Lost decade of speedway at Plough Lane as Wimbledon finally closes?
The sound of speedway bikes will be heard for the first time since October 2005 at the Plough Lane Stadium, Wimbledon tonight (March 12th 2017), albeit at a farewell stock car meeting. It is good to mark the passing of one of the world famous British speedway clubs. With Merton Council approval given for the planning application to redevelop the Stadium into a 20,000 seat stadium for Wimbledon AFC, the end is nigh for stock car events (like the greyhounds before them) held at the iconic Plough Lane venue. For speedway fans, this will also be last time the sound of speedway bikes will ever be heard at Plough Lane. Overall, it is a sad rather than fitting end for the club.
Looked at from a British speedway fans’ perspective, surely we have to ask: ‘have we been robbed of a decade of London speedway since the Conference League version of the club suddenly stopped under then management in 2005?’ At the time and subsequent years after, we were told by Wimbledon Speedway PLC management – something echoed by their boosters – that they had been unable to continue to stage speedway at Plough Lane because the stadium owners had a master plan to build a retail park there. Apparently, it was a master plan whose first step allegedly required the urgent demise of the blameless Dons. At least this – along with a few other niggles in the relationship – was how the landlord failing to adhere to the agreed length of tenancy notice period and the end of racing at Plough Lane was widely presented by Wimbledon speedway.
In the same way a stopped clock is right twice a day, the demise of Plough Lane has finally come to pass albeit completely not in the form repeatedly predicted and on an elongated timeframe. However, surely, over these past ten or so years – especially when residential, commercial and retail space has massively appreciated in value and also commanded significant premiums – if such a firmly held plan existed it would have happened much sooner than over a decade later? More mysteriously, given how money talks and the bottom line influences so many business decisions, assuming 20 meetings per season at the 2005 weekly tariff of £2500 per meeting, why would commercially savvy landlords appear to perversely pass up on circa half a million pounds possible rental income from speedway over the past decade? Let’s examine some of the circumstances from published sources available to us to try to piece together the story and why this misapprehension about the stadium owner/landlord redevelopment ambitions may have gained common currency as the dominant explanation for the demise of the Conference League version of Wimbledon Speedway PLC. Why has the rapacious landlord meme become the main narrative in the passionate parallel universe of the various forums of the British speedway community as well as then has even been repeated as a likely scenario in in the pages of the Speedway Star?
Reviewing plans (that sadly never came to fruition and, at one point, even involved taking planning advice from Weymouth’s Phil Bartlett) for the future of the club post their Plough Lane departure, Wimbledon PLC Chairman Ian Perkin told Peter Oakes, “We have never really understood why we got thrown out of Wimbledon but my own private opinion is that the new owners…want to realise the value of the site for non-sporting purposes.” In the Speedway Star article (based on an interview conducted in 2006) Peter Oakes notes, “Perkin would point to recent announcements of redundancies at the stadium as grist to his particular mill. Whatever, Perkin is convinced that we won’t see the bikes back at Wimbledon at any time in the future and will be surprised if the stadium is still standing in a few years’ time!”
By their last season, Wimbledon Speedway – the only British speedway club grandiose enough to call itself a PLC – the club paid the highest weekly rental fee in Conference League speedway (£2500 per week) without quibble or delay. In their team, they had an experienced rider Buzz Burrows who could mentor younger riders, provide box office appeal, please fans and, with his frequent thrilling passing, overcome lingering perceptions of processional racing at the venue. It almost goes without saying that Wimbledon is one of the most iconic and biggest speedway brand names or they raced in the national capital in a stadium more than capable of easily holding large crowds with a track the Conference League equivalent to Bydgoszcz in terms of unmitigated thrills according to their management. Despite the lengthy, dusty snafu of their infamous staging of CL Fours (and programme debacle) in front of a sizeable crowd, neutral British speedway fans undoubtedly held Dons in historic high regard even if they didn’t bother to go often enough to properly support the bottom tier incarnation in the numbers possibly anticipated and/or needed on a regular basis by the club. In their interview, Perkin commented to the Speedway Star about finance matters, “We lost £25,000 the season before last at Wimbledon when we had 13 rain-offs, you just can’t make good that sort of money because the crowds aren’t big enough.”
There is no doubt that the relations between the local managers of Plough Lane and the speedway club deteriorated over time. Rents rose over time too and the landlords failed to give their tenants the appropriate contracted notice when ending their tenancy. That said, with the benefit of hindsight Ian Perkin could, perhaps, have publicly conducted tenancy discussions in a more patrician manner more befitting the gravitas of his Chairman job title at Wimbledon PLC. During negotiations Perkin brought to bear his passion for the club as well as a possible cognitive bias about possible future plans informing the ‘real’ reasons behind the termination of the tenancy agreement of the club at Plough Lane. Perkin would later write on the British Speedway Forum (BSF), “I would suspect that they are probably planning at some point in the next few years to redevelop the site. I obviously don’t know this as a fact”. Perkin also told Oakes in the Speedway Star, “There were no negotiations at all, they weren’t interested, they didn’t want us.” (Though, interestingly, his BSF posting would detail some of the ins and outs of said discussions with the landlord about the future)
“Why turn that amount of money down?” asked a mystified Perkin in the Star. When Clive Feltham, the managing director of the GRA (Plough Lane landlords) enjoyed his live “infamous radio interview on BBC Radio London” with Perkin, we’re told that based on his knowledge of behind closed doors discussions up to that point the Wimbledon PLC Chairman, “decided to take a hard line with him during the radio interview. I could not see the point of doing anything but taking a strong line”. Fortunately, according to Perkin, his approach will have had absolutely no bearing on negotiation outcomes or the ultimate decision to end the Dons tenancy at Plough Lane. “They will have done so for a business reason not because they didn’t like the style of a particular promoter. Personality clashes simply do not come into it, but just suppose that had’ve been the case, I could have easily stood down.”
At the time of these tenancy discussions the Speedway Star (1 October 2005) reported: “Wimbledon chairman Ian Perkin has slammed speculation that an Elite League club could move in to take over at Plough Lane if his side are forced to quit the stadium. Some intensive website conjecture had suggested that with the pending loss of the present promotion’s tenancy at Plough Lane, a senior club would take over in a bid to give SKY TV its long sought after London venue for its speedway coverage. Perkin said: ‘Thinking this is what is going to happen is a waste of time. Our agreements with both the BSPA and the GRA prevent this from happening unless an approach is made through us.’ ‘Obviously, when we invested £60,000 in building the new track we took legal steps to make sure we could not lose our investment. It would be foolish to just let in another club prepared to pay a higher rent when they had not put in the capital to construct the track’.”
Elsewhere in the British speedway world, the Plough Lane landlords the GRA continued to successfully rent their stadiums out to speedway clubs in Manchester and Birmingham. Indeed at Birmingham, their professional relationship with Tony Mole was such that they were prepared not to pull the plug on speedway at the venue despite possibly good (previous promotion rent issues) business reasons to do so but went out of their way to be helpful.
Photo: (c) Speedway Star
Yet, sadly – for whatever reasons we will not get to the bottom of – at Plough Lane, for the last decade there was no way back for speedway. That is a great loss for speedway fans everywhere. Arguably, made much worse by the thought that, perhaps, speedway could have actually continued at this iconic venue from 2006 until 2016, if circumstances had been different.