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.