1 October 2023
The Dirt Xtra
The more things change, the more they stay the same, or so…
YOU can take the boy out of Berwick but you can’t take the Bandits out of the boy.
As a four-year-old I stood under The Ducket in May 1968, Berwick speedway’s opening night – attracted by the noise and smell of the town’s newest sport – which rather conveniently had chosen a venue just a couple of hundred yards away from my Prior Park luxury council home.
The blonde hair old is long gone, although the puppy fat was never shed, but here I am counting down the days to March 18 when little old Berwick marks 50 seasons of shale-shifting in the Borders.
It hasn’t been plain sailing for either me or the Bandits. Both have had our share of good times and bad, success and failure, glory and despair.
But the club is much slicker, sleaker and less frayed around the edges than yours truly and while it can say it has been around for coming up for 50 consecutive seasons, I went missing for over a decade.
After that magnificent opening night for ten years Saturday night meant speedway at Shielfield, regular away trips to Newcastle, Edinburgh and – in 1977 – visiting Eastbourne for the least successful Cup Final in history, Bandits managing a paltry 17 point return.
A family move in 1978 simply meant that I swapped Shielfield for Sheffield – led by 1971 Bandits legend Dougie Wyer, later joined by reigning National League Riders Champion Wayne Brown.
I made sure I was back in town for opening night at Berrington Lough but most of my glimpses of the Black and Gold came on the road – winning at Scunthorpe’s Ashby Ville but far less impressive on the trick tracks of Rye House – another losing KO Cup final in 1979 – and Crayford where we provided the warm-up in 1980 before Kestrels put a perfect 65 past hapless Workington in the second part of a 13-heat double header.
The best trip was to see the Bandits finally lift the Cup as Nig Close forced his way under Steve Wilcock to win an epic tie at Brough Park, Newcastle – our neutral home after being unceremoniously slung out of Shielfield before the 1980 season was over.
Journalism college in Darlington saw me share a house with a fellow speedway nut … and he came complete with a Ford Transit van.
Middlesbrough’s Cleveland Park was our weekly haunt but one glorious week, camp bed in the back of aforementioned Transit, read: Monday Reading, Tuesday Weymouth, Wednesday Poole, Thursday Wimbledon, Friday Peterborough, Saturday Cradley Heath, Sunday rest.
Even the need to work full-time couldn’t stall me, although my first job was Gateshead which made Brough Park my new “home”. Supporting the Diamonds was out of the question so I simply cheered for the opposition every Monday night.
Then came the dream move – a job on the sports desk of a weekly newspaper in Thurrock (nope I hadn’t heard of it either when I applied) covering Essex cricket and speedway at, the then fenceless, Arena Essex (that’s Lakeside in new money) and Hackney.
I returned to the Borders as part of a northern tour with the Hammers which took in Glasgow (Shawfield), Berrington Lough and Brough Park took in World finals in Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Gothenburg, Munich, Wembley and Odsal but another work switch saw me in Manchester and led to my speedway hiatus.
Belle Vue dog track was a tough place to love. Worse still 13 heats had been replaced with an 18 heat marathon in 1993, crucially, only a couple of crashes away from forcing an early exit to catch the last train home. A drop to 16, then 15 heats helped but by then the damage was done.
As many found once the habit is broken it becomes increasingly easy not to make the effort.
The flame flickered occasionally – a visit to family in 2000 saw the Bandits back at Shielfield and me watching a thriller against Glasgow but, a 2013 visit to a double header at Rye House apart there was little stirring on the speedway front.
Then my life took an unlikely twist when, 14 months ago, after ten years living aboard a narrowboat, I returned to dry land.
Once again I found myself living within a few hundred yards of Shielfield Park so what else was I going to do on a summer Saturday night?
The smell of burning Castrol has been tempered, the roar of the engines muffled but there is still little better than to see four riders hurtle into that first bend.
Like every addiction a little taste brings the thrill back and now I find myself, once again, counting down the days to a new speedway season full of hope.