Perfectly improbable

Published on 22nd May 2024
Author George Dodds
On parade Peter Kelly and Andy Meldrum

Two wins from three Cab Direct Championship means we are well on track to making Shielfield Park the fortress demanded by team manager Stewart Dickson pre-season.

Win at home, pick up aggregate bonuses and you’ll be pushing for the play-offs, victories on the road the icing on the cake.

Poole have already ensured that we cannot match the 1971 Bandits team who chalked up a 100 per cent home league record. But we’ve also already ensured we don’t replicate that batch of Bandits’ 0% away record by winning at Redcar.

It remains one of the biggest mysteries in our history. Just how could a team so dominant at Shielfield Park fail to pick up even a solitary point on the road?

Even decades later those of us who watched it unfold before our very eyes are none the wiser. But the 1971 British League Division two table doesn’t lie. Berwick raced 32 meetings, won 16 and lost 16, finished eighth out of 17 teams – the highest placing in the club’s short history. Home won 16, away lost 16 .

It wasn’t a new problem – Berwick’s first -ever away win had only come at the 18th attempt, 44-34 over Plymouth mid-way through our second season. We thought we have broken our duck two week’s earlier at Nelson but the ineligibility of Peter Kelly saw a win on the night at Seedhill overturned in the Speedway Control Board committee rooms.

But we entered 1971 with unarguably the strongest side ever assembled in the Borders.

Flying Bandit … Dougie Wyer

Sheffield loanee Doug Wyer had shown promise at the end of the previous season and would take the league by storm, scoring 12 maximums – including 15 points at Peterborough. Previous top dog Maury Robinson also averaged above nine points , young Scot Alistair Brady managed three full maximums and one paid while Andy Meldrum began the season at reserve and ended as a heat leader with two paid maximums in his locker.

The sheer size of Shielfield was – still is for that matter – put forward as the reason that the Bandits struggle/d on the tighter away tracks, especially the southern “slickies”.

But even that didn’t hold water in 1971 because, as at Berwick (440 yards, 402 metres in those days) , tracks at Romford and Canterbury were constructed outside football pitches while Bradford, Hull, Rochdale and Workington, all shared with rugby league. They were all over 400 yards (366 metres give or take the odd centimetre) long and Peterborough wasn’t exactly a tiddler.

Berwick didn’t even have the biggest track in the league – Crewe’s 470-yard monster built around a railway engineering club cricket field holding that honour.

A season-opening win at Tees-side in the North East Trophy as Robinson – who had an incredible record at Cleveland Park throughout his Berwick career – Peter Kelly and Wyer engineered a 40-38 victory was in keeping with the pre-season confidence but, as it turned out, falsely raised expectations.

An eight-point defeat at Romford wasn’t too bad while Wyer was only beaten by Vikings’ maximum man – a rider with whom he would go on to form a potent Division one spearhead at Sheffield – Reg Wilson as we lost, again, by six at Hull.

But with Australian Bobby Campbell struggling for points home and away, Kelly hit by injury and youngsters Brady and Meldrum understandably inconsistent on tracks they were visiting for the first time it was disappointment after disappointment.

At Odsal Wyer scored 11 from five rides – including a tapes’ exclusion – and Robinson 12 from five. The rest of the team managed just ten points.

Andy Meldrum

Berwick’s season was perhaps encapsulated in the Knockout Cup. They lost the first leg 24-54 at Crewe but then hammered a side including John Jackson, Jack Millen and Phil Crump 50-28 in the return leg – Wyer equalling Geoff Curtis’ two-year-old track record and then lowering it to 76.8 seconds as they almost pulled the tie back on aggregate.

They couldn’t even bring the points home from Boldon against a rock-bottom Sunderland which managed just nine wins from a wretched campaign. The league fixture at Tees-side ended in a 24-54 loss. There was another near-miss at Birmingham, another six point loss.

But at home it was a different story with few visiting teams passing the 30-point mark. Brady and Meldrum were especially strong back-up for the ’ big two while the Beaton brothers, Jim and George, scored useful points too and Kelly, albeit in the twilight of his career, was still a reliable second-string/reserve.

Injury ended Robinson’s season early – indeed he would not race for the Bandits again – and contributed to a disappointing end to the season for the black and gold.

Maury Robinson

The management worked overtime to come up with ways of extending the season into October. First up was the visit of the Tees-side Tigers in a Tuesday night challenge match in which no Bandit managed double figures and Frank Auffret led the visitors to a 39-38 victory.

Which only left one more opportunity for silverware: The Four-Bs Trophy: Berwick Bandits against the Birmingham Brummies.

In the absence of Brady, Workington’s Australian Lou Sansom guested in both legs – scoring 16+1 in the somewhat predictable 33-45 first leg loss at Perry Barr and another ten points in the rather more surprising second leg, raced on a brisk 30 October evening, when George Major and Archie Wilkinson combined to steer the Midlanders to a 39-38 victory.

Birmingham took the trophy 84-71 on aggregate … I suppose that technically they still hold it to this day … bringing Berwick’s perfectly imperfect season to a losing end.

There’s no speedway at Shielfield Park this Saturday. The Jewson Bandits, powered by Keenwood Karpets, are next in action at Poole on 28 May with Scunthorpe back at Shielfield Park in the league on 1 June.

Taking the applause, flyer Wyer and mascot Edward Mace
Pictures courtesy Doug Booth/John Somerville Collection
George Dodds
George Dodds

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