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!

1 comment:

  1. Of course there is room for a blog such as yours. Comment, based on fact, is supported by the law of defamation; even though the comment may be unfair, biting.

    And, for the record, Lewis Blackbird, rode in the Championships of Sussex at Arlington in October 2013. He also had a few skids pre-2014 season