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!