George Dodds's picture

Well thank goodness that’s almost over.
Just two more sleeps and Peterborough Panthers roll into town, ending a Shielfield Park hiatus that has spanned the past two Saturdays but, rather like the Eurovision Song Contest, seemed to drag on and on and on.
How – and this is a phrase that I never suspected I would ever type – I envied those who were able to spend last Saturday night in Workington.
During my previous existence as a sports reporter I was a regular in the Derwent Park press box – normally in the depths of winter covering rugby league – the second-best sport ever invented.
Rochdale Hornets regularly wupped the Cumbrians and always seemed to do it in controversial circumstances, often with the help of some generous refereeing decisions, winding up the locals to great effect in the process.
Now it is one of the great urban myths that rugby players never dispute the word of the referee, unlike those nasty potty-mouthed oiks of the round ball code.
The miking up of referees for live TV has laid that to rest although I will admit that the quality of on-field whinging is much higher in rugby.
But when it comes down to it: “Pardon me sir, I respect your position as duly appointed match arbitrator but contend that your decision making is leaning somewhat favourably towards our esteemed opponents” may be more acceptable to the viewers than the footballer’s howl of: “you f****ng cheating canute”, accompanied by general rolling around on the ground and clutching of body parts … but fundamentally the sentiment is the same.
Rugby coaches have also adopted the footie manager’s stock post- match position of ignoring the ineptitude of their players and tactics and blaming defeat on one micro decision by the man or woman in the middle.
If only they had the opportunity to speak directly to the officiators afforded to the great and the good of our sport.
A great philosopher who shaped much of my adolescent thinking in the 1970s, Buzby the BT Bird, once urged the World to: “Make someone happy with a phone call”.
He must have had the speedway pits phone in mind as, perched on telephone wires, he pontificated on life’s great mysteries as the long words tickled his feet.
There was a time when Shielfield also had a second hotline to the gods sat in the official’s box.
It lived on a foldaway chair near the starting gate; ostensibly to allow the ref to communicate with the starting marshal but also afforded the opportunity for disgruntled riders to communicate their views in front of the paying public; a very basic version of British Sign Language often adding to the entertainment.
It wasn’t just here though. A Youtube search brings up Kenny Carter’s rant at Tore Kittlesen after the Norwegian, probably quite wisely, chose not to exclude home favourite Bruce Penhall at the LA Coliseum in the 1982 World Final.
Memory can play tricks but I swear that one of the arms poking a microphone under the Yorkshireman’s nose belonged to one Richard Barrie esq in his guise as ITV pits reporter that evening.
How different history would have been had Kittlesen listened to Carter or his mentor Ivan Mauger on the phone that night; thought: “you know that plucky little Yorkshireman makes a valid and well argued point”, and illuminated Penhall’s exclusion light.
Les Collins would have been World Champion and the opening sequence to the new series of CHiPS would have seen officer Bruce Nelson (Penhall), partner Ponch and the rest of the California law easy riders restoring order after Leicester Lions fans laid waste to the city of Angels in riotous celebration following the crowning of the club’s first world champion.
Unfortunately, as Kenny and many others discovered, in the history of speedway you can count the number of times that a pleading, rational or foul-mouthed tirade to the ref has worked on a beadless abacus.
Probably for elf ‘n’ safety, the infield telephone was removed and the phone rant retreated to the pits where, alongside many of the sport’s other dark arts, it was performed out of the public’s view.
At least until the advent of live TV speedway.
Soon no top level league meeting was complete without a close up of the suspiciously tanned Alun Rossiter, Terry Russell or the wonderfully lugubrious Pete Adams informing a variety of refs just how wrong they were.
I always hoped that rather like when the green crayon eaters used to ring my sportsdesk to rant about some report or other of mine that they didn’t like, the ref lays the phone down, makes a cuppa – maybe even nips out for a quick wee – while the pleading boss rants on before returning, picking up the receiver, firmly stating “I stand by my decision” and hanging up.
Our team manager and co-owner Gary Havelock was a TV regular during his previous incarnations as first superstar rider and then Coventry boss.
This year he seems to be taking a Kevin McLeod-like interest in the size, shape, comfort and accessibility of the Championship’s phone boxes – his Grand Design so far involving subtle remodelling work at both Armadale and Shielfield. Technically he owns one-third of the Bandits’ Pits phone so removing pesky visiting team managers also falls within his remit.
Panthers’ boss Carl Johnson had better be on his toes on Saturday night. Tapes-up 7pm.