Backing the Best of British

Published on 16th October 2020
Author George Dodds

It’s just days away now. The shortest season even in the sometimes less than straightforward history of Berwick Speedway will finally start – and finish – on Wednesday night.

As we headed for home on September 7, 2019, buzzing after an amazing double header which saw Scotland’s finest sliced and diced, still gobsmacked at the Glasgow team manager’s sportsmanship, agog at Jye’s ability to bounce out of the funbags and sniggering at Dick Barrie being schooled by an irate Rory little did we know that it would be over 13 months until the bikes returned competitively.

For the third successive season Shielfield stages the British Under-21 final – in all likelihood live and exclusive via the wonders of modern technology.

Two of Wednesday night’s favourites – Dan Bewley and Drew Kemp – are due to join age group graduate and three times champion Robert Lambert for Great Britain’s Speedway of Nations quest in Poland this weekend.

Kemp’s inclusion in place of the injured Tai Woffinden drew criticism – but is it possible to take seriously keyboard warriors who on one hand decry his selection and then offer Rory Schlein and Jason Crump as “better” alternatives?

Even putting aside the fact that they are semi-retired Australians benefitting from the convenience of British licences they have managed a grand total of one competitive meeting apiece. To expect them to be fit enough and have the equipment to compete in a field with a full season of GP, Polish and Swedish league under their belts is laughable. That also rules out the likes of Stevie Worrall, Richard Lawson and Chris Harris.

Kemp along with Tom Brennan, Jordan Palin and Anders Rowe has taken opportunities presented to them in a season largely raced out in central Europe and are the best prepared to take the step up onto the world stage. It looks like whoever selected the GB team for once chose form, fitness and readiness over past reputation. Long may that continue.

The original trio of Woffinden, Lambert and Bewley would have been expected to make it onto the podium at the very least. Without Woffinden it’s two in-form twenty somethings and the best of an exciting crop of young talent.

It may be hard to find silver linings from such a torrid year but the meagre rations of domestic speedway permitted by the pandemic has at least put the future in the spotlight like never before.

Plymouth, Scunthorpe, Edinburgh and King’s Lynn have all streamed rounds of the British Youth Championships while the exploits of Bewley, Palin, Brennan and Berwick’s own Leon Flint in European and World under-21 events is ample evidence that the sport’s future will not be confined solely to the red and white of Poland.

Many watching this level for the first time have been surprised at the quality and depth of the British Youth talent pool. Presumably, they either get their speedway fix via tv or – unforgivably – head for home at the end of league fixtures because anyone who has watched a Northern Junior League match or their southern counterparts already knew.

Often these mini meetings contain some of the fiercest and most competitive racing of the night even if some of the competitors are on 125cc machines and barely knee high to a grasshopper.

There is evidence – and this will make Bloggeague Mr Barrie a happy man – that in six or seven years’ time Scotland be in the Speedway of Nations – if the Pijper boys are not snaffled by Holland that is.

Nothing is certain in sport. Injury, growing pains, finance, outside interests have all over the years combined to stymie seemingly stellar talent.

And for British talent there is the problem of graduating from the National League into divisions which pander to a desire to make a professional living from those whose efforts attract crowds which support semi-professionals at best.

While allowing British riders to race at both Championship and Premiership levels is verging on acceptable there is little justification for giving non-British licence holders the luxury. Similar opportunities do not exist for British riders in the Danish, Swedish or Polish leagues and it threatens to create a log jam in the British system which could undo a lot of the development work going on.

Surely it is no coincidence that the two current domestic breakout acts – Lambert and Bewley –  spurned the chance to double up for the past two seasons and concentrated on the Premiership.

Indeed Euro champ Lambert has suggested he may not race in Britain at all next season, prompting howls of outrage largely among those who fail to grasp that their decision to only watch speedway from the settee means that while they subsidise the millionaires of football, cricket and rah-rahs of rugby union through their satellite subscriptions they contribute nothing to British speedway.

Lambert was willing – and criticised for – for taking a German licence a few years ago enabling him to compete in open age racing a year earlier than domestic rules allowed. That single mindedness is now bearing fruit and it looks like Bewley – who will go into Wednesday night’s final as a hot favourite to inherit the Norfolk racer’s crown – is following a similar path.

More power to their elbow as there is no doubt that taking the easy option and spending a career in domestic competition rather than testing themselves against the best in the world is what held back English football, rugby and cricket for decades.

Too often a supposedly golden generation came up short when exposed to world competition. Not all their fault of course but had they chosen to hone their talents in a more challenging environment they would have developed the tools to adjust to unfamiliar situations and surroundings.

Cricket and rugby took the option of centrally funded contracts to remove the pressures of club self-interest and expose their top players to international competition without the daily grind of league competition. The results are evident while English football is currently on a high on the back of a group of young players, many of whom have chosen to play in European football rather than warm the bench of their English clubs or be continually loaned out to lower league sides.

It all sounds a bit like pushing yourself forward against the best of the continent on foreign speedway fields.

Which makes it even more important that we back the likes of Lambert, Bewley, Kemp and the following generations of young wannabees by making their transition from domestic to international competition as smooth as possible.

That means rather than looking down our noses up at competitions such as the SEC, European and World age level events British speedway should be actively lobbying to stage as many rounds and finals as possible and expose as many of our riders to differing conditions.

Not all will go on to rule the world but then in the sports’ history only 36 have ever been crowned world champion. That leaves a fair few thousand good ‘uns who have still been worth the admission price – or the cost of a livestream.

As for Wednesday? Well, world number four Bewley and Kemp start as favourites but Brennan has a couple of big Shielfield scores under his belt last season. Bandits’ Bickley and Flint are the only two in the field to have raced on the reshaped circuit, while The Thompson twins appear in the Borders for the first time since an unconnected album signing session at Woolworths in early 1981, new kids on the block Dan Gilks and Jamie Halder fly the flag for the National League while Leicester’s Tom Spooner is called up to replace injured Redcar and Kent flyer Jordan Jenkins. And any one of six others is capable of getting stuck in and making it a night to remember.

All available via the wonders of internet streaming. I’m assured that it’s so simple that a child can do it so it may be worth hiring one prevented by Boris’ latest brainwave from trick or treating at the end of the month and employing them on Wednesday evening to set up your computer.

Then it will be a case of sit back, relax, enjoy the best of burgeoning British speedway talent … and don’t forget to pay what you think the promotion deserves for getting the show on the road.

George Dodds
George Dodds

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