Shut That Door!

26th March

The perils of live broadcasts are such that as soon as you’d uttered an authoritative prognostication on what has happened or what is about to happen, the evidence of the eyes of the armchair audience completely contradicts your claims. The latest Sky Sports live speedway broadcast of Belle Vue versus Poole provides a master class in this immutable law.

Jonathan Green continues to think that he moonlights on the Weather Channel so he introduces the meeting with “the weather’s perfect for racing – its 11 degrees”. Kelvin looks bored but manages “yeh, it’s a triffic line up tonight” before we cut to Johno out on his track walk. Last week’s meeting mostly mentioned the meteorological conditions when, for example, the Smallmead track was clearly not in an ideal condition for racing so the Sky team preferred to concentrate their analysis on the temperature rather than the deleterious impact on the entertainment on show caused by the poor track conditions. Weirdly as if to somehow compensate, this week all the talk is of the track, perhaps next week it might be the bikes or even something more philosophical. Johno appreciates the Kirkmanshulme Lane circuit in the manner of an expert savouring fine wine, “you can tell by the colour of the track how much they’ve done” before he moves on to provide some real insight (is this allowed in live speedway coverage on Sky?) as to what has actually happened to the surface over the winter “they got rid of the camber on the first bend”. He then enlightens us as to the mystery of why last season when riders went out to the fence to search for the outside dirt line they traditionally became becalmed. Apparently like a trip to Hell, once you crossed the camber “three quarters of the way up” you never came back.

Last season, the Sky cameras appeared to avoid a trip to Belle Vue whenever possible but with the ‘newsworthy’ return of Jason Crump to his stamping ground with his new club Poole, they just can’t get there quick enough. Nigel ‘Statto’ Pearson has dusted off the January 6th issue of the Speedway Star to reveal some news about Jase’s performance from last season, “in 110 races at Kirkmanshulme Lane Jason Crump was first 94 times”. He could have added that he had an 11.42 average, wasn’t excluded home or away and didn’t ever finish fourth at Kirky Lane (and only twice on his travels). Predictably enough Jason wins the first race in which Nigel reports, “Ryan Fisher was miles off the pace”, though – in an unofficial competition for the prize for who can look the most completely out of touch during the meeting – Sergey Darkin runs him very close. In the post race interview, Jason quickly bats off any praise about his own performance and prefers instead to play down the presenters expectations with regards to Edward Kennett’s possible path to becoming British number one. It’s a perspective apparently provoked by the evidence of one race, just because he’d gated excellently in the first race, “you guys in the media just have to give him a break like you should with Freddie Flintoff!” It’s advice Kelvin and Jonathan take immediately to heart in their own way as, throughout the rest of the meeting, they still seek to report all events through the cult of personality and the ‘ultimate goal’ to become British Number One but instead concentrate their efforts on bigging up Simon Stead and James Wright. Without irony and apparently under the impression that this is his role as anchor man, Jonathan Green in the unself-conscious style of a white Home Counties rapper poet tells us, “watch out for Wright cos he’s coming right at the right time”, though given his rather eclectic grasp of the sport we never quite learn what he means exactly. I suspect that he might be referring to the chance of a Wild Card entry to the Cardiff GP. Itself an award that’s always spoken about on Sky Sports in reverential terms as though it’s an accolade on a par with the Nobel Peace prize rather than something decided by John Postlethwaite deep inside his BSI bunker.

Johno has an excellent night as a co-commentator alongside Nigel. He’s the ultimate live broadcast professional – particularly as on air he completely cuts out his usual swear words or trademark dodgy chat up lines – so much so that even if Nigel’s enthusiasm leads him to slightly over gild the lily or play hard and fast with his interpretation of the actualite, Johno doesn’t ever contradict him on air but gently rights the wrong through the subtle juxtaposition of his own comments. However, Johno also reserves the right to march to his own tune and use his own version of the rules to interpret what he sees or thinks he sees. In heat 2, Jason Doyle is excluded by the referee Craig Ackroyd “I don’t think that’s a great decision to be honest”. Johno then blathers on about track problems “ a [new] rut on the first bend” before he develops a parallel and unique ‘putting off’ defence for Doyley, “I can understand the ref, its not a very fair one but I can understand it. Very difficult indeed – it wasn’t binding, the track caused him to lose control…he was correct cos Doyley came off but Doolan did put him off”. Though it’s a nice colour, Johno decides like speedway riders the world over to blame the surface for any shortcomings, “they re-laid this track with a lot of new dirt and it’s chopping up”.

The picture quality and the variety of angles provided by the Sky cameramen creates the impression of lustre and sumptuousness but sadly for the armchair viewer, like a trip to a modern supermarket, there’s so much choice that they don’t know what to choose for the best. Consequently, if there’s an exciting maneouvre to pass at the back of the race you can almost guarantee the camera will be in close up elsewhere so the viewer at home totally misses the action in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily if they were at the meeting (except, of course, for Nigel painting his own word pictures “whoa!”). However, if you’re there you don’t have the benefit of replays but, even if you do, you often still don’t see the vital moments of the action. A case in point was heat 4 when Craig ‘Thumper’ Boyce – whose appearance on the track causes Nigel to invent a whole new hierarchy and league for British speedway “not so long ago he was in the second division with the Isle of Wight” – lost traction on the outside in the non-binding dirt of the track. After the race Johno twice manfully attempts to talk us through the actual incident with the use of action replays from different (supposedly panoramic) camera angles and as soon as he says “we’ll see it just here” the camera cuts away and we don’t see it at all! This happens twice and it’s a mark of his professionalism that he seamlessly carries on as though nothing unusual has happened before he’s saved by the adverts (we never get to see it) and the armchair fan is rewarded with another chance to see this seasons excruciating/condescending attempt to promote the Cardiff GP as though speaking to the mentally challenged.

Not too soon, Nigel welcomes us back to “a fascinating Elite League battle” while Kelvin is confident “Joe [Screen] will like the track conditions – a bit bumpy, bit rutty, plenty of dirt”. In the race itself, things don’t work out as anticipated by the ‘experts’ with Joe stuck at the back before he manages to fall on the second lap. Johno is in no doubt as to the problem, “the track is cutting up more and on the bends it’s getting a bit trickier to ride”. Admirably Nigel Pearson seizes every chance to promote speedway in general to the viewers at home and exhorts them in his own charming way to visit their local track (“speedway is on every night somewhere in the country”). He kindly introduces us to the complicated scoring system that applies in each race (“and nothing for last”) before he mentions the completely inaudible “Belle Vue roar” that has apparently returned after its absence in recent years. He’s also never afraid to read from the promoter’s handbook of stock phrases, “the new Belle Vue management say they have a team of riders who want to ride for Belle Vue”. They’re so keen that Nigel re-emphasizes this again in an echo of himself, “who want to represent Belle Vue”. In an age when loyalty from clubs towards riders is non-existent; when promotional rights are bought and sold with increased frequency; and self employed riders ply their wares for any team in any country in Europe that will hire them, I thought it was widely acknowledged that the only loyalty in speedway is shown by the fans?

After I worried that Sky had already dispensed with their new interviewer Abi after only one meeting (it would be the speedway way since some promoters have already discarded riders though we’ve yet to reach the end of March!) she reappears to interview the sparkling Simon Stead. Having found an ‘open’ question she liked last week and one that appears vaguely insightful, Abi is unafraid to endlessly repeat it, “how did you manage to stay on the bike?” Politely ignoring that he’s a professional and this is his chosen living, Simon helpfully identifies a “rough patch mid bend” as the source of his aggravation. Abi presses on with her final ‘closed’ question, “are you finding you have a lot of pressure on your shoulders this season?” My guess would be that Simon will make light of the “pressure” and relish the challenge and so it proves before we cut back to the smirking Jonathan and sullen Kelvin in the Sky booth. Kelvin doesn’t hesitate to reiterate his and everyone else’s concerns, “the dirt hasn’t had time to bind and below it the surface is slick”. In the booth Johno corrects his earlier prognostications and acutely notes, “the track looks so nice but the dirt hasn’t had time to bind in”.

Nigel regularly enthuses and then, though I can’t see it, claims “there are literally two races in one here”. You have to wonder how the Sky cameramen would cope with such an eventuality. Another trope of Nigel’s work is an obsession with doors that wouldn’t disgrace Larry Grayson (“some riders would have shut the door”) and it’s a theme Johno also quickly picks up on, “it’s so nice to see riders race and respect each other”. When these are the comments you hear you just know that you’re in the process of watching another bread and butter, week-in-week-out televised Elite League encounter as the quest for individual glory in the ‘exciting’ GP’s invariably dispels any of this residual ‘after you sir, no after you sir’ attitude we’re all supposedly to laud and approve of. Before heat 9, Johno continues with his unerring ability to confidently call things completely wrong as Craig ‘using all years of experience’ Boyce jets from the tapes (“Boycies’s got to grip with the track now!”) only to make a total hash of the first bend to swiftly go from first to third before he follows this up with a couple more alfresco mistakes to allow Joe Screen past later in the race. I’d hate to watch what he does if he hasn’t mastered the conditions.

Next up Johno avers “Middlo’s made the right move by bringing Be-Yar-Knee out in black and white given the way he’s been riding” before the Dane completely fails to make the start and eventually finishes third to thereby nullify the use of the Pirates tactical ride. Nigel prefers to concentrate his attentions on James “local lad from Stockport” Wright who has just “closed the door”. In a double header post race J & K interview with “British stars of the future”, James reveals an Aces motivational secret “Chris Morton said if we can beat Bjarne Pedersen we get an extra £100” only for Simon Stead butts in with “each!”

Middlo has also been wheeled out to drum up some excitement for the forthcoming World Cup later in the summer. Though he might say different under oath, Middlo plausibly talks of “goose bumps on parade” and the fact that “supporters don’t realise how important their support is” before he then brushes off any unnecessary early season anxiety about the Pirates performance “you know, it’s a marathon not a sprint in this business!” Vastly experienced and plain speaking Belle Vue team manager, Eric Boocock, marks his first appearance on a live Sky broadcast with some confusion as to which riders he’s actually allowed to use in the nominated race based on both the rules and his calculation of the various scores by the Aces riders. The referee clarifies inchoately so this doesn’t exactly elucidate the situation in the pits or on the armchair. Without even the hint of a swear word Eric calmly notes, “we’ll go back to what we thought of in the first place before we changed our minds and got it wrong again!”

As a “fascinating EL battle” the contest was over before it began and featured a surprisingly easy win for the Aces despite a maximum for Kirkmanshulme Lane returnee Jason Crump. Nigel explains with a prepared analogy that speedway is, in fact, like cricket, “to put it in cricketing terms, its like a batsman that scores a century but still loses the match”

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