Monday, 3 November 2014

Coventry Speedway, a season in review

2013 was a terrible season on the track for the Bees, and the Storm failed to make the play-offs. This year we made the Grand Final in both leagues. So why does it feel so much more disappointing?

Off-track issues dominated our early season. The bombshell that Sandhu was looking to follow through on his old promise to build houses on Brandon was devastating. Avtar Sandhu owes speedway nothing, of course, and after the way he was treated by the establishment in the winter of discontent and over the Peter Kildemand affair you cannot blame him for wanting to be rid of the sport. But we have been told so many times that Sandhu is an honourable man, and he himself made the promise that houses would not be built on Brandon until a replacement has been found, so to be told that this may not be the case was heart-wrenching.

There’s very little the average fan can do to help in this sort of situation. It requires political nous and no shortage of money. It’s also a long-term fight, and patience is a virtue when impulsive – and potentially self-defeating - action is the first instinct. The potential loss of one of speedway’s ancestral homes – one of the finest facilities our sport can call on, and available (stock cars permitting, the bastards) whenever required – cast a shadow over anything we achieved on track this season, and doubly so when actual plans for housing on the site where announced and exhibited shortly before our Grand Final meetings with Poole. What does winning the title mean if you have nowhere to defend it?

As it stands, we have a couple more seasons at Brandon. I would hope that the political reality – that it’s extremely improbable (though not impossible) that planning permission would ever be granted for houses on the site – would finally sink in and that Sandhu would accept an offer for the stadium as a stadium. He owes us nothing but that would be the honourable thing to do. For now, we have to bide our time and be ready to fight, with innovative and respectful tactics, mindful that – for now, at least – everybody is on our side.

It may have been illustrative of Sandhu’s changing attitude towards the continuance of speedway at the stadium that he brought in an obviously under-qualified trackman to work on the Brandon track during the winter. This led directly to the abandonment of our opening fixture against Cradley Heath, and the non-staging of the Elite Riders Championship two days later, with simple problems with the track either going unfixed or made worse by substandard attention. This was embarrassing and detrimental, and did nothing to enhance the reputation of the club or its promoters, further damaged by an unnecessary spat over who was responsible, not helped by the speedway press’s delight in making Mick Horton look out of his depth as a professional promoter, an agenda they pursue – whether right or wrong, and I err on the side of the latter – with aplomb.

Mick Horton’s faults, and we may as well address them at this point, are that he is too human. He trusts people will keep their word (a mistake in speedway), speaks too often without considering the consequences of what he is saying, and is too nice, too willing to give people a chance when they don’t deserve it. It says a lot about our sport – and probably business as whole in this country – that being too nice and too human is a negative, but there it is. He doesn’t help himself by promising what he – or anybody – can’t deliver, but I can’t be too hard on him.

Having said that, I was disappointed by a couple of things the promotion did this season, chief amongst them the shambles surrounding the Wolverhampton-Cradley Heath double-header in September, where season ticket holders – who’d not grumbled about the value of their purchases eroded by special offers, double-headers and a twice-postponed winter meeting – were told to pay £5 extra to see the second meeting or miss the first. It turned out, on the night and with no fanfare, to be an optional charge, but it left a sour taste in the mouth for many, and I boycotted the meeting. Lessons have hopefully been learned that you should not take your most loyal fans for cash cows. There also seemed to be a hap-hazzard approach to realising the need for, and booking, guests for missing riders, with our team manager bemoaning that it was often left to the day of the meeting to finalise arrangements for replacements which had been needed for weeks. I was personally disappointed that a plea to the promotion for a fans’ day cleaning up the neglected Brandon stadium, as they do at Newcastle each season, went unheralded. Little things.

Whatever his shortcomings, the flack Horton has received from Peterborough this season is unacceptable, and some people need to think what might have happened if he hadn’t led the charge to save the club last winter. Is he the man I want in charge of my speedway club? Possibly not, but that says more about the reality of modern speedway, where you have to swim with sharks – a nest of vipers, according to Neil Machin. You know what, though? He is the man in charge of my club, and I’ll back him for every wrong decision made with the best intentions.

Having said that, keeping Gary Havelock as team manager after a disastrous 2013 campaign, was not a popular decision amongst the Bees’ fans. He’d too often seemed ineffectual, which he blamed on half the team not speaking English, and the prospect of another season with his lack of any basic tactical know-how seemed a daunting one. It would seem, on the evidence of third place in the league, and a Grand Final appearance, that the fans were wrong, but I wouldn’t be granting the freedom of the city to Havvy too soon. The differences were obvious – Laurence Rogers working on the tactical side rather than Blayne Scroggins (and no offense to Blayne, because he’s a cracking bloke, but Laurence has a bit more of a handle on things in that regard) and a team of racers willing to break themselves for the club. Did Havelock have an effect on things? Of course he did. Was he the main reason we jumped seven places up the table? I’d argue not. Having said that, I’d have him back next season, but he needs that back-up.

So was it a successful season? Well, after last year, I’d have taken not having Krzystzof Kasprzak in the team as a successful season. As it turned out, we won more than we lost, but came up short when it mattered most, and lost out to the one team I never want to see us lose to. The manner of the Grand Final defeat, and no home celebration of the Bees’ season afterward, left things on a flat note, and the overall feeling is that it wasn’t a good Elite League season. That’s also tainted, personally, by a fear that the one success story of 2014 – the Fast Track Draft – will be damaged by the promoters at the upcoming AGM. If I knew it were to stay intact I might feel a bit better about the season as a whole, for all clubs not just Coventry. As it is I go into the winter with a feeling of concern, and of boredom at yet another Poole victory.

So what of the riders? How did they did perform? I went on record at the start of the season as being cautiously optimistic, and had a growing feeling that this bunch might just get us over the line. I was happy with six of the seven recruits, with four of them appearing on a wishlist I named on Twitter a year ago, and felt that this was a Bees’ team I could get behind. Turned out I was mostly right.

Hans Andersen was the only one of the announced starting line-up that I was less than enthusiastic about. His days of being a powerhouse number one are behind him, yet I doubt there’s been an accompanying drop in his wage demands. That, and his shenanigans when allegedly owed money at Swindon last year (turning up with only one bike, and cheating the fans), made him an undesirable number one, and another potential Kasprzak.

And so it proved. Although his average held up well when compared to some others at his level – it did, of course, drop in the way that many heat leaders’ did, with easy races no longer available for them to top up their pay packets – he went missing far too often, especially in heat one, and his unwillingness to attack a difficult track was at odds with the rest of the team.

There were also meetings he missed due to selfish ambition (chasing European Championship gold) or poor planning (Danish meetings clashing with rare Bees’ Wednesday fixtures), leaving the club with no facility to replace him.

Furthermore, he apparently travelled to Los Angeles two days before the second leg of the Grand Final, only making the 11-hour flight back on the day of the meeting. There was talk that this was because he was owed money, and whether that is true or not does not make a difference to the fact that he, once again, cheated the fans. Like it or not, speedway is a shit business, and there are times when you are going to go unpaid for a stretch. If Andersen thinks – as he publicly admitted last season - he can cheat the paying supporter as some kind of protest against that, then he needs to find another job. That’s the reality of the situation.

I don’t want Andersen back next season, or anywhere near British speedway. Our sport needs riders who will back it like we do. He is far from one of those.

Chris Harris, on the other hand, was once again a joy to have around. He missed Grand Prix practice sessions when we needed him to ride for the Bees, which - no matter how you feel about his World Championship ambitions or chances of success – showed where his priorities lay. He never once grumbled, and just got on with his job, thrilling us with some wonderful, attacking riding on often tricky Brandon tracks. Harris is one of a rare breed of modern rider that will add fans on the gate because people want to see him ride. Coventry without him – as we’ve suffered twice in the last four seasons – is a hollow place. First name on the team sheet.

Ryan Fisher should have been a match-winner. Possibly the pick of the second strings, he just didn’t get going, which is entirely down to his difficult family situation and a lack of available funds to spend on machinery as a result of that situation. There was never a lack of effort, never an attitude issue, he just wasn’t able to give his all to riding Elite League speedway, which is a massive shame. At his best he’s exciting even when not scoring points. He was far from at his best.

The arrival of his replacement, Michael Jepsen Jensen, was heralded by Mick Horton as a coup, a masterstroke, and the interest this stoked up was only matched by his lack of much to back that up. He wasn’t bad but he wasn’t all that good, either. He never looked exciting, or particularly fast, and certainly not the rider his reputation – which he still coasts by on, oddly, even getting an undeserved GP wild card for 2015 – would have you expect. The lack of much of an outcry when he was fired – for not being available for league fixtures because of European clashes – says it all, although I would probably caution that it didn’t need to be done when it was. He will not go down, at least on this showing, as one that got away.

His replacement, Ben Barker, had just eight rides in a Bees’ jacket in 2015. The first four – a third, two wins, and a fall which dislocated his shoulder – showed promise. The latter four – against Poole in the first leg of the Grand Final, when he was far from match fit – did not. Barker left Coventry under a cloud, and pissed on his chips last season when he could have come back. There were many not too pleased to see him for those reasons, but speedway has never been the most moral of sports, and you either accept that or find something else to do with your time.

Kenneth Hansen was signed as a track specialist who seemed unable to get to grips with the track. Not very special at all. True, the track was difficult to start with, and then different from one week to the next, which Colin Pratt would tell you was because the riders could never make their minds up how they wanted it. Whatever the reasons, he was a rider we carried for much of the season, and never more than in the Grand Final. You can do that when it’s just one rider, but he was too often not the only one misfiring, and thus the end result was disappointing. He obviously loves the club, and is a stand-up fella. I’m just not sure that’s good enough.

The man of a thousand nicknames, Kyle Howarth, was a delight to have in our team. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t often enough. When he wasn’t riding for Workington, who purchased his contract in the close season from Poole, he improved with every outing, looking fast and assured, and often winning heat one in place of the hapless Andersen. His performance in the Under-21 World Team Cup showed he can mix it on the international stage, too, and he’s due a massive step forward in 2015. I just hope it’s with the Bees.

Jason Garrity is my favourite rider. I liked him before the season began, and he was someone I encouraged the Bees to sign for this season before the Fast Track Draft was announced. Once he was named on that list, and with the Bees getting first pick, he was a no-brainer, and I’ve never been more glad to see the club agree with me. Coming back from injury, and obviously feeling some pressure at the step-up, he overrode at the start of the year, and that returned towards the end. He’s a young lad, and has bags full of talent and drive. With some proper management he’ll be a top hand in the sport. Again, I hope it’s with us that he realises that potential.

I can’t believe nobody picked James Sarjeant before we got to him in the second round of draft picks! Some thought that, as our asset, he’d been a protected pick but, no, the other clubs – Poole included – just didn’t want him. That was their error as he proved to be the best of the number 7s, coming up with big victories in pressure situations, and even beating heat leaders. He had a sticky patch in the middle of the season, hampered by niggling injuries, but the way he started and finished the season was very, very encouraging.

We used a few guests here and there, with mixed results, but special mentions have to go to Max Fricke and Simon Lambert, who came up with the goods when we needed them. That Fricke was disappointing down at Poole should not take away from his efforts for us this season, and he’s my pick for the most improved rider in any league this year.

It made a change watching riders that, Andersen (and latterly Hansen) apart, I believed in. There was nowhere I didn’t think we could get a result (and I was wrong on a few occasions!) and, even in most of the defeats, the effort could not be faulted. I’d take the same again next season, but replace the two Danes with more British riders, who on this season’s evidence are the way to go. Having a team of riders who want to ride for your club, and are available for the majority of your fixtures, is the key to success and happiness, it seems. Who knew?

That was also the flavour of last season’s Storm side, but was missing a little from this year’s campaign. I’m not sure why, except that injuries meant we seldom to the track with a full team, but there was a different air to this season’s National League season. On reflection, that may be because there are two reasons to enter a team in the third tier: to win the league, and to develop talent. With Cradley Heath so powerful this season, a result of clever manipulation of available riders with only one aim, to win the league at all costs, in mind, the first was never an option. That we ran them so close in the end – a 12-point defeat over two legs – is impressive in itself. But, as a junior side, it’s the lack of too much progress in developing talent that is, perhaps, the thing that left a flat taste come season’s end.

Last season we were delighted with the progress of Oliver Greenwood, Luke Crang, and James Shanes. Sarjeant, Joe Jacobs, and Robert Branford put in a decent effort, and it looked like the junior side were off to a great start in finding future Bees. The addition of Premier League Peterborough to the family in the winter gave prospective Coventry riders a four-step progression – from Midland Development League Vikings to Elite League Bees – and that’s how all clubs should be run.

If you are operating that system, the riders in each side have to be capable of making an impact at the level above, or have the potential to do so with encouragement and coaching. For the Storm, that meant that the 1-7 had to be ready now – or within a reasonable amount of time – to step up into Premier League speedway. Luke Crang and Olly Greenwood secured PL berths, with mixed results, and Sarjeant and Stefan Nielsen found themselves making progress in the EL, through the Fast Track Draft. They were soon joined by Dan Greenwood, who found short-term spots in both senior leagues. The future looked bright.

However, Stefan Nielsen and Luke Crang were injured mid-season, and Dan Greenwood did not seem to make the progress his potential suggests. Nielsen has proven ability, Crang will come back strong, I’m sure, and Greenwood is still young, with only three seasons under his belt. The real issue was at reserve, where Martin Knuckey and Ryan Terry-Daley do not show any sign that they will be anything other than journeymen at this level (although they’d have been heat leaders at three other clubs, which shows the weakness of the league this season), and certainly not going to progress beyond the third tier. With the loss of Peterborough from the promoting family, the need for Storm riders to be of the class to turn out at EL level or have the potential to achieve that in the short-term, is even more pressing, and this has to be addressed by the management when choosing potential recruits to the club.

Taken in isolation, the Storm had a successful season - runners-up in the league and Fours, and knockout cup semi-finalists. But crowds were down and the talent well shallow. Address the latter and the former should hopefully improve.

For the club as a whole, the season can be considered, all in all, a successful one. The improvements made by Howarth, Garrity, and Sarjeant for the Bees (the former two dampened somewhat by their not being our assets), and the giant leap made by Olly Greenwood in the third tier (and his comfortable performances at PL level), are encouraging for the future, and Elite League crowds have been good to very good. The track has been a source of complaint from visiting teams, and home and away supporters, but has still not been the worst in the EL.

However, you cannot help but let the twin spectres of the loss of Brandon and the damage ready to be wreaked upon the sport at the annual promoters’ conference seep into your summation of the year’s speedway. We should be delighted, instead we are downbeat. We should be encouraged, instead we are fearful. We should be eager to find out what’s next, instead we dread it. In short, we are Coventry fans and speedway fans. This is our lot. We are done to rather than with. A good season is one where not too much goes wrong and you manage to make it through to October. A great one is when the same teams don’t win every year. Roll on 2015. Maybe it’ll all be different then?

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

I DEMAND! An AGM wishlist...

I DEMAND that the Fast Track Draft system is retained. Not only that, I DEMAND that it remain open to those who were eligible this season, and I DEMAND that the Premier League adopt it, too.

Each November brings another disappointing AGM, despite the challenges that have faced the sport for the last twenty five to thirty years. Think rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, rather than any groundbreaking changes. Last year, however, they came up with the Fast Track Draft, the first genuinely innovative and exciting decision made by the BSPA since the launch of the Academy League twenty-odd years ago.

The principle is a basic one: give opportunities to young British riders who have been denied them by short-sighted promoters who would rather employ a shonky Czech or Argentinean. Its natural home should have been the second division Premier League, a step up from the third division National League, but the majority of PL promoters exist in some fantasy world where bringing on local talent doesn’t make sound business sense (obviously because PL speedway is entirely different from ANY OTHER SPORT where that’s a prime concern).

With the PL not keen, and the Elite League looking to save money without actually looking like they were looking to save money, it was brought in, and some great excitement surrounded the day of the draft.

The very reason is was so badly needed is one of the reasons it was flawed from its inception: a lack of riders at the required level to fill twenty reserve slots. So, for its inaugural season, some makeweights were added, more to balance the numbers than to advance their careers. It was also hindered by its newness, with several solid candidates for places turning them down because they weren’t sure what it would entail. Finally, it was hampered by its rigidity, especially in the face of season-long injuries to some of the participants, and in the case of one team going out of business halfway through the season.

All these criticisms can be addressed in its sophomore year. A more balanced field of 16-18 can be assembled for the draft, hopefully with some of those who missed out last year (for whatever reason) included, and a flexibility can be built in which would help riders develop and clubs compete, without compromising fairness.

Below those 16-18 are another 16-18 who, along with the lower riders from the EL draft, could fill reserve spots in an identical system in the PL. There really is little downside to it – if PL clubs want Todd Kurtz or Max Dilger in their teams so badly, they can be slotted into the 1-5.

As important as the opportunity granted to these riders is the continuity of opportunity. Riders knew that, unless they performed extremely badly, they were guaranteed a full season’s racing, and the likes of Lewis Blackbird and Kyle Newman invested in equipment accordingly. This is why any talk of elevating the top riders from this year’s FTD system into the main body of EL teams is so damaging. These riders have made enormous steps in their progress, all of which could be torn down by a month at number two before being replaced by the latest young Pole or old Swede. If – and I don’t even want to consider it – they are to move up, their places have to protected, or at least replacing them made so difficult as to be unattractive. It’s one thing to replace an underperforming rider when results are your business, but it’s another entirely to prematurely pull the trigger or make them innocent victims of a bigger reshuffle.

The FTD has to stay. It has to be augmented in the EL by the addition of Birks, Auty, and the like, and implemented in the PL to continue the progress made by Clegg, Greaves, and other lower-graded youngsters. To do anything else is negligence, almost criminally so.

* * * *

I DEMAND that clubs are left to decide which day is best for their individual racenights. I also DEMAND that fixtures are evenly spread, and that a percentage are completed by appropriate cut-off dates.

Talk of  a single racenight for the entire Elite League is frightening. I can see the logic: it would mean that Thursday night (for instance) is speedway night in this country, and that that may mean the “star” riders may be more willing to ride over here. However, as a good idea that’s as far as it goes. The logistical, practical, and romantic obstacles are considerable, and the potential rewards are negligible.

Who decides which night is best? Is it left to the whim of the promoters? Is it a decision made by the riders? Does TV get a say? And what about the fans? Okay, I know the fans won’t be consulted, I just threw that in for a giggle.

If it’s Monday, then do Sky continue to show live speedway on that night? And if so, won’t that damage attendance at the other three or four tracks staging live speedway? If it’s Tuesday, will riders be forced to choose between Sweden and Britain? If it’s Wednesday, will the same happen with Denmark? If it’s Thursday, what happens to those tracks that stage dog racing on that night? If it’s Friday, won’t riders be missing due to Grands Prix and other international commitments fifteen nights a season, and won’t the televised Danish fixtures clash? If it’s Saturday, those Grands Prix and FIM/FIM-Europe meetings are a nuisance, and if it’s Sunday you’re asking riders to choose between cash-rich (for the moment) Poland and our league!

And that’s without wondering about what happens if it’s not certain nights! What happens to crowds at Wolves if it’s not a Monday? And Poole if it’s not a Wednesday? And Coventry if it’s not a Friday? They go down, that’s what, and you’d have to presume considerably. The only people there will be mugs like you and me, who already go, but less of us than ever before. And, of course, the logic of Thursday night being speedway night (again, just an example) is lost if another dozen or so tracks are staging speedway on nights other than Thursday (in the PL & NL)!

But let’s say, for arguments sake, that they do manage to overcome all this, and land on one chosen night for our speedway. Let’s say Thursday, because I have been since I started writing about this issue. Do we really think that the “star” riders will flood back to our league? Will the riders who were very keen to ride here as youngsters before deciding we were inconvenient decide that, out of the blue, “you know what, I miss riding in Britain?” Will those riders who are ride here at the moment but are complaining of being overextended decide to ignore that aching tiredness in their bones and continue to ride in so many leagues? Will those riders who’ve never even given us a glance – because why would they? – suddenly declare their love for British speedway? Or will it just become a choice of whichever two of the major leagues pays best, leading to an arms’ race that few can afford?

And who are these “stars” – who are as known to the everyday, non-speedway public as you or I (presuming you’re not Jordan or Mario Ballotelli) – anyway? Will their appearance on track double crowds? Will the dazzling talent on track hide the crumbling stadia around them? Will it increase column inches? Will Sky Sports News finally cover our sport in any depth? I think you know the answer.

No, the logistics and potential rewards of a single racenight make it a laughable concept, something that will cost more – financially and structurally – than the sport can bear. Far better for clubs, as is historically the case, to run on their regular race night, so that <insert day of the week here> night becomes speedway night every <insert day of the week here>, depending on local peculiarities. And while we’re at it, let’s keep it to a particular night, where possible, for each track: King’s Lynn ran on Wednesdays, Thursdays, or Fridays this season, depending on the availability of their Danish riders, and hang continuity or opposing teams! Workington, too, switched between racenights to ensure their double-up riders were available. This is gamesmanship, pure and simple.

What is needed is a structure to the season that doesn’t mean you have three meetings in 10 days and then nothing for a month. Fixtures have to be evenly spread throughout the season – both home & away – and, I’d argue, the league table needs to have a consistent look, “played”-wise, as far as possible. A solution to this would be to have a number of cut-off points by which time you have to have completed a percentage of your fixtures. If this means running on an off-night – and I know what I’ve just said – then so be it. Better to do that in clement weather than cramming five fixtures into the last week of September.

British speedway has grown into the thing it is organically. Our stadiums are often shared with other sports, and habits have been formed by years of attending on a particular racenight. To try and force a square peg into a round hole, for no real advantage, is silly. It’s not impossible to make a success of what we have, the way we have it, but it will take more hard work and more innovation. Appeasing the riders and ignoring the fans is a surefire way to undo everything far more quickly than it is unravelling at present.

* * * *

I DEMAND that meetings run quickly and orderly, even when Sky are in town, and that fans are kept informed when this cannot happen.

Speedway made a decision somewhere in its past, that it was no longer an entertainment, a diversion, a spectacle; it was a sport. Sporting contests usually have a time-limit – 90 minutes for football, for example – or a schedule – like the over-rate in cricket – and as such move along at a pace which leaves little time for navel-gazing. Speedway, however, runs to a loose timetable, whereby meetings will start at some arbitrary time (usually nowhere near the announced start time), and continue on at a meandering pace whereby you can never be sure just how long it will be between one race and the next. Sometimes it will be raining, or threatening to rain, and then things move quicker. But usually it’s just an uneven jumble of an evening (or afternoon, if that’s your local poison).

There used to be a rule that stated one race had to begin within a mandated time of the last one finishing, a rule that legendary referee Frank Ebdon was very keen on enforcing. I don’t know if it’s still on the statute, but if it is it’s the most-ignored rule in the book, because it often seems like hours between races on some nights at the speedway. If that rule still exists, it needs to be strictly enforced. If it has lapsed, it needs to be reintroduced. It’s no too difficult, barring incidents, which are understandable and obvious to the crowd, to schedule a race every 5 minutes. For a 7.30 start, heat 1 starts at 7.30. Heat 2, 7.35. Heat 3, 7.40, and right through to heat 15 at 8.40, or 9.00 if you really have to have an interval. If riders are not ready by this time, tough. The fans are.

Sometimes the track needs extra work to ensure racing is close and exciting. This is not a problem except when it is done too much, or if the crowd are not informed why the tractor is doing a hundred laps and paying close attention to the gates the home riders will be using in the next race.

There are also times when riders need medical attention, and – again – if the crowd are kept informed this is not an issue. No extra time should be allowed for mechanical issues or because a rider has been given two rides on the trot because his team manager can’t use rider replacement properly: again, the fans are ready, don’t insult them by putting them last.

The biggest issue facing speedway is that it can’t attract new fans. I’d also argue that it’s having trouble keeping hold of the ones it’s got at the moment, and issues like standing around, being kept in the dark as to why, often on cold nights, when there’s a cheaper night out at the cinema up the road, are paramount. This is the sort of thing you sort out, not bringing back greedy Greg Hancock or can’t be bothered Chris Holder. Make your product work from the ground up, not the top down. Speedway should be a fast, exciting night out. It should start promptly and never let up, high-octane and thrilling. Get that right and half the battle is won.

* * * *

I DEMAND that clubs be properly licensed to compete, and that riders, officials, and others should not be afraid to speak out if they know that things are not right.

We lost Birmingham this season. They may be back, they may not. It was a loss to the riders who had team places with the Brummies. It was a loss to the promoter who, despite how you feel about him, ploughed several hundred thousand pounds into the club, and a loss to those still owed money as a result of the club going into liquidation. Most importantly, it was a loss to the fans who invest more than just hard-earned money into a club, they invest time and love, and that loss cannot be adequately compensated for by anything other than the return of the club they support.

The thing is, Birmingham going out of business surprised nobody. They were on shaky financial grounds last season, and it’s astounding that they came to the tapes under the same management this time around. You could put the blame solely on the promoters, who took the decision to compete knowing that it could be unlikely they would ever turn a profit (or even a sustainable loss), but the largest proportion of blame surely has to lie with the BSPA, who licensed them to compete. If I, a sometimes-gossiphound who is fed titbits by some of those in-the-know, knew how bad things were last season, surely the BSPA knew the full extent of the damage? And they still licensed the same promoters to run again this time around?

I don’t mean to pick on Birmingham and their former promoters. I use them as an example because it’s current and apposite, but I could just as easily bring up Peterborough (in any of its last few incarnations), Newport, Reading, Oxford, or any of the other tracks which have closed or given out those dire warnings that they may not be able to continue without new investment.

The thing is, most of the money in speedway stays in speedway. It just flows around to different people involved, formally or informally, in the sport. The exception is our money, which never comes back to us - once we hand it over at the turnstile, it’s lost, with only the loose guarantee of an evening’s entertainment in return. Therefore, the state of a club’s finances are never unknown to those in the sport, and action should be taken in a much quicker fashion than seems to be the case of late.

A good example is riders, who soon know when their pay packet is short. They daren’t speak out, because fines and bans are handed out for that kind of insubordination, and instead are reduced to playing games which punish the fans more than anyone, like only bringing one bike instead of two, or refusing to do heat 15, or flying to Los Angeles two days before a major final.

Club officials, and those “in the know”, are also discouraged from speaking out because speedway, which operates under a veil of secrecy that the 1950s Magic Circle would be proud of, does not like dissenters. Or outsiders. Or anyone a bit different, really.

Proper licensing of clubs may rob some of us of our clubs under some promoters, but it should mean no club goes out of business mid-season. Transparency of accounts, at least to those properly entitled to see them, would mean that problems are identified and addressed before the become insurmountable. It’s something that real sports do, so isn’t it time speedway caught up?

* * * *

And now some others demands…

I DEMAND that there be a minimum points limit as well as a maximum one. We have to ensure that teams can compete and be seen to compete.

I DEMAND that attendance figures be published. The only reasons not to are to fiddle VAT (which I would never accuse any promoter of doing) or through shame. Which one is it?

I DEMAND that any rider contracted to ride in our leagues agrees to put our fixtures ahead of any others, save for FIM meetings. Riders should also be discouraged from entering competitions that have little effect on their career progress. Put an end to this fantasy of squads and instead value the riders who do ride in the UK, and insist they value British speedway.

I DEMAND that speedway follows football and sees a programme as added value to the paying customer rather than the only way to follow the evening’s action. No frills racecards should be available on request – programmes should stand on their own merits as content-rich and a memento of an occasion, as they do in football.

I DEMAND that all accompanied under-18s be let in free to all meetings. Children do not get full-time jobs until they are 18. The government requires all under-18s to be in full-time education or training. They do not, largely, have money of their own. To charge under-18s anything is a tax on their parents, and will do nothing to ensure we have a next generation of speedway fans.

I DEMAND that all shared events – including National League – are made compulsory and have priority over any other non-FIM meeting staged on that day. Missing a shared event, such as the PL Fours or PLRC, to ride abroad should be punished with a suspension. Put the fans first.

Finally, I DEMAND that the sport stops taking its fans for granted, and starts realising that, without the hundreds of thousands of pounds we bring in through the turnstiles, there would be no speedway for the promoters, riders, and other hangers-on. British speedway exists because of us, and it should be run for us. Get this wrong at your peril!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Is That All You Take Away? (and one other thing)

ITEM: Sometimes things distil to create something more substantial. Entirely separate things on their own, when taken together, make a bigger picture and set you off on a whole new trajectory. That happened to me recently, and led me to a surprising conclusion about a new direction for (part of) our sport, and one I never thought I’d ever consider.

Firstly, Chris Van Straaten, longtime Wolves’ promoter, publicly decried the lack of fans that King’s Lynn bring to Monmore Green when the Stars are in town. Stars’ fans are by no means alone in being poor travellers, and probably nowhere near the worst culprits for that particular crime, but CVS felt it necessary to have a pop at them in a club press release, which can only hint at what his thoughts on the matter might be in private.

Second, Eastbourne hosted teams, two Saturdays in a row, who were missing their number one riders. On each occasion the rider in question was replaced by a substandard replacement, workrate notwithstanding. I’m not privy to the discussions that take place between rival clubs when arranging fixtures, so for all I know every effort to avoid this was taken, but the fact remains that two meetings in our flagship competition took place in front of substandard crowds – even by Eastbourne standards – and without the calibre of riders the entrance fee demands.

Third, the Speedway Tavern podcast released a blockbuster interview, recorded at Sheffield’s press and practice day in April, with outgoing club owner Neil Machin. Machin did not mince his words, and much of what he said could inspire many a piece on this blog for weeks to come, but one key thing I took from it was his insistence that, for a televised contest at least, speedway had to be less of a sporting contest, and more of an entertainment. In Machin’s mind, this didn’t necessarily involve the fastest riders racing to the tapes in the quickest time.

Lastly, in showing a non-speedway friend a map of the geographical spread of speedway clubs in the UK, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the crowded central region, from Belle Vue and Sheffield at its northern end, to Peterborough and King’s Lynn at its eastern apex, and possibly taking in Swindon if you squint a bit. Including clubs such as Wolverhampton, Cradley Heath, Coventry, and Leicester, with larger than average crowds, few could argue that it wasn’t the heartland of our sport at the current time.

So all these things swirled around my backbrain for a bit while my forebrain got on with doing all the things you have to do to get through the day, until it hit me at the weekend: it’s time to rethink the league. Yes, I know we’ve been here before, and we’ve re-branded and re-jigged to no real difference, but I’m proposing something different here, so hear me out…

After trying promotion and relegation, and one big league, the league system in the UK has settled into a system of “big” clubs and “little” clubs – the big clubs are those willing/able to finance the higher costs of the Elite League (presumably banking on higher rewards), while the little clubs are those unwilling/unable to take that risk. Further down we have those clubs for whom even the Premier League might be too costly, although the difference between the haves and have nots in the third tier is probably the widest gap of all.

What if, though, entrance to my new theoretical league was not governed by whether you could bankroll any losses, as has been the case at Peterborough, Birmingham, and Eastbourne, of late, but rather what you bring to the table in other ways?

The four clubs I mentioned earlier – those in the central belt, with larger than average crowds – are also pretty much acknowledged (with a few geographical anomalies) to have the biggest travelling support. Some of the other Elite and Premier League sides also take a few away with them – Belle Vue and Poole, not least amongst them – and it’s usually a happy home promoter counting his takings when these clubs come to town.

Some of the clubs in the Premier League – Edinburgh, for one – are Elite League clubs in all but name, but have stayed down in the second division because it would be geographically suicidal to step up without their local rivals. It was the same argument given by Leicester in the winter for their desire to join their midlands rivals in the Elite League, but is rarely trotted out at EL level. Why not?

Why should Wolverhampton, to choose a fixture from this week, have to trot down to Eastbourne twice a season, their fans having to make a round trip of almost 400 miles in good numbers, when the Eagles do not reciprocate? Conservative estimates of the number of Eastbourne fans at Monmore Green on Monday night were in single figures, which – even allowing for the days of coach convoys having gone the way of CB radio and Spangles – is disgraceful.

Should Elite League clubs have to guarantee a certain number of away fans, making up the difference themselves if the magic number is not met? Lakeside have gone on record as saying that when Poole are in town they get their biggest attendances, but the Hammers’ first visit to Wimborne Road last season saw less than 800 paying fans in attendance, way down on the Pirates’ usual crowd. How is that a sustainable business model?

When Coventry visit Birmingham their crowd is swelled way beyond its usual level, and - to be fair - the Brummies bring a few down the M6 when they’re at Brandon. The same is true of Wolves & Birmingham, of Coventry & Wolves, and of Leicester and all three so far this season. Belle Vue, too, travel in some numbers, and the reciprocal return should only increase when they are able to change racenights. Throw in Cradley Heath, with their rabid fanbase, and you have a solid base from which to start my hypothetical new league…

Can we seriously consider an artificially-created competition, which may not feature the best clubs but simply the best-supported? Our current criteria for deciding who rides at the “Elite” level is no more egalitarian, and allowed politics to prevent well-supported Leicester stepping up last winter in order to keep a Peterborough team averaging 500 fans a meeting, losing an arm and a leg every time they opened the gates! Adding in Neil Machin’s “entertainment” criteria, it needn’t even pretend it has to have the world’s best riders, simply those committed to full-blooded performances each time they take to the track, with the aggregate crowd levels at the lower end of the league being enough to support solid, appetising teams.

In uncertain times, clubs sometimes need to look after themselves, as well as keeping one eye on the wellbeing of the sport they are mere custodians of. I would argue that a geographical split, with certain anomalies allowed for – such as Poole competing in a largely centrally-based competition - to the mutual benefit of all parties, is not just desirable, it’s sensible. A northern and southern competitions, to run alongside the central league, and run at their own level of competition, would also make much more sense than the stretched-out, travel-max system we currently have.

“But how would we know who the British champions are?”, I hear you say! My answer is, firstly, “who cares!” and, secondly, I’m sure we could come up with something as artificial and contrived as our current play-off system!

There are loyal fans of clubs I’ve excluded in my sweeping reorganisation of our leagues that will be furious, and I’d hope they would be. As always, this is how I see it, and don’t expect (although I hope) to find agreement with my lunatic ravings. But clubs need to maximise their incomes more than ever, and – to a Birmingham or Coventry - two visits from Cradley Heath look so much more appetising than Lakeside or Eastbourne…

ITEM: The Finnish Grand Prix, held the weekend before last, wasn’t a classic. As far as the racing could be considered, it was a failure. But those who travelled had a good time in Finland, and would go again, although perhaps not for the speedway. The sport’s loss is vodka and sauna’s gain!

All joking aside, it has to be a concern for the organisers. The track was laid in November, under the supervision of Ole Olsen, and nobody seemed to realise that it wouldn’t ride well until official practice. Back in the day, any track staging a world final – or equivalent meeting – had to first stage a test run, for exactly this kind of thing, but we live in a different era, obviously, and have to live with the advantages and disadvantages that brings.

The attendance figure, billed as a sell-out by the home promoters and parroted as such by the British broadcast team, was anywhere between 8 and 11,000, in a stadium that can hold 17,000, but I’m told that the promoters and BSI, the series organisers, were happy with the figure. Worryingly, though, it looked more than half-empty on TV (a consequence of being almost half-empty and the biggest, most populated stand being out of camera shot), and streams of fans – mostly locals, from accounts of those who were there – were seen leaving well before the end.

In most other entertainment fields, an important “show” - like the first GP in a new market – will be heavilty “papered” if ticket sales fall short of expected levels (“papering” is giving tickets away, usually at the last minute), or the seating arranged to have maximum effect for the TV crowd. The desired effect is to make those who didn’t make the trip feel like they should have, and rush to buy tickets for the next show they can make. These won’t be unknown tactics to BSI, coming from a more entertainment-focussed background than a sporting one, but they’ve yet to filter through to speedway (and other sports, too).

Still, there seems to be a commitment to make the Finnish round of the GP series work, and – as I said – those who did attend had a great time. If they can get the track right, the locals may be tempted back in enough numbers, because as beautiful as Finland may be, the prices there will not draw the foreign visitors to make it pay.

There was a suggestion that crowd levels were hit by the late withdrawal of Emil Sayfutdinov, for whom they expected a horde of Cossacks to cross the 176 miles from the Russian border to Tampere (Saint-Petersburg is just another 70 miles further away), although the majority of Russian speedway tracks are in the south of the country, nearer to Kazkahstan than Scandinavia. Indeed, BSI are apparently making noises about taking the series to Togliatti, the heartland of Russian speedway, though this may not be the best time to try to do business with Russia, what with the whole sanctions thing going on right now…

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Home Advantage (and other things)

ITEM: Home advantage is a thing. It exists, and a glance of the scores of just about any sport proves it. In some sports, like basketball, where it is literally a level playing field, it's familiar surroundings and the atmosphere generated by home fans that counts. The same is true of top class football now - where once pitches varied wildly in shape, size, slope, and playing surface, they're now manicured to within an inch of their lives, and that home advantage is now generated by a partisan crowd, and the fear of letting them down.

Speedway, more than any other team sport, is ripe for home advantage. Although they are subject to the whims of the British weather, a good track man can prepare a surface exactly to the specifications of his bosses. Got a bunch of riders with fast engines and quick reactions? Make it slick. Employ those riders who can't gate to save their miserable lives but have that much-sought-after ability to hunt down and pass those opponents who do? Make it grippy, with plenty of dirt wide, where only the bravest dare venture.

Enforcing home advantage on some tracks is easier than others. Tracks that have a - how shall we say? - unique shape, that can take some time and no small amount of laps to master, are obviously more of an advantage to the home side than those of a regular shape. Similarly, those tracks that are smaller - or much, much bigger - than the norm also afford a home advantage not found on the 300-metre "average". The velocity generated on the straights of the larger tracks can be intimidating, and the bend positioning on the smaller ones - to maximise speed - is something not quickly learned. Come July, with the home team having had plenty of laps under their belts, tracks such as Lakeside or Berwick (at opposite ends of the scale, shape- and size-wise) should not be giving away too many points to opponents, save those who prefer that kind of track as a default for their racing.

And that's another thing - within teams there are riders who like slick tracks and ones who like grippy tracks, racers who like big tracks and others who like small tracks, riders who shit themselves in the wet and those who can't ride if it's not wet... the list goes on. Even given all that, and even if your track is of average size, and a shape that suits most styles, you should still be able to ensure it is to a consistency that will reward regular outings. What I'm saying, then, is that it should be possible to prepare your track to give your team a home advantage, and many, many clubs do - there's a reason why you get more points for an away win than a home one, after all!

So nothing annoys me more - except perhaps the old adage, "they do it for our entertainment" - than when people trot out, "the track is the same for both teams" after a meeting. Usually it's after a home team has completely fallen apart, showing no sign whatsoever of a familiarity with their home track, and not always because the track has been hastily put together because of inclement weather. Yes, the track often is the same for both teams, but it shouldn't be, not unless your idea of preparing it to the advantage of your own riders robs it of all entertainment.

Last Friday, at Brandon, we were treated to the dullest of dull meetings. Somehow our track man - who hasn't exactly had the quietest of introductions to British speedway from whatever he used to at Bydgoszcz (and the jury is out on whether he actually prepared the track, raked it a few times, or simply drove Tomasz Gollob about here and there, presumably absorbing experience by osmosis, or something) - managed to serve up a dull, one line track which didn't favour the home team. Not only was a home defeat an inevitable consequence of a poor gating performance by the Bees, it didn't even have the comfort of a decent meeting to cushion that blow.

Worse still, the track was different once again from the last time we raced on it. Brandon has become the lucky bag of racetracks, never the same twice, and never quite what the home team wants. I'm told the track staff were told in no uncertain circumstances that they hadn't done their part on Friday night, but you wonder how much effect it will actually have when there is no sanction on them, and when the Bees take to the track again - against Eastbourne on Friday week - it will probably be different again!

No-one wants one-sided racing, heat after heat. If they did, they'd watch their speedway at Exeter in the 1980s, or do a tour of National League tracks when Scunthorpe are in town. But you have to expect that a home team will put up a fight, and its up to the away team to try to best them. What's good for business is sending the majority of your customers home happy, and unless you're Buxton when Cradley Heath visit or Birmingham when Coventry are in town, that means the home team winning, or at least not being hampered in their quest for points by their own track staff.

Coventry has always been regarded as a "fair" track. There's not a team that visits Brandon without a few track specialists in it, and that's because Brandon really isn't difficult to ride well. It's an unchallenging size, and a comfortable shape. If every track in the country were as fair, I'd have no truck with the, "it's the same for both teams" crowd, but it isn't, and most promoters are smart enough to ensure it never will be. Speedway is, above all, an entertainment. People don't stand around in the cold/luke warm for hours between races because they can't wait to write a number 3, 2, 1, 0 next to a rider's name. They want to see those riders earn those points, and be challenged in doing so.

As long as the league rewards away wins, and draws, more than their home equivalents we have to embrace home advantage. Although certain tracks are really not to my liking, they're there to be conquered. I just want my track to hold up its end of the bargain.

ITEM: Two years ago, after a crash when riding for his Polish club two days before, Lee Richardson passed away. His name is still remembered fondly, and not only by those clubs he rode for. While Richardson the rider could be a divisive figure, there's barely a soul to be found with a bad word for Rico the man, although as a human being we must be careful not to lionise him too greatly.

While fan acclaim is all well and good, one simple way of paying tribute to a fallen rider would be to immortalise his name. This happens frequently, and with some prestige, in other sports. Preston North End named one of their stands after Tom Finney even before his death, the leading money winner on the PGA golf tour is presented with the Arnold Palmer Trophy, and the Super Bowl winners' trophy in gridiron is named for legendary coach Vince Lombardi.

In speedway, however, we're very, very bad at this. The one time we did give it a go - with the Craven Shield, celebrating Peter Craven, a two-time World Champion killed racing in his prime - was allowed to drift into obscurity and, let's face it, never really captured the public's attention with its awkward three-way action. Other than that, Swindon have the Bob Kilby, and Wolves have the Gary Petersen, just a couple of a handful of memorial meetings still held at club level, and another shameful example of great sport hiding it's magnificent history. But it can't just be a speedway thing, though, because Poland and the Czech Republic remember their heroes with much greater weight, and the FIM Speedway World Championship trophy is named in honour of Ove Fundin who isn't even dead yet!

So it looks like a British disease, and it's about time it stopped. It may be too late to honour our long-fallen, but surely we can start with Rico? Maybe as one of only a handful of British riders to win the World Under-21 Championship, it might be fitting to name our own junior championship after the Sussex racer? Or perhaps - given his 2003 win in the Elite League Riders' Championship - we might like to name the top flight riders' championship after him? Who knows, it might make some of the more flaky riders take it seriously! Or maybe there's room for a brand new competition, one that can set its stall out from the beginning as the Lee Richardson memorial Trophy?

Speedway is an insular little sport. Some prefer to call the tight links formed between fans and riders, and fans and other fans, a speedway "family" (though you'll never catch me using it, or "pride"... but I digress). What family forgets its own like we do?

ITEM: The Wild Cards were announced today for the British Final next month, and they've gone to Edward Kennett and Stefan Nielsen. Both riders finished 8th in their respective semi-finals, and so you wonder quite why we have wild cards at all. Okay, a couple of years ago we used one for Tai Woffinden when he was too injured to contest his semi-final, but other than that it's been a fairly standard application of the qualifying rules.

The whole point of having a Wild Card system is to correct a non-qualification through injury, ill-fortune, or shenanigans, or to enhance an event with riders who might not otherwise have qualified but who could make a difference, entertainment- or crowd-wise. Kennett - and, indeed, Nielsen - do not fall into any of the former categories, and while Kennett has been a decent rider around Monmore in his time, he scored just two points there earlier this season and has been in truly woeful form ever since.

The inclusion of Kennett and Nielsen also takes the numbers of riders representing Belle Vue up to 4, and Coventry and Rye House up to 3 apiece. More judicious use of the wild cards could have found places for Cradley Heath's Ashley Morris (one place below Kennett) or Steve Worrall (chose to ride for his club, Swindon - who are also without a qualifier, rather than in his semi-final), King's Lynn's Lewis Kerr (one place further below Morris), or Somerset's Charles Wright (one place below that). All have ridden well at Monmore this season, picking off second strings as part of the Fast Track Draft system, and could be seen as worthy recipients of that wild card. The inclusion, in particular, of a Cradley Heath rider would swell the crowd and facilitate a better atmosphere for an important TV showcase.

Similarly, British Under-21 Champion (a very late call-up to the semi-final at Sheffield) Josh Bates and runner-up Adam Ellis (who was injured at the time of his semi-final) could also stake a claim for a place ahead of Nielsen, who finished fourth in the same competition. While erring on the side of Kennett and Nielsen prevents too many arguments about the fairness of their selections, you have to wonder why they have the wild card system in the first instance if they're going to play it so safe...

Friday, 2 May 2014

Not So Smart (and other things)

ITEM: This is the story of three Fast Track Draft reserves. In Animal Farm, George Orwell, Napoleon the pig speaks the immortal line, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” and you can add speedway to the long, long list of things that Orwell’s warning for humanity can be applied to.

Let’s start with Lewis Blackbird. The oldest rider in the draft, although with an experience level around that of a rider five years his junior, Blackbird was drafted by Eastbourne, a track I dare say he hadn’t ridden for many, many years, if at all. He spent last year dominating the National League, as well as making decent strides in the Premier League for Scunthorpe (after being released by Leicester, who have proven themselves very poor judges of talent since their resurrection).

As well as riding for the Eagles, Blackbird is also doubling-up with his local club, the Peterborough Panthers, riding in the tricky number two position but showing no fear at lining up in the first heat. He’s averaging just over 6 points a meeting, half a point up on 2013. For Eastbourne he’s top of the FTD averages, has beaten second strings from Belle Vue and Swindon (the latter at Swindon), and came very close to recording the first unbeaten score for a reserve at Elite League level in 2014.

Blackbird has invested significantly in his machinery this season, confident that he will get the opportunity with both Eastbourne and Peterborough to earn a decent living and make a return on that outlay. His confidence and progress was never more accurately illustrated than by qualification for his debut British Final, finishing behind only World Champion Tai Woffinden in his semi-final at Rye House this week.

Ben Morley, although much younger than Blackbird, has probably about the same amount of experience on track. Morley started young, and has progressed well with his local club Rye House (and their subsidiaries, Hackney and Kent), although he never really looked like making that jump that the really special riders make at some point in their careers, from decent hand to star-in-waiting.

He was drafted by Lakeside, joining wunderkind Adam Ellis at the Arena Essex track, which was a natural fit for a local lad from Essex. He was also handed a team spot in the National League by Kent, his second season at the Sittingbourne club, although their late start to the season hasn’t seen him make too many outings for the Kings.

Lakeside have themselves invested in bringing through young British talent in recent years, entering a team in the now-abandoned Anglia Junior League (where Ellis took his first rides), and building a training track for the Hagon Shocks Youth Academy on spare land adjacent to the racing facility. Recognising how important the FTD reserves would be this season, Lakeside team manager (and British youth czar) Neil Vatcher enlisted the help of the club’s senior riders, and both Morley and Ellis – but especially Morley – have benefitted from their patient advice, and made to feel part of the Elite League set-up at the Purfleet club.

While his results haven’t been as immediately notable as Blackbird’s, Morley has been steadily improving at EL level, and recently completed the first maximum score by a reserve in the Elite League, adding Swindon’s second strings to Birmingham’s Adam Skornicki on his list of senior scalps. With Kent getting into swing, and the trust and confidence placed in him by Lakeside bearing fruits, Ben Morley is one of the more unlikely success stories this season, and exactly the kind of rider the FTD was designed to develop.

Which brings us to our third FTD story, that of Lee Smart, the first 2014 EL reserve to be dropped by his club for poor form. There’s no arguing against the fact that Smart hasn’t done well this season. He’s averaging just 2.25, and only Belle Vue’s Ben Reade of the full-time FTD riders is scoring less.

Lee Smart is 26 years old, and made his debut in 2003. He’s pretty much the epitome of the journeyman speedway rider, having ridden for a dozen clubs in a dozen years, and never really looked like making that breakthrough to solid, dependable Premier League rider. Oh, except he nearly did, a couple of years ago, before another injury – he’s had a few – set him back once more, and he’s been trying to make amends ever since.

Smart is not Michael Lee, Joe Screen, Mark Loram, or Tai Woffinden. His talent wasn’t clear to see from day one, and I dare say he’s nowhere near the top of anyone’s list of special talents. What he is is a decent hand at the level at which he’s been pitched, able to use his considerable experience to chip in with valuable points and the odd match-winning score when given the chance.

And that’s the crux of it. That chance. It’s what should have been the making of him, signing for the reigning EL champions, a club with decent sponsors and plenty of cash to throw around bringing success to their corner of Dorset. Except it didn’t happen that way. From the off there was talk – however unfounded – that Poole were trying to manipulate the FTD to their benefit, and that even when that didn’t come off they would soon find a way to replace their second pick, the unfortunate Smart.

It didn’t help that, but for one very early season KO Cup outing, Smart’s National League club, Devon, have yet to ride another fixture, leaving him without competitive outings away from the glare at Wimborne Road. Poor Lee Smart, unloved by the fans at Poole, unable to get on winning races at his natural level, and fearing all the time that the axe may come down on the only speedway he was getting. You can see how it might affect a lad’s confidence…

Let’s not beat around the bush. The FTD was not designed for riders like Lee Smart. He was included simply because there weren’t enough younger riders of his ability to go around. Someone had to draft Smart – or one of the older journeymen – but you’d expect that, “stuck” with him, they’d make a decent fist of it and help him score the points they needed him to. I may be wrong – and this is one time I’d dearly love to be, so strong is my desire to see all clubs make this thing work - but it looks to all the world that Smart has been hung out to dry, with the end result that he’s more than likely going to quit the sport he loves, a loss we can ill-afford at NL level this season.

I don’t know who Poole will replace Smart with. Because they didn’t replace him in time for the greensheet averages that came into affect on May 1st, and if we are adhering to the regulations, it has to be someone below Smart on the latest FTD reserve list – a choice of Darren Mallett, Ben Hopwood, Brendan Johnson, Nathan Greaves, Lee Payne, Luke Crang, or Matt Williamson. While Mallett and Hopwood have, like Smart, been around a while, the others are young talents who may bloom into solid Elite League riders down the line, and need to be nurtured at this point in their careers.

Poole look to have treated Kyle Newman well – the lad has invested in his machinery, and got some great sponsors on board  - but even he doesn’t seem to be taken very seriously by his manager or teammates, if recent comments on television are to be interpreted correctly. Whoever replaces Smart needs to know they will get the time needed to justify the kind of outlay that Blackbird (and Newman) have made on their careers, and receive the guidance that has been so vital to Morley’s steady improvement at EL level. If nothing else, it’s worth vital race points to do so, and there really is no way to quick fix or bend the rules on this one.

It’s a new era, and some are just not adapting to it very well. Do the right thing by the youngsters (even the 26- and 27-year olds) and you’ll reap the rewards. Fail to do so, and we risk damaging something far greater than one lad’s love for speedway.

ITEM: There weren’t many people at Bydgoszcz on Saturday for the second of this season’s Grands Prix. There are many possible reasons why: inclement weather, GP-fatigue (there are once again three in Poland this year), the success of the city’s basketball team stealing attention away from the speedway club (who have been relegated to the second tier), the lack of Bydgoszcz Boy Made Good Tomasz Gollob in the line-up, the dispute between the Polish company OneSport (who run the rival European Championships) and the American BSI (who organise the GPs)… Whatever the reason, the naked truth is that there weren’t many people at Bydgoszcz on Saturday.

It won’t sit well with the series organisers – who have blamed the small attendance mostly on the weather and the basketball – because this was a BSI-promoted event, like Cardiff and unlike New Zealand, where the company simply rents the venue and takes all the profits – or losses – from the event. A small attendance at Western Springs is unfortunate, but doesn’t hit their profit margin. The small crowd at Bydgoszcz definitely does.

There is probably some truth in all the stated reasons for the small crowd, although the lack of Gollob could have easily been overcome had they paid him an appearance fee (money they’d have likely recouped on the gate). They chose not to, presumably out of fear of creating a precedence, and are therefore reaping a harvest lacking in notable “stars”, especially since one of the few they’ve “created” in recent years has stepped back from the GPs this season.

How they react to this – and whether it’s just a one-off blip, and the rest of the series will continue on as usual – is unclear. Even to one as disposed against it as I, the product does seem a little tired, and it’s been a few years since they last shook it up (if you’re not counting allowing riders to wear their own numbers, that is). That said, the GPs are still very popular with a certain crowd, and they may feel confident that Woffinden, Ward, Holder, and a returning Sayfutdinov may be able to carry them into the 2020s. I wouldn’t be, but then I’ve never made particularly good decisions about anything.

If it were up to me, and working within the confines of actually having to have a GP series, I’d split the season. I’d make the first half – five or six events, staged to look no different presentation-wise to the GPs – a qualifying contest for the second-half – five or six events to decide the world champion. Half a dozen riders could still be seeded into the later stages, but the rest would be made up by qualifiers from earlier rounds, with the odd wild card offered to those who excited but just failed to make the cut. This not only increases your chances of creating new stars and ensuring that the riders who make the latter stages are box office, but also returns some further legitimacy to the process of deciding the world championship.

Or they could just carry on the way they are, knowing that Hancock and Pedersen will also soon depart, and unsure that the uncertain terrain being mapped by the OneSport/BSI dispute may rob them of further bankable assets. You can’t – and shouldn’t – manufacture a result, but you can do everything you can to ensure that it looks as good as possible to all interested parties.The last two Grands Prix have produced two wonderful finals, but the winners have hardly had the crossover appeal that the series organisers – and sponsors – so badly need.

As always when I write about the SGP series, it’s with a detached and cynical eye, but I do genuinely want to have something I can enjoy. It’s difficult at present for so many reasons, but I hope that they get it right and overcome this season’s hiccoughs. The organisers are the paid-for custodians of our sport’s world title, let’s hope they make it work.

ITEM: I was given advice after last week’s blog that “unbiast blooging was beyond my grasp” (sic) and that all blogs should be unbiased. That’s ridiculous, of course, and I’d no more expect an unbiased blog about a passionate subject like sport than I would a balanced account of our country’s welfare system to appear in the Daily Mail.

But it does make me pause to think about the wider subject of speedway blogs, which are for the most part congratulatory, nostalgic, and mostly factual. Is there a place for opinion and speculation in our sport, which does seem to put itself in an odd corner sometimes about how we should regard and react to the efforts of its competitors?

My answer is, of course, and there is no reason why speedway clubs, promoters, officials, riders, or fans should be exempt from the same critical – and mocking – eye that other sports and entertainments are viewed through. You may disagree, in which case I don’t think this blog is for you. I try to raise the odd important discussion point, and can’t promise I won’t always try to find a way to kick Matt Ford, and if that’s not your bag, then we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m sure there are plenty of other blogs, or forums, for your taste.

For those of you who do enjoy what I write – or even those who don’t but still accept it for what it is – I thank you. I don’t do this for you, it’s entirely for my own enjoyment, but your attention is appreciated. Onwards!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Fast Track Thumbs Up (and other things)

ITEM: So we’re a month into the new season, and each Elite League club has raced at least four times. The pre-season predictions are largely coming true, with the hotly-tipped King’s Lynn and Poole blazing a trail at the top of the table, while unfancied Leicester and Birmingham occupy the bottom spots.

The new race format has been broadly welcomed, with only the quirk that sees the away number four wait until heat 5 for his first race, up against the home team’s top riders, coming in for any criticism. Hopefully that can be ironed out soon enough, maybe even in time for the B fixtures, and we can declare the experiment a success.

Of course, the biggest talking point has been the Fast Track Draft (FTD) reserves, and the effect their efforts are having on their teams’ fortunes. Nothing ever works perfectly first time out, but it’s been – to my mind, at least – an unqualified success thus far, the only issues a result of poor research and draft picks than any real fault with the system.

Most fans are realistic about the aims of the FTD. It was never designed to create twenty fully-formed Elite League riders, and going with so many after years of majority neglect of British riders by the two senior leagues was never going to produce an even spread of talent. The gulf between the likes of Kerr, Newman, and Garrity at the top end, and Clegg, Reade, and Ritchings at the bottom is bigger than you’d hope, but a necessary evil.

My own hope for this season is that five of the twenty make it into top fives next season. On 3.00 averages (or thereabouts, depending on how the BSPA decide they will transfer), there are already five or six who could make that step, and that’s without accounting for riders included in FTD positions who will mature as the season progresses.

For the rest, I’d hope that all bar a few are invited back, and the numbers made back up to twenty by riders who opted out of this season’s draft like Olly Greenwood, Josh Bates, and Liam Carr, as well as improving National League talents like Luke Crang and Nathan Greaves.

Although Leicester fans may disagree (and how ridiculous of them, by the way, to blame their team’s poor start on the new format and FTD reserves!), the FTD lads have added an extra dimension to the season, and those who follow me on Twitter may have noticed I’ve been keeping track of those FTD reserves who’ve claimed scalps from riders in opposing teams’ 1-5. That some of these 1-5ers are the type of rider that the draft is – in the long term – designed to make obsolete makes it all the sweeter. Here’s a list of those riders who’ve claimed 1-5 scalps so far:

6 - Lewis Kerr (Richard Lawson, Ryan Fisher, Claus Vissing, Jakob Thorsell, Adam Skornicki, and Daniel Nermark)
5- Adam Ellis (beat Nicolai Klindt, Nermark, Peter Ljung, Robert Lambert, and Nikolas Porsing)
3- Kyle Newman (Mikkel Michelsen and Kyle Howarth, twice), James Sarjeant (Simon Gustafsson, Nermark, and Simon Stead)
2 - Stefan Nielsen (Ljung and Thorsell), Tom Perry (Richie Worrall and Michael Palm Toft)
1 - Lewis Blackbird (Palm Toft), Benji Compton (Gustaffson), Jason Garrity (Klindt), Ben Morley (Skornicki), Ashley Morris (Lambert), Charles Wright (Gustafsson)

And to show things the other way, here’s the 1-5ers who’ve been beaten by FTD reserves:

3 – Simon Gustafsson (Benji Compton, James Sarjeant, & Charles Wright), Daniel Nermark (Lewis Kerr, Adam Ellis, & Sarjeant)
2 – Kyle Howarth (Kyle Newman, twice), Nicolai Klindt (Ellis & Jason Garrity), Robert Lambert (Ellis & Ashley Morris), Peter Ljung (Ellis & Stefan Nielsen), Michael Palm Toft (Tom Perry & Lewis Blackbird), Adam Skornicki (Kerr & Ben Morley), Jakob Thorsell (Kerr & Nielsen)
1 – Ryan Fisher (Kerr), Richard Lawson (Kerr), Mikkel Michelsen (Newman), Nikolas Porsing (Ellis), Simon Stead (Sarjeant), Claus Vissing (Kerr), Richie Worrall (Perry)

Of the latter group, Nicolai Klindt has already been given his marching orders – replaced at Swindon, disappointingly by Dakota North – and there must be a few others on borrowed time even at this early juncture.

One pleasant side-effect of the FTD riders occupying the reserve slots has been an end to those reserves who – through injury, poor form, incorrect assessment, or other nefarious means – score sixteen or seventeen points from their maximum seven riders, a far more imbalanced situation than any difference between the top and bottom FTD reserves could ever produce.

Whatever your opinion, the FTD reserves are here for this season at least, and hopefully beyond. It would be folly not to get behind your team’s reserves, and the new system as a whole, although wishing failure on brave experiments is very much an English disease. If you’re still sceptical, why not join the great majority of us, and (hashtag) Back The Brits? You never know, you might find an extra dimension to your evenings out at the speedway, supporting these young lads trying to make that next step. You know it makes sense.

Fast Track Draft Reserve averages (up to, and including, April 22 2014, draft numbers in brackets):
01(03) Kyle Newman............2...10...20...2...22...8.80
02(01) Lewis Kerr.............5...22...43...4...47...8.55
03(04) Lewis Blackbird........4...19...31...4...35...7.37
04(06) Adam Ellis.............8...37...54...5...59...6.38
05(12) Steve Worrall..........3...14...19...2...21...6.00
06(08) Paul Starke............3...12...15...3...18...6.00
07(02) Jason Garrity..........6...25...32...5...37...5.92
08(07) Ashley Morris..........5...21...26...5...31...5.90
09(17) James Sarjeant.........7...25...27...9...36...5.76
10(10) Tom Perry..............9...40...45..10...55...5.50
11(09) Joe Jacobs.............3...11...13...2...15...5.45
12(05) Stefan Nielsen.........7...31...36...4...40...5.16
13(20) Lewis Rose.............5...18...19...4...23...5.11
14(16) Daniel Halsey..........6...23...24...5...29...5.04
15(18) Ben Morley.............9...33...35...6...41...4.97
16(11) Simon Lambert..........5...21...15...3...18...3.43
17(21) Max Clegg..............7...24...14...4...18...3.00
18(23) Dan Greenwood..........3...10....5...2....7...2.80
19(14) Ben Reade..............5...19....9...2...11...2.32
20(13) Lee Smart..............4...13....6...1....7...2.15
--(NA) Charles Wright.........1....5....9...1...10...8.00
--(NA) Matt Williamson........1....4....2...2....4...4.00
--(NA) Benji Compton..........3...12....8...2...10...3.33
--(NA) Tim Webster............1....3....1...1....2...2.67
--(22) Darryl Ritchings.......2....5....3...0....3...2.40
--(19) Ben Hopwood............2....6....2...1....3...2.00

ITEM: Over the winter Chris Holder joined the ranks of those Grand Prix riders who have chosen to opt out of British racing, citing the cluttered schedule as a distraction from sitting around all week between Polish and Swedish fixtures, and the odd Grand Prix. He probably needs British racing as much as it needed him (and your opinion on both those things may differ from mine), but both seemed resigned and happy to go their separate ways, even if he was still hanging around Wimborne Road like a ghost of Pirates past.

The thumb injury suffered by Darcy Ward in the opening Grand Prix in New Zealand, however, brought a quick volte face from Holder, and suddenly he was very interested in racing for Poole and in the Elite League, which probably told its own story. Estimates of the length of Ward’s absence changed on a daily basis, but it turned out to be just a two-week break from racing for the Nanango numpty.

Two weeks without a number one – just four fixtures, three of them at home – is something most teams will face at some point this season, and such absences are covered well by guests and rider-replacement. With Ward second only to Niels-Kristian Iversen in the Elite League rankings, Poole could have used Matej Zagar, Peter Kildemand, or Tai Woffinden at home to Eastbourne, any EL number one bar Iversen or Woffinden at home to Coventry, all bar Woffinden and Zagar at home to Swindon, and Zagar or Woffinden away at Swindon.

Poole, though, sort to circumvent the regulations (plus ├ža change!) and insert Holder into their team, despite having taken him out of the team days before. Oh, yes, this is where it gets a little complicated, so stick with me…

Poole declared their 1-7 at the start of the season with Darcy Ward at number one. With an eye on the “Champions’ League” meeting later in the season, they replaced Ward with Holder for the Elite Shield meeting with Swindon, scheduled to take place on March 27, which was lost to a waterlogged track. On April 4, the day before Ward was injured in New Zealand, they switched Ward back into the team, ready for the start of the Elite League season. One problem, though: Ward, having been re-declared in the Poole side, would not be eligible for any facility covering his absence other than a 6-point Premier League rider, and so the guest scenarios outlined above would not apply. They could switch back to their previous declaration, with Holder, but he, too, would be ineligible for guest cover until he had ridden in a fixture, and he was unavailable for their upcoming clash with Eastbourne.

However, and you know there’s always a “but” or a “however” when it comes to Poole, they were allowed a guest for Ward against Eastbourne, and then were given special dispensation by the BSPA management committee to include Holder for their next three fixtures. This in itself is curious, because the special dispensation should have been sought prior to Holder’s initial declaration on March 26 because the regulations governing team building (regulation 16.3.3, to be precise) expressly forbid a rider in a team's declared 1 - 7 at the end of the previous season being subsequently re-introduced into that team without the express permission of the BSPA MC. Murkier and murkier.

Holder was given special dispensation to take his place in the Poole line-up for the fixtures against Coventry and Swindon, and although Ward rode in Poland at the weekend and is presumably fit to race in the UK, Holder will keep his place for 28 days – an injury replacement for a rider who is no longer injured!

Putting aside the legalities of the issue – and we always have to regarding Poole, because the BSPA and SCB turn a blind eye wherever possible – I’m not sure I feel comfortable with a rider who has turned up his nose at British speedway picking and choosing his fixtures when it suits him. The same could be said of Greg Hancock last season, racing in the Elite League only after his Polish club had sacked him for being too expensive, and Adrian Miedzinski the year before, using the Elite League as a tune-up for his Polish endeavours.

I’m not unrealistic. I know where British speedway ranks against the Grands Prix, Polish EkstraLiga, and Swedish Elitserien, but that doesn’t mean we have to prostrate ourselves before these part-timers. British speedway needs – and deserves – riders who are fully committed to a minimum 36-meeting season, and should give short shrift to those unwilling to make that commitment.

You may argue that we need the world stars, but it interrupts the narrative of the season if we allow them to make cameo appearances at the expense of building our own stars. The 2014 Elite League should be about Darcy Ward, Niels-Kristian Iversen, and Tai Woffinden, not Chris Holder, Greg Hancock, or Jarek Hampel when they fancy the odd meeting to top up their paypackets.

We need to stand proud of what we’re re-building here. The Elite League is not the best but it’s a fantastic product when done right. Let’s make sure we don’t let outside influences and distractions affect that. Say no to rule-bending. Say no to guest stars. Say yes to British speedway.

ITEM: Richard Hall is just over halfway through a 30-day ban imposed by the Speedway Control Bureau for his actions at Scunthorpe on Sunday April 6. Hall accepted the ban – on top of a “red card” from that meeting and a £300 fine – without complaint, and will presumably resume his Redcar career in the Tweed Tees Trophy against Berwick next month.

Hall was banned for assaulting a prone Josh Auty, after Auty had been excluded for bringing both riders down on the first turn at the Eddie Wright Raceway. Hall claims that - as a result of the crash - his cut-out failed to work, resulting in an expensive blown engine, and then heard Auty swearing at him, causing the red mist to descend. The referee threw Hall out of the meeting, although Redcar were able to replace him with reserves for the rest of the afternoon.

Hall’s actions were decried by many (although not by as many as you’d have thought, which says more about the two riders’ relative popularity amongst fans and fellow riders), and was a form of retribution rarely seen in modern speedway. In times past, Hall – or his team’s “enforcer” - would have waited until Auty was fit and put him into the fence during a race, a “revenge” far more dangerous than a kick to the midrift (and one that many fans applauded Chris Holder for doing to Nicki Pedersen in the Best Pairs meeting a week earlier!).

The day before, half a world away in New Zealand, Darcy Ward saw his Grand Prix end early thanks to an error by Martin Smolinski, who crashed into the hapless Australian, causing a concussion and a broken thumb. Ward went off to hospital, Smolinski was excluded from the race, but went on to win the Grand Final, lifting the first GP trophy of the season. Ward later suggested, on Twitter, that Smolinski ought to have been further punished for his actions, with some sort of “yellow card”, which would presumably carry on into further GP meetings. Another incident like that in Western Springs would then see Smolinski receive a “red”, and suffer some sort of suspension.

The card system is used in Polish speedway, with mixed results, but has never been seriously discussed anywhere else. The referee – as with Hall – does have the authority to exclude a rider from a meeting if he considers their conduct to have been extreme, but this is largely reserved for non-racing incidents (although Magnus Zetterstrom was thrown out of a meeting for Somerset some years ago for violent conduct whilst racing!). The logical extension of such a system would see riders suffer suspensions, and – in theory, at least – punish those more prone to wild or over-riding, of the kind – ironically – Josh Auty has been accused of in the past.

We’ve all probably seen incidents that would be worthy of yellow, or even red, cards. However, speedway is largely a “friendly” sport, with rivalries between riders generally conducted in an orderly fashion. Occasionally it can spill over into handbags on the track – much to the delight of the crowd – but the respect between fellow racers is evident to see when they take to the track. To include a system of punishment beyond what we have now risks upsetting that delicate balance between competition and comradeship, and would be an unwelcome addition to our sport.

It’s rare to say that something in speedway, particularly on the regulations side, works well, but it really does. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Leave the red cards, and everything that follows with their introduction, to football, and let’s get on with the racing.