John Campbell – longest serving promoter in British Speedway – quits after 29 years

Edinburgh Monarchs promoter John Campbell has sensationally quit the sport after 29 years according to press reports

Always approachable and articulate, here is one of my many enjoyable and illuminating conversations with him (taken from Bouquet of Shale):

 

Strong winds buffet the opening two days of the Open Golf Championships at St Andrews lessen slightly in their severity by the time they reach the Scotwaste Arena (home of the Edinburgh Monarchs). However, according to co-promoter John Campbell, the winds of economic change that blow throughout British speedway during 2010 threaten economic disruption and require future structural change. Though he’s tanned and cheerful after a holiday in Malta, there’s no disguising his anxiety. “On the track it’s fantastic – off the track we’re losing four figures every week! Our crowds are 20% down. You know the recession that’s ended has finally started to bite! Though we run a tight ship, based on many years’ experience we assembled an attractive team for the crowd and – from the first meeting – the crowds haven’t come! I don’t know of anywhere I’ve been where you can say they have big crowds or even the crowds you’d expect. I don’t know about Glasgow and Berwick because I haven’t been there – except when we’re there (and that must be April) – but, people tell me, they’re way down too! With a team like this, we can have 30+ meetings here. Tonight is the night – you’d like to think people will see this as number one versus number two and, if that doesn’t happen, that really is it! They’re bringing two minibuses. 25 fans. And, next week, we have the Scottish Open where we’ll be charging so much that, on a normal crowd, we’ll do okay. At the end of the month, Rye House will bring 35.” Things are so bad, the only really significant crowd seen inside the Scotwaste Arena this season (so far) isn’t human, “the programme hut is occupied by wasps – you can use it if you like, though the wasps might have other ideas!”

The near gale force wind that blows through the stadium rattles the slightly dilapidated Scotswaste Arena grandstand adjacent to the two hospitality cabins that overlook bends one and two. “It’s a very hard time – we just hope the stadium doesn’t blow to bits before the season ends!” On the subject of stadium infrastructure and future track developments, we’re interrupted by an old pensioner fan who – ignoring the weather in these parts – commits the style crime of wearing dark socks with open-toed sandals. Close by, the track appears sodden and all around us you can see that it’s rained within the past few hours. It hasn’t escaped the attention of this keen-eyed fan, “It’s been wet, hasn’t it?”

[John] “It’s normal weather for Scotland.”

[Fan] “Where’s the new track?”

[John] “It’s over there [points] you can see it. It’s a field at present.”

[Fan] “So you won’t be there next season?”

[John] “It doesn’t look like it.”

[Fan] “I like it here – the track – not the place!”

[John] “We’ll have a good track there too!”

Satisfied to learn that there might be problems ahead he predicts, said fan saunters off. John confirms to me that the turnstiles have yet to open. Quite where this man came from I don’t know?

Like promoters’ phones the country over after rain, when it’s forecast to rain, or when it’s reported as raining or is raining wherever the fan is calling from, meteorological queries flood in. John’s iPhone is no exception, “Yes the meeting is on tonight. It starts at 7.30 [pause] we do have a supporters’ bus that leaves Edinburgh at 6.15 that costs £7 [pause] it goes from the east end of Princes Street – Waterloo Place.” John politely goes into further detail describing the coach, the company that owns it and enough further distinguishing features about the location and the transport on offer that I’m surprised he makes no mention of tyre pressures, registration numbers or the star sign of the driver. Though results so far this season have been good, the surface itself doesn’t measure up to John’s expectations. “On the track we’ve been great but the track hasn’t been up to much! Anything that’s not normal British weather – sun or wind – plays havoc with it. We’ve had a couple of good weeks but the track hasn’t been consistent and it’s tended to catch our boys out early in the meeting before they get sorted and pull away. With Kalle riding – who’s been tremendous – you’d expect us to win tonight. They’re missing Aaron Summers but can use rider replacement – so won’t be quite as strong. Graham [Drury] has been ringing up all day asking if it’s on so, knowing him, there must be something behind it. At half-ten he said, ‘If it’s off we won’t even set off so that will save you!’ I told him it’s on. It’s definitely going to be on. The track looks a little wet and the centre green looks lovely but it’s under water really!”

I went to Hertfordshire the night that Edinburgh monstered Rye House at their home track in Hoddesdon. Since then Edinburgh returned there and won again, albeit by a much smaller margin (44-45). “I’m not telling you anything that I haven’t already said in the press but I knew the first time that if the rain had hit we’d definitely win! And, even the second, though it was drier – we can ride there and I knew we would win.” It would be nice to come up with some helpful suggestion based on my travels as to how John could improve his crowds. The very idea that I could do so – particularly given that John Campbell is the longest serving promoter in British speedway – is (obviously) pretentiously self-delusional. Nevertheless, like fans everywhere, I don’t let my lack of knowledge get in the way of an opinion. “You need to run an ugly team that attracts big crowds.” With practised ease in the face of bonkers ideas, John maintains a neutral expression, “I’ll settle for a couple of seasons of that but, the question is, how exactly do you do that?” Reports during the close season would say the Monarchs lost £40,000 during the 2010 season.

Despite numerous seasons at the speedway coalface, John retains a good self-deprecating sense of humour about the limits of his shale-induced fame. “I often say to my wife – as a joke – whenever we go out that I’m the most famous person in here. We were out the other Friday at our local pub (because we’d had a rain-off) and the barman said ‘I know you, your face is in the paper!’ Then he said, ‘I know! It’s bowls isn’t it?’ and I told him it was. Alex Harkess was at Cardiff helping with the track and someone said to him that two Glasgow fans – a man and wife – pointed to him and said, “That’s the Edinburgh promoter – John Campbell”. I read the Bert Trautmann story by Kate wotsit [Catrine Clay] when I was away. It was 80% about the war and 20% about football. He’s 82 or 83 and lives in Spain now and, whenever he comes back, as soon as he arrives at Manchester airport – he gets asked for his autograph. I said to Alex we don’t get asked now! Never mind, we’ll be long forgotten when we’re in our 80s!”

 

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