Going solo on a Saturday night

Published on 14th November 2022
Author George Dodds

And then there was one…

Back in the days when the Bandits were dismissed as a three-week wonder Saturday night was speedway night around Britain.

Of the 28 clubs who came to the tapes in 1968, nine opened the turnstiles on the same day as Shielfield – First Division Coventry, Halifax, Belle Vue, Swindon, Cradley Heath and King’s Lynn along with Nelson, Rayleigh and Canterbury in the newly-formed second tier.

Glasgow briefly took the day before the sabbath a couple of seasons back, Paisley briefly roared on it, Stoke, Bradford, the second coming of Workington, Leicester during the Championship years of their rebirth, Arena Essex/Lakeside; all Saturday night specials.

Different times of course. Not many worked on a Saturday, virtually no-one on Sunday and the standard of entertainment on British television’s three channels is reflected by the fact that a large majority of its presenters’ are currently, have been  – or only escaped due to death and friends in powerful places – imprisoned for predatory sexual proclivities which went unpunished at the time. Primetime was Summertime Special, The Wheeltappers and Shunters or The Black and White Minstrels.

The case for the prosecution rests m’lud.

So if you weren’t old enough to drink or have sex then what better than Saturday night speedway to get the heart pumping? Current spectator profiles suggest a slightly modified version of that truth.

So, not for the first time, Berwick finds itself as a speedway outpost, defiantly flying the Saturday flag despite everything that entails – not least the unavailability of a large number of highly desirable riders.

Of course, much has changed since what are now seen as the dawn of the second golden age of speedway – not least the fact that only us, Belle Vue and – via financial mayhem that would merit a Kwasi Kwarteng apology – Glasgow are the only three from 1968 coming to the tapes in 2023.

Explanatory notes for our younger audience.

Saturday, 26 May, 1979: rain accounts for Belle Vue v Leicester, Coventry v Wolverhampton and Cradley v Birmingham, Swindon beat Halifax 40-38, Newcastle draw 39-all at Canterbury in the KO Cup, Berwick hammer Edinburgh 55-23, and the fourth leg of the Inter-League four team tournament at King’s Lynn sees the Stars score 34, Ipswich and Reading 29 apiece and Rye House four points.

Saturday, 27 May, 2023: Berwick Bandits (or Bullets, perhaps both as this is written before fixture lists are confirmed) v AN Other or others.

Much has changed. Saturday and Sunday are now just another workday for many; live sport can be enjoyed wall to wall without lifting a cheek from the sofa.

1979 was the year that Ivan Mauger won his sixth and final world final – in Chorzow, Poland, behind the Iron Curtain. A one-off on a Sunday afternoon. Sweden was the other nation on the three-year final cycle, always on a Friday, normally in Gothenburg’s Mancunian “drought” season, occasionally at Malmo.

Wembley staged Saturday night finals so once every three years British speedway needed to work a gap night into its fixtures.

Otherwise Saturdays remained sacred for those who owned them.

The night after Michael Lee won the 1980 title in Gothenburg he scored a four ride maximum for King’s Lynn against Hackney – one of four division one fixtures and coincidentally the night that the Bandits bid farewell to Shielfield Park for 16 years with a double header win over Peterborough and Mildenhall.

The Saturday night Bruce Penhall beat Les Collins to the World title in Los Angeles – Saturday, August 28, 1982, the Cradley Heath club he was about to announce his retirement from beat Leicester 49-29 in a Midlands Cup meeting, Weymouth’s Martin Yeates and Simon Wigg won the National League Pairs at Swindon, beating a field containing Bruce Cribb and Steve McDermott, at the same time as Weymouth were winning a league match between the two sides at Berrington Lough. Coventry beat Eastbourne in the British League, Belle Vue an ex-Hull side in a Challenge match, Canterbury lost at home to Edinburgh – also missing riders in the Pairs and Mitchell Barker won the Potteries Junior Individual meeting at Stoke.

Nothing for promoters to worry. These were the days when you had to be there to see it. No live TV or streaming, not even updates on twitter or Instagram. If you were lucky brief highlights on the following week’s World of Sport, levered between the ITV7 and some fat geezers producing the most excruciatingly choreographed moves since Pan’s People’s 1974 Christmas Leo Sayer medley.

Nothing to keep the regular punters off the terraces.

But come 1985 in it’s death throes WoS needed something live and speedway was a touch too happy to oblige as Bradford staged the first British World Final since the sport was booted out of Wembley Stadium.

An afternoon start meant that there was at least an effort to cash in as ten miles down the road a huge crowd pack in to watch Halifax beat Belle Vue three hours after Eric Gundersen was crowned world champion.

But the die had been cast. Live broadcasts drew big enough audiences to pique the interest of the new satellite channels.

Especially when speedway’s big night became big nights with the launch of the Grand Prix series.

Forget the growing influence of post-Berlin wall Poland on the racing economy the big problem was that Saturday night became GP night. Then Saturday afternoon became qualifier day. And Speedway of Nations Day. And Longtrack final day. Then Longtrack GP day, and qualifying days.

Suddenly it was impossible to find a Saturday which did not feature an FIM event of some description. Many live and exclusive for a fraction of admission charges.

Britain’s top league had long since given up on trying to compete and contracted to Mondays and Thursdays and it was becoming harder and harder to tempt our remaining in-demand stars to commit to Saturday racing.

Next season there’s ten Speedway GP Saturdays, one for the World Cup, and more qualifiers at everything from under-19 to masters level than you can shake a stick at.

Everyone knows that Saturday’s the best day for speedway – which is a bit of a problem.

No question Chris Harris’ season as Bandits’ number one will go down in the annals of Berwick history and is probably enough to earn him a Hall of Fame nomination. But there were enough problems fitting our fixtures around his extensive international programme to fear that it was always unlikely that he’d be around for his testimonial.

An extended Championship fixture list didn’t help, nor the fact that the best flights to and from Europe tend to depart from Stansted and Gatwick rather than Newcastle or Edinburgh.

So little surprise, though still a real shame, that Bomber will be no more than a visitor next year – or a welcome guest – but the return of Thomas Jorgensen and Jonas Knudsen along with Leon, Nathan and Jye – not to mention the two yet to be announced and a septet of Bullets – means that there will still be plenty of action out near the funbags in 2023.

We’ve always done things a little differently in the small town where speedway is the number one sporting attraction by a country mile and we’re holding on to that Saturday feeling.

Just five and a bit months to go … and counting!

George Dodds
George Dodds

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