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Playing One Off Against the Other
by Ken Nicholson

PL Play Off Winners 2006
Picture by Steve Hone

A big argument for the GP Series is that it is the 'fairest' way to determine the Individual World Speedway Champion. That is because it is a league system based on the results from an entire season. How curious it is then that the speedway leagues have adopted the equivalent of a knock out system (the play-offs) to determine the League Champions.

I don't like the play-off system. It does not always reward the best performing team over the season. You only need to look at Eastbourne who lost out to second placed Wolverhampton in 2002 or Belle Vue who suffered the same fate at the hands of Coventry in 2005 to see that. But that is not the real reason that I don't like it.

My first complaint is that the play-offs have taken the emphasis away from clubs to need to try and win every match throughout the year. In the Elite League for example, there is no difference between finishing first or second in the table as both teams start out level in the final run in. It doesn't really matter in which order of the non-qualifying teams finish either. They are all 'wooden spoonists'.

The teams that finish in qualifying positions outside the top two have a dubious honour. That is they get to race away from home against one of the higher placed teams. The statistics show that no team outside the top two has ever reached a final which makes this exercise all seem a little pointless to me. The Elite League as I see it has only three finishing positions: first or second; the 'consolation' prize winners; and the basement clubs.

The situation is not much different in the Conference League. Here the two table topping clubs face a race-off, with the remaining six clubs being able to consider themselves at the foot of the league. But perhaps the strangest set up is in the Premier League, where no less than the top eight clubs (out of fourteen) end up on even terms and then enter into a two-legged knockout competition. This situation in which there are more winners than losers seems to defeat the purpose of having a league in the first place. But in all of the leagues, gone are those must win crunch matches. Until the play-offs of course!

My second grouse is that in order to get the qualification for the play-offs completed on time, league matches have to be finished quite early in the season. This means that the leagues start to peter out in August. The supporters of the play-off system say that it allows interest to be maintained right up until the end. All I can say to that is it only shortens the season for most clubs by anything up to a couple of months. So that argument seems to me to be self-defeating before the outset.

For most clubs, the calendar is remarkably empty after the final league matches have been crammed in and a premature end to the season is assured. The speedway season should finish on a high but instead it seems to just fizzle out. The Craven Shield has gone some way towards maintaining a late season interest, but that too is based on a knockout format and in 2006 it required qualification also.

The result is that most clubs end up not knowing whether they have ridden their last match or not. No time for rider farewells or to reflect back on the season. No time for the once traditional firework display. Just a sudden end. Johnnie Hoskins, the great showman and inventor of our sport, used to often suffer the public 'humiliation' of having his trademark hat set alight and kicked around by the riders on the last night of the season. Surely the old master must be turning in his grave over the way things finish now.

The play-off system provided plenty of drama this year with Peterborough narrowly snatching the Elite League Championship from Reading in the very last heat. It made great television viewing, but you won't convince me. Then again, maybe I am just old fashioned.

 

This article was first published on 9th November 2006


 

  • Steve:

    "I agree with some of your comments regarding the 'fairness' of the play-offs. As a Coventry fan I was elated when we beat Belle Vue in the 2005 play-off final, every fan wants their team to win the league and I was no different. But as I celebrated I could not help but feel sorry for the riders, supporters and promotion of Belle Vue speedway. Over the season they deserved to win the league. You won't see Man Utd play Chelsea in a play-off at the end of the premiership will you?. No the teams who finishes top wins the league.

    I also understand why the play-offs are held in speedway though. How are BSI meant to market British speedway if 50% of the teams feel their season is over 3 months into it?, they can't. Is it fair also for a teams season to be wrecked if one of their top riders is injured in the first match and misses 5-6 weeks of the season. Under the old format that teams season could be considered over as they wouldn't have much chance of overhauling everyone? One possible solution could be to follow the example of Ice Hockey. I also take an interest in the Coventry Blaze Ice Hockey team and noticed that when they won the grand slam a couple of seasons ago, they won a trophy for finishing first in the league, they then went into a play-off competition for a completely seperate trophy. This would mean that the team winning the league outright would get the recognition they deserve and the teams in 2nd - 4th would still have something to go for at the end of the season."

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