George Dodds's picture

Finally the dark months of winter are behind us and opening night is now just a week away – press and practice tonight if you can’t wait.
Of course this is no ordinary opening night – it is Berwick’s 50th opening night and many of the modern sport’s great and good will be on show at Shielfield next Saturday.
When such a monumental milestone is reached it is customary among speedway fans of a certain age to ponder “Who was the best” you have seen.
And that is where the arguments really start … what even actually constitutes “the best”?
Is it the highest points scorer, the highest average, the most consistent, most entertaining, friendliest to fans, the most loyal club man? And what of riders who see out their autumn years at a club? Do you judge them on their career as a whole or the few years they were regulars in your colours?
All this needs to be settled before even deciding how to judge riders from different eras.
History books will tell you that Ivan Mauger was the greatest speedway rider of all time. His tally of World titles, virtual invincibility in league racing during a decade which saw him average over 11 points a match for seven seasons and more than 10-and-a-half in the other three, backs this up.
Hans Nielsen and Tony Rickardsson managed just one world title less than the Flying Kiwi and on their day were every bit a clinical on the track. But did the switch from one-off World Finals to a Grand Prix series make it harder to win or easier?
The extra meetings make it possible to overcome an off-night – surely Jerzy Szczakiel would never have been crowned king under the longer format – but you do have to be consistent, and stay fit, over a whole season.
If results are everything then Egon Muller, Szczakiel and Bjorn Knuttson were every inch as good as Peter Collins, Michael Lee, Tomasz Gollob and Billy Hamill (one World Crown apiece) while Gordon Kennett – by virtue of his second place at Wembley in 1978 surely left the likes of Chris Morton, Dave Jessup and Malcolm Simmons in his dust in the top Brit pecking order.
And what about those league averages?
I watched Mauger in his pomp for Belle Vue, Exeter and Hull – not to mention that memorable 1975 Shielfield Park appearance when he brought his Golden Bike north and beat Jim McMillan in a series of match races as a curtain raiser for the Bordernapolis.
No doubt about it he was lightening fast out of the gate – when he eventually stopped charging the tapes – and rarely, if ever, needed to show his ability to come from behind.
Ivan also had the pick of where he lined up – no fixed gates in those days and under the 13 heat structure of the time would only be programmed to meet his opposite number one in the opening heat of a match.
And then there was what Ivan himself brought to the show. In an era when even the top riders were more likely to be seen with a fag in their hands than an energy drink, Mauger used to train with Manchester City and followed the sort of fitness and workshop routine which, while revolutionary at the time, is now common practice in the National League, let alone on the world scene.
He was a driven professional at a time when most still treated speedway as a hobby.
Also, while Ivan enjoyed his Sunday jaunts to the continent to cash in on the lucrative long track scene, he never had to juggle Swedish, Polish, Danish and British League commitments.
All that said in my mind he is undoubtedly the best speedway rider I have ever seen and, like all truly great sportsmen and women, would surely have adapted and thrived in the modern era.
It is much the same when it comes to picking a Bandits’ all-time top seven.
Obviously Nig Close comes into the reckoning for his cup final winning last bend dive under Steve Wilcock, Mike Hiftle for his swoops around the third bend at Shielfield, Rob Grant for the fear he put into anyone daft enough to be outside him at Berrington, Martin Dixon for – well for just being Mad Dog – but none of them can make it into the final shake-up.
Apologies also to the likes of Michal Makovsky, Pepe Franc, Ricky Ashworth, Scott Lamb and others whose exclusion comes solely on the arbitrary basis that they became Berwick legends in an era when I was lost to speedway.
Others, such as messrs Tatum, Nielson, Mogridge and Clews were just not around long enough to qualify.
So, not in riding order, here is my Bandits’ all-time top team:
Doug Wyer – as this is speedway I chose to ignore the longevity rule, appealed to the management committee – Mrs D – and as she didn’t have a clue what I was wittering on about, it was ruled permissible “in the best interests of speedway blogging – Mark Courtney, Steve McDermott, Wayne Brown, Doug Templeton, Graham Jones, Mike Fullerton.
Just to prove a point I would also happily argue a case for a septet of Maury Robinson, Mark Hall, David Blackburn, Richard Knight, Charlie McKinna, Dave Gifford and Roy Williams.
Feel free to disagree!