Glasgow Tigers v Edinburgh Monarchs (Premier League) 14th September 2014
Ashfield Stadium – home of the Glasgow Tigers – is bathed in bright sunshine ahead of the latest instalment of their derby meetings with Edinburgh. Though notionally bragging rights and regional pride are on the line, the reality is that both sets of supporters expect the Monarchs to gain more than the single away point they need to go above Somerset to finish top of the 2014 Premier League and, thereby, maximise their chances of play off success by having the best choice of their play off opponents.
Even if you discount the ‘our cup is half empty, possibly broken’ outlook that comes as the default setting of some sections of the Tigers support over recent seasons, Edinburgh are flying and Glasgow are without Rusty Harrison. After putting aside the wanton vandalism to their rebuilt fourth bend clubhouse during the close season behind them, initial early season optimism about a play off challenging Premier League campaign in 2014 quickly evaporated around the time of the bad crash that caused season ending injuries for their exciting French prospect 18 year old Dimitri Berge. That said, after a slow start, Glasgow have risen Lazarus-like from the bottom of the table and, by all accounts, have recently staged some exhilarating speedway meetings. Excitement levels at Ashfield Stadium have been helped in no small part by track improvements that – to the naked eye (after two seasons away) – appear to include increased width, more shale and (without the ‘square’ corners enforced by the almost encroaching football pitch) a much more oval shaped – and so speedway racing friendly – circuit.
With club owner Gordon Pairman resident overseas, day to day and raceday responsibility for running the club falls to the co-promoters Alan C. Dick and Colin Hamilton. Long time Tigers fan Colin only grasped his share of the promotional reins in 2014. Though, it’s been a roller coaster, eye opening and enjoyable experience, Colin isn’t optimistic about victory this afternoon though he takes quiet satisfaction on the rider development front. “Sometimes you sign people and it doesn’t work out and sometimes it does.” In addition to the injured Berge, the battling performances of Kasper Lykke Nielsen are the talk of the terraces and forums. Like fans everywhere, nothing warms speedway hearts like the regular opportunity to see exciting young riders learn their craft and develop. Sadly from a Glasgow point of view, their roster of club owned assets is limited (sales of Josh Grajczonek and Nick Morris over recent years spring to my mind). Their currently promising reserve Kasper Lykke is no exception since he’s owned by Rye House. Lykke has come on leaps and bounds, so it would be a major surprise if Len Silver fails recall him to ride at Hoddesdon next season.
With just over an hour to tapes up at the unfashionably later (for Glasgow) start time of 5pm – officially to experiment with different start times to tempt missing or wavering fans but, unofficially, due to rider return flight times – first aider Mr Nimmo tells me, “We have a Glasgow Select here – Rusty is injured, Theo isn’t here yet and Tero isn’t good after his crash at Armadale [on Friday]. Edinburgh were very lucky last night! It was their worst performance for 18 months. Newcastle lost Stuart Robson after his first ride so their reserves had fourteen rides and Edinburgh only won in the last heat decider. With the result at Workington, if Newcastle had won they’d be in the play offs!”
With their club often hovering round the table basement over recent seasons, Glasgow fans haven’t even been able to enjoy too much Edinburgh Monarchs misfortune. Some Tigers fans do like to pass off criticism of all things Monarchs as fair but candid comment – if the opportunity presents. Such attitudes aren’t just confined to the speedway. Over twenty years ago, the story goes that the Sunday Times sent a reporter up from London to study attitudes to racism in Glasgow and famously reported, “the people in Glasgow hate the Edinburgh folk so much that they don’t have room in their hearts to dislike anyone else.”
If there are strong feelings for Scottish independence amongst Glasgow fans, they’re extremely muted at the speedway this afternoon. I only spot four “yes” badges all afternoon, while overheard terrace talk ranges from speedway gossip via the weather to astrophysics. On the section of the standing terraces overlooking and slightly ahead of the start line, chatter conspicuously avoids talk of both religion and politics. Meeting presenter Derek Smith suggests we enjoy the therapeutic effects of loudly supporting the Tigers in this stadium sized politics free zone, “take all your stress out about independence!” Five minutes before the meeting starts, Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ crackles into life over the stadium loudspeaker and transports fans of a certain age back to their speedway salad days of the 70s. Any speedway club would nowadays kill for regular crowds a quarter of the size of that era. Bathed in sunshine the distinctive red hued Ashfield stadium shale looks lush, damp, deep and lovingly primped by the trackstaff. It’s warm and almost ideal conditions for late Sunday afternoon racing. The crowd is good sized but less than I’d expect for a derby meeting – local talk of a decline in the number of worshippers at this particular speedway congregation doesn’t look misplaced. With their team in winning form and in need of an away point to clinch top place in the Premier League table, unsurprisingly – even for arguably the most passionate local speedway rivalry in British Speedway – there are more Edinburgh fans prepared to travel to Glasgow this particular Sunday afternoon than there were Glasgow fans prepared to travel to Armadale two nights previously. That said, away fans are a luxury – even for derby meetings – and only an optimistic or foolish promoter would prepare a business plan (should such a thing exist!) that relies on these increasingly elusive people.
On Friday night at Armadale, Craig Cook looked in imperious form against the Tigers while racing to an untroubled five ride paid maximum. In the unlikely event Cook lacked motivation prior to this meeting, he only had to glance inside to programme at the visiting rider pen portraits. These programme notes explicitly suggest Cook struggles at the top level. The anonymous writer highlights that Cook only managed a “couple of points” as a wildcard at the 2014 Cardiff Speedway Grand Prix while also pointedly noting that his 10 point Premier League average fails to translate in the Elite League where he “has struggled to match that form with Belle Vue.” Carrying on where he left off two nights ago, Craig Cook is fast and confident on his glistening speedway bike. He wins easily by the proverbial country mile. Announcer Jim Coyle MBE likes what he sees as Cook wins in a time only 0.3 seconds outside his own track record. In sharp contrast, the exotically named Glasgow Tigers number 1, Victor Palovaara, fails to race in the manner you’d expect from a rider with that number on his tabard (he finishes fourth).
Heat 2 sees an immediate fight back from the Tigers with a 5-1 that gives them what turns out to be their only lead of the afternoon. Beforehand we learn the correct (Scots) pronunciation of “Kass-Par Loo-Kar” and then see him take three laps to reel in and pass Monarchs captain Derek ‘Deek’ Sneddon for second place. To my ears it’s strange to watch a Glasgow-Edinburgh derby meeting without Michael Max as master of ceremonies on the centre green. Earlier en route his vantage point overlooking bend four, Michael shrugged off the idea that he may be missed or, even, return, “I’ve retired. I was at Armadale [presenting] last night and I was here for James [Grieves testimonial]. It was their choice and I respect that. I wake up every day and think – ‘that’s a good start!’” On the subject of testimonials, inside each programme there is a loose glossy full colour flier for “Rusty’s Didgeri Do” testimonial meeting to be held at Derwent Park, Workington on October 4th.
On the back straight of the first lap of heat 3, Kevin Wolbert almost theatrically allows Max Fricke to pass (‘no, please, after you Mr. Fricke’) and join his fast starting team mate fast Steve Worrell up front for the first Monarchs 5-1. Adding to the Scots flavour, SCB referee Jim McGregor highlights his impartiality by re-running heat 4 after Jim Coyle MBE warns both home riders (Theo Pijper & guest reserve Mason Campton) to remain still at the tapes. Sam Masters wins the re-run with alacrity though Pijper looks quick too. In fact, in contrast to the technical expertise previously needed to navigate the football pitch influenced Ashfield square corners, the new look (to me) track shape appears to encourage more of the full throttle almost all out racing that invites the strong possibility of overtakes and, thereby, makes speedway races so much more enjoyable to watch.
While the track gets graded, 78 year-old Glasgow Tigers speedway fan Jim Dobson shows me his yesteryear photograph they’ve just been passing from hand-to-hand and intently studying like its found pornography in the grandstand seats above us. “It’s the Glasgow Giants from over 50 years ago. Second left there’s Ken Le Breton, Eric Liddle is fourth left and the man in the fedora is Johnnie Hoskins who brought speedway to Scotland first!” With his memorable photograph tightly held, Jim recalls, “the photo is taken here – at Ashfield – the track was smaller then and the crowds bigger! It was 13 heats and a second half trophy too. I was 12 or 13 when I was first taken to Ashfield. The Tigers have been to so many places including Hampden Park, Shawfield, White City, Coatbridge, Craighead Park, Blantyre and here – again!”
Heat 5 sees a “very impressive ride” from Craig Cook after he fails to gate but nonetheless still easily reels in Wolbert on lap 2 and then Aarnio on lap 3. The crowd greet a Tigers heat advantage (or, perhaps, the collectors item of a Palovaara point) in the next with a throaty roar that reverberates – like the engine noise of the bikes as they pass each lap – around the home straight stand. The sun has dried the track so fast spinning back wheels spit occasional pieces of shale into the crowd but, mostly, increasingly coats us in the speedway equivalent of a light dusting of icing sugar – a really fine thin film of shale dust. Heat 7 is a race worth the proverbial admission money on it’s own for the sheer excitement, skill and never-say-die audacity of Kasper Lykke’s determined dash for the finish line. Passed on the third bend of the last lap by Max Fricke, Lykke rides an aggressive wide outside line that allows him to squeeze into a tear in the space-time continuum by the fence on the finish line to snatch second (and almost first) place! Heat 8 features Glasgow’s two most thrilling riders this afternoon – Pijper and Lykke – but though popular Dutchman Theo wins convincingly (as usual, closely watched by his wife and children) there are no heroics from last-placed Lykke.
It’s only a few years ago since you’d travel many miles for the privilege of seeing Kevin Wolbert race. After an ongoing series of indifferent rides in the Tigers tabard at both Armadale and here, the dashing rider of yesteryear makes a brief cameo appearance to win comfortably. The real action is all behind him and sees Aarnio gate but immediately get bullied aside by Sam Masters before tracking him to make a last gasp (unsuccessful) dash for second around the final bend. Probably for the benefit of Jim McGregor, Theo Pijper sits ostentatiously still (and upright) at the tapes for heat 10 and, consequently, arrives into the first bend third. The time he takes to brush aside his team mate Palovaara is sufficient delay to prevent possibly catching the impressively quick Fricke. Heat 11 sees Wolbert ride like an uninterested newly minted reserve, while his partner Lykke hasn’t got the message letting him know he is actually a reserve so, instead, rides with the speed, confidence and verve of a heat leader. Though never really likely to get past Craig Cook, the Monarchs number 1 is left in no doubt that he’s in a serious competitive race (something Cook signals to us all with lots of backward glances).
During the interval, I’m asked, “Dimitri Berge – have you seen him? What a talent that lad is! You should see his style on a bike – a complete natural – we’d like to think he’ll be back next year.” Though this derby meeting is long since over as a contest, we’re still treated to another Lykke-Cook match race in heat 13 with the combative Sam Masters thrown in for good measure. In bald results terms, Kasper Lykke again finishes third but, while doing so, once more showcases the harum scarum thrusting full throttle racing style that you romanticise afterwards and relish at the time. Though something of a pantomime villain to the Glasgow speedway public, Derek Sneddon has ridden impressively all afternoon. His score of seven paid eight from five rides belies the masterclass in track craft he’s conducted throughout. Though not noticeably fast (except when winning heat 14 riding a wide, speedy outside line), Sneddon knows the Saracen Park circuit so intimately and comprehensively that he’s able to prevent riders passing through great positional awareness and by riding racing lines that automatically appear to full occupy any/all possible passing pinch points. Sneddon is equally adapt at exploiting the track contours to slide past less wary or skilled competitors.
Prior to heat 14, presenter Derek Smith temporarily silences the crowd with news that he has a “personal message”. He says it with such solemnity I half expect serious health news – possibly a baby or a terminal illness – but, instead, we learn Derek, “never expected to be out here – for two years” and, “I’ve quite enjoyed it – it’s a lonely place when things are going well [on the track]” With terrace chatter now back up to traditional levels, Derek closes with four (significant) words, “I want to say three words – keep the faith, folks!” My impression is that Derek enjoys a good rapport with the crowd. Long time Tigers fan Ian Maclean tells me the Ashfield crowd size nowadays means, “that the centre green presenter can look up into the grandstand and tell the person that they’ve won the raffle.” Ian’s son, Alan Maclean had his own brief teenage career as an announcer. “Alan started at 17 at Workington. Tigers team manager for a long time Ian Steel asked me if I’d like to help with the announcing – I didn’t want to – but Alan was up there like a shot. He stopped half way through the season there after the track accidentally got sprayed with slurry. Alan also worked with Dick Barrie at Shawfield. He was a student so wasn’t always there but he had a great rapport with Dick. Dick was incredibly professional – for every meeting Dick provided a [written] schedule [beforehand] that explained who would say what when. He’s that organised and thoughtful. We have a lot of time and respect for Dick. Alan really enjoyed it and coined the phrase about Steve Lawson – ‘the testimonial Tiger’!”
Edinburgh close with their eighth heat advantage of the meeting via yet another “brilliant win for Craig Cook!” to conclude his second five race paid maximum against the Tigers in three days. Though going down 36-54, Tigers terrace talk prefers to shrug off defeat and, instead, look to the future while savouring strong rumours that a wealthy Scottish benefactor – a McAbramovich – is about to buy the stadium and the speedway club before investing heavily in the infrastructure and team. “They say Stewart Dickson has been told to ‘write down the team you want’!” Whatever the future holds for the Glasgow Tigers, this meeting has been an exhilerating credit to the sport of speedway – knowledgeable harmonious fans of all ages enjoying the sunny afternoon spectacle of gifted riders frequently passing and racing flat out on a fast red shale circuit.
14th September 2014 Glasgow v Edinburgh (Premier League) 36-54