,000, and be restricted to a paltry £900 a point (although when and whether the riders get paid is another matter), and this will provide a good opportunity for us to measure, on track, how we match up. It will also be an opportunity for the speedway "hipster" to turn out, bedecked in their Indianerna or MSC Brokstedt scarves, and keen to tell everyone how cheap the beer (real ale, of course) was that time in Togliatti. We're a broad church, and we welcome everyone, and it might even tempt some of that elusive group - the British-based Polish speedway fans - out of their hideyholes, and into our stadiums.

One thing is certain - it's better for the fans to see this kind of challenge than a visit from another Elite League side, who may also end up coming twice in the league, and as such should be encouraged. I still remember looking at pictures of the Russians in the Speedway Mail and thinking how great and mysterious they looked. Yeah, I was a hipster, too.

ITEM: Now that we've reached the end of a season that seemed to go on far too long, it's time to reflect on a few winners and losers. I'm sure you could write a full list, with just about everybody involved in the sport in one camp or another, but I'll restrict it to just a handful of both, and let others go into more depth about just why the track raker at Wolverhampton had a bad season (tripping over his rake probably didn't help...)


Laura Morgan - Laura Morgan doesn't need me to tell you she's a winner. She's recovered from a huge blow which would probably have seen others give up on life, and ploughed the small slice of good fortune she received as a result into doing something she enjoys. After becoming paralysed in a car accident a few years ago, Morgan used some of the compensation she received to rescue an ailing Workington and ensure the sport continues in Cumbria for a good few years yet. Although the Comets missed out on the Premier League title, they did make the play-offs, and all at the club must have been pleased with the ongoing progress of young Brits Kyle Howarth and Ashley Morris, as well as the steps made by their number one Richard Lawson in the Elite League for Lakeside. Morgan also found some pennies to help Edinburgh out of a financial jam, and will ensure that the Comets can comply with the airfence regulation for 2014, although the club's fans are well on their way to helping the Cumbrian side pay for that outlay with some solid fundraising. Morgan, not rich by any stretch of the imagination but with some disposable income to be invested in speedway, is exactly the kind of club owner the sport needs, and to see her have some small success and, more importantly, enjoy what she's doing at Workington, is heartwarming and encouraging.

Somerset Rebels - After missing out in the play-off final last season, the Rebels went one better this year and won the Premier League title. They also added the Pairs' title and the Knockout Cup to their trophy cabinet, and staged a very successful televised meeting against the Edinburgh Monarchs in June. They have long been considered to be in possession of one of - if not the - best racetracks in the UK, and the club's off-track income stream, due to a prudently-constructed clubhouse, is a blueprint for the modern speedway club. Put simply, there is little the Highbridge club are doing that isn't an example of how to do things in speedway (although I'd be a little more comfortable with less Australians in their side!). The dream move would be for them to take a step up into whatever the top league looks like next season, with local derbies with Swindon and Poole to be savoured, and further investment in the infrastructure of the club and their stadium to make the Oak Tree Arena an FIM-standard venue, capable of hosting the biggest events on its fantastic racing surface. That's for the future, however. For now, Somerset are simply a good news story that goes on and on and on...

Tai Woffinden - You may have missed it, but Woffinden had a pretty good year. He finally won the British Final (despite having home track advantage for the last five seasons!) and won a small thing out in Torun. What's it called again? Oh, yeah, the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP. Aside from those very considerable achievements, Woffinden did two very important, and very different, things this year. Firstly, he raised a massive amount of money for Cancer Research, in honour of his much-missed father Rob, who died of cancer in 2010. And he also turned around public opinion of him from a spoiled brat Australian (who happened to be born in the UK) to a mature, serious, dedicated Brit, worthy of leading our challenge on the world stage. There's still a few people to be convinced, but after the year Woffinden has had, it won't be long - if he keeps this up - until he's truly on top of the world.

Kent Kings - Despite a less-than-ideal racenight and tapes-up time of Monday at 6.30, the return of league speedway to Kent was embraced by the people of Sittingbourne. Huge numbers turned out to their early meetings and, despite their lack of success on track in those first few faltering steps, crowds held up encouragingly throughout the season. A team of south-east lads (and one Yorkshire hairdresser) were taken to the hearts of the local fans, and Steve Boxall repaid their support by winning the National League Riders' Championship at Rye House in September. If that unwieldy start-time can be overcome, there's no reason Kent can't progress up the leagues, with a stadium and fanbase that would sustain a higher level of racing...


Kent Kings - The one thing that King's fans have been very vocal about is how great it has been to have a Kent team to watch again. Many of them hadn't attended speedway since the closure of Canterbury in 1987, or Crayford some years before, although some of them had been regulars at Iwade's forays into Conference League racing. However, recent signs point to the Kings becoming nothing more than a feeder team to the Rye House Rockets, with whom they share a co-promoter and team manager. This has led to the resignation of some vital volunteers from the Kings' organisation, and it must be said that the club is lesser for that. Quite where they go from here - and with the Rye House style of doing business very much a "shut down for the winter" approach, it's all gone quiet - is anyone's guess. Fingers crossed it all works out for the best.

Sheffield Tigers - Running a club to a tight budget is to be applauded but also seems a recipe for failure in modern speedway. Neil Machin, at the Tigers' helm for over two decades - has been unwilling to risk the future of the club by overspending, and has been rewarded by some risible league placings in the past few years. It doesn't help that they've largely got it wrong in their rider choices, even allowing for the budget, and have been hampered by some very unfortunate injuries. Enough is enough, and with only a woeful Glasgow preventing Sheffield from finishing bottom this season (they also finished in the same 12th place last year), and with the prospect of an outlay on an airfence that may also necessitate further expense to install, Machin has put the club up for sale. The Tigers were lost to the sport for three seasons before, and it would be unthinkable that it would happen again, especially with city-centre tracks in large cities becoming an endangered species in speedway. Nothing seems to be going right in South Yorkshire. Let's hope that changes pretty fast.

Stoke Potters - Another club with an illustrious past, the Potters celebrated 40 years of speedway at the Chesterton stadium this summer, but seldom can they have had a worse year. Rock bottom in the National League for the entire season, and unable to find success home or away in the league until the end of August, they were unable to complete their fixtures, with consequences for that still be decided. I visited Stoke for the first time in over 20 years for the National League Fours this summer, and it's fair to say that the stadium hasn't changed much, looking older than its 40 years, and very much in need of some TLC. However, with crowds dwindling and the current promoters doing everything they can just to keep speedway running in the Potteries, it's hard to see how this might happen. I'd settle for a stronger Potters' team, and a full set of completed fixtures, and damn the surroundings. I'm not sure there are many like me, however.

The Elite League - If the promoters put the EL out of its misery at the AGM later this month (and I always preferred British League, anyway) there will be few outside of Dorset who will complain. It's been a dreadful year for the UK's top competition, marked by absent riders, dreadful injuries, dodgy call-offs, and a moribund ending enjoyed by Pirates alone. A new start would at least wash some of the stink of the EL off the sport, and enable us to start afresh, but even if they don't decide to go down that route there simply needs to be something done to restore public confidence in the competition. The current EL has a lop-sided fixture list, just 14 home meetings in a 30-week season, and no supplementary competitions for the 90% of teams that miss out of the title. Change or die, either is desirable, but we simply cannot stay the same!

ITEM: There's not much news from this week's pre-AGM, even in the form of rumours, but something that did leak out - at least to my sensitive ears - is that they're playing a waiting game with Sky, perhaps to the detriment of sorting out the things that need fixing, whether we have TV or not. About 25% of what I hear turns out not to be true, so I dearly hope that this isn't the case, and that they've ploughed on assuming the worst, setting their stall out for a Sky-less 2014, and if the wreck and ruin of the modern era does decide to dirty its feet on our doormat it will be a bonus, to be invested wisely.

The negotiations with Sky are carried out by Swindon co-owner Terry Russell, acting apart from his media rights' firm GoSpeed (which used to hold the exclusive rights to British speedway on TV, to be sold onto the highest - or only - bidder), and just as the contract was about to expire he swanned off on holiday. Now he's back, and eager to talk, but the man he needs to speak to has - you guessed it - gone on holiday. All this has put the talks back when they really need to be sorted, one way or another. I'm led to believe there is a Plan B, but that this has been put on the back burner (not to the satisfaction of all parties) in favour of pursuing the dirty great whore that is Sky.

Television exposure is desirable but not essential. It can often work as much against you as in your favour, and with the present set-up with Sky bringing little in terms of cross-promotion, even on their 24-hour sports news channel, there seems to be little to gain in terms of exposure. A far better strategy would be to embrace social media, especially YouTube, and give up the (not inconsiderable) TV fees in favour of gaining new and lasting fans attracted by seeing top action on their mobiles, iPads, laptops, and home PCs. The current deal signed by the likes of Re-Run and CleanCut, who film all the action at our local tracks, specifically prohibits this, which would be funny if it wasn't so retarded.

We live in an era of increasing choice. It gets harder every day to get noticed above the white noise of so much entertainment, and you have to be smart and find new ways of doing it. Placing everything you have on one anachronistic model is short-sighted and dangerous, and will result in speedway getting lost in an ever-growing shuffle. There are people attending tracks up and down the country every week who work in new media, and have ideas that could benefit the sport far more than holding out for Mr Murdoch's largesse ever could. The question is not how can we afford to go without Sky, it's how can we afford to ignore what's in front of our faces?

ITEM: So they announced the Grand Prix Series wild cards and I couldn't have been more wrong about the fourth recipient. Not that I didn't name all four names in my rundown two weeks ago of just who might get one, but that I never dreamed in a million years that they'd go for two Swedes, despite there being two Swedish grands prix on the calendar. To gift places to both Andreas Jonsson and Fredrik Lindgren is understandable only in that there's so little to choose between them. To include both at the expense of another, more interesting and less-familiar face seems silly. Still, it's BSI's money that keeps the Big Top up and it's they who choose the clowns that perform, only this time they've chosen some really boring clowns.

Far more interesting is the decision to take the Latvian GP to Riga rather than Daugavpils. The track at Riga, if you can call it that, is rudimentary but, of course, they build tracks from scratch several times a year on the GP circuit. Riga has the advantage of being the capital city, with visitors to Latvia flying into the city's airport regardless of their destination, and with sufficient infrastructure to host the thousands of fans that they're no doubt hoping will visit. What Riga doesn't have is a speedway pedigree, and this is a further slap in the face for a Latvian speedway scene already slapped by being forced to qualify for the 2014 SWC, despite finishing above Sweden and TeamGB in the standings. "It's not how you do, it's who you are" seems to be  the overarching message coming from BSI and the FIM these days...

ITEM: Politically, for me at least, profit is a dirty word. But I'm not so naive as to expect everybody to do what they do for the good of mankind (or at least to keep the wolf from the door), and we live in a capitalist society that rewards the entrepreneur. That is unless you invest your money in speedway, in which case profit is not a dirty word, it's an almost impossible word! Not for nothing is the old joke, "How do you become a millionaire in speedway? Start with two million!", rolled out every time a club changes hands, another prospective promoter with burnt fingers and crushed dreams.

But should it be this way? Shouldn't it be possible to make a profit from running what is, essentially, an entertainment venue? Of course it should, and the sport hasn't helped itself over the years by chasing after ever more elusive "stars" and allowing a few rich promoters to create an arms race, the like of which has destroyed top-level football and is unsustainable in British speedway. There is a fear for most promoters of missing out on the end-of-season play-offs, despite the prize becoming more worthless every year precisely because of the tactics - legal and not so much - used to get there.

It's widely accepted that Coventry ran to a budget this season. As far as I'm aware, they owe no other clubs any money, and are instead owed money themselves. This had a knock-on effect on the track - how Mick Horton would have loved to have signed Thomas H Jonasson, Greg Hancock, and Przemyslaw Pawlicki (the latter costing £10,000 for only a handful of meetings before he was discarded) to save his flagging season! - but the club are in good financial shape as a result. Matt Ford may have complained last season that Poole lost money for the first time in years (although I would like to examine his books, particularly the dividends paid to promoters), but he could well have made a healthy profit this season if he'd accepted that, sometimes, it's not your year. In spending big - whether you can afford it or not - you make everyone else spend big, and the cycle continues.

The authorities need to rule this with an iron hand. There needs to be a budget accepted by all clubs, and rigorously adhered to, with points penalties if broken. Only then can existing clubs finish the season in something approaching rude health and - far more importantly - can we attract new promoters, with new cash and fresh ideas, into the sport. Why should I take my million pounds and enter a sport I have no chance of succeeding in because no-one can stick to their budget? Exactly. Teams need to accept that they are in a league of ten - or thirteen, or eight - and that without the other teams providing competition (and healthy competition, ideally) they have nothing to entertain their fans with, no matter how much money they spend.