Monday, 3 November 2014

Coventry Speedway, a season in review

2013 was a terrible season on the track for the Bees, and the Storm failed to make the play-offs. This year we made the Grand Final in both leagues. So why does it feel so much more disappointing?

Off-track issues dominated our early season. The bombshell that Sandhu was looking to follow through on his old promise to build houses on Brandon was devastating. Avtar Sandhu owes speedway nothing, of course, and after the way he was treated by the establishment in the winter of discontent and over the Peter Kildemand affair you cannot blame him for wanting to be rid of the sport. But we have been told so many times that Sandhu is an honourable man, and he himself made the promise that houses would not be built on Brandon until a replacement has been found, so to be told that this may not be the case was heart-wrenching.

There’s very little the average fan can do to help in this sort of situation. It requires political nous and no shortage of money. It’s also a long-term fight, and patience is a virtue when impulsive – and potentially self-defeating - action is the first instinct. The potential loss of one of speedway’s ancestral homes – one of the finest facilities our sport can call on, and available (stock cars permitting, the bastards) whenever required – cast a shadow over anything we achieved on track this season, and doubly so when actual plans for housing on the site where announced and exhibited shortly before our Grand Final meetings with Poole. What does winning the title mean if you have nowhere to defend it?

As it stands, we have a couple more seasons at Brandon. I would hope that the political reality – that it’s extremely improbable (though not impossible) that planning permission would ever be granted for houses on the site – would finally sink in and that Sandhu would accept an offer for the stadium as a stadium. He owes us nothing but that would be the honourable thing to do. For now, we have to bide our time and be ready to fight, with innovative and respectful tactics, mindful that – for now, at least – everybody is on our side.

It may have been illustrative of Sandhu’s changing attitude towards the continuance of speedway at the stadium that he brought in an obviously under-qualified trackman to work on the Brandon track during the winter. This led directly to the abandonment of our opening fixture against Cradley Heath, and the non-staging of the Elite Riders Championship two days later, with simple problems with the track either going unfixed or made worse by substandard attention. This was embarrassing and detrimental, and did nothing to enhance the reputation of the club or its promoters, further damaged by an unnecessary spat over who was responsible, not helped by the speedway press’s delight in making Mick Horton look out of his depth as a professional promoter, an agenda they pursue – whether right or wrong, and I err on the side of the latter – with aplomb.

Mick Horton’s faults, and we may as well address them at this point, are that he is too human. He trusts people will keep their word (a mistake in speedway), speaks too often without considering the consequences of what he is saying, and is too nice, too willing to give people a chance when they don’t deserve it. It says a lot about our sport – and probably business as whole in this country – that being too nice and too human is a negative, but there it is. He doesn’t help himself by promising what he – or anybody – can’t deliver, but I can’t be too hard on him.

Having said that, I was disappointed by a couple of things the promotion did this season, chief amongst them the shambles surrounding the Wolverhampton-Cradley Heath double-header in September, where season ticket holders – who’d not grumbled about the value of their purchases eroded by special offers, double-headers and a twice-postponed winter meeting – were told to pay £5 extra to see the second meeting or miss the first. It turned out, on the night and with no fanfare, to be an optional charge, but it left a sour taste in the mouth for many, and I boycotted the meeting. Lessons have hopefully been learned that you should not take your most loyal fans for cash cows. There also seemed to be a hap-hazzard approach to realising the need for, and booking, guests for missing riders, with our team manager bemoaning that it was often left to the day of the meeting to finalise arrangements for replacements which had been needed for weeks. I was personally disappointed that a plea to the promotion for a fans’ day cleaning up the neglected Brandon stadium, as they do at Newcastle each season, went unheralded. Little things.

Whatever his shortcomings, the flack Horton has received from Peterborough this season is unacceptable, and some people need to think what might have happened if he hadn’t led the charge to save the club last winter. Is he the man I want in charge of my speedway club? Possibly not, but that says more about the reality of modern speedway, where you have to swim with sharks – a nest of vipers, according to Neil Machin. You know what, though? He is the man in charge of my club, and I’ll back him for every wrong decision made with the best intentions.

Having said that, keeping Gary Havelock as team manager after a disastrous 2013 campaign, was not a popular decision amongst the Bees’ fans. He’d too often seemed ineffectual, which he blamed on half the team not speaking English, and the prospect of another season with his lack of any basic tactical know-how seemed a daunting one. It would seem, on the evidence of third place in the league, and a Grand Final appearance, that the fans were wrong, but I wouldn’t be granting the freedom of the city to Havvy too soon. The differences were obvious – Laurence Rogers working on the tactical side rather than Blayne Scroggins (and no offense to Blayne, because he’s a cracking bloke, but Laurence has a bit more of a handle on things in that regard) and a team of racers willing to break themselves for the club. Did Havelock have an effect on things? Of course he did. Was he the main reason we jumped seven places up the table? I’d argue not. Having said that, I’d have him back next season, but he needs that back-up.

So was it a successful season? Well, after last year, I’d have taken not having Krzystzof Kasprzak in the team as a successful season. As it turned out, we won more than we lost, but came up short when it mattered most, and lost out to the one team I never want to see us lose to. The manner of the Grand Final defeat, and no home celebration of the Bees’ season afterward, left things on a flat note, and the overall feeling is that it wasn’t a good Elite League season. That’s also tainted, personally, by a fear that the one success story of 2014 – the Fast Track Draft – will be damaged by the promoters at the upcoming AGM. If I knew it were to stay intact I might feel a bit better about the season as a whole, for all clubs not just Coventry. As it is I go into the winter with a feeling of concern, and of boredom at yet another Poole victory.

So what of the riders? How did they did perform? I went on record at the start of the season as being cautiously optimistic, and had a growing feeling that this bunch might just get us over the line. I was happy with six of the seven recruits, with four of them appearing on a wishlist I named on Twitter a year ago, and felt that this was a Bees’ team I could get behind. Turned out I was mostly right.

Hans Andersen was the only one of the announced starting line-up that I was less than enthusiastic about. His days of being a powerhouse number one are behind him, yet I doubt there’s been an accompanying drop in his wage demands. That, and his shenanigans when allegedly owed money at Swindon last year (turning up with only one bike, and cheating the fans), made him an undesirable number one, and another potential Kasprzak.

And so it proved. Although his average held up well when compared to some others at his level – it did, of course, drop in the way that many heat leaders’ did, with easy races no longer available for them to top up their pay packets – he went missing far too often, especially in heat one, and his unwillingness to attack a difficult track was at odds with the rest of the team.

There were also meetings he missed due to selfish ambition (chasing European Championship gold) or poor planning (Danish meetings clashing with rare Bees’ Wednesday fixtures), leaving the club with no facility to replace him.

Furthermore, he apparently travelled to Los Angeles two days before the second leg of the Grand Final, only making the 11-hour flight back on the day of the meeting. There was talk that this was because he was owed money, and whether that is true or not does not make a difference to the fact that he, once again, cheated the fans. Like it or not, speedway is a shit business, and there are times when you are going to go unpaid for a stretch. If Andersen thinks – as he publicly admitted last season - he can cheat the paying supporter as some kind of protest against that, then he needs to find another job. That’s the reality of the situation.

I don’t want Andersen back next season, or anywhere near British speedway. Our sport needs riders who will back it like we do. He is far from one of those.

Chris Harris, on the other hand, was once again a joy to have around. He missed Grand Prix practice sessions when we needed him to ride for the Bees, which - no matter how you feel about his World Championship ambitions or chances of success – showed where his priorities lay. He never once grumbled, and just got on with his job, thrilling us with some wonderful, attacking riding on often tricky Brandon tracks. Harris is one of a rare breed of modern rider that will add fans on the gate because people want to see him ride. Coventry without him – as we’ve suffered twice in the last four seasons – is a hollow place. First name on the team sheet.

Ryan Fisher should have been a match-winner. Possibly the pick of the second strings, he just didn’t get going, which is entirely down to his difficult family situation and a lack of available funds to spend on machinery as a result of that situation. There was never a lack of effort, never an attitude issue, he just wasn’t able to give his all to riding Elite League speedway, which is a massive shame. At his best he’s exciting even when not scoring points. He was far from at his best.

The arrival of his replacement, Michael Jepsen Jensen, was heralded by Mick Horton as a coup, a masterstroke, and the interest this stoked up was only matched by his lack of much to back that up. He wasn’t bad but he wasn’t all that good, either. He never looked exciting, or particularly fast, and certainly not the rider his reputation – which he still coasts by on, oddly, even getting an undeserved GP wild card for 2015 – would have you expect. The lack of much of an outcry when he was fired – for not being available for league fixtures because of European clashes – says it all, although I would probably caution that it didn’t need to be done when it was. He will not go down, at least on this showing, as one that got away.

His replacement, Ben Barker, had just eight rides in a Bees’ jacket in 2015. The first four – a third, two wins, and a fall which dislocated his shoulder – showed promise. The latter four – against Poole in the first leg of the Grand Final, when he was far from match fit – did not. Barker left Coventry under a cloud, and pissed on his chips last season when he could have come back. There were many not too pleased to see him for those reasons, but speedway has never been the most moral of sports, and you either accept that or find something else to do with your time.

Kenneth Hansen was signed as a track specialist who seemed unable to get to grips with the track. Not very special at all. True, the track was difficult to start with, and then different from one week to the next, which Colin Pratt would tell you was because the riders could never make their minds up how they wanted it. Whatever the reasons, he was a rider we carried for much of the season, and never more than in the Grand Final. You can do that when it’s just one rider, but he was too often not the only one misfiring, and thus the end result was disappointing. He obviously loves the club, and is a stand-up fella. I’m just not sure that’s good enough.

The man of a thousand nicknames, Kyle Howarth, was a delight to have in our team. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t often enough. When he wasn’t riding for Workington, who purchased his contract in the close season from Poole, he improved with every outing, looking fast and assured, and often winning heat one in place of the hapless Andersen. His performance in the Under-21 World Team Cup showed he can mix it on the international stage, too, and he’s due a massive step forward in 2015. I just hope it’s with the Bees.

Jason Garrity is my favourite rider. I liked him before the season began, and he was someone I encouraged the Bees to sign for this season before the Fast Track Draft was announced. Once he was named on that list, and with the Bees getting first pick, he was a no-brainer, and I’ve never been more glad to see the club agree with me. Coming back from injury, and obviously feeling some pressure at the step-up, he overrode at the start of the year, and that returned towards the end. He’s a young lad, and has bags full of talent and drive. With some proper management he’ll be a top hand in the sport. Again, I hope it’s with us that he realises that potential.

I can’t believe nobody picked James Sarjeant before we got to him in the second round of draft picks! Some thought that, as our asset, he’d been a protected pick but, no, the other clubs – Poole included – just didn’t want him. That was their error as he proved to be the best of the number 7s, coming up with big victories in pressure situations, and even beating heat leaders. He had a sticky patch in the middle of the season, hampered by niggling injuries, but the way he started and finished the season was very, very encouraging.

We used a few guests here and there, with mixed results, but special mentions have to go to Max Fricke and Simon Lambert, who came up with the goods when we needed them. That Fricke was disappointing down at Poole should not take away from his efforts for us this season, and he’s my pick for the most improved rider in any league this year.

It made a change watching riders that, Andersen (and latterly Hansen) apart, I believed in. There was nowhere I didn’t think we could get a result (and I was wrong on a few occasions!) and, even in most of the defeats, the effort could not be faulted. I’d take the same again next season, but replace the two Danes with more British riders, who on this season’s evidence are the way to go. Having a team of riders who want to ride for your club, and are available for the majority of your fixtures, is the key to success and happiness, it seems. Who knew?

That was also the flavour of last season’s Storm side, but was missing a little from this year’s campaign. I’m not sure why, except that injuries meant we seldom to the track with a full team, but there was a different air to this season’s National League season. On reflection, that may be because there are two reasons to enter a team in the third tier: to win the league, and to develop talent. With Cradley Heath so powerful this season, a result of clever manipulation of available riders with only one aim, to win the league at all costs, in mind, the first was never an option. That we ran them so close in the end – a 12-point defeat over two legs – is impressive in itself. But, as a junior side, it’s the lack of too much progress in developing talent that is, perhaps, the thing that left a flat taste come season’s end.

Last season we were delighted with the progress of Oliver Greenwood, Luke Crang, and James Shanes. Sarjeant, Joe Jacobs, and Robert Branford put in a decent effort, and it looked like the junior side were off to a great start in finding future Bees. The addition of Premier League Peterborough to the family in the winter gave prospective Coventry riders a four-step progression – from Midland Development League Vikings to Elite League Bees – and that’s how all clubs should be run.

If you are operating that system, the riders in each side have to be capable of making an impact at the level above, or have the potential to do so with encouragement and coaching. For the Storm, that meant that the 1-7 had to be ready now – or within a reasonable amount of time – to step up into Premier League speedway. Luke Crang and Olly Greenwood secured PL berths, with mixed results, and Sarjeant and Stefan Nielsen found themselves making progress in the EL, through the Fast Track Draft. They were soon joined by Dan Greenwood, who found short-term spots in both senior leagues. The future looked bright.

However, Stefan Nielsen and Luke Crang were injured mid-season, and Dan Greenwood did not seem to make the progress his potential suggests. Nielsen has proven ability, Crang will come back strong, I’m sure, and Greenwood is still young, with only three seasons under his belt. The real issue was at reserve, where Martin Knuckey and Ryan Terry-Daley do not show any sign that they will be anything other than journeymen at this level (although they’d have been heat leaders at three other clubs, which shows the weakness of the league this season), and certainly not going to progress beyond the third tier. With the loss of Peterborough from the promoting family, the need for Storm riders to be of the class to turn out at EL level or have the potential to achieve that in the short-term, is even more pressing, and this has to be addressed by the management when choosing potential recruits to the club.

Taken in isolation, the Storm had a successful season - runners-up in the league and Fours, and knockout cup semi-finalists. But crowds were down and the talent well shallow. Address the latter and the former should hopefully improve.

For the club as a whole, the season can be considered, all in all, a successful one. The improvements made by Howarth, Garrity, and Sarjeant for the Bees (the former two dampened somewhat by their not being our assets), and the giant leap made by Olly Greenwood in the third tier (and his comfortable performances at PL level), are encouraging for the future, and Elite League crowds have been good to very good. The track has been a source of complaint from visiting teams, and home and away supporters, but has still not been the worst in the EL.

However, you cannot help but let the twin spectres of the loss of Brandon and the damage ready to be wreaked upon the sport at the annual promoters’ conference seep into your summation of the year’s speedway. We should be delighted, instead we are downbeat. We should be encouraged, instead we are fearful. We should be eager to find out what’s next, instead we dread it. In short, we are Coventry fans and speedway fans. This is our lot. We are done to rather than with. A good season is one where not too much goes wrong and you manage to make it through to October. A great one is when the same teams don’t win every year. Roll on 2015. Maybe it’ll all be different then?

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