ITEM: Well, this is a tough one to write. It’s been six days since the news broke and I’m just about ready to pull it together into some kind of coherent story (although, as with the best stories, there really isn’t much to it), and explain how I see us going from here to there.
It’s the Brandon Stadium story, of course, and the shock news last Friday that a sale had been agreed and that the future for sport at the multi-use stadium looked so bleak that the greyhounds announced they would cease operating after that night’s meeting.
The truth beyond that initial bombast was that the stadium was safe for the next three years, but nothing could be guaranteed after that – subject to planning permission my favoured spot under the scoreboard would become somebody’s utility room by 2017.
The greyhounds jumped because they see their business as a slow build, taking at least that three years to grow to where they wanted it, and they were unwilling to do that with no guarantee that their hard work wouldn’t be destroyed by a great big housing estate plonked down on top of the stadium.
Since then – and things move so quickly and so, so slowly in stories like this - greyhounds at Brandon have been resurrected by another promoter, and the stadium is back to a three-sport facility.
So what do we know? We know that the stadium has been long sought after by developers, keen to bridge the gap between Binley Woods and Brandon village, although the villagers have always seemed very keen to keep that buffer in place, even if it meant the odd bit of noise wafting over their back gardens from time to time. Although no-one has tested the water with an application for housing, various other applications – alterations to the stadium, a funeral parlour on the empty land opposite, and other developments – have been rejected out of hand, with the local council (Rugby, by a quirk of boundaries) seemingly keen to maintain the status quo.
Whether housing would get planning permission or not is a moot point at this time – whoever has bought the stadium (and we don’t know exactly who they are, just that developers are involved) can presumably afford to play the long game, and an empty stadium left to fall apart, and perhaps the victim of vandalism and arson, becomes a different prospect to the council planning department than a going concern.
Did Sandhu have to sell? There’s been paper talk of a relative who may or may not have owned part of the stadium getting into legal trouble which may have forced his hand, but the simple truth is that he bought the stadium with an eye to developing it himself in 2003. He promised back then, with an eye on keeping the locals sweet perhaps, that he’d find a new home for the Bees elsewhere in the city before turfing them out of the only home they’d ever known, and that’s the promise he seems keen to keep today.
That he fell in love with speedway was fortuitous, and it has kept the Bees at Brandon until now (and, he assures us, until the end of the 2016 season), and also brought some good times – and three league titles – to Coventry. His gradual, and then sudden, disgust with the sport has nothing to do with the Bees’ fans, and everything to do with the rulebenders at the BSPA – specifically those petty, jealous, win-at-all-costs types who seem to dislike outsiders, like a speedway UKIP – and their actions will have consequences beyond the loss of the country’s premier speedway stadium. It would be simple to wish the same upon the clubs run by these slimeballs, but that would hurt people like us. They cannot help being innocent victims (although sometimes willing tools) of their promoters’ immoral behaviour.
After the way he was treated, Sandhu owes speedway nothing. Although we see every club owner and promoter as a custodian of our sport and would like to pretend they are in it for us alone, he also owes nothing to the Coventry Bees. But he maintains he will make good on the promise he made eleven years ago, and has instructed Jeremy Heaver – stock car head honcho and Sandhu’s right-hand man – to begin the search for a new site and are inviting fans to make suggestions to widen the search (even if the press release sounded like they had no idea where to start, and were asking fans to do the legwork, I’m assured this isn’t the case).
There are sites out there, seemingly ideal for speedway, and developing them for 2017 would not be complicated. However, things are never so simple and the Bees face a tumultuous few years finding the right spot, negotiating a purchase, and – probably the most difficult – securing planning permission. Ideally they’d be in for the start of the 2015 season, but these things can take time and patience will be word of the day. I still maintain it can be done, and I refuse to fall into negativity – we, as fans, need to believe, and support, because without it the Bees will cease to exist.
The Bees, of course, are not owned by Sandhu, and are currently under the stewardship of Mick Horton. Last Friday’s news must have come as a bit of a shock to Horton, because without a stadium to ride in he owns nothing but the intellectual property and a few riders. With his interest as part of the community-led consortium at Peterborough, people could be forgiven for thinking he might walk away and use the Bees’ assets at Alwalton, but he remains committed to the Bees and is reportedly – but quietly - talking of his excitement at the chance to begin a new era for Coventry speedway in a new stadium fit for the 21st century.
And that’s the thing – as much as the fans love Brandon it’s a crumbling relic of a previous era. That it’s as good a stadium as any in British speedway is both a tribute to how perfect it was when it was built in 1948 and a telling indictment of the rest of speedway’s facilities. A new stadium - from a modest start as seen at Somerset, Leicester, Scunthorpe, and others, and built up – will give Coventry the opportunity to once again lead the way in facilities, comfort, and accessibility, for fans, riders, and the media alike. At the moment, it’s a pipe dream, but Dave Hemsley has shown what can be done at Beaumont Park, and that should be taken as the very minimum a new “Hive” should be.
Sandhu wants the new stadium to replicate Brandon and be a home to all three sports currently taking place at Rugby Road. I realise that beggars can’t be choosers but I’d prefer a speedway-specific stadium (or at least part of it) for the Bees. If the Bees’ track were separate from the greyhound/stock car track, it would be available seven days a week, throughout the year, and that freedom of use is vital to developing new talent. Although the facilities are basic (to say the least) Buxton has separate tracks for stock cars and speedway on the same site, which works well, and if the land were available it would certainly be something I’d investigate. However, the Bees are very much the beggars at this point and will settle for whatever they can get, if speedway is to continue in Coventry in 2017.
So what now? Well, the Bees have got three years. At least. They need to approach each of those years as if they were just another year, another chapter in the 67 season history of speedway in Coventry. There’s racing to watch, riders to support, and trophies to be won, the same as every other year. If the Bees are to thrive in 2017 – wherever that may be – they need to be a going concern, with the same solid support they enjoy today. Even if the unthinkable happens, and 2016 is the last year for the Bees, they should go out with a bang, as befits (arguably) the greatest living club in British speedway history.
It’s not a good time to be a Bees’ fan. Uncertainty is often worse than finality, but optimism has to be the keyword. The doomsayers will have – and are already having – their say, and there are countless examples of permanent closures of long-established tracks, but there are also success stories. Coventry will be a success story. They will start 2017 in a new stadium. And they will continue to be a force in British – and world – speedway. Anything else would be a tragedy for the sport.
ITEM: Because they can’t bear to see Coventry do anything ahead of them, Poole may also be looking for a new stadium in the near future, with the backing of the stadium operators Gaming International. Wimborne Road was also once a three-sport venue, with football joining greyhounds and speedway, but Poole Town were ejected from the stadium in 1994, and now play on a school pitch. With a longview on promotion to the football league (Poole currently play three divisions below League Two), the football club want back in, and Gaming International agree, pledging to look into redeveloping Wimborne Road or finding a new site elsewhere.
Wimborne Road is not owned by Gaming International, it is leased from the local council. As a city centre site, close to housing and commercial properties, its value to a cash-strapped local authority run by the Conservatives far outweighs its function as a local amenity. Hemmed in by its neighbours, room for redevelopment at Wimborne Road is minimal, and so the best option would seem to be relocation. This would allow the council to sell the land for commercial or residential developments, and all three sports to continue at a new venue.
I don’t know Poole as well as I know Coventry. There are copious brownfield sites around Coventry, on land overseen by four local councils. Within hours of the news breaking about the loss of Brandon in 2017, I’d seen a dozen suggestions of potential sites for a new stadium. From the little I do know of Poole, and the part of Dorset in which it resides, it’s a very different story. You would hope, though, that a suitable piece of land could be found to accommodate a new stadium for the town’s sporting endeavours.
The danger – for me, at least – is in tying themselves to the football club. Currently, the Pirates have attendances that – even when they drop below 800, as they did last season on occasion – dwarf those of the football club, who average a shade under 300. Success brings people out of the woodwork, however, as shown by small clubs like Birmingham City taking 40,000 to Wembley, and if the aim is to propel the Dolphins into the football league it won’t be long before the speedway is very much the lowest priority at the stadium. Throw in that Eddie Mitchell, a man not universally loved for his football endeavours over in Bournemouth, is keen to be involved, and there is potential for heartbreak.
There is also the thorny issue that Gaming International promised a new stadium for speedway and greyhounds in Reading, even before the closure of Smallmead in 2008, and that has yet to be delivered, even at the planning stages.
But it’s as important for the Pirates’ fans to stay positive as it is for the Bees’. As it stands, speedway is under no threat at Wimborne Road, and this kind of redevelopment story happens from time to time at every stadium in the land. To do the shady things he does to ensure Poole thrive, Matt Ford must love the club, and I can’t imagine he’d see them in trouble, even if a quick buck were to be made - the consequences of disposing of a speedway club are very different to selling on a chip shop or hairdressers.
Business as usual, then, for the Pirates and the Bees, who meet at least four times this season. Let’s hope it’s a fixture that continues well into the next decade and beyond.