“Just thinking about what your thoughts are about this”

30th May

Though there’s a slight chance of rain, the speedway dream team keep meteorological discussions to a bare minimum this week before they launch into an excitable discussion of what Belle Vue should consider doing. Jonathan and Kelvin are self-referential from the off with what they think, what they say and how to interpret the priorities or form of riders being seen as the story, “and, as you say, Belle Vue need to up their game”. In my opinion, the same could be said of many of the talking heads at Sky speedway outside broadcasts, though the exception to that rule tonight is Steve ‘Johno’ Johnson. The real story of the night – and, hopefully, the only instance this season though there are other rumours swirling about concerning other speedway clubs – is the demise of the Oxford ‘Cheetahs’ in mid season. Their withdrawal from the Elite League throws the sport into turmoil for this season (not only in their league) but also raises important methodological, organisational, financial and governance issues for the future. Apparently Johno learnt of this situation earlier in the day in a phone call from one of the ladies from the Oxford speedway office that – being a joker himself and having been the victim of a phone hoax last year – he initially assumed was a wind up. Sadly it wasn’t and, even with all the money he’s put into speedway via sponsorship and the clubs he owns, the failure to inform people personally doesn’t reflect well on club owner Colin Horton. It’s not as cowardly as firing people by text message but still lacks respect and I’m sure would leave a bad taste with all employees. Each Elite League club has to place a bond with the BSPA in order to be able to run and this is now bound to come into play if the rumours of unpaid creditors (riders, suppliers etc) prove well founded.

So, you’d have thought the stage was set for speedway on Sky to develop its remit on the hoof beyond the usual framework of ‘that’s exciting paint we have drying’, ‘what other colours could the paint be’, ‘that paint has real world championship/GP potential’ etc. Despite the fact that Johno is in some ways at the epicentre of these breaking events and, given Sky regularly assume everything they deign to cover is THE NEWS, they just get right down to the meeting at hand rather than break the habit of a lifetime and seek to add an investigative element to their work as sports ‘reporters’. Like the computer that operates the Matrix, J&K blather on in their traditional banal fashion about the team line-ups that supposedly every week functions as a shorthand for ‘insight’ and ‘analysis’. Reading between the lines it must be a meeting that Kelvin isn’t excited about since all night he scrupulously avoids any mention of his favourite descriptive word (“triffic”). However, the game that has swept the speedway armchair viewing public during periods of boredom – listening for how many times Kelvin says “triffic” during any broadcast – had an exceptional treat during last weekends GP when the occasionally really gripping race caused the “triffic” count to go into the stratosphere.

Tonight at Kirkmanshulme Lane, J&K initially prefer to concentrate on unfulfilled expectations in an almost school teacherly manner. For Kelvin, Ryan Fisher “needs to up his game” and Jonathan admonishes Adam Skornicki, “ he’s an up and down sort of rider – on Friday he scored nothing huh huh”. For Wolverhampton, there are more positives throughout the line up of their team (“David Howe is in the form of his life”, “Freddie Lindgren will be looking for a big night – to put himself in the shop window” Kelvin glows approvingly) to go along with the afterglow of their six point victory in the Elite League A fixture in Manchester earlier in the season. As ever, the obsession with a “close meeting” is never far from any Sky employees lips particularly Jonathan’s who claims, “looking at both teams on paper this could be a close match up”. A glance at the league table shows that Belle Vue have lost as many home meetings as they’ve won so this statement appears more of a hope than factually based. Meanwhile Kelvin works himself into a state of anxiety about the technical side of things that so often prove beyond Jonathan’s grasp, in this instance the complications caused by that naughty damp track, “I just wonder if it could make it a bit hard for Wolves to dial in their bikes?” Luckily for the viewers, Jonathan has a touch of the Derren Brown’s (or Romark for older readers) about him tonight and delights us all with his psychic powers, when he claims, “just thinking about what your thoughts are about this”. It’s like that episode of Star Trek, where the possessed crewmember can read thoughts (and the whole ship’s library in a few seconds) with only a brief bulge of the vein on the side of his forehead. Sadly, Jonathan can’t predict the result so settles for merely repeating his hopes over and over again in the belief they might come true, “Belle Vue are just looking for a win!”

Things don’t start well for the Aces and the writing is on the wall from the first corner, “the whole width of the track, well, now belongs to Wolves”. After a 5-1 for the away team in the opening heat Tony Millard claims, apparently unaware of the seasons results so far, “this will shock the Belle Vue fans” on a track that is “very smooth and very slick”. He hands back to J&K in the Sky booth with some oleaginous piffle about them also supposedly being “smooth and slick”. This must surely be delicious postmodern irony or, perhaps, the first stages of delusion? This very public brown nosing even knocks the dynamic duo temporarily off their mechanistic stride for a second before the relentless will to rhetorical inanity in their questioning kicks back in when Kelvin interrogates the victorious David Howe, “you must be clearly enjoying yourself at the Wolves this year?” Fortunately, the Monmore experience is a delight for the polite and diffident David but Jonathan is soon snatching the conversational baton back to big up the ‘wild cards’ available for those who do well at the British Final, “next week at Wolves – the chance to go to Cardiff”. “Of course” says a bemused David politely.

The next race shocks the easily amazed Tony Millard, “right at the back Adam Skornicki and that’s a little odd” before the US version of Flyin’ Ryan wins, “his form hasn’t exactly been scintillating this season so far…he’ll be delighted as the wheelie shows”. Obviously, we’re all chuffed to bits with everything we gratefully see and hear on Sky. Back in the booth, somewhere along the way over the previous seasons, the format of the interviews have changed emphasis and become much more like ‘tellings’. It requires the rider/stooge to stand there fresh from the track and answer the closed questions, promote the channel and/or GP’s as well as briefly comment upon the banal observations put to them – almost as if they’re nothing more than a fleshy part of the set that’s been briefly wheeled on to add authenticity. Jonathan is in no doubt as to the significance of the win and wastes no time in explaining it to Ryan, “an important one for you and the team”. Kelvin also offers Ryan some insight into the mysteries of the shale, “it’s clearly important to make the starts in speedway, if you can hit that fresh air it’s easier!” Rather modestly, Ryan touchingly takes the opportunity to thank the many people (and it’s quite a long list) who have helped him to resurrect his British career this season rather than bathe in the fleeting glory of the heat win. After he’s sent away by Jonathan (“we’ll let you get back to the pits”), Kelvin double underlines the lesson for us all, “he’s been getting a lot of help” and, always the uber professional, Jonathan chimes back, “yes, he has!”

The sight of Joe Screen taking to the track for his 673rd League appearance provokes Tony Millard to again use his favoured word (“scintillating”) of the night, “he’s in scintillating form at the moment”. The sight of Kenneth Hansen has Johno observe, “it’s his first ride back” and alongside him Tony Millard notes, “Kenneth Hansen making his debut”. Johno predicts a win for “Screenie” as the most likely result but, apparently, in the event he’s caught out by the unexpected lack of a “dirt line” on his own home track, “it’s not there at the moment, may be it’ll come back later”. In the booth, Jonathan seeks assurance from the race winner Billy Hamill, “it’s gonna be close tonight, isn’t it?” Spotting they won here just recently, like lightning Kelvin follows up with, “your results suggest that you like this track!” With Billy soon dismissed, the sight of Freddie Lindgren sends Kelvin into a spin of excitement, “the main man for Wolves coming out here” (surely it’s PK?). While Jonathan blathers on about what he views as a dramatic contrast, “on the podium at the GP – what can he do now with the stark reality of the Elite League”. Elsewhere Johno has become quite enamoured with his (bounty) hunter analogy, “I dunno about keeping him at bay – he’ll hunt him down until the last turn of the wheel!” This hunt comes somewhat prematurely to an end in the third lap when, as Millard gleefully notes, “Freddie Lindgren has overcooked it and come down by the bend” before a victory wheelie for Doolan distracts and enraptures him, “Doolan salutes them – he really does!”

The first attempt at heat 5 is recalled by the referee for an unsatisfactory start even though, “David Howe has made it like a jet propelled rocket!” Jonathan gives his expert insight, “to me it looked like a perfect start” and, since Kelvin agrees with him about the iniquity of the ref’s decision, “I think it’s really unfortunate, he made a smashing start”. Jonathan then goes on to utter some subsequent bonkersness, “but, to be fair, the ref has called it right with all four back” I wonder what the rules are on Planet Jonathan? The forthcoming British Final requires the balm of some trademark, hyperbolic J&K promotion and the lads weigh in big time. JG claims it’s a “big match up” and KT implicitly acknowledges the present desperate state of British speedway and its continuing failure to produce superstars of the shale with this observation about some of the protagonists, “David Howe and Joe Screen – both in really good form”. David Howe has his gating gloves with him tonight at Kirky Lane and so powers away from the tapes again – much to Johno’s admiration, “he’s lightning fast out of the start tonight” who also highlights his “looking and watching” as key skills.

I’m convinced that Tony Millard is contractually obliged to always talk about James Wright with the same phrases every time he rides, so he’s either a “20 year old from Stockport down the road” or the “youngster from down the road”. Fortunately a win in heat 6 for Freddie Lindgren forces Millard to end his Greater Manchester geography lesson to concentrate on the new GP flavour du jour, “he’ll be so pleased he changed his bike”. It’s a topic echoed in the booth by J&K. Once Kelvin has got his Zen master observation out of the way (“you won here on the previous visit, you know you can win here”) Freddie’s unalloyed delight at the win and use of his reserve bike can be definitively established so Jonathan can further widen their enlightening discussion of this particular joy, “Freddie it must have felt good on the bike on Saturday night?” I personally suspect that there might other bikes lurking elsewhere in the Lindgren empire, so, in a matter of moments, we’ll be bogged down in a discussion of his third and tenth speedway bikes that wouldn’t disgrace a dealership. Before these bikes breed like rabbits, luckily Jonathan then sighs and pretends to be the sober voice of reason in the face of sensationalist reporting, “you’re still a youngster – the papers are getting ahead of themselves and calling you the new Rickardsson!” Freddie nonchalantly takes it all in his stride and laughs it off, “lots of people have been called that,” he notes before he names another victim in the form of Antonio Lindback. However, Jonathan isn’t going to stop pursing his theme that easily and, quick as a flash, retorts, “Kelvin’s never been called any of those things! Ha ha” Kelv pulls an agonised expression that implies working with children or animals would be preferable to this punishment before he replies, “well…” but Jonathan interrupts to hurtle on to more yet inanity, “Wolves are up – could they pretty well match anyone in the league right now?” If we freeze things for a moment – as Kelv likes to do on the umpteenth run through the same slow motion film – and examine these comments, many questions soon spring to mind. Firstly, I’d like to ask what newspapers say these things? Speedway rarely gets its results in the national newspapers and this week’s Speedway Star hasn’t yet been published so can’t have come out with its report yet. Maybe Jonathan’s legendary language skills now have him scouring the Polish and Swedish speedway press? Secondly, if Lindgren is being called the new Rickardsson (and this must be open to doubt as another on-the-hoof figment of Greenie’s fertile imagination) I imagine it’s possibly related to the fact that, like Rickardsson, he’s also Swedish. Ignoring that Kelvin was English last time I listened, has finished his career and started in speedway before Rickardsson anyway – so really is highly unlikely to be considered the “new Rickardsson”. Wolves do, indeed, look likely to win at Belle Vue but this is hardly the exclusive sign of a championship winning team, plus they occupy the fourth play off place by virtue of having ridden more meetings than closest erstwhile rivals Peterborough. Ignoring these minor cavils, Greenie has been his usual illuminating self.

When Johno isn’t viewing the riders as hunters (“Billy will hunt him down all the way”) then a spontaneous wave of joy sweeps through the stadium when Kevin Doolan wins, if Tony Millard is to be believed, “this aussie is smiling tonight as are his fans” [we can’t see his mouth because of his helmet] before he notes, “certainly the wheelie, the celebrations are genuine”. We’re then treated to a commercial break that features the Guantanamo like torture of that moronic shouty aussie who ‘advertises’ the Cardiff GP along with another advert that provides some insight into the traditional outlook and demographics of the audience Sky regularly attracts to watch their televised speedway programmes, “if you don’t pay your poll tax, we have the right to crush your car!” It would be great to extend this car crushing policy to Jonathan Green’s car every time he says something fatuous – though, in practical terms, he’d then have to turn up with a fleet of vehicles to every meeting and this might overwhelm many speedway car parks. JG must have caught wind of this idea since he completely blindsides Kevin Doolan with an almost incisive question, “tell us what you’re doing differently or why you’re doing so well?” Quite why Greenie picks on Kevin like this by asking his only intelligent question of the speedway season I really just don’t know!

In the commentary box, after Tony M had intoned with mock profundity, “David Howe – like he’s jet propelled again from the tapes” news of his possible unemployment must be weighing heavily on Johno who, as the second lap of heat 8 draws to a close, excitedly but inexplicably yells, “look at that on the finish line!!” Tony helpfully changes the subject, “it’s going to be a very close meeting” before he immediately contradicts himself when he somehow manages (or makes up) to identify beads of worry on the brows of fans 20 yards below him, “I think there’s a lot of worry among the Belle Vue fans!” He then closes with a glowing tribute to Mr Rocket himself, “well, a truly tremendous ride out front from David Howe.” With his favourite theme of the quest for a close match to echo and burnish, Jonathan says, “it could go all the way” while Kelv apparently conjures up in his minds eye a vision of Linford Christie in a men’s 100-metre race, “swinging from one side to another”. Continuing to try to inject some excitement that isn’t obvious to any more soberly minded viewer, Greenie exclaims, “I have to say that Belle Vue don’t look like a team who’ve only won one in ten”. Kelvin nods his assent and gives his characteristic grimace-cum-squint at the camera that I assume signifies his agreement, before he commends the Aces on “plenty of spirit and effort”. I suspect this is the sort of phrase he uses to console plucky losers the world over.

This evening we’re again sadly missing any pits interviews conducted by Sarra Elgin or a trip to Kelvin’s shed where he will chatter on incomprehensibly as though talking to a class of five years olds about some important technical matter (“rider’s breathe air through their nose but also through their mouth”). Instead the focus turns to the suddenly lacklustre Joe Screen who’s gone from hero (“some suggest Joe Screen is riding the best he ever has in his career”) to zero (“Screen’s having a nightmare – that’s a surprise – we’d never have thought about that”) in the space of a couple of races for Tony Millard. Johno believes he’s spotted the problem at the start gate, “Screenie didn’t mange to jump and then fishtailed out of the start”. Jonathan wants nothing to do with failure, just in case it destroys his broadcasting ‘mojo’, “whatever Screenie did – didn‘t work for him!” Kelv takes a technical perspective on the situation, “it’s not ideal swapping from a Jawa to a GM from race to race” Jonathan decides to interview himself (and has the alter ego for it) about the likelihood of a close meeting:
[JG] “How are they going to do it?”
[KT] “Well…”
[JG] “Get a 5-1 ha hah ha”
[KT] “They really do need to turn the meeting round now”
The suspense is almost unbearable.

The perceptive PK (“he’s like the Duracell bunny – he just keeps going and going” says Jonathan revealing he does take some things in, even if they’re only adverts and nothing to do with speedway) is next up as interview fodder. He immediately denies the importance of this particular meeting, “there are many meetings, a long season to come…it’s all about getting form at the end of the season”.

If this were tennis, then Tony Millard persistently serves the ball into the net. With Wolves ahead by six points he says, “the crowd is enjoying the action – it could go either way with the visitors two points in front”. He follows this snafu up with another blatant unforced error, “look at the man in second place Simon Stead” that Johno corrects, “er, actually it’s third!” the tiles remain resolutely in position as Millard claims, “the Belle Vue fans raise the roof here” and, despite the score line, then says, “the meeting is getting tighter and coming alive”.

Kelvin has started to see himself as the Bob Dylan-esque poet of speedway, “track conditions change as the seasons change” before Jonathan gnomically observes, “Joe Screen his words mean it all”. The sight of a bike being attended to in the pits quickly captivates Greenie who erupts with, “what are they doing there???” – news that “the seat bracket on his seat has come away” provokes a disappointed “oh!” before Kelv reminisces about great races he’s been in where his or other riders seat brackets thrilling came away. Seemingly, it’s not so comfortable on a bike without a seat to sit on! The racing fails to thrill so the old pan heating on the cooker analogy gets an extensive run out for the closing heats:
[TM] “The meeting is still very much alive”
[TM] “It’s boiling up again!”
[JG] “It was always going to be a tough meeting”
[JG] “Michael Karlsson is coming in, so again this is going to be a VERY INTERESTING heat!”
[KT] “Skornicki is coming in – now THAT is a good call!”
[JG] “Not over is it? Ha”
[JG] “5-1 it could be 42 all”
[TM] “Skornicki has made a terrible start”
[TM] “Well a tremendous night”
[JG] “5-1 in this heat and you can draw”
[TM] “Quite a cacophony of winner in this one!”

With the always inevitable Wolves win confirmed by the last race, there’s 15 minutes to fill so we get to look at the restated Elite League table suddenly very noticeably missing Oxford. Jonathan says breathlessly, “look at the table!” as though a cure for cancer has been found on air. Clearly from the school of ‘apart from the assassination of your husband, how’s the show for you Mrs Lincoln?’ Kelvin puts on his chewing-a-wasp really grave face to mutter, “that’s a great shame when any team leaves the league….. clearly a problem with the finances, it’ll create shockwaves [jumpers for goalposts, it would be what he would have wanted, it’s a game of two halves, when the going etc]”. Still the show must go on, “and we got an exciting meeting at Wolverhampton for you…”

30th May Belle Vue v Wolverhampton (ELB) 43-47

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