Edinburgh Monarchs’ squad gamble is paying off

Unfancied at the start of the campaign, Edinburgh Monarchs have confounded all expectations so far this season and the Armadale outfit have all but sealed their place in the play-offs with several weeks to spare

Unfancied at the start of the campaign, Edinburgh Monarchs have confounded all expectations so far this season and the Armadale outfit have all but sealed their place in the play-offs with several weeks to spare

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Speedway may still be derided by some as a dirty and noisy sport, but Edinburgh Monarchs have cleaned up on the track since the season began back in March and look set to deliver a fourth national championship title for their supporters.

And they now have in their sights the existing Premier League record set by Arena Essex in 1991 of 23 matches without loss which no team in the modern era has come close to breaking.

Monarchs’ current status as the most talked-about side in the country is remarkable for the simple reason that when they unveiled their septet for the 2014 campaign, it wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm. In fact, it was even suggested they could struggle to reach the end of season play-offs. However, as they look down from the top of the Premier League, Monarchs have virtually sealed their place with weeks to spare.

Team manager Alex Harkess agreed that the squad did not ignite everyone’s imagination at first and recalled: “It did receive a mixed response because one or two riders were of an unknown quantity and no one was sure what they might produce. Aaron Fox had never been here before and Justin Sedgmen left Britain under a cloud in 2012 and did not do that well back then.

“The question was asked: ‘why did we want to bring him back?’ We thought he had the potential to increase his average and the stories coming out of Australia suggested he was riding very well over there. Therefore we felt, because he would start off at reserve, we couldn’t go wrong. Equally, Steve Worrall was a three-point rider. Who would believe that now [he was dropped by Newcastle last year].

“Steve guested for Ipswich against us at the end of 2013 and scored double figures, so we thought if he could do that once he could do it again, and so it’s proved.”

Monarchs suffered a setback even before the season started when Hungarian star Jozsef Tabaka, who broke his leg in the play-off Grand Final against Somerset Rebel in October, was ruled out of this year’s line-up, forcing Monarchs to alter their team-building blueprint.

“Jozsef was always in our original plans,” said Harkess, “and had he not been injured, he would have been signed up before he went home, but doubts over his injury surfaced very early. It was a major leg-break he suffered and he simply was not going to be ready for the start of the season.”

Monarchs stepped into the unknown when they unveiled Fox, a quietly-spoken Californian who had toyed with the idea of riding in the UK before, but then changed his mind. Said Harkess: “Aaron was a gamble, but he came highly recommended and he wasn’t riding on a knife edge. He could control a bike. He has found the switch to team racing and the lifestyle here quite a challenge.

“Previously he competed in individual meetings, and if you had a bad night, you just went home without upsetting anybody, but he is now beginning to repay the faith we showed in him and has shown if he gets out of the gate he is hard to beat.”

Asked if one match was the catalyst which set Monarchs on their unbeaten journey, Harkess replied: “I think it was our early League Cup win at Workington Comets, who were a side tipped by many as potential league champions at the time, and may still be. Yet we dominated them on their own track, nd we believed when we did that we were capable of doing it anywhere and now we go to every match believing we can take something out of it.”

Monarchs’ ascendancy, which has not prompted BBC Scotland or STV to give them any air time – “that’s a tough nut to crack,” opined Harkess – has seen crowds rise by 15 per cent at Armadale. However, the increase has not been sustained.

“June has been disappointing, but hopefully they will pick up again,” said Harkess.

“The previous three months were very good and with the success the team are enjoying, we need that to happen again. It could be a problem if our crowds drop dramatically because you would fall below a break even figure.”

And despite some jocularity about Monarchs finding the cash machine empty due to a spiralling riders’ wage bill, Harkess added: “At the end of the day we put this team together and they are only doing what we pay them to do and that is to go out and win matches.

“You can’t criticise them for that! But it is disappointing to see the successful side we have got, and getting poor crowds coming along to see them.”

Harkess ended by saying Monarchs are not going change their philosophy over the second half of the season, pointing out: “You get nothing for winning the league by 20 points – it only gets you into the play-offs. It’s not as if we can wrap up the league by August.

“Teams who get into the play-offs by finishing fifth or sixth in the table will be back on a level playing field with ourselves. The hard work is still to come.”