Irene, George, the "Official Club Magazine" and Redcar All Impress
12th August 2007 - Newcastle v Redcar (Premier League) 38-55
12th August 2007 - Newcastle v Redcar (Premier League) 38-55
Despite briefly losing my way in Carlisle and again near to the stadium in Byker, I arrive so early at what they now call Newcastle Stadium (rather than its original designation Brough Park) that the only cars in the muddy pits car park are those of the track staff. They have to fit their work round their full-time jobs and the restricted access they have to the stadium during the week when its main preoccupation is the greyhound racing they stage here. Race day on a Sunday gives the volunteer curatorial team the chance to turn up at sunrise (if they wish) to give themselves the maximum time to make all the necessary preparations before the earliest scheduled evening start time in British speedway at 6.30 p.m. I've hardly pulled up in the car before the jetblack clouds - they're so fanatical about the Magpies (Newcastle United) up here that even the clouds are correctly coloured - do what they've been threatening and douse the area with some impressively torrential rain. These monsoon-like downpours typified the early months of the summer and, thankfully, this intense rain is short lived. Nonetheless puddles have appeared all across the car park and the track now has a sheen it didn't have a few minutes earlier. The track staff had briefly sheltered away from the deluge but, as soon as it abates, they're straight back out onto the centre green, working on the safety fence or on the shale surface. Rather notably, there's also a lady member of the curatorial team here who works in a way that indicates that she is a regular and accepted part of the gang. George English is justifiably proud of his volunteers whose contribution to the club really is essential to its longevity and livelihood, given that they "operate in one of the most expensive stadiums in the sport and receive no additional income from catering or bar sales."
I've always found Newcastle's speedway co-promoter George English friendly and welcoming while his mother, Joan, is one of the true characters in the sport. No pun intended, she's a real diamond who loves her club and enjoys her long-time participation in the sport. As usual on race day, they're both here early and although there's a lot to organise, people to greet and things to be done - they always take the time to chat. George does have the odd cross to bear since he's a Newcastle United supporter and he wastes no time in highlighting that Sunderland's unexpected 1-0 win against Tottenham had a Magpies flavour, "it took an ex- Newcastle player [Michael Chopra] to score for you!" We're in his office and invariably people ring up to enquire about the weather, "Yes, it's fine here - we're watering the track!" he assures an anxious caller keen to tell him about the conditions where they're calling from. "I'm not bothered if it's raining in Teeside," he tells me after he's hung up. Joan is equally definite in her meteorological forecast about the dark black clouds that still dominate the sky, "they're heading out to the coast!" If she ever decides to give up at the speedway, Joan should go into weather forecasting as the evening turns out to be a lovely sunny one. Indeed, despite an awful summer of wet weather, Newcastle would only have to postpone one meeting all season in 2007. This was unusual compared to most other tracks and unusual for them given that their 2006 season saw umpteen rain-offs. Naturally as a result, while 2006 was a "financial struggle", this season the club has been on a straighter path tracking a side in 2007 more cut to their own particular financial cloth. This team is one that has also managed to excite the Tyneside public enough to attend in slightly increased numbers than previously.
In the passageway outside the speedway office is the small kitchen manned by volunteer Mrs Irene Best who looks after one of the key tasks at the club - making the tea and coffee! Traditionally, you've barely arrived in the building before she kindly enquires if you'd like any refreshment. "I'm a lifelong supporter of Newcastle Speedway. I came along as a child before the War - I can't really remember it. It must be raining the way that phone keeps ringing off the hook! I just took to it - I lived locally at the bottom of Fosse Way. There was the war in 1939 and in 1946-47 we had Ken Le Breton - the White Ghost. My husband was more into grass tracking. I've never followed any other sport. Of course, our only child has come all his life and doesn't know any other. He's a man of 46-47 now, Robbie - he's the Track Manager. Of course a lot of people give him a lot of help, I mean my son works full time as well as doing that. Monday was always our race night. The promoter I remember the most was Johnny Hoskins in the 1940s and 50s. I've seen some good riders come and go over the years. In the 60s there was Mauger. Of course we had the young Kenny Carter - we had Ole Olsen and Anders Michanek. All told we've had six or seven World Champions. Apart from my family, it's my one and only love! And I've made some good friendships over the years. And the Owen family - Tom Owen, not Joe, is my favourite all-time rider. He's a gentleman - and still keeping in touch with me!" At that moment we're interrupted from our brief trip down memory lane by the arrival of one part of the club presentation team (and club Finance Director), Andrew Dalby, and also by George English who happens to open the door of his office at that moment. "Ee, George, the place is crawling with Sunderland fans! What's happening here?" George rolls with the punches in life and speedway, so a few more Sunderland fans is just something you have to take in your stride, "I can't blame him he doesn't live here but this one [Andrew] does!"
Once Irene has ensured that I have my cup of tea, I retreat to one of the nearby benches to study the Newcastle programme that this year has transmogrified into an "official club magazine" with colour throughout. It really is a quite magnificent document and, would if there were justice, win the Speedway Star 'Programme of the Year' award though (based on what I've seen on my travels) I suspect this is likely to go to Lakeside. A case could be made either way - if you leave aside the argument that surely Elite League clubs should produce elite materials - but arguably this should still really go to Newcastle for the sheer variety of the content inside this document as well as upon grounds of value, given the fact it only costs £2. The big news of the week at the club is one of the headlines on the cover of today's issue of the magazine, namely that Ross Brady has been sacked from the club and replaced by Paul Clews. In his column, George uses the euphemism "parted company" with the rider before he explains his decision was based partly on Brady's poor performance against his old club Edinburgh at Newcastle Stadium the previous week. It was a showing by the rider that "was not acceptable to the spectators, the management or indeed Ross himself. Ross was so disappointed last week but that meeting was really only the final straw after a series of mystifying rides that have seen him lose, what looked like safe points, to inferior riders - he is just not the same rider [as the early months of the season] and as our team is set up for solid performances from all, not top heavy, we have been riding meetings with first six then five riders only scoring points, and that is no good to anyone, not least the struggling rider."
George's column is wide ranging and, like many features in the match-day magazine, both entertaining and a delight to read. George covers recent events with wit and some feeling. Though defeated 57-36 at Birmingham, the club had taken along a "large contingent of Newcastle supporters" and the meeting had apparently been "enjoyable" to watch except for an "abysmal refereeing decision [by Dave Watters] in heat 8 which left Carl [Wilkinson] absolutely spitting feathers and everyone else totally dumfounded. I know today's visiting promoter, Chris van Straaten, has had plenty to say about refereeing decisions this season but I have to doubt whether any of those that he has witnessed or indeed the ones that he didn't see as he had comments to make about a match here and he wasn't actually in attendance that day, were as bad as that decision at Birmingham." There are too many new features in the programme to do justice to them here, though it was pleasing to learn from guest columnist Keith McGhie (the Redcar speedway announcer), "George is a regular visitor and invariably made welcome at South Tees Motorsports Park every Thursday - especially by the burger van, as he religiously follows his latest health food diet."
The local derby clash with Redcar is something to set the pulses racing for Diamonds and Bears fans as well as club co-presenter Andrew Dalby. "The sport needs passion and feeling - so long as it doesn't get silly - increased tension is what keeps the crowd and the riders, let's not forget, engaged." Though he's got limited time on any race night, I pop in to see George to thank him for his kind hospitality when I return my mug to Irene's small kitchen area just outside his speedway office. Team changes are on his mind, "though [Paul Clews] hasn't ridden all season just by showing up he'll please the fans a lot more than Ross has recently. That said he scored 8 at Edinburgh - we needed the away win - and, after the meeting, I had to tell him that he was sacked. You have to declare your team three days before any meeting - it's not pleasant but it's part of the job." I congratulate George on the new-look programme and wonder if he'll win the aforementioned Speedway Star Programme of the Year Award. "The person [Howard Jones] who judges it has an agenda as he used to do the programme here. We're very pleased with what we've done and we've already won it four times, so I'm not really bothered, as we know it's good! Though someone did ask for a programme not an official match-day magazine without a racecard until we pointed out it was in the back!"
The highlight of my night, indeed my season was finally meeting George Grant again - the man who took me to my first-ever speedway meeting and, as a result, fired my love for the sport! Though only a friend of a friend (as well as a guitarist in the Tadley band), George typified the speedway attitude and ethos when for many years he faithfully took me to the speedway at Smallmead without charge or complaint. He's always been a Newcastle speedway fan but his work had taken him down south and his need for a regular fix of his speedway led him to watch his local clubs - in this case, the Reading Racers. George now lives in Valencia with his wife Betty for the majority of the year but, whenever he's back in the North-East, his pilgrimage to the speedway is regularly difficult to resist. Things have changed but he can still fondly remember and vividly recall many aspects ("it's remembering the 80s that I struggle with not my childhood") of the Brough Park of his youth. "I went first of all with my parents - George and Jean - in the mid 40s when it started again. I was only very young - six or seven - but I can still remember the big crowds and some of the riders. People like Norman Evans, Alec Grant - Rob Grant's granddad - Ken Le Breton, Sunny Mitchell, Don Carson, Herbie King and the like. Derek Close was my favourite because he was a good rider and won a lot of races! Of course, we got to see all of those who came there - we were in the Second Division then - and I liked Alan Hunt who was more of a Peter Collins type rider and also Jack Young who was most exciting and a good gater, say, like Ivan Mauger. I think it closed down in about 1951 and in 1954 we moved to Tadley 'cause me parents got a job at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston. I didn't go again until the early 60s when we went to Swindon, which was virtually our nearest track at that point. They had riders like Bob Kilby, Mike Broadbanks and Barry Briggs, who was my favourite. When Reading opened in 1969 it was much closer and I started going there with friends. Reading was more exciting to watch because there were junior riders learning and having a go, plus there were older riders in the late stages of their career. It was a nice mix."
"Michanek along with Dag Lovaas and Geoff Curtis came to Reading in 1971, I think, when Reading took over the Newcastle licence. Geoff Curtis was one of the riders I really liked watching till he died in a crash in Australia in 1973. That was the year Reading won the league (the First Division) and then it closed down when they had to move from Tilehurst. In 1974 I went to Oxford to watch - that was the year Anders became World Champion, of course - and then it was back to watch Reading at Smallmead in 75 when that opened. After we had Anders we had Dave Jessup who was a great rider except he always had engine trouble, something that I think cost him the World Championship in 1978. When I went to Reading I would always go and see Newcastle whenever they were in the vicinity. I was always a Newcastle fan, even though I lived away. We moved back from Tadley to Newcastle in 1986. The team they had then was very poor. Since I came back we've had loads of really good riders like Nicki Pedersen, Bjarne of course and Kenneth Bjerre. In the past Dave Bargh used to go very well there and Thorpe, Mark it was, and Rod Hunter. We moved to Spain last year, near Valencia and we come back in the summer 'cause it's too hot for me so I get along every week when I'm back. Nowadays they don't rely so much on skill as on engine power and, in the old days, we had deeper tracks with more than one racing line. It wasn't first out of the gate and, with the lay-down engines, they have more problems with the chains breaking off than they did in the older days. A lot of it is down to the tuning of the engines now - the higher the rider the more money he spends on getting it tuned. I don't see how the youngsters or those starting out have a chance when they don't earn much points money. It's harder to make it pay and it costs so much to get the engines tuned. It used to be more even before. And with more shale on the tracks there were less postponements. At Reading after the rain it would look unrideable but often they still raced and the racing was good!"
"Something I don't like nowadays is they keep on changing the rules and I think this tactical rides with the double points is silly. The old system was better and you have to say that Reading were robbed by Peterborough using those double points in the Elite League Final last year. It wasn't right. I watch the Elite League on Sky - I don't care who the teams are, I just like to see a good close meeting. There haven't been many of them this year and they keep saying it's good but anyone who hasn't been to speedway before will get a bad impression, if that's what they judge it on! The Grand Prix was excellent this year - really exciting on the telly - the one thing I really miss living in Spain is the speedway. We were awful in the World Team Cup and I worry we haven't got anyone of any quality coming through. They didn't have the engines tuned right, which amazes me given most of them ride there. I don't think any current British rider is a decent gater and you need that, especially in Poland 'cause in the sort of climate that we have now you need to gate or, at least, be on equal terms in the first corner as it's so hard to get back otherwise!"
Sadly for the good-sized crowd of fans who turn up to watch from throughout the North-East region, the entertainment served up on the night is variable. However, it is enjoyed by a voluble contingent from Redcar since from Heat 3 onwards there is clearly only ever going to be one team in it to win. One of the many speedway truisms concerns the need to avoid running last places in a team meeting, if you are to succeed. This is amply illustrated by the fact that by the end of the meeting Newcastle only manage this three times, while none of the top five Redcar riders runs a last place all night. Not that this is solely the decisive factor as collectively the Bears show much greater determination all round but particularly in the first corner, something that is often decisive on the night. Though things are hopeless at a very early stage, the home fans do rouse themselves at the start of heat 8 when Carl Wilkinson is bizarrely excluded (rather than punished with a 15-metre penalty) by referee Dave Dowling after a tapes infringement. Diamonds presenter Barry Wallace - a man with a sing-song, soothing accent and, so the programme tells us, a green bedroom carpet - can barely hide his incredulity, "Carl Wilkinson is excluded for not being under power at the start of the race - I'm repeating exactly what was said, so there you are!' Moments later a bemused Barry is back on over the tannoy again, "under the rules Carl can't go off 15 metres so will be replaced by Sam Dore - it's a strange business indeed, strange business!" With the scores already at 17-25 prior to this race, this wouldn't have made any material difference to the end result but definitely increases the noise levels. Afterwards Carl Wilkinson wryly notes, "I'd love to know how I managed to touch the tapes with a bike that wasn't under power, considering that it was the clutch that dragged me there." The re-run of this contentious heat sees Josh Auty gate with Sean Stoddart relegated to third place until he blasts under his teammate, Sam Dore, who's then scattered off his bike. The referee stops the race and orders another re-run. Auty doesn't emerge victorious from the re-run since Sean Stoddart wins instead but, nonetheless, his motorcycling skills still impress after he somehow manages to stay on after rearing massively. Close by to me, one Diamonds fan says appreciatively, "He's awesome, isn't he!" while another shouts, "You didn't roll enough, Auty!" I would have to say that there was often movement from the youngster at the start line as he tried to predict the imminent rise of the tapes, but equally he wasn't alone in that respect.
Someone with something to prove on the night is James Grieves, who spent a couple of seasons with Newcastle. He looks imperious and only drops a single point all night. But, then again, many of the Redcar riders look so comfortable you'd have either thought they were the home side or had ridden at Newcastle Stadium on a regular basis. On his debut, newly minted Diamond Paul Clews shows glimpses of the all-out action-racing style that has deservedly won him so many admirers (including myself) in the past. The ninth heat is a case in point where numerous times he tries the (dusty) outside line in order to try to pass Jack Hargreaves only to not quite manage it. Clearly the old instinct doesn't leave you but his race rustiness, having sat out the season to this point - after Stoke gave him his testimonial last season but were unable to find him a team place this season - proves too great a handicap to overcome. If Ross Brady had raced to a lacklustre zero last week, Paul Clews races to a determined zero this week! He would have 65 rides for the club to return an average of 4.80 in the 2007 season. The margin of victory could have been greater but is still an impressive 38-55 to the Redcar Bears. This is the first home defeat suffered by Newcastle in three years, despite flirting with disaster the previous week against Edinburgh. The only home rider to emerge with real credit on the night is the indefatigable Diamonds reserve Sean Stoddart who in 2007 has finally really blossomed into the kind of successful rider you would hope that his long hours of dedication (and sheer pleasantness as a person) would have achieved. Beforehand George English had told me "it's going to be tough against Redcar" and, in retrospect, I realised that this must be some kind of coded language occasionally used by promoters when they know they're likely to get tonked. In the media, George doesn't dress things up at all, "The better side won, and from our point of view it was hard to say which performance was worse - our team's or the referee's. Apart from Sean Stoddart, who was magnificent again, we didn't have a lot to offer."
The last race has barely been completed when George kindly but unnecessarily apologises to me, "Sorry it was such an awful meeting for you to come to here!" In fact, I enjoyed what I saw but the real pleasure for me was, once again after nearly three decades, being reunited with George Grant. Despite the result, he enjoyed the meeting and can still fondly remember many things about Brough Park including, "when we used to have an outside line or riders who could use it!"
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This article was first published on 10th July 2008
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