A long and winding road

Published on 14th May 2024
Author George Dodds
Looking back at what’s ahead this weekend

It’s 198 miles from Scunthorpe to Berwick. Even allowing for jet-cleaning, kevlars laundering and workshop time the Bandits should arrive at Shielfield fresh as daisies and raring despite the visit of Plymouth coming less than 24 hours after they face the Scorpions.

Considerably fresher than their counterparts from over half a century ago anyway.

Over the years there have been plenty of examples of match-ups when teams face each other home and away on successive days – at times even on the same day as part of Bank Holiday bonanzas.

While you can understand Berwick facing Edinburgh, Workington, Newcastle and Glasgow on this basis you can only guess what was going through the fixture planners’ mind in 1969 when it was decided that the Bandits would face back to back fixtures with Plymouth, a round trip of “just” 940 miles.

More recently Bandits’ legend Kevin Doolan re-enacted this epic tale, accepting a guest booking for the for the, then still Devils in 2016 before travelling to face Newcastle at Shielfield the next night. There was just time to call into his Yorkshire home to rebuild a bike, wrecked in a huge crash on his way to a maximum at the St Boniface Arena, prompting a whip-round for the Aussie from an appreciative Devon crowd. Riding alongside Kev in Plymouth colours that night was an up and coming youngster called Jack Holder.

Lex Milloy battles with Rayleigh’s Graeme Smith

But back to 1969 as the Bandits set off for the Pennycross Stadium early one August Friday morning. At least some of them did. Skipper Mark Hall, aka bank worker Walter Elliott, who raced under an assumed name to keep his employers in the dark over his second career, was missing and Berwick turned to guests – a rarity in those days.

They chanced upon the intriguing Fred Powell. This was one of only six meetings in Powell’s career, all in 1969, adding to one outing for Newport in the First Division and three for Nelson Admirals earlier in June – 9+2 against Belle Vue, six at Reading and 11 against Rayleigh – before disappearing from view.

He reappeared against Weymouth in August and then pulled on the Berwick bib later in the month. What became of him is lost in the mists of time – perhaps he secretly changed his name and became a World Champion; after all, in addition to Hall, Bandits also fielded Roy Williams (christened Bernie Lagrosse) while Alan Hartley, another who didn’t make the trip south, would go on to find fame at Shielfield as the legendary Bente Mudegaard.

In 1960s speedway all was not always as it seemed!

‘Roy Williams’ with Bandit for a night, Canterbury loanee Pat Adaway

Bandits’ riders were not the only ones not keen to do the hard miles to Devon – our number seven that evening, Plymouth second-halfer Mike Gimblett’s brief career seeing him “loaned” to Canterbury and Berwick in addition to one appearance for his parent club. Gimblett’s only two career points came in black and gold.

Pennycross was one of speedway’s least liked tracks, consisting as it did of a tarmac stock car track covered with tons of sand. At 413 yards it was nearly 30 yards shorter than our own quarter mile track but race times were almost ten seconds slower. Tyre wear was, to say the least, a factor.

One man who did revel in the conditions was Lex Milloy who rattled up 13 points from five rides as the Bandits lost 43-35 in a match completed in a huge thunderstorm. Milloy splashed through the puddles to win the last heat in an incredible 93.8 seconds!

As Even in an era of characters Milloy stood out, not just because his purple leathers were a rare splash of colour in all black of late 60s speedway and his ability to get involved in high speed crashes. After just 16 meetings – and almost as many trips to A&E – spread over three seasons he retired and went on to make his name as a stuntman and stunt co-ordinator, doubling for Paul Newman and appearing in blockbusters such as View to a Kill, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Ali G Indahouse.

In 2007 rumours of a biopic starring Monarch of the Glen’s Alexander Morton, backed by major Bollywood producers and filmed at Shielfield surfaced but what, like many a Peter Waite era tale the reality didn’t match the hype.Action man Lex Milloy

Milloy was probably one of the few riders in high spirits as they packed up their drenched gear and set off for Berwick. Hall was back for the return, as was Hartley, but despite a 12-point maximum from the skipper the Devils won again, this time 41-37.

Berwick learned their lesson the following year when they gained revenge with a 44-34 win – Shielfield hosting the Tweedmouth Feast Trophy 24 hours later – Maury Robinson lifting the silverware after being paid for 10 points at Pennycross.

By then Hall had called it quits despite averaging over eight points in each of his two seasons with us, reportedly finding the expanded fixture list of 1969 – the league rising from ten teams to 16 – made it impossible to juggle work and sport.

Plymouth’s owner sold their licence to Peterborough – who had initially been turned down for league membership – at the start of 1970 and struggled on with an open licence before being lost to the sport at the end of the year only to return, in their current guise and at a new venue in the city, over 30 years later.

They are at Shielfield on Saturday night. Buy tickets

Pictures courtesy of the John Somerville Collection 
George Dodds
George Dodds

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