Derek Sneddon once again skippers Edinburgh Monarchs into the new speedway season which begins at Armadale tomorrow night with a challenge clash against Glasgow Tigers.
However, the 31-year-old Scot today admitted he thought he would be axed at the end of last season after his form was blighted by inconsistency.
And while Sneddon says he is “over the moon” to be wearing his Monarchs race jacket for 2014, he said all eyes will be on him over the coming months.
Presiding over a squad which shows four changes from a year ago, Sneddon told the Evening News: “I personally did not think that the team needed any changes but felt there would be a couple of new signings simply because of the averages.
“I was 95 per cent certain that I would not be back at Edinburgh and when John Campbell offered me a team place I thought he was phoning to tell me I was free to go elsewhere. Because of my inconsistent scoring last season I would not have been surprised had that been the case as other riders in the team rode better than me.
“I’m over the moon to be back.
“In an ideal world, had we kept the team that took to the track last season, I would have been happy and so would the fans. But that is not how speedway works – it’s a numbers game and changes had to be made.
“Monarchs have gone in a certain direction for this season, and I can see no reason why we shouldn’t be successful.”
Sneddon’s rollercoaster scoring produced some stinging criticism from the terraces, and the Falkirk-based star was candid in explaining some of the reasons behind his malaise. “Things behind the scenes were happening to my personal life and I also had to organise my testimonial meeting and that put a big strain on things. This year, those issues are not in my life any more and I can concentrate 100 per cent on my speedway. I have made big changes over the winter in terms of my fitness and my machinery is better than it’s ever been.
“I know it’s a big year for me and I know I need to improve on last season. And I have done everything I can to give myself the best opportunity to succeed.
“Of course, there is great expectancy on me and I’m aware that Jozsef Tabaka is sitting on the sidelines and could come into the team at any time if things go wrong.
“I’m here to do a job and nobody is putting any more pressure on me than myself. I know all eyes will be on me.”
Sneddon’s fitness regime will have surprised many given his trim build, but he pointed out: “I still thought I could get away with doing things I did as a teenager, but discovered, now that I’m in my 30s, I could not. And perhaps I should have paid more attention to my fitness and what I was eating. I looked at Craig (Cook) and other guys and realised that fitness plays a big part in our sport but I had never looked at that before.”
The Capital outfit certainly has a revamped look with a quartet of new faces who are: Aaron Fox, Sam Masters, Steve Worrall and Justin Sedgemen. However, Sneddon does not think such an influx of fresh blood will cause any major problems.
“It’s probably a good thing for the club. You never want to see anyone leave but sometimes a freshen-up can work wonders, and already there is plenty banter among the boys.”
Sneddon added: “Perhaps it may be tougher for Aaron to be coming straight into the side. But we will all rally round him and help him if it’s needed.
One priority for Sneddon is to shore up the leakage of points Monarchs dropped at home in 2013. “I cannot pinpoint exactly why that happened. Perhaps it was the switching of the starting gate and a shorter run into the first corner.
“Visiting teams seemed to adapt to it a lot quicker than we did. Perhaps we over thought it, but we need to make sure we are dominant once more at home – you cannot afford to be weak round your own track.”
Some bookmakers have already installed Monarchs as favourites to win the league, but Sneddon urged caution: “We have not turned a wheel in anger yet so it’s impossible to predict what we will do – so much can go wrong in terms of injuries and other things.
“We are aiming to make the play-offs again and, if we do, we’ll take it from there.”
Craig Cook: Born Whitehaven, age 26. Monarchs’ No.1 has already won the Ben Fund Bonanza meeting this season and while admitting that his 10.52 starting average will be hard to improve upon, he looks destined to top the Monarchs’ scorecharts again. It could be his final season in the Premier League and a championship title would be a perfect swansong.
Sam Masters: Born Newcastle, New South Wales, age 23. Should have turned out for Monarchs a year ago but a visa wrangle kept him at home. He is determined to regain the form which saw him capture the Premier League Riders’ crown in 2011 and how he performs could be critical in mapping out Monarchs’ fortunes this year.
Derek Sneddon: Born Falkirk, age 31. Sneddon enjoyed some mixed scores in 2013 and was never able to give a true account of himself. He realises that he will be under intense scrutiny but is confident that he can rediscover the form which eluded him for so much of last season.
Max Fricke: Born Victoria, Australia, age 18. Fricke is a rider on everyone’s lips and the successful defence of his Aussie Under-21 title in the winter underlined the untapped potential he possesses. He will take on a bit more responsibility in the Monarchs team and is also planning to race in Denmark and Poland in addition to the World Under-21 qualifier.
Aaron Fox: Born California, age 26. His signing was one nobody saw coming and was recommended to Monarchs by their American contacts. He had always wanted to ride in the UK, then changed his mind for a while, eventually deciding this was the career path for him. His previous UK appearances were on short visits – but he’s in it for the long haul in his debut season at Premier League level.
Justin Sedgemen: Born Mildura, Australia, age 22. Like Masters, stayed at home in 2013, but has previous experience in the UK at Elite and Premier League level. He is probably a bit of an under achiever and feels his decision to join Monarchs will afford him the opportunity to show his true talent and push his average up.
Steve Worrall: Born St Helens, age 23. Scored 12 points guesting for Ipswich at reserve against Monarchs last season, which prompted Monarchs to snap him up despite fierce competition from other clubs. Coming into the team on a three point mark, Worrall looks an absolute steal and if he doesn’t progress and add a couple of points to his average, it will be a major surprise.