He’s not even on his second bike

30th April

It’s a sunny night in Swindon and the Sky Sports camera pans across Blunsdon Stadium to reveal packed terraces. Once again this week, Jonathan Green explains why the presence of the cameras hasn’t – as is traditional – decimated the audience, “they’ve brought in the crowd with special deals”. It’s not exactly a surprise that the speedway at Swindon is well attended because, ever since the news of the closure of the Abbey Stadium was revealed, it has been widely acknowledged in the speedway world that they’ve been having excellent attendances (thereby bucking the trend).

Kelvin has glowered at his crystal ball and assures the armchair fans that this Robins versus the Panthers is a “nicely balanced match this one”, despite the evidence to the contrary in the form of the 23 point deficit from the fixture raced in Peterborough that makes the destination of the aggregate bonus point an almost foregone conclusion. He then asserts, “every time the champions are raced, teams are gonna lift themselves!”

Even though Sarra has only appeared a few times, she now apparently has been fatally infected with the banality virus that runs rampant throughout the broadcast team. In a pre-recorded interview so they can have as many takes as they need to get it right and vaguely interesting, she says rhetorically to Leigh Adams, “tonight’s an important night for you guys?” He immediately reminds us, “let’s not forget they’re League champions” as if this is somehow now relevant in 2007. If it’s a live speedway broadcast, just as analysis is mistakenly assumed to be a ‘statement of the bleeding obvious’ telling you what you’ve just seen with your own eyes – and its endless repetition (usually a couple of extra times but with the additional help of slow motion) – then questioning is invariably assumed to be a stumble from one canard or platitude to the next. Sarra insightfully poses the question of “pressure” – not of the meteorological (high/low) or air (tyres/fence) variety – but the millstone the Robins collectively allegedly suffer through being the widely held bookies and pundits favourite to win the Elite League. Rather than bat it off with a ready drafted platitude, Leigh takes an honest and contrarian stance, “I guess it does – we haven’t really gelled as a team, especially away from home.” Sarra then monsters fresh faced Hans Andersen with a real zinger, “you haven’t won away from home since March!” As the season only started in mid-March and it’s now the end of April, this is hardly catastrophic never mind they’ve only ridden five away EL fixtures (W1 L4) or that they’ve won the same number of away EL fixtures as Swindon (one). Patently, it’s just a question to fill the time, create a ‘story’ and not provide any real insight. The stock in trade of any broadcaster – despite protestations and mock outrage to the contrary – are problems and controversies – the more the merrier or, at least, the higher the viewing figures and the happier the advertisers.

The big news and drama of this speedway night has already taken place before the cameras rolled and, sadly, hasn’t been caught for posterity – namely, the sudden fire that engulfed Hans Andersen’s “number one” bike in the pits. No second invitation is required to trot out a few fire related puns about “red hot” Hans and his equipment, indeed Jonathan Green soon warms to the opportunity provided, “we’ve often used the expression ‘Hans Andersen is on fire’ and he literally was”. Er, actually, he literally wasn’t, his bike was! When news filters through that shock-horror Hans will have to borrow a bike (from Iversen) it rages like a forest fire as a topic to chatter about. Kelvin talks about this incident in a tone that implies he’s lost a much loved but distant relation, “that’s far from ideal” before we learn the borrowed bike has a “different engine [GM], handlebars and seat position”. It probably has different coloured mudguards too but Kelv is still too shocked to mention this, “coming out on borrowed equipment, that’s just not the way he’d want to start a meeting!” In the commentary box, Johnno believes “it’s not ideal to go out on a strange bike” and Nigel Pearson thinks it’s “far from ideal preparation” when you have to face Leigh Adams on his home track. His subsequent talk that the taciturn Aussie is “the master of Blunsdon” is clear evidence that the Millard book of clichés lays open beside him in the commentary booth. The fact that Andersen has chosen not to use the second bike that he has brought along with him also generates endless further chuntering.

Hans finishes second on a bike without any sign of stabilisers and Jonathan just can’t contain himself any longer in the handover to Sarra for the interview with the victorious Leigh Adams, “I’m sure you’re as curious as I am – what’s the track like?” We then learn it’s “a bit choppy” because they “struggle to get the water into it” – something of an understatement as the track alleged had a bone dry surface and difficulty filling the Blunsdon bowser meant that additional supplies of the wet stuff wasn’t readily available to rectify this state of affairs (or stop the subsequent dust). It’s a theme Nigel effortlessly picks up on in the next race, “a choppy track to be fair – difficult conditions”. We’re not exactly spoilt for exciting races or overtaking after the first bend in the first few races, so these can’t – even on Sky where hyperbole is always stratospheric – realistically be hailed as the best speedway races ever seen. Consequently Nigel has to finesse things for the viewer with some flowery but bland comment. So we’re treated to a mock debate (“I say the best rider around never to win a world title, what do you say Johnno?”), a comparison of the disposition of riders (“always got a smile on his face”), some verbiage (“as the bikes roar and referee Chris Durno lets the tapes go high”), speculative interpretation (“Richardson had a nervous glance over his shoulder”) before the piece de resistance “watch for Ulamek’s celebration when he wins – he loves it here – may be he’s not going to bother cos of that damaged hand and ruins my theory”. Undeterred by this let down, Nigel contradicts the evidence of our own eyes but knows full well if you say something often enough then, in true NLP fashion, it soon becomes the accepted truth (or, at least, the recollection of the thing afterwards), “we are seeing some entertaining speedway in the first part of this meeting”.

Back in the pits Sarra struggles with the dynamics of the sport and the rider interviews. She interrogates Charlie Gjedde with, “eight points ahead – that bonus point must be in your reach” – too polite to contradict her as 15 points and possible tactical rides still separate the teams – Charlie perma-smiles and replies, “yeh, well – well, yeh”. Jonathan remains amazed with the “fantastic crowd” – though they don’t get to stand anywhere near the Sky presenter ‘talent’ since they occupy a huge area cordoned off in the stadium so that they can extol their platitudes uninterruptedly. How great must it be to be Jonathan and take such pleasure in the simple things like the sight of many people together? He must be in ecstasies during the Christmas sales, the rush hour or at a Division two football match. Exploring the ‘big crowd’ theme further, he then suggests, “that crowd definitely has something to think about” before he fixes Kelvin with his serious philosophical stare and says, “very good riding so far” – “very good” intones an anxious Kelv in true call and response fashion.

Despite all this “entertaining speedway” and “very good riding so far”, there’s still the need for a storm in a teacup in the form of Alun ‘Rosco’ Rossiter denouncing his fellow team manager Trevor Swales, for his allegedly craven pursuit of the limelight after some recent rather gentle comments about Swindon’s title ambitions. Trying hard to manufacture some hint of emotion, Rosco notes cattily, “he must have wanted the publicity or someint” before he goes on to excitedly claim he wants to “beat them convincingly, just to shut Trevor Swales up in the press”. In the commentary box Johnno struggles to recall whether he first heard about this dramatic dispute as the headlines on the 10 o’clock news or read about it on the front page of the Sunday Times before he finally remembers he “read the thing in the Star, I think it was”. The shocking sight of Hans Andersen still not on his own bike distracts Johnno who marvels, “he’s actually riding Iversen’s second bike” (the one with the really glittery mud guards). Nigel expertly advises, “it’s not ideal” before Hans then wins comfortably. Interviewed afterwards by Jonathan with his finger invariably on the pulse of possible speedway nuances (apparently points are important in the sport, who’d ever have thought it?), Hans is confronted with the news, “you need the points”. The question is so thoughtfully brilliant, he’s forced to agree, “we definitely need the points!” but undercuts the power of this revelation when he admits, “I don’t know the score?”

Desperation for anything to talk about, along with the inevitable pressure of live broadcasts has Nigel hale an obvious Leigh Adams mistake as a brilliant example of “team riding”. One of Johnno’s great gifts as co-commentator is to gently correct his partner with such subtly that he mostly doesn’t appear to do so, “I think he did actually make a bit of a mistake in that corner”. However, Nige isn’t having it that he’s dropped a clanger, “well, he might have made a mistake but he looked over his shoulder – may be it was the combination of that mistake and team riding”. Thankfully, Kelvin isn’t in charge of the replay (“watch as we run it forward”) so in the hands of Johnno – “watch here” – it’s not so painful to listen to, festooned in pointless graphics or illustrated with arrows apparently drawn by someone with a Ritalin dependency. After we’ve all sat through what we just saw, except for the traditional feature of these Sky meetings – the poor camera angle that misses most of the incident under discussion – Nigel still claims, “so there was a bit of team riding after all”. Johnno corrects him again with emphasis, “yeh, after the mistake!”

Back in the pits being interviewed by Sarra, Kenneth Bjerre raises himself to his full height of around five foot, maintains his natural pained looked and stares off in the distance as though struggling to read a teleprompter written in a foreign language before he eventually gives his considered opinion, “I think the track is really tricky out there”.

Nigel’s natural facility with language that has stood him in such good stead in his career causes him to claim, “as Andrew Moore tries to close the door on Niels Kristian-Iversen”. It’s a difficult manoeuvre to accomplish when you’re fourth. Things on the track are so exciting that Nigel then switches to discuss his favourite all time speedway rule, “the aggregate bonus point – a SUPERB rule that came in twenty years ago”. I sense that this fulsome praise about one rule may be an oblique but hardly hint about the tactical ride rule changes for the 2007 season – a present bete noire of the Sky commentary team that evidently displeases these speedway paymasters. Back in the Sky booth, Jonathan chortles, “good advice let’s see if they’re listening”?! I wonder if ‘they’ are? Or if the bookmakers will offer odds on the restoration of the two tactical rides rule during this winter to combat team inequalities, large ‘uneven’ score lines and restore the vim and vigour of the sheer spectacle of the thing to speedway fans everywhere (read: armchair fans and advertisers).

Luckily some excitement is then generated by a couple of decisions by Chris Durno who stops the racing in heat 8. The first time he makes the decision to stop the race and rerun it, he’s greeted with praise from Johnno after a belligerent call from Rosco that he bats off with the observation there’s “still a race to be run”. In the rerun, Chris Durno again (very quickly) stops the race when Richard Hall falls and appears stuck under the air fence but actually isn’t. It’s a split second decision taken by the referee without the benefit of hindsight or replays. “I’m doing it for safety reasons, nothing else” explains Chris before he undermines his case with some arcane comment about the fixed attachment of the base of the air fence also being a factor in this decision, though more likely he meant to note a dislodged kick board 9as that would be an excludable offence). Afterwards Trevor Swales highlights that the air fence isn’t attached but omits to mention anything about kickboards, when he noted, “that was stupid to stop the race that quickly….he didn’t even give himself a chance to look at it!” Trevor assumes the put upon air of a man marooned in a world gone mad, “they just don’t seem to be listening to anybody the riders, the team managers – well, never mind”. Kelvin often issues judgements from the version of the rules that apply in Kelvinworld rather than the present 2007 SCB rulebook, “I didn’t really see any point to stop the race or exclude Richard Hall – can’t say I agree with it”. Would this be the same Kelvin Tatum who never says a peep when rider safety is potentially put in jeopardy when some tracks are clearly too wet to race upon but are because the Sky cameras are present? The one person we don’t ever really hear from is the decision-maker in question – the referee who has no right of reply and can’t correct any misinterpretations of the rules that sudden get presented as fact.

We’re then lucky enough to be treated to a motivational masterclass from Rosco who the cameras catch encouraging Mads Korneliussen before heat 10 by screaming at his helmet, “Come on! Let’s have it! Come on! Come on!” as though he’s decided to conduct his own late audition for a role in the Cardiff GP adverts. With the score at 34-25 Jonathan and Kelvin wear the pained expressions of people who have lost a winning lottery ticket. They grumble “we’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing this season” – “yeh, it gets to heat 10 and it’s difficult to see how a team can come back”. There’s nothing for it but to repeat the usual Sky Sports Speedway tactic and pretend future (mediocre) prospects are fantastic.

[JG] “Fast field in heat 13 – that’s something to look forward to.”
[KT without a hint of emotion in his voice] “Yeh that should be a special race.”
[JG] “I’ve just heard from Sarra – Trevor Swales is talking it up like we are!”

After Nigel has claimed “Hans Andersen – one of the most colourful characters in the sport”, Johnno skilfully brings the bike theme back into the commentary equation, “you can see he’s happy to be back on his own bike”. In the pits Sarra checks this theory out, “Hans – happy to be back on your own bike?” and learns, “yeh, I felt a bit more comfortable”. It’s practically all done and dusted so Nigel cranks up the juice, “an interesting, exhilarating night of speedway in front of a highly charged crowd” and then indulges himself with surreal debates with imaginary critics, “who says Leigh Adams does all his work in an armchair blasting away from the start?” Logically we should consider, ‘how would Hans do if he had to borrow someone else’s armchair?’ No meeting would be complete without Johnno using his own unique pronunciations and fortunately we get a late gem, “watch Charlie GEDDIE”.

Jonathan flickers a smile across his careworn expression, “these fans are going to go home with a warm feeling in their hearts” –it’s an unfortunate choice of metaphor when the start of heat 15 has been delayed by the absence of medical cover because the staff have been called to attend a heart attack victim in the crowd. Capably filling this unexpected delay with anodyne blather masquerading as insight, Jonathan looks ahead to the forthcoming schedule of Sky televised speedway meetings for May with the Kelvmeister, “any last heat deciders – please tell me so?” Before he momentarily brightens and says, “I’m looking forward to seeing some Premier League action, actually” in a hushed but knowing conspiratorial voice that makes it sound we’ll be treated to some raunchy Sapphic pornography. He then goes on to discuss the GP’s and Scott Nicholls broken thumb before he admonishes the imaginary doubters by addressing Kelvin in a knowing voice, “don’t ever underestimate what these tough boys do!”

In the pits there’s still inordinate time for a superb match up between Sarra and Rosco that is one of the real pleasures of live broadcast speedway television, “a good night indeed as Jonathan said Alun?” As he has trained himself to do with ‘the media’, Rosco studiously pretends to be modest about future Robins prospects, “it’s a long, long way to go yet!” After further insights, Jonathan wraps up, “you could talk to Rosco all night – he likes to talk”

30th April Swindon v Peterborough (ELA) 52-37

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