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George Dodds's picture

Well I suppose it’s symmetry of a sort.
Bottom of the table in 1968 and 50 seasons later we are, once again the strongest team in the league; holding up the rest.
Disaster; dismay; distress; doom; gloom; uncertain times … only it’s not.
And if you don’t believe me just look at Colin Poole’s end of season picture taken after Sheffield became our sixth successive home victims in a winning run which will continue, at worst, until March 2018.
Smiling faces peering out from a generous coating of chalk, eggs and water (The Chalky Clarkey Burger will be on sale exclusively from Grant’s catering next season – salad and chips optional) among riders, owners, announcers, track staff, outstanding young future talent, Bear, startline glamourpuss and, most importantly, lots of happy, smiling fans.
Because despite everything that conspired to keep us firmly at the foot of the table the crowds kept on coming and a bond developed between riders and supporters which meant that when success finally came late in the day it tasted so much sweeter.
Bill Shankly famously said that football was not a matter of life and death; it was more important – but he was wrong.
He may have been speaking for Liverpool fans, certainly for Man U supporters, but for most part spectators who pay their hard-earned money to attend a sporting event are happy if they are entertained and those wearing their colours put in an honest shift.
With those boxes ticked then the result stops being all-important. Obviously if all else fails you can always blame the referee … or the BSPA.
A run of ten successive defeats meant that our season was effectively over before it began, in much the same way that injury accounted for the seasons of Ryan Blacklock and his replacement Lee Payne.
For different reasons Claus Vissing and Dimitri Berge were also soon on their way while Lewis Bridger was struggling with under-powered machinery.
But in many ways Bridger encapsulated the Bandits in 2017.
A complicated young man, Bridger came as number one only to see over two points slashed off his average by the time that he crashed out with severe neck injuries against Workington.
And yet some of the races he was involved in during his brief spell in Northumberland will live long in the memory. Whenever he took to the track there was a buzz among the crowd. You didn’t know quite what you were going to get with Lewis but it was never going to be dull.
Whether we see him back on a speedway bike or not – and nothing is ever straightforward in Lewis’s world – he fully bought into the “leave them entertained” ethos of our new owners.
Perhaps that is why the crowds held up with us on the terraces and them on track very much “in it together”.
It would be fair to say that the signings of David Howe and Jye Etheridge may have lacked the “wow” factor when they were first announced.
Just goes to show that when it comes to spotting talent a combination of former World Champion, two ex-riders and one of the sport’s most experienced administrators might just know what they are talking about.
Both were thrown in at the deep end, giving their opponents a couple of months’ start in terms of match fitness and preparation but still rode way beyond the expectations of probably all but themselves.
They won races, matches, respect and admiration before collecting the ultimate accolade – both now have a song composed for them by the Third Bend Ultras.
Dany Gapmaier had what could be described as a mixed season – starting off like a steam train, indeed he was one of the bright spots during that difficult early season, before becoming derailed only to find form again at the business end of the season.
Kevin Doolan was, well King Kev, enjoying a memorable and fully deserved testimonial on the hottest day of the year and holding it all together when those around him were crashing into trouble.
Then there was Nick Morris – another inspired signing who led the way as we turned the season around. The young Australian is surely the best number one to have worn the Black and Gold at Shielfield – indeed only Kelvin Tatum and Jimmy Nilsen challenge him over our history.
With the number seven race jacket seemingly cursed it did give us the opportunity to see some of the best young talent from the National League filling the fast track reserve spot.
Jack Parkinson Blackburn is one our management have made no bones about wanting to see back next season while Alfie Bowtell and Kelsey Dugard are young men with bright futures wherever they line up while local lad Luke Ruddick brought the house down on the couple of occasions that we set him loose.
It wasn’t all good though – some of those defeats were hard to take – but the biggest disappointment was the failure of Liam Carr and Joe Jacobs – for very different reasons – to hold down a team place.
Liam found himself the victim of his 2016 success with an average that meant he had to race in the top five when he would have been better served with starting the season as a reserve. His scores for National League Birmingham prove the talent is still there when the confidence is high.
And there simply has to be something wrong with a system which means that a young British rider such as Jacobs is ready, willing and able to race but cannot find a regular team spot in any one of the three leagues because of his average.
Also spare a thought for poor Nikolaj Busk Jacobsen who was struck down by the Bandits’ injury bug but, typically for our bunch of 2017 battlers, managed to compete and score points despite suffering what turned out to be a season-ending injury in his first ride for us.
Much needs to change over the winter if speedway is to build a solid base for the future.
If the BSPA wants to know how to ensure that history and tradition does not stand in the way of progress they need look no further than our own promotion.
Since opening night in 1968 the Bandits have marched out to Wheels. More than one promoter had toyed with changing it over the years only to be beaten back by the resulting outcry.
Our new trio of owners are made of sterner stuff and came up with the perfect solution: Out to AC/DC, introductory lap accompanied by the String-a-Longs showstopper.
Although at times in 2017 they must have been tempted to swap it for fellow one-hit wonders Chumbawamba.