High flying Edinburgh Monarchs tonight begin their quest to land their first trophy of 2014 when they tackle Sheffield Tigers in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final at Armadale.
Monarchs stormed through their qualifying section without loss and Sheffield topped their group, and while that could be taken as a sign that the Yorkshire outfit could be poised to spring a major shock, the form book doesn’t lie and Monarchs start as red hot favourites to go through to face either Workington Comets or Peterborough Panthers in the final.
Monarchs team manager Alex Harkess certainly doesn’t consider Sheffield to be a potential banana skin for his squad, who have ripped up the record books this season by stringing together 16 matches unbeaten with nobody yet able to apply the brakes to a juggernaut powered by copious amounts of confidence and a refusal to even countenance defeat. But Harkess is unhappy that the League Cup competition has already fallen behind schedule in an already busy calendar for all teams in the Premier League.
He said: “I’m not sure when the actual final will take place, and if we are lucky enough to get through we will have to wait on the result of the other semi-final. The plan was for the League Cup to be over by now, but one or two rain-offs, plus a delay in knowing who the four semi-finalists would be, have caused a month’s delay already. I don’t know how long it will drag on for, but our aim is to make the final.”
Harkess agrees that Sheffield will be seen as very much the underdogs, saying: “You can never tell, of course. If two of our riders crashed in the first heat, you would have a problem – equally the same thing could happen to Sheffield.
“We will be entering the match hoping to get the biggest lead we can to take to Sheffield for the deciding leg.”
Sheffield currently prop up the Premier League, but it’s a false position due to the paucity of matches they have raced because of the weather, and this makes it hard to gauge their true form.
“They certainly have a very good No. 1,” said Harkess. “But what the rest of their team will do, I don’t really know. Some of their squad have had good and bad matches at Armadale. Andre Compton, who guested for Glasgow against us last week, was a former Scottish Open winner – but you’d never have guessed it from his performance.
“Our team will be thinking about nothing other than getting the job done as quickly as we can.”
Monarchs and their supporters are still walking on air following their dramatic last-heat victory at Newcastle Diamonds on Sunday, yet Harkess wasn’t entirely enamoured with the nail-biting display, observing: “I didn’t think we rode that well. It was one of our poorer performances. We were not gating as we have been and that meant we were on an even par with our opponents.
“However, the great thing about a successful team is coming up with a result when everything isn’t going your way.
“When everything is going well, it’s all wonderful. So to come away with a result when it wasn’t was quite remarkable.”
Despite suggestions that nobody will better Monarchs at all over the course of the whole season, Harkess is too wily to think such a feat is feasible. “We haven’t thought for one minute that we will go through the entire season unbeaten.
“There are hard matches ahead and some very good teams that we have to face away from home. But we still go everywhere aiming to leave with something, whether it be one point or four.”
Aussie Sam Masters, who partnered Craig Cook to a brilliant and pivotal 5-1 in heat 13 at Newcastle, which paved the way for Monarchs’ eventual 45-44 triumph, is in no doubt Sheffield Tigers will be tamed.
“I think we’ll beat them,” he said. “The main thing is we get a big lead to take down to Sheffield, so we must make our home leg count and I think we will. Everybody was buzzing after Newcastle – we just never gave up and the way all the guys stuck together was amazing.
“We want to make the final and don’t fear anybody if we make it through.”
Monarchs will be without Max Fricke, who is riding for Australia in the World Under-21 Team Championship, and Sheffield are missing new signing Ty Proctor, who has been called upon to race for Wolverhampton in the Elite League.
Monarchs will also track a guest replacement for the injured Aaron Fox, who remains sidelined with a thigh injury but is expected to return to the saddle against Plymouth Devils next Friday.