ITEM: I have a friend who is into conspiracy theories. I mean really into them. Not quite to the level of Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory or David Icke, but he still believes that nothing is quite as it seems, and who am I to disagree with that? I spent some time with him last week, and around the same time something happened in speedway that I thought might be fun to approach from his world view. So here it is, speedway’s X-Files…
Until the middle of last week, Nick Morris wasn’t a Swindon rider. Due to the colossal clusterfunk over Brady Kurtz’s starting average, he had found himself out of a Premier League job at Somerset, and with the only PL club able to accommodate him racing on the same night as the Robins, he’d served notice that he wanted to leave the Abbey Stadium.
At that time it looked very much like he would be going to Sheffield – the aforementioned Thursday PL club – and doubling-up with Leicester, the only Elite League club with space for him, an arrangement which suited everyone except Swindon, who seemed to have been outmanoeuvred by the rider and his advisors.
Now here’s where serendipity comes into play. Swindon had chosen, as part of the fast track draft of young British reserve riders in the EL, Steve Worrall and Josh Bates. Many had criticised the choices, believing that it had left them weaker than some of their rivals. It would turn out, however, to be an accidental stroke of genius…
Josh Bates is from Barnsley, in south Yorkshire. He expressed doubts over the distance he’d have to travel to Swindon (180 miles – although he seemed entirely comfortable with the 150 miles to Mildenhall), and asked to move to a club closer to home. Swindon, in an entirely altruistic move, released Bates from his obligation, and from the fast track draft, allowing him to join Sheffield. The Robins will now have to pick a replacement from those left over from the draft (Daryl Ritchings, Ben Hopwood or Dan Greenwood) or from those with an NL average below Bates’s 7.49 (Liam Carr or Tom Young, most likely).
On the surface of it, it looks like Swindon have done a young British lad a solid, hurting their own chances of success in the process, and perhaps co-promoter Alun Rossiter’s new role as TeamGB manager played a part in that. But let’s enter the shadowy world of conspiracies for a moment, shall we, and see what we come up with…
Josh Bates is not just local to Sheffield, his grandfather is a member of the (still unannounced publicly) consortium that have taken over at the south Yorkshire club, and in a perfect world they’d have named Bates as a team member for their predominantly British side. One problem – that shared race night with Swindon, and the contract that Bates signed with the BSPA promising to honour whichever EL club he was drafted by. Without Swindon’s agreement, there was no way Bates could have ridden for the Tigers, but do we honestly think – with our Fox Mulder heads on – that the Robins would do that with nothing in return?
Coincidentally, at the same time Sheffield signed Bates, they ended their interest in Nick Morris, leaving him with no reason to leave Swindon, who have insisted that he is going nowhere and remains a fundamental part of their team and, as an asset, future plans.
So far, so simple, and really not much of a conspiracy, more a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement, the like of which I’m sure are carried out up and down the country in this great (under-investigated) sport of ours. But what if you look a little deeper, and look at what else might have happened, installing Sheffield promoter David Hoggart as a shadowy figure, akin to the X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man.
Hoggart, as well as part of the consortium that runs the Tigers, is a member of the BSPA management committee, the go-to cabal that officiates over the finer details of the sport. One decision they’ve had to make in recent days – and it’s still not been announced just how they’re going to go on this one – is whether to allow Jason Doyle to ride in the UK this year on a different type of visa to those usually used by Australian speedway riders. Doyle, as has been documented, is unable to secure the usual visa, and the tier 5 visa is his last chance to take his place in the EL with Leicester.
Doyle has also got a contract with Somerset in the PL, and without the BSPA accepting his tier 5, he will also be unable to ride there. Having released Nick Morris earlier in the winter (as explained above), you’d imagine that – should Doyle fail in his application – Morris would be top of their list to replace him. It certainly wouldn’t be beyond my pal’s conspiracy-riddled imagination to make a leap there. Could Doyle be sacrificed to enable Morris to double-up with Swindon and Somerset? Would Hoggart abuse his power on the MC to help out the Robins, as payback for allowing them to take Bates?
Of course not! That would be ridiculous, and I only mention it out of a sense of fun, and as an example that, while they remain a shadowy cabal, their decisions obfuscated by a cloud of (cigarette?) smoke, the BSPA MC (and the SCB, with whom they share members) will always be open to such madness, along with other, more believable accusations. We’ve cried out for openness for so many years, and it doesn’t look like coming any time soon, despite an increased level of communication with the fans over the winter. Maybe one day, maybe one day…
Afterword: When I told my friend of my application of his usual nonsense to this situation, he thought of something further (and even more steeped in paranoia), that could also have gone down in the secret bunker miles beneath ACU House… The BSPA MC was given the responsibility of deciding between Alun Rossiter and Phil Morris for the TeamGB job. The early indications were that the two EL promoters on the committee favoured Rossiter, while the three PL promoters had plumped for Morris. In the process of the vote, one of the PL promoters seemingly switched his vote to Rossiter, and he was duly named national manager. What if, suggested my friend, that PL promoter was Dave Hoggart? Don’t mind my friend, though, he’s crazy…
ITEM: OneSport, the Polish marketing company behind speedway’s European Championship, also dipped their toe into the Pairs arena last season, with a one-off Eurosport Best Pairs meeting, held at Torun. The meeting was beset by problems, notably the mixed Slovakia-Slovenia pairing and the broadcast delay while some meaningless tennis match finished up, but was enough of a winner for all parties to do it all over again this year.
Buoyed by the success of the four-round European Championship, OneSport have expanded the pairs into a three-round affair, held early in the season to ensure maximum availability, and staged in Sweden and Germany, as well as Poland. Although it is not an official FIM competition (or even an FIM-Europe backed championship – they run their own pairs competition), the line-up is expected to be strong, with all the major speedway nations represented. Except one.
The BSPA have declined to send a pairing, and forbidden (although I’m sure that’s too strong a term) British riders from taking part unofficially. This robs the series of having the World Champion lining up, and also prevents our boys from earning some quick cash and the experience of further international competition.
I’m sure the BSPA have very good reasons for opting out. The three dates are held on two Fridays and a Saturday while the EL is in full swing, and clubs would have no facility to replace riders taking part. There is also a reluctance to countenance further intrusions into the British speedway calendar, with the SGP series, SWC, and other assorted official FIM competitions already causing terrible disruption to our season – being seen to approve of the FIM-Europe, and further unofficial competitions, would be a stretch too far. There is also the thorny issue of recompense – the BSPA and its member club wouldn’t receive a penny from the series and, if they aren’t obligated to do so by the FIM, can be forgiven for thinking with their wallets.
However, if you look a little deeper, there really aren’t all that many reasons why they shouldn’t have approached it with a little more enthusiasm, and sent a pairing out to each meeting, without too much disruption to the calendar.
The first event, on March 28th, clashes with just one EL fixture – Poole’s visit to Lakeside – and so only Richard Lawson and Lewis Bridger would be unavailable. Even if you allow for the two EL fixtures on Saturday 29th, in case of flight problems, a pairing of Chris Harris and Scott Nicholls would be available, and I’d dare say acceptable to the organisers.
The next date, May 10th, is held at the same time as Poole’s visit to Eastbourne, and Leicester a round of the World Under-21 Championship. With Poland in full swing by that point, there are no clashes the next day, and so a full-strength British pairing would be available, including world champion Tai Woffinden, perhaps with Chris Harris. For the final event, held on May 23rd, only Coventry and Eastbourne are in action, although the next day also sees Swindon, Lakeside, Poole, Leicester, and Birmingham in EL competition. Still, a pairing of Woffinden and Nicholls could still take part with no issues.
Availability still leaves the thorny issue of supporting a competitor, with the televised rounds on Eurosport eating into attendance figures, and approving their position in the international calendar eating away at available weekend fixture slots. Like Canute ably demonstrated to his subjects, you can’t fight the impossible, and with European competition law firmly on the side of self-employed speedway riders, there is only going to be one winner when it comes to clashes like this down the line. The individual federations could come down heavy on their license holders, but they are as likely to find European law on restraint of trade standing in their way (and an exodus of speedway riders to ride on a Luxembourgish license to boot). Thinking creatively, rather than hiding one’s head in the sand, is always the way to approach these problems.
Although the Best Pairs – and the European Championship, and SGP, and SWC – eat into the finances, attendances, and rider availability of British speedway, they are all also shown on (practically) free-to-air television in the UK. Just as other forms of entertainment rely on other people’s TV as free advertising, so too should the BSPA. They should take a, “like those riders you see on Eurosport? You can see them LIVE at your local track!” approach, and other such tactics. Working with OneSport and Eurosport, and their dedicated English-language commentary team, could pay off down the line, with choice fixtures trailed as part of an agreement for British riders taking part, for instance.
I wrote recently that the new TeamGB manager needed to ape what other, successful nations are doing, and having their top riders ride in a competitive international series of meetings like the Best Pairs is certainly one of those things. There needs to be a longview taken, with the benefits of having Danny King, Richie Worrall, and others on the cusp of the SWC side, taking part in these meetings, if we are going to succeed at international level once more. I’m not sure if it’s too late to change their minds, but I’d urge the BSPA to rethink on this one, and when I tune into Eurosport on March 28th (although more likely watch it the next day, having recorded it while I’m out at speedway) I’d like to see two riders wearing the Union Jack. Make it so.
ITEM: It’s curtains, then, for the Isle of Wight, at least for the 2014 season. At a meeting last week, attended by just 53 of the 200 shareholders, they voted 45 to 8 not to enter the National League this season, and so eighteen seasons of speedway have come to an end on the island.
There are appears to be some conflict between the shareholders, with the chairman of a speedway club seemingly not keen to run speedway, but the truth seems to be that passion for the Islanders is more keenly felt by those who visited as away fans than those on the island. Although the task of raising £20,000 for an air-fence was a daunting one, it wasn’t impossible, and it seems to be the dwindling attendance figures that have put the club into (hopefully temporary) dry-dock.
Whatever the ins and outs of the decision, it can’t be left to stand, at least not completely. Entering a team into the National League at this late stage, and with an already shallow pool at the top end of that level of rider, would have been difficult, and Scunthorpe’s late entry has been undertaken on the understanding that they will field an initially weak side to bring through talent from their training school. As a second team, with the support of an Elite League team (ironically the Isle of Wight’s closest EL team…), they can afford to do that. To attempt that on the island would risk further diluting their already low gates, and so it’s a non-starter.
But it needn’t be the end of speedway on the island. We’ve seen on so many occasions that one year out of the sport turns into two, and then three, and then forever. Speedway has never enjoyed the best of relationships with its neighbours, and a discontinuation of the sport at Smallbrook would be fuel for the fires of those annoyed by a minimum amount of noise on a dozen evenings a year, the big twats.
Last year the Southern Track Riders held a successful amateur event on the island, and I’m sure that all concerned would be keen to do it again. Amateur events, and training days, do not require an airfence under the current SCB regulations, and so the initial outlay for that piece of equipment can be discounted from the cost of continuing speedway. Currently, there are only a handful of tracks that allow amateur racing to take place, and that number dwindles during the speedway season. The addition of the Isle of Wight to their number, on five or six occasions during the season, would enhance those opportunities, especially for southern-based amateurs, and the cost of the ferry to the island would be offset by the difference in fuel to Ryde and Scunthorpe or Northside.
It also might be desirable for training schools to be held at the track, to try and entice some of the locals into trying the sport, making it cheaper to enter a team in league competition in future years. If those training schools were overseen – or even visited – by ex-Islanders, such as former World Champion Chris Holder, the opportunities for positive news stories and raising some much-needed cash for the club open up.
Furthermore, it is not impossible to consider that the club might loan an airfence for a handful of professional meetings, held during the summer season, whether it be team challenges or open meetings. The BSPA might even like to support such an endeavour to test whether there is an appetite for non-league speedway at venues that cannot support a full season, to strengthen the sport beyond its league-centric current outlook.
I hope that something happens. The opportunities for speedway to continue is some form, while not endless are certainly considerable. It takes some forethought and, yes, a little bit of cash to make it happen but we can’t afford to lose another track, let alone one as unique as Smallbrook. Besides, it keeps Bryn Williams out of trouble, and that’s invaluable!