Edinburgh Monarchs gear up for their official practice session at Armadale on Friday, but team manager Alex Harkess concedes winning the Premier League championship title for a third time in a row is “a big mountain to climb”.
“It is in speedway terms because the regulations make it hard to win it twice in succession,” said Harkes. “Three times is so much more difficult especially when you consider that Craig Cook will not be coming back this year.
“And we also had to de-strengthen our squad but that’s the price you pay for being so successful in 2015.”
It goes without saying that there is a high expectancy on Monarchs to defend their crown and the underlying key to that has always been to choose riders who have the capability and potential to increase their starting averages.
It’s a template Monarchs have placed great faith in. Harkess explained: “We always work on that pretence every year and we have to look at the fact that everyone is capable of raising their average. That is a possibility. The prospect of all seven doing it are low. But if five of our team can achieve it we will be there or thereabouts at the end of the season, and that’s exactly what we must do. A top-six finish and the play-offs is our aim, as it always is.”
Cook’s victory in the Ben Fund Bonanza meeting at King’s Lynn last weekend will have reminded everybody that his departure has left some supporters bereft. However, Harkess disputes suggestions that Cook will continue to cast a long shadow over Armadale.
“I don’t see that at all. Bearing in mind that Sam (Masters) moved to No.1 for a spell last season and stayed there for a couple of months. Sam is capable of doing that again. Craig went through a spell last season when he wasn’t at the top of his game, though he came back and put in a strong finish to his campaign.
“The pressure may have told on Sam only because Craig was there and he wanted his No.1 position back again.
“Being No.1 is a mantle Sam has to take over on his own this season. The shadow of Craig has gone.”
It’s fair to say that many of Monarchs’ Premier League rivals were gleeful when Cook’s decision to ride in the Elite League with Bellevue full-time was revealed, with many envisaging Monarchs being more vulnerable now with their talismanic star no longer around to torment them.
Harkess says: “Of course, our rivals are entitled to think that. Having someone like Craig in your team who is capable of winning four of his five races home and away is such a huge advantage. And a lot of other teams will be delighted he is gone and don’t have to fight against him. But it was inevitable Craig would move on. It was not a shock, we knew about it for a while.”
Having mopped up silverware in 2014 and 2015, Harkess agreed that the Capital club may be forced to take a “hit” this term. “You can’t expect to win every trophy ever year,” he said. “You don’t have any right on that sort of expectation.
“But we could do it, not at the start of the season. However, if we build up a winning momentum as the weeks pass who knows what we will achieve.”
Asked whether the returning Ryan Fisher, who won two league medals with Monarchs during his previous spell at Armadale, could be the catalyst for more glory, Harkess replied: “Ryan is a bit like Justin Sedgmen – you know what he is capable of but has not been showing it lately. We must try to get Ryan back to a level he was at previously.
“Erik Riss could be our trump card. He bumped up his average to over five in 2015 and if he can push on to attain a six or seven point figure, that would be absolutely tremendous.”
Monarchs will be the chief targets for all their rivals who have resented their success next season and Harkess revealed: “There are some southern sides who hate Edinburgh. In fact, you don’t have to go that far south to find people who hate Edinburgh. But that goes with the territory.
Meanwhile, Monarchs will fill their final No.7 berth after watching a number of prospective candidates go through their paces on Friday evening.