THE tapes went up on Berwick’s new speedway season at the weekend when the club staged an individual meeting to help raise funds towards the installation of their new safety barrier.
The Bandits, who boast a number of team changes this year, will now begin their competitive action tomorrow (Friday) when they travel to Scunthorpe for their opening League Cup fixture.
This is a competition which will serve as a precursor to the league, Berwick competing in the northern section alongside Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Workington, Sheffield, Redcar and Scunthorpe.
These eight teams will then be joined by Somerset, Ipswich, Rye House, Plymouth and Leicester for the Premier League campaign, Newport having withdrawn just a few weeks before the action was due to get underway.
This year the championship will be decided by a play-off system, with the top two sides qualifying for the semi-finals, where they will be joined by the teams finishing third to sixth in the knock-out stages.
But for anyone who thought putting a speedway team together was easy they should think again.
Just ask Berwick team manager Ian Rae.
Razor had worked overtime throughout the winter putting together what he thought was a competitive side.
Then, BANG!, Kozza Smith, a cornerstone of his side, was sidelined with a broken thigh sustained in the Australian Championships.
Then, just a few weeks later, BANG! more bad news from Down Under with young reserve Brenton Barnfield potentially ruled out after taking a knock to the head in the Aussie U21s.
“There’s no denying it was like a hammer-blow,” said Rae.
“There we were, one minute with a full team, full of optimism and raring to go - the next minute, the heart is ripped out of the side and it’s back to the drawing board.
“The loss of Kozza really hit us hard. He had a great season last year before his shoulder injury, but he was coming back to form, winning two State titles, and we thought we were so lucky to have him back in the side again, because I think everyone was expecting him to have a really good season for us.
“We were just getting over that when news on Brenton came through, and I thought ‘Oh no, here we go again.’”
The set-backs might have floored a lesser man, but Rae has a habit of pulling rabbits out of a hat and this was no exception.
First of all he came up with the impressive Ricky Ashworth as a direct replacement for Smith, and then he landed German Michael Hertrich to take over a reserve berth from Barnfield.
“All in all I think we did pretty well out of it,” said Rae. “It was obvious we had to bring in two new riders at short notice, but I don’t think anyone expected us to get someone of the quality of Ricky.
“He is a big race rider, a proven performer, and with Seb Alden he should give us a powerful spearhead at the top of the team.
“Everyone thought Ricky was going to Plymouth after he was surprisingly left out by Sheffield. The deal fell through, but at the end of the day their loss was our gain and we’re just delighted to have him on board.
“Of course we were gutted for Kozza, but things like this happen in speedway and we have to move on.
“It was the same with Brenton and Michael.
“We wanted to give Brenton a chance with his debut season in the Premier League, but his injuries were such that we knew we couldn’t take a chance on his fitness, and when he rang to say he hadn’t got the all clear from the doctors we moved quickly to get Michael in.
“He is a young lad with a lot of potential. There were a number of other clubs after him, but he chose Berwick and we’re pleased he did.
“He has a good team around him (Shawn Moran and Kai Niemi) and four good engines, so we’re expecting him to make some progress this year.”
Hertrich will start out at reserve riding alongside Alex Edberg, and Rae knows that if both riders hit form they have the potential to be amongst the best reserve pairings in the league.
“Alex took a bad injury last season,” said Rae. “He was sidelined for several months but he is back to fitness now and just can’t wait to get going again.
“He has already taken some big scalps in the Premier League, and I have a feeling he could turn out to be one of our key men this year.”
Having two riders of the calibre of Ashworth and Alden at the head of the team is a luxury Bandits’ fans haven’t had for a few seasons now, and it’s one Rae is relishing the prospect of.
“They are both capable of being number ones,” he said, “and I think they will push each other all the way, because both will want the number one jacket.
“Seb showed great commitment to Berwick last season, becoming a full asset after joining us from Swindon, but of course he will double up with the Robins in the Elite League this season, and that, along with his meetings abroad, should keep him race sharp.
“But we’re not just about our top and bottom end this year - we have a good solid middle order as well, and I don’t think there are any obvious weak links.
“Everyone knows what Lee Complin is capable of. He is very impressive around Shielfield. He is an entertainer and he often has the fans on the edge of their seats with his dashes around the boards.
“By his own admission he needs to improve on his gating a bit, and he could do better at some of the away tracks, but he is still a very solid scorer for us and will provide the top two with some decent back-up performances.
“Then we have Filip Sitera and David Bellago, two newcomers who I think will do very well for us.
“Big Fil has never raced at Premier League level, but in the Elite League he was always on the pace and once he gets dialed into the Berwick track we should see the best of him.
“I think every Glasgow fan wanted David back with the Tigers this year, but he was keen to move to Berwick and we’re delighted to have him on board because he is a real talent and hopefully he will make major strides with us.
“There is still some confusion about his contract, but basically he is now the property of the BSPA until the end of the season when the situation will be resolved.
“So, all in all, I think we have managed to put together a very competitive side, all things considered. I’m not going to make any predictions, I just want all the riders to enjoy themselves and have an injury free season. If we manage to achieve any success along the way that will be a bonus.”
One of the major talking points throughout the winter has of course been the installation of the new polyfoam safety barrier, at a cost of about £45,000.
This is seen by Berwick as a major plus, and is a feature which is certain to win the approval of the fans and the ridersalike.
“Anything which improves rider safety has to be a good thing,” said promoter John Anderson.
“When we took over three years ago we always said we wanted to get the infrastructure right, and the safety barrier is an integral part of that.
“They may become compulsory over the next few years, if they do we are ahead of the game.
“I think the barrier will give the riders a lot more confidence, and of course we are already seeing the beneft by being awarded an FIM approved Grand Prix qualifier in June, which we have been informed will include riders of the quality of Chris Harris and Tai Woffinden, so that should be something really special to look forward to.”