Thursday, 27 March 2014

2014 Predictions (EL, PL & NL)

Okay, because you didn't really get a proper blog this week - I was trying to not lose my head over the latest Brandon soap opera - you've been left a little wanting in the oomph stakes. Or maybe you don't care. Either way - and because everyone's doing theirs in the Speedway Star this week - here's something extra, my 2014 season predictions!


Elite League predictions are hugely tough to do this season, and all because of the Fast Track Draft. You know I already think it's a fantastic idea and it throws an extra element of chance into the race for the play-offs - even if you can judge the reserves on their National League form, who's to say they'll carry that over (its never guaranteed from NL to PL), and we still don't know just how much effect it will have on meeting results.

I've tried to take my usual scientific approach to predictions - it's a massive failure at EL level but quit successful in the lower leagues - but I've also thrown in what must be called the Ford Factor. Simply put, Poole have shown that they'll do whatever it takes to finagle their way into the play-offs, and you can't discount that from any proper calculation.

So, without further ado, and open to massive margins of error, are my EL predictions:

1st Poole Pirates
2nd King's Lynn Stars
3rd Lakeside Hammers
4th Wolverhampton Wolves, 5th Coventry Bees, 6th Belle Vue Aces, 7th Swindon Robins, 8th Eastbourne Eagles, 9th Birmingham Brummies, 10th Leicester Lions


With no obvious spanner in the works, the Premier League is a simpler pick. I did pretty well last year, and I'm going to stick with the same formula that worked its magic then.

It's the northern clubs that come out up top - well, other than the risible Glasgow - and I'd be very surprised to see that trophy staying down south. Edinburgh look to have that little something extra over the rest, and Berwick have a secret weapon in Steen Jensen. As for Workington, it's all-round strength for me.

At the bottom it's the usual suspects, although Sheffield look much better this season. Plymouth look vulnerable at home, and will get hammered by a few away, but should still finish above the Scottish Tigers. Still, I'm often wrong and never afraid to admit it!

1st Edinburgh Monarchs
2nd Berwick Bandits
3rd Workington Comets
4th Ipswich Witches, 5th Peterborough Panthers, 6th Newcastle Diamonds, 7th Somerset Rebels, 8th Rye House Rockets, 9th Sheffield Tigers, 10th Scunthorpe Scorpions, 11th Redcar Bears, 12th Plymouth Devils, 13th Glasgow Tigers


My National League predictions were also pretty good last season, and it is a league that you can generally judge quite well. However, if you look at the league as a whole, there's been quite a turnover of talent this season, and so an element of mystery may creep in.

The absolute wildcards are Buxton. They are still three riders shy of a full team, and there has been talk that they are struggling to find names at the top end to complete the side. If it were down to me, I'd let them use James Wright or Sam Ermolenko or anyone else willing to ride for £10 a point, but I don't have much swing on this. As it is, I can only err on the side of caution, and so I've placed them quite low.

At the top Cradley Heath look like solid title contenders, with a good 1-5, and two reserves who can improve. Kent have a trump card in Brandon Freemantle, and Coventry have put together a solid top 5 that should perform well almost everywhere.

1st Cradley Heath Heathens
2nd Kent Kings
3rd Coventry Storm
4th Mildenhall Fen Tigers, 5th King's Lynn Young Stars, 6th Stoke Potters, 7th Devon demons, 8th Buxton Hitmen, 9th Scunthorpe Stags

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Coventry Situation (a short word)

ITEM: This is not the full story of what's been going at Coventry over the last week or so. I don't pretend to know all the ins and outs of the situation, and neither do I believe that it would help in this case to over-examine everything at this point. Apportioning blame can only do further damage, and what would be the point anyway? The worst two words in the English language are "should have", because they only get used when someone "did not." Never, ever, has it done any good to tell someone what they should have done because they didn't and they probably know it, anyway.

So where are we? At the moment there's a stadium fit for speedway (if a little neglected, but that's a battle for another day), and a track that - with some remedial work - could stage league racing. There are two teams ready to race on it, but until there is an agreement between the owners of the respective items, no such endeavour will take place.

Let me state right now: I will be very, very surprised if a Coventry team races a home meeting anywhere other than Brandon this season. It would be a pointless exercise unless you are talking about an easily-licensed track not currently operating league speedway and with enough local fans to support an Elite League budget. Non-starter.

Having accepted that, it's clear that there needs a thaw in relations between Avtar Sandhu and Mick Horton as quick as the freeze which landed us in this position. The sticking point - other than the inside of the first turn - is obviously Marek Meinert's trackwork, which the Bees' management regard as substandard. Surely this is easily rectified by suggesting a bedding-in period during which he works under loose supervision from a former Coventry track curator? Colin Meredith was - is? - the BSPA's go-to man for track issues, and surely wouldn't mind looking in. Mick Coleman, too, is local, and still keen to help. If he's as good as he's reported to be, I'm sure Meinert would welcome the advice, if it were needed.

If the track can be fixed, and a slice of humble pie shared by all interested parties - I'm sure the TGI up the road do a good cherry one - then we can get back on with the 2014 season. I'm not naïve enough to think that this is anything like a long-term solution but it does no-one any good at all to not work out an agreement through to the end of October - Mick Horton will make no money from a non-racing team, and Avtar Sandhu did not make his money by turning away thirty paydays from stadium rent and other assorted revenues.

In the longer term (and let's hope we even get to that point) it highlights the danger of not being in control of your own destiny, and Coventry will certainly not be the last speedway (or football, or rugby, or...) to find that out. For now, though, I want to see apologies and carpet-sweeping - there's simply too much at stake not to. My gut feeling is that we will see speedway at Brandon on Friday, but I've been wrong before. And often. I just hope this is one of those rare times when the trust I put in people is rewarded.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Josh Bates Problem (and other things)

ITEM: Before a wheel has even been turned in anger in the Elite League, the Fast Track Draft system is coming under attack. This is no surprise - there were always going to be people whose blinkers would not allow them to see the greater benefit of the move, but it's not the addition of two young British reserves to each EL side that's being attacked, it's the mechanics of the draft itself. Forgetting for a minute that this is year zero for the project, and that allowances always have to be made for bugs in new systems, what they are complaining about is what happens when a rider drops out of his drafted position, and whether he should be allowed back into the draft after that...

Josh Bates was drafted by Swindon. Ranked 15 on the list of 23, he was a surprise second pick for a Swindon team who could have chosen the riders ranked 9th, 11th, 13th and 14th ahead of him. With Steve Worrall as their first choice, the Robins seemed to go for potential over experience, and with Bates having no Premier League berth there were also no potential clashes that might rob them of his services. Everything was fine until Bates's uncle became part of the consortium that took over at Sheffield, and understandably wanted his nephew in the team. The major sticking point was that Sheffield and Swindon share a racenight, and thus doubling-up with both teams was out of the question. Not wishing to hinder a young lad's development, Swindon reluctantly released him, coincidentally around the time Sheffield ended their interest in Swindon's wantaway Aussie, Nick Morris. The Robins then picked up local boy Daryl Ritchings, 22 on the list ahead of Ben Hopwood in 19th, again presumably looking at potential to improve.

Quite away from all of this, there have been murmurs that Poole were unhappy with their second draft pick. They chose Lee Smart, at number 13 the "best of the rest" in the rankings, but were rumoured to have immediately begun finding a way to replace him with a better, less seasoned option. Of course, whenever Poole seem to get the sticky end of the wicket there are always rumours that they will soon find a way around it, and the recent past has proved most of this to be far from idle talk. From the Pirates' public perspective, however, Lee Smart is their confirmed number 7 and their PR has quietly talked him up as a worthy recipient of that racesuit.

With Bates available, and rated by many who regularly watch National League racing as a better long-term prospect than Smart, who has struggled with injury in the last few years, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive, not helped by someone who is obviously very close to the promotion posting on the British Speedway Forum that Bates had advised Poole of his availability. Having opted out of the draft after being chosen, Bates would be unable to replace Smart until May 1st, by which time the Pirates will have raced 6 of their league meetings. The naysayers are of the opinion that, having rejected his place in the draft, Bates should be frozen out of EL racing all season, a draconian response to a perceived threat that may never come to pass. It's a punishment imposed on an 18-year old beginning his speedway career because the presumed benefactor of any wrongdoing has been guilty as sin of such crimes in the past. It's the wrong tack to take, and for a number of reasons.

It was Bates's own decision to leave Swindon for Sheffield. The lad and his advisers obviously weighed things up before deciding that 28-plus Premier League meetings would be of greater value to his development than 36 Elite League outings, and the merits of that argument can be debated until the cows come home. Obviously, the Tigers are his local club (he's based in Barnsley) and the added attraction of riding for his uncle's promotion cannot be overlooked. Having made that decision for what do appear to be genuine reasons, is it fair to punish him for it? Speedway does have a habit of doing this - how many riders have been scared of standing up to promoters who have owed them money for fear of incurring a 28-day ban from the BSPA? - but there's no case for doing so on this occasion, surely? As stated above, he will be barred from the first six weeks of the EL season as it is, and surely that is hindrance enough?

Furthermore, and I can't believe I'm about to say this, Bates and Poole should not be punished for any misdemeanours the Pirates may have committed in the past. Yes, Matt Ford is never shy of bending, breaking or just plain ignoring the rules, but I can't see any foul play here, and believe me I'm pretty good at spotting it (and even imagining it, some would say!). If Poole decide, at some point in the next few weeks, to replace Smart with another rider from the draft longlist, then that is their right. It may not be fair on Smart, but it in no way undermines the spirit of the draft, and no rules are broken.

Lastly, and taking a "bigger picture" view of the Fast Track Draft, if Smart were replaced by Bates - or if any rider currently occupying one of the EL reserve slots is replaced by any other eligible rider - the principle still holds. At least 2,016 rides in this year's Elite League will be taken by young British riders thanks to the Fast Track Draft. That's the kind of invaluable experience that will benefit everyone who participates in it, whether they start the season in a team or end it there. There will be lads who complete all 36 fixtures for their EL team. There will be others who, for one reason or another, do not. But every time one of them misses a fixture, for whatever reason, another British youngster gets that spot. That's the beauty of the draft system as it currently stands, and why it should be expanded, not abandoned in 2015.

Everything is conjecture at this point. Other than Bates, no-one has left their drafted club, either by jumping or being pushed, and so there are no slots for Bates to fill. But when there are - because of injury, absence, or any other reason - I cannot see the logic of suspending Bates from the list of riders who can fill those slots, when the reason for the draft in the first instance is to bring on the development of riders like Bates! Tribalism and strict adherence to the rules are admirable in some cases, but this is one where anyone who would deny Josh Bates an EL outing is definitely barking up the wrong tree.

ITEM: And now a couple of words about promotions - not the management teams which we deign to run our speedways, but the special offers they sometimes come up with to get us through the turnstiles. The good and the bad of such things has been displayed this past week, with a fantastic offer for the Elite Riders' Championship - half-price entry through Sky Sports' advance ticket facility - going unheralded, and with a uncertain amount available (and an unclear time frame in which to buy them), and an even better offer - £10 entry to both Coventry and Peterborough for holders of season tickets at other senior tracks - getting all the plaudits it deserves.

The ERC, as I have written on a couple of occasions, is over-priced. That's about the only thing people can agree on about the event, supposed to be a showcase of the EL's finest against a sprinkling of international talent but actually just EL riders and a rider who'd ridden in the EL for 10 seasons until this year, and for a tiny moment it appeared that the powers-that-be had seen sense, and at least tried to swell the attendance with a clever bit of cross-promotional marketing. Only no-one I spoke to involved in any managerial capacity in the sport knew much about it after it appeared on Sky's website, and even those who were vaguely aware didn't know the finer details of the offer. Maybe I spoke to the wrong people, or maybe it's the usual story...

There is a danger in deep discounting what should be a marquee attraction - that it could bring into question the value for money offered by ordinary league meetings is one understandable fear - but as a one-off meeting, with the backing of Sky (who are showing the event live), a special case could be made to ensure a bumper crowd. As it is, I have no idea how many people bought tickets at £25 before the offer materialised, how many managed to get hold of one at £12.50 (I did, thankfully), and how many will still bother paying full price knowing they could have paid half that if they were more "in the know". What should have been a very special offer, advertised properly and creating a buzz for the event in its wake, has fallen flat. A massive shame.

In much more positive news, the announcement by the Coventry and Peterborough management teams this morning that they will offer £10 entry to season ticket holders from any other Elite or Premier League club (save for those occasions when your own club is the opponents) is a reward for those fans who have stayed loyal to the sport over the winter and once again backed their clubs by paying up front for a season ticket. Although not everyone can afford to shell out a season's worth of ticket money in one go (and Coventry at least offers £10 National League speedway for those people), those that can are a vital source of cashflow for clubs waking up after the winter break and in need of some handy cash.

In recent seasons the benefits of season tickets have been hotly debated, with some clubs (through inclement weather or just not being bothered) not staging enough fixtures to offer any kind of discount on the season ticket price when compared to buying on the gate on a meeting by meeting basis, but the savings are still genuinely there to be made if that is your prime reason for getting one. Speaking only for myself, I like that I help the club out a little, and also that I don't have to find the money for meetings through a busy summer of other distractions. Now there is another reason to get a season ticket, especially if you live in the old ATV or Anglia regions. This offer from Coventry and Peterborough will mean that I can visit Alwalton more often than I had planned to, and holders of season tickets for Wolves, Birmingham, Leicester (especially Leicester!), and King's Lynn will benefit considerably. ST holders from other clubs will also be able to make unscheduled visits, and the end result should be money flowing into the coffers at Coventry and Peterborough that they wouldn't normally see.

What's more remarkable is that the man behind the two teams leading the way with this promotion (and I'm aware its not the first of its kind, but it is the only one currently operating, I believe) is the much-maligned Mick Horton, who is proving to be quite the astute promoter at Brandon after a few hiccoughs his first year at the club. What we need now is for the rest of the BSPA to follow his lead, and see what happens. If the net result is a positive in financial as well as public relations terms, we might just have found the way to make speedway a bit more affordable for those who want more than their weekly/bi-weekly dose, and a way for cash-strapped clubs to bring a few more people through the turnstiles.

ITEM: Polish champions Zielona Gora pitch up at King's Lynn's Saddlebow Road stadium on Wednesday night for a one-off international challenge match. With the Stars augmented by World Champion Tai Woffinden, guesting in place of the still-too-young for senior action (and think about that) Robert Lambert, it's not strictly a mano a mano contest between the Elite league and the EkstraLiga, but it's as near as we'll get for the time being. It used to be, of course, that touring sides from far-flung places would often venture to these shores as a warm-up for their domestic season, and I have fond memories of the USSR team that visited several (old style) National League clubs in 1990.

The touring side seems to have become another relic of a bygone era, which only lessens speedway's uniquely anachronistic appeal. Such tours were commonplace in football in the 1950s, with the best club sides from behind the Iron Curtain venturing out to give our best teams a footballing lesson, but disappeared from the roundball game some time ago, to be replaced by pointless pre-season tournaments and expanded European competitions not worth the metal the trophies are smelted from. It would be sad to think that speedway, often so good at keeping some of those nostalgic touches that football fans miss from their modern game (like delapidated stadiums, no squad numbers (yet!), and being able to stand wherever you like to watch the action), had also consigned such things to its dustbin of history.

In recent years the only touring sides that have darkened our stadium doors are the Team Viking Academy sides (although not since 2011) and the USA Dream Team (or its equivalents), who came over last year but don't seem to have anything scheduled for this season. Both relied on the generosity of UK-based friends and supporters to make a tour of third-tier clubs viable, and even with that much-appreciated and much-valued aid it was often a struggle. The days of tours being sponsored by rich backers or national federations seem a long time ago...

You might hope, though, with Poland (for now, at least) the wealthiest speedway nation in Europe (and therefore the world), and with the Elite League deliberately taking a step back from competing, even nominally, with the strength of the Polish clubs, that such tours may once again become viable, off the back of Zielona Gora's foray into Norfolk this week. If the marketing men behind Polish speedway have any nous about them, they will not stop at their own borders in their ambitions to sell their league. While this obviously has consequences for our own leagues down the line, in the short term we may benefit - as fans, at least - in the way US supporters are able to see top European club sides visit their local Major League Soccer clubs.

If nothing else it would a little variety to the fixture list, which cannot be allowed to fall into a league-only affair. That way lies mundanity and the slow death of everything that makes our sport interesting.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The BenFund Bonanza (and other things)

ITEM: Aaaaaaand we’re back! Sunday’s BenFund Bonanza – which has established itself as the traditional curtain raiser to the British speedway season in the way that the Charity Shield once did for football – was a massive success, with a huge crowd enjoying good weather at Leicester’s Jordan Road Surfacing Stadium.

It’s tough to estimate crowds anywhere near accurately, but I’d say there were a good 3,500 packed into Beaumont Park – which should make it the biggest crowd for a domestic meeting since 2012’s Lee Richardson Memorial Meeting at Lakeside. With prices considerable but reasonable (take notice of that, BSPA!), programmes selling out, and collection buckets added in, it’s not inconceivable that a six-figure sum was raised for the BenFund. Well done to all who organised it, and thanks to everyone who attended.

Of course, being Leicester, the action wasn’t always top notch, and truly exciting races were at a premium. That isn’t the point at meetings like the Bonanza, where the riders are racing for free and warming up in every sense, but that doesn’t stop some of the usual moaners who still, bewilderingly, continue to go to Leicester having their say and dooming the promotion (for the five-hundredth time).

I’ve used this blog before to attack their guff, and it’s a shame that an event like the BenFund Bonanza brings them out of their dank, dark holes once more. I’ll repeat now what I said then (and really it applies to anyone dissatisfied with the way their club is run): unless you are in a position to buy out the owner, or know someone who is, you have to work with them as best you can, or else walk away. Even accepting that what the promoter is doing to your club is harmful, nothing will accelerate that harm (and risk eventual closure) more than negativity. Be constructive, not destructive.

Different race tracks provide different levels of excitement. If I’m honest, Leicester is amongst the worst for that, but by no means in a world of its own. But speedway is speedway and I felt the entertainment I got for my money on Sunday was, even without allowing for the charitable status of the event, value for the money I paid. You may disagree.

It’s a shame that a minority can sour what was a fantastic day out. Yes, there were issues – only two pay windows for such a big crowd chief amongst them – but it was a massive success for a very good cause. Everything else pales into insignificance. I’m sure if Alan Wilkinson or another fallen hero needs something from the BenFund he won’t first ask whether the racing was decent at the event where the money was raised!

So start the season as you mean to go on. I’ve not been more excited for a new season for many a year and I’m determined – despite the obvious issues hanging over a Coventry fan’s head – to continue that through to October. Join me.

ITEM: Emil Sayfutdinov will not be racing in the Speedway Grand Prix (SGP) series in 2014. That’s a sentence that many expected to be writing a few weeks ago, but not for the reasons it seems the Russian has for exiting the World Championship race.

When the FIM suspended its draconian punitive action against the European Championship (SEC) last month, the focus was rightly put back on the chase for the title, possibly the most open in years with half a dozen riders able to challenge for the championship. Amongst them was Sayfutdinov, who was unlucky not to win it last season, with only Adrian Miedzinski’s poor decision making (and not for the first time) coming between him and a serious tilt at the title eventually won by Tai Woffinden.

The announcement last week, then, that Sayfutdinov had sought to cancel his entry into the SGP, came as something of a shock. The organisers of the SGP series put out a press release stating that Sayfutdinov was struggling for fitness, and had financial issues related to a dispute with his former EkstraLiga club Czestochowa. While there is some truth in the latter – although a court has lessened the amount Sayfutdinov has to pay Czestochowa to a maximum of £20,000 – videos posted on Sportowefakty show the Russian taking part in training sessions for his new club Torun, and boasting of his fitness.

Indeed, Sayfutdinov was moved to issue his own statement denying he was injured, and he will line up, as expected, in the first round of the Eurosport Best Pairs tournament later this month, a week before the SGP begins in New Zealand.

The real story is that there are two reasons for Sayfutdinov’s decision, linked to each other and neither would probably be an issue on their own. Firstly, it costs a rider somewhere in the region of £70,000 to compete in all twelve rounds of the SGP. Tai Woffinden, as World Champion, took home around £75,000 in prize money – scant reward for lifting the trophy. It can be – and certainly is by the organisers and their apologists – that competing in the SGP enhances a rider’s reputation, which they can turn into monetary gain through open bookings and sponsorship. Still, it must be said that for a professional sport a net gain of £5,000 for becoming world champion is scant reward. Indeed, the total prize fund is just over £1 million – much less than the gate receipts for Cardiff alone.

The other thread is that, in signing for Torun, Sayfutdinov has come under the auspices of Slawek Kryjom, who also happens to be the sporting director of the SEC. There is still a political game being played behind the scenes between the FIM, BSI (who organise the SGP on their behalf), FIM-Europe, and OneSport (who do the BSI job for the SEC). One of the main contenders for the World Championship pulling out because the organisers do not make it pay is a huge public relations coup for OneSport, especially when that rider is happy to compete in their competitions (which, it must be said, pay far better for less effort). Sayfutdinov’s Torun colleague Tomasz Gollob has also ruled himself out of any participation in the SGP series, which adds fuel to the fire, but Chris Holder and Darcy Ward – also at Torun – have not. There is no direct evidence that Kryjom induced Sayfutdinov to make the decision but speedway is speedway and assumptions are already being formed.

Whatever the truth, there needs to be a coherent plan acceptable to all parties going forward. I doubt Sayfutdinov will be the last rider to decide the SGP doesn’t pay unless changes are made, and I also doubt that OneSport – and Poland – can be allowed to ride roughshod over the rest of the speedway world. Wars are ugly things, seldom with any useful outcome, so diplomacy is of essence here. And soon.

ITEM: Thanks to Sky Sports launching their ticket agency for televised meetings without informing the BSPA’s PR team last week, the prices for the Elite Riders’ Championship at Coventry on March 23rd were revealed before the SpeedwayGB site had a chance to put a spin on them.

Although the BSPA should be applauded for allowing under-11s in for free, and charging 11-16yr olds only a fiver, the worst fears for the adult prices were realised and the usual £25 slapped on the tickets. Worse still, those who attended last season’s fiasco at Swindon (and who were promised a discount at this meeting as compensation) get only a free programme, whether they want one or not.

This is a massive own goal by the BSPA. The meeting is being staged at an uncomfortable time for travelling fans – 6pm on a Sunday – and is televised on Sky Sports. The riders featured will, because no exclusivity clause has obviously been invoked, be riding at other meetings in the days before and after this meeting which have lower ticket prices, and the hardcore support from the Coventry area will be choosing between a local derby at National League level on the Friday (the on-track return of Cradley Heath) and the ERC – and that’s if they aren’t regulars at the ice hockey which is entering the race for the play-offs!

Still, the pointy heads at the BSPA must know better than everyone else, because they’ve stuck to their guns. If I were more cynical (and I understand that some of you will find it hard to believe I could be more cynical) I’d wonder if there wasn’t an agenda to kill off the competition, as they did the KO Cup. And if I were less charitable, I’d hope that they reaped what they sowed – a small crowd and a loss-making exercise.

However, speedway cannot afford to make a mess of these things and so, although I won’t be attending myself (it’s above what I’ll pay for any sporting contest), I hope there is a decent crowd there, because otherwise it will look terrible on TV. Fingers crossed, eh?

Monday, 3 March 2014

Switching Nationalities (and other things)

ITEM: There was an interesting little news story that broke over the weekend which reported that Rory Schlein had turned down a place in the Australian squad and was intending to take out an ACU license this season. Schlein has tweeted that he didn't give an interview to the site that reported the story - Polsky Zuzel - and that no-one knows his plans for the coming season. To my cynical eyes it's less a denial than an "I can't believe it's gotten out", which lends an air of plausibility to the story.

There are a number of things at play here. First is the relationship between speedway and the media, particularly social media, in the modern age. Much of speedway would like to pretend that it's still the 1950s, where the only things reported in the press are sanctioned and often dictated by the governing bodies, clubs, and riders themselves. For most of its history, speedway has enjoyed a compliance from the press bordering on fawning - not other sport, save perhaps professional wrestling, has found journalists willing to report the stories given to them, and it's up to you how much good or harm you think that has done to the sport.

Last year the speedway correspondent for the Edinburgh Evening News reported that Craig Cook had signed for both Edinburgh and Belle Vue for the 2014 season. Cook had already tweeted some time before that he'd done deals with both Elite and Premier League clubs for 2014, but angrily denied the story was true. A few days later he announced that he'd signed for, you guessed it, Edinburgh and Belle Vue. What Cook should have done, rather than denying the story's veracity outright, is express disappointment that the journalist had reported it ahead of a scheduled announcement, and it is possibly with this in mind that Schlein hasn't expressly denied that he's becoming, to all intents and purposes, a Brit for 2014.

And that's the second thing. Schlein is the archetypal proud Australian. This writer has taken issue with some of the things he's said in the past, in my opinion (although not in the eyes of others) bordering on racist, in support of his country. When not racing in club kevlars, he chooses to wear the yellow and green of Australia, and he glories in the nickname, "Roo Boy". This is not a Nick Morris or Tai Woffinden, born in the UK or to a father fully intending him to ride for his mother country. For him to turn his back on his country for professional reasons would be a blow to his "Aussieness", and possibly disqualify him for life from drinking Fosters, watching Neighbours, or listening to Acka Dacka. It is not a move taken lightly.

The third thing, of course, is should we welcome Schlein as a Brit, and take advantage of his "Britishness" for international purposes? It's a tricky issue that has affected other sports over the years more than speedway. Both rugby codes and cricket are chock full of adopted Brits from the former colonies, and the thinking seems to be that, as long as they give their all for their nation of choice, it really isn't an issue. And if it remains that it's just one or two or a handful of riders, from whichever nation, taking that path then it shouldn't be a problem for speedway, either. Where it does raise potential issues is if the development of young British talent is held back by a rising tide of license-switchers, but with a watching brief I'd say it's not an issue we need to worry about at this juncture.

Two notable nationality changers of recent times are Rune Holta and Robert Branford. Holta considered his chances of success on the world stage to be greatly enhanced by becoming Polish rather than staying Norwegian, and who can say whether he'd had have so many years at the top, competing in the Speedway World Cup and Grand Prix series for his adopted nation, if he'd stayed loyal to the country of the first twenty-nine years of his life? Certainly, in speedway terms, Norway is a third world power, and although I wasn't around speedway at the time, I don't recall reading of too much controversy about the switch (although, as always, I invite any views to the contrary).

Robert Branford has a British mother, and used this fact to ride in the UK as a British rider, competing in the Brits-only National League, and then racing for - and winning - the British under-21 championship at Wolverhampton last year. To take part in the championship, Branford had to sign a memorandum agreeing to ride on an ACU license (and thus be "British") for at least five years. This is enough of a guarantee for me that both sides can gain from the arrangement, and it's certainly something I'd ask Schlein to do if he's considering going down the same route.

The reason given by Polsky Zuzel for Schlein's switch is to make it easier to get rides on the continent, specifically citing Germany as an example. If this is the reason, and with others having done the same in the past, I do wonder how long it will be before we see riders affiliating to non-speedway European nations like Luxemboug or Portugal, as has happened in boxing and other sports, enjoying the same advantages without the negative connotations of switching nationalities.

Regardless of the reasons, or even if it's true at all, it does create a useful discussion point for the possibility of this kind of thing happening more often. With Australians having increasing difficulty obtaining visas to race in the UK, and with opportunities opening up for ACU license holders through the Fast Track Draft, we may see more of this in the next few years. Perhaps time to decide, then, how we feel about accepting a Rory Schlein to race under the Union Jack. Me? I'm all for it, as long he understands it gives me carte blanche to rip it out of him at every turn. It's only fair (dinkum)...

ITEM: The Midland Development League announced that a record ten teams would take to the track in 2014, a far cry from the five teams (on just three tracks) that competed in 2011. Three years ago, the league was fought over by Long Eaton Invaders (based at Leicester), Scunthorpe Stags, Sheffield Tiger Cubs, Halifax Dukes (riding at Scunthorpe), and Team Viking Academy (racing at Sheffield), and won by Long Eaton. The following year saw an increase in both clubs and tracks taking part, with seven of each competing for the trophy. Long Eaton (once again at Leicester) were back, as were Scunthorpe and Sheffield, and Team Viking moved to Coventry to become the Coventry-Mercia Vikings. They were joined by Belle Vue Colts, Stoke Spitfires, and a Milton Keynes Knights team racing out of Rye House. It was the Knights, featuring current Peterborough reserve Olly Greenwood, who triumphed over Belle Vue in the play-off final at Coventry - the first success for a team from the new city since Troy Butler won the NLRC in 1988, ironically also at Brandon. The inaugural MDL Riders' Championship was also held, at Leicester, and won by Dan Greenwood, who was included in this season's Fast Track Draft, representing Coventry.

Seven teams took to the track once again in 2013, with Castleford Kings replacing Scunthorpe Stags (although riding at Scunthorpe), and King's Lynn Lightning jumping ship from the defunct Anglia Junior League to replace Sheffield Tiger Cubs. Belle Vue Colts, who made good use of 2014 Leicester reserve Max Clegg, won the title, while Stoke's Shaun Tedham sponsored by yours truly) was a surprise winner of the MDLRC. As well as Clegg and Dan Greenwood, Lewis Rose also came through the MDL and was included in the Fast Track Draft. As well as Rose and Olly Greenwood, there are PL places for Josh Bates, Liam Carr, Luke Crang, Adam Ellis, Joe Jacobs and Matt Williamson, all of whom came through the MDL, AJL or Northern Junior League.

Of the original five league members, only Long Eaton Invaders and Sheffield Tiger Cubs (returning after a year out) return in 2014, but they are joined by 2013 returnees Belle Vue, Castleford, Coventry, King's Lynn, Milton Keynes (based at Mildenhall this season), and Stoke, and by new entrants Buxton and Rye House. League rules allow for one rider currently in a National League 1-7 to ride (assuming he has an NL average of less than 5 and under 50 NL matches under his belt), but the other three slots are filled by riders keen to make it in the sport. The majority will rise no higher than development league level, but with two EL, eight PL, and at least twenty-six NL places occupied by riders who have come through the development leagues, the value of this level of racing is clear to see.

As well as the MDL, the Northern Junior League will operate once more - back again for its fifth season. This year five clubs will take part - Berwick Border Raiders, Castleford Castles (doubling up with their MDL counterparts, but racing at Redcar), Northside Stars (racing at the Northside training track in Workington), Redcar Bear Cubs, and Workington Meteors. The NJL has a new innovation, and will be including under-15 years old, 125cc riders alongside their (slightly) more senior counterparts in the scorecharts this season. Similar systems operate on the continent, and two British lads - Daniel and Ethan Spiller - have based themselves in Germany to take advantage of it. Hopefully if it is a success in the NJL it can be spread out, and the need for families like the Spillers to up sticks to the continent to bring on their prodigies will lessen and disappear in time.

Of the 27 tracks staging league speedway in the UK this season, you can see second-half, development league action at 13, as well as Northside. This, of course, means that there are 14 tracks not staging development league speedway: Birmingham, Eastbourne, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ipswich, Kent, Lakeside, Newcastle, Peterborough, Plymouth, Poole, Somerset, Swindon, and Wolverhampton. A handful of these have strict curfews (although Lakeside did used to run their Anglia Junior League meetings before the main meeting), but others have no good reason - or have at least never given any good reason - for not giving local youngsters competitive racing experience. Hopefully the positive benefits reaped by clubs like Coventry - who, thanks to a tie-up with Peterborough, can now offer a progression through racing at all four competitive levels in 2014 and beyond - will begin to echo around the rest of the leagues, and we'll be talking about one or two tracks not getting involved rather than a dozen.

If there are any fans reading this who haven't sampled any development league racing at their track, I'd ask them to give it a go. It's not always pretty, and there are times when - despite their best efforts - you have to stifle a laugh at some of the boys, but with support, encouragement, and opportunity they'll develop into the stars of tomorrow.

ITEM: The FIM must be breathing a sigh of relief that it has not scheduled any of this year's individual or team competitions for Russia or Ukraine, given the de facto state of war that exists between those two nations at the moment. Russia's speedway heartland is far away from the both the border with Ukraine and the Moscow base of power-mad loon Vladimir Putin, but there must still be concerns over the safety of foreigners entering Russia, particularly those from "the West" (ie, the US and UK). What's left of Ukraine's speedway scene is securely in the anti-Russian west of the country, although it remains to be seen what, if any, speedway meetings are scheduled for Ukraine this year.

There is a big meeting taking place in Russia this season, however, with the second round of the European Championships being held in Togliatti, and - of course - Russia's Emil Sayfutdinov is competing in both this series and the Grands Prix. The talking about what to do about Russia's naked aggression in the Crimea (and its possible spread to the rest of Ukraine) is still ongoing, with various veiled threats being made by the UN, the G8, the EU, and the other western powers, and it remains to see just how the Russians will be punished for their actions, if at all. Sporting sanctions have been applied before - most notably against apartheid-era South Africa - but boycotts have also taken place of Olympics games, and other events, for a variety of political reasons. It is unlikely, but not beyond the realms of possibility, that sanctions could be applied against Russia, and this would affect both Togliatti and Sayfutdinov.

Politics and sport don't mix very well. The vast majority of participants are apolitical, or at least do not let their politics interfere with their competition. I have no idea which side Sayfutdinov - or the Lagutas, or Ukraine's Loktaev and Karpov - support in this conflict, and I hope that remains the case. However, the nations hosting and participating in sporting events often use them for political gain, despite the denials by the (well-compensated) governing bodies that dispense such rights. Would I like to see a boycott of the SEC in Togliatti or Sayfutdinov prevented from taking his place in the SGP? Ideally, no, and the impact of a boycott/sanctions in speedway would be extremely limited. But if it's as a part of something bigger, and a solid chance to send a message to the Russians? No hesitation at all.

What a world!