LAZARUS would have been proud, as Monarch Oxford Cheetahs made their greatest comeback in 61 seasons of competitive speedway when they won 47-43 at Redcar last night (Friday), despite trailing by 14 points after six races, in a Cab Direct Championship play-off fixture. Never before has an Oxford side won from so far behind.
To complete a very happy evening for Oxford Speedway, Edinburgh Academy defeated Mildenhall by 54-36, which means the Oxford Chargers have qualified for the National League Grand Final, where they will face Leicester Lion Cubs. Tonight’s (Saturday) clash at Leicester is now akin to a dressed rehearsal for the final.
The meeting at Redcar’s Ecco Arena went ahead in very tricky conditions, after a heavy shower, with the Redcar track staff doing sterling work to get the meeting on, with the aid of track covers.
It’s fair to say that the Redcar track was not at its best due to the weather and the action was largely determined by the second bend, with a large advantage to the team off gates 1 and 3 in each race. Redcar won the coin toss and wisely chose the option that gave them those gates in four of the six opening races.
Cheetahs found themselves floundering and Redcar shot into a 14-4 lead after three races, although Oxford skipper Scott Nicholls bucked the trend with a fine victory from the unfavourable outside gate in Heat 4.
Nicholls found himself hitting the wet Redcar shale on the opening bends of Heat 6, and was on the wrong side of a 5-1 in the re-run, as Redcar moved 25-11 ahead.
The turning point was Heat 7 – the first of four successive races where Cheetahs had gates 1 and 3. Jordan Jenkins and Lewis Kerr – both Redcar riders in 2022 – made a perfect start and romped away for a 5-1.
Team manager Peter Schroeck swapped his reserves in Heat 8 and Henry Atkins came in to join Cameron Heeps for another 5-1, while the previously unbeaten Danyon Hume trailed in last for Redcar.
Oxford No 1 Masters had finished a long way back in third in Heat 1, but had recovered with a fine heat win in Heat 5. Schroeck continued to play his tactics to perfection in Heat 9, when he introduced Masters as a tactical substitute. The Australian blazed from the start, while Nicholls rounded Connor Bailey on the fourth bend – the first overtaking move beyond the second bend and proof that the track was improving. Oxford’s third successive 5-1 reduced the gap to just two points.
Heat 10 saw Kerr out in front, with Redcar skipper Danny King in pursuit. King misjudged his passing manoeuvre on the second bend of the second lap and came down, with Jordan Jenkins promptly laying his bike down to avoid hitting the fallen King. King’s exclusion from the re-run raised hopes of a fourth successive 5-1 to Cheetahs, but Hume roared Jenkins on the back straight to salvage a 3-3 for Bears and stop the rot.
Masters won his third successive race in Heat 11, while Heeps rounded Redcar heat-header Erik Riss in fine style for third place, as Cheetahs levelled the scores at 33-33 – something that seemed inconceivable five races earlier.
Kerr had the tough outside gate in Heat 12 and was so keen to make a decent start from there, that was race was halted and he was given a warning for moving at the start. In the re-run, the Redcar pair trapped, but a determined Kerr passed them both on the opening lap, soon overhauling Connor Bailey, then pushing inside Jason Edwards in forceful style on the fourth bend.
Heat 13 was a stellar race, with Nicholls overhauling King on the opening lap and then resisting everything that King threw at him, with third-placed Masters also in the mix. Cheetahs took the lead for the first time at 40-38.
Cheetahs doubled their lead in Heat 14, although it was a 5-1 to Redcar from the start. But Edwards accidentally sent team-mate Kyle Howarth wide on the second bend, and Jenkins and Atkins roared through the gap. The tenacious Jenkins then moved inside Edwards on the second lap, as Cheetahs took a 4-2.
Oxford needed just two points from Heat 15 to complete a memorable victory. Hume deserved his place in the race for Redcar, but fell on the second bend, while attempting an outside pass on Masters and Nicholls. The Oxford pair then rode sensibly, filling the minor positions behind King to complete an amazing comeback.
Team manager Peter Schroeck said: “I couldn’t be any prouder of the lads. The track was very difficult at the beginning, and we lost the coin toss and had mostly outside gates early on, which wasn’t ideal.
“Some of the lads were tearing their hair out, so I got them together after the first set of races and reminded them that this isn’t the beginning of the season – it’s the end of the season and we had to get stuck in. They responded brilliantly and it’s one of the best comebacks I can remember. This is a tough place to come to, but when we started to come back at Redcar, we rattled them.
“If it’s a club record to win after being 14 points down, that’s nice. My job is to make the boys believe in themselves and they know I’ve got their back, but there’s only so much I can do, it’s then up to the boys on the track. Tonight was an awesome night, it’s one of the best nights of speedway for us so far in this memorable season.
“On Sunday, we need to keep it professional and make sure we beat Redcar at home, although they’ll be gunning for revenge, after what we’ve done to them tonight. We will treat them with full respect and look to complete the job over them.
“We would then go to Glasgow on Tuesday with our fate very much in our hands, but we’ll take it one step at a time and the next step is at home to Redcar on Sunday evening.”
Oxford skipper Scott Nicholls said: “It was definitely a character-building night. The conditions were tricky. Don’t get me wrong, it was the same for both teams. The gate choice favoured them early on and they were attacking the track early doors and maybe we weren’t and it was a wake-up call.
“Sometimes you can make too much of a deal on how gate choice affects a meeting, but tonight it definitely did and once we had a run of the inside gates, we came right back at them. Redcar were weaker with Charles Wright missing through injury, but the conditions levelled it right up and we had to work hard to pull the points back. We showed a lot of fight and determination.
“The boys were down and we could have easily thrown in the towel. But I’m really proud how we fought back – it showed a lot of character. It was an awesome performance from the team.
“I had a good battle against Danny King in Heat 13. He’s a gutsy rider and having a good year. I knew I had to be on it for four laps to beat him and I’m glad that I managed to hang on for the victory. We did enough between us for the win, which is awesome, and we want to keep it rolling into the home meeting against Redcar on Sunday.”
Cheetahs’ victory over Redcar made it two victories out of two in their play-off group. Their remaining fixtures are at home to Redcar on Sunday (5.30pm), before their concluding meeting is at Glasgow on Tuesday evening.
If Cheetahs defeat Bears at Oxford Stadium, they would need at 41 points at Glasgow to gain the aggregate bonus point to clinch their place in the play-off final, where their likely opponents are the Poole Pirates, who won 50-40 at Scunthorpe last night.
Redcar Bears 43: Danny King 10+1, Danyon Hume 8+1, Connor Bailey 6+2, Kyle Howarth 4+1, Erik Riss 3, Jason Edwards 10, Luke Harrison 2+1.
Monarch Oxford Cheetahs 47: Sam Masters 12+1, Cameron Heeps 4, Lewis Kerr 8+1, Jordan Jenkins 7+1, Scott Nicholls 11+1, Henry Atkins 5+1, Ashton Boughen 0.
PHOTO: Sam Masters and Scott Nicholls (PIC: STEVE EDMUNDS)