WHATEVER happens in the National League Grand Final next week – with the WSRA Oxford Chargers pitted against Leicester Lion Cubs – we can reflect on a tremendous 2023 season for Oxford Speedway.
In modern speedway, success is often defined by whether a team has picked up silverware in the end-of-season play-offs. But, in reality, it’s much more than that.
The real success is whether the team – or teams in the case of Oxford Speedway, where we have both the Cheetahs and Chargers – has been there-or-thereabouts for the whole season, has provided top-notch entertainment, and whether the team has been well supported by good-sized crowds.
Under the above terms, the Monarch Oxford Cheetahs enjoyed a very successful 2023 season, no matter the events at Glasgow last Tuesday.
Of course, it would have been brilliant had Cheetahs won their play-off group and it would have been us, rather than Glasgow, who were fighting it out with the Poole Pirates this week to determine who ends the season as league champions. But every club wants that, and only one team can win the championship each season.
A great deal of factors has to come together to win the play-offs – and a major one is luck. Even Glasgow skipper Chris Harris admits Cheetahs were unlucky at the Peugeot Ashfield Stadium.
Quite often, a meeting can turn in one race. We saw that at Glasgow. Many referees would have excluded Ace Pijper when he fell on the first bend of Heat 12. But he wasn’t, Lee Complin came into the re-run in his place and took a key 5-1 that arguably changed the whole complexion of the match.
That’s not to say the destination of the bonus point was decided by that one race – of course, it was decided over 30 heats. It’s also not to say the referee was at fault, he made his decision as he saw it, and that’s all he can do. But it just shows the minor details that can play a part in winning a league title or not.
Congratulations to Poole and Glasgow on reaching the final and may the best team win the title at Wimborne Road tonight.
As for Cheetahs, it has been quite a season. You only have to look at our league record in our standard Cab Direct Championship matches. Thirteen wins out of sixteen, including all eight fixtures at Sandy Lane, and also in five of eight meetings on the road. All eight aggregate bonus points, which meant we dropped just six points out of 40 in total, and we finished a single point behind Poole in the final table. That’s a pretty fine record, however you look at it.
Here’s the stats for Monarch Cheetahs for the complete season, including the home challenge match against Swindon, which attracted a bumper crowd. Twenty-nine meetings. Twenty-one wins. One draw (in the cup match at Edinburgh, where a Superheat wasn’t applicable, since Cheetahs were already through on aggregate). Just seven defeats, while only three other sides – Poole, Glasgow and Redcar – managed to defeat Cheetahs all season.
There’s also a bigger picture. I think Oxford fans are well aware of that, having only got our speedway back in 2022, after a 15-year-hiatus. We can currently feel the pain of Wolverhampton and Peterborough fans, because we know what it feels like to lose your speedway team. We can also point out to them it’s not necessarily forever.
Just as Kevin Boothby and Jamie Courntney brought back speedway to Oxford Stadium, and it’s proved a great success, it can happen elsewhere too.
In 2022, our first season back, it was simply about the return of speedway to Sandy Lane. It didn’t matter that Cheetahs were stranded towards the bottom of the table, although huge boosts were provided by Chargers reaching their play-offs and Jordan Jenkins winning the NLRC at Scunthorpe. Incidentally, the loss of JJ after a seemingly innocuous fall against Redcar at Cowley is another demonstration of how luck can play its part – 99% of the time he would have been fine after a spill like that.
In contrast to last year, the 2023 season has seen a Cheetahs side who were highly competitive and could never be written off either home or away. We saw so many times a tremendous team spirit to pull together in the final stages of meetings – there’s always been 100% commitment from skipper Scott Nicholls, No 1 Sam Masters and the whole team.
There was the exciting victory at Scunthorpe, concluding in a 5-4 for Lewi and Scott in the Superheat; winning at Berwick despite Lewi crashing out in Heat 1; a similar backs-to-the-wall home victory over Glasgow after guest Rory Schlein was injured with Jordan bravely continuing in the meeting despite feeling far from 100%; Sam and Scott (on Sam’s second bike) concluding a great rearguard performance to snatch the bonus point with a 5-1 in Heat 15 at Poole; the various heroics of Jordan, Henry and Cam in Heat 14 of many matches; Cheetahs often doing the business in the closing stages at Cowley; and the remarkable turn-around in the play-off meeting at Redcar where the team re-wrote the club record books by coming from 14 points down to win by 47-43.
There’s also a very obvious youth policy put in operation at Oxford by team manager Peter Schroeck and promoter Jamie Courtney, and it’s already started to pay major dividends. Much of Cheetahs’ success this season was based on Henry more than doubling his 2.00 starting figure.
With the likes of Jordan, Henry, Luke, Ashton and Jody, we’ve clearly got a set of talented young riders who could be the mainstays of Oxford Speedway for many years to come.
In a way, Cheetahs winning the league title in 2023 would have been almost too much too soon. Danny Dunton was Oxford promoter for over a decade in the sixties and seventies and was also boss at Peterborough. I once spoke to Panthers’ legend Brian Clark, who said: “Danny was always interested in Peterborough being a successful club. He always wanted us to be in the top three or four, although he didn’t actually want to win it. He told me: ‘There’s too many clubs in the past who have won the league and then gone downhill after that, because there’s then nothing else to ride for’. He had a point.”
I’m not saying I don’t want Cheetahs to win the league title – I do. It’s just that the club now has something to build towards for the 2024 season and beyond. Winning a league title is never easy, and losing out this year will only make it all the sweeter when silverware does come the way of the Cheetahs.
And there’s also, of course, one team who can still win their league title in 2023 – the WSRA Oxford Chargers powered by SD Timmo Car Sales.
Like Cheetahs, the Chargers had a highly successful season, with 11 wins of our 14 in the National League, including all seven meetings at home.
Chargers have also shown tremendous spirit across the season. A major blow was Nathan being ruled out before competing in a single meeting for Chargers, but Ryan has proved a fine replacement. Luke also missed half the season, but Chargers continued firing in the results while he was out, with Sam Woods never putting in anything less than 100% as an unattached replacement. Kelsey Dugard came into the side, but was also injured, which paved the way for Jason to ride for his local club.
Chargers’ spirit was never more in evidence than the 46-44 victory at Berwick, where the whole team chipped in – including Jody stealing a point on the line in one race – and concluding with Jordan and Henry taking a 5-1 over the previously unbeaten Connor Coles in Heat 15. Meanwhile, it’s been a pleasure to see the likes of Jody and Jacob grow as riders across the 14 meetings for Chargers.
It would put the cherry on top of the cake for this season if Chargers can win against Leicester Lion Cubs. The two sides seem to be perfectly matched – you only have to look at the 89-88 aggregate score across the regular league matches to realise that.
Chargers are fortunate to be perhaps the best supported team in the National League in terms of crowd numbers. It’s been really pleasing how many Oxford fans have attended Chargers’ meetings at Cowley.
But the crowds for Cheetahs are undeniably higher. If you’re one of those supporters who has yet the experience the thrills and spills of National League racing – and the sheer skill of the young riders on display – then don’t miss the first leg of the Grand Final at Cowley against Leicester next Wednesday (October 18), because it promises to be a belter.
PHOTO: 2023 WSRA Oxford Chargers powered by SD Timmo Car Sales – and all three club mascots! Back row: Peter Schroeck (team manager), Henry Atkins, Ryan Kinsley, Jordan Jenkins (on bike), Jason Garrad, Jacob Clouting and Jayden Clarke. Front row: Jody Scott, Ruben Courtney, Chloe Davis and Luke Killeen (PIC BY STEVE EDMUNDS)