Edinburgh Monarchs speedway boss Alex Harkess has robustly defended his new look squad for this season, rejecting concerns among some supporters that the Capital outfit could struggle to hold their own in the Premier League in 2014.
However, Harkess did concede that Monarchs are “paying the price” for the success that No.1 Craig Cook enjoyed last year. Cook dominated the sport and as a consequence his sky-high average of almost eleven for the forthcoming campaign left Monarchs officials with precious little latitude in deciding his six other team-mates.
Three of Monarchs’ top five riders, Max Fricke, Aaron Fox and skipper Derek Sneddon, have averages of under six, leading to fears that their middle order – the engine room of any team – could be vulnerable, particularly away from home.
Harkess, while insisting it was inconceivable that Cook wouldn’t be back at Armadale, said: “The minute we chose to bring back Craig you have to accept that we have gone with riders on averages we believe they are capable of increasing.
“If that happens, I genuinely think we will do well.”
The retention of Sneddon has not been universally applauded. The Falkirk-based star struggled to hit the heights last season, and apart from two 16-point hauls at Sheffield and Ipswich, the Scot generally found points hard to come by.
“We are not looking at Derek to become a superstar,” said Harkess. “But he should maintain his average at least. You have to remember he won the team two matches on the road last season, but he needs to find a lot more consistency.”
Harkess added: “I don’t think anybody should drop their averages and a few should raise theirs. Craig has already stated he will push his up and that would definitely be a bonus given that he is just about as high in the tree in our league as you can get.”
Cook, pictured left, and Sam Masters will occupy two heat-leader berths but the third spot is up for grabs. However, with Max Fricke destined to ride at No.3 to partner Fox, 17-year-old Fricke is expected to assume that role despite his relative inexperience.
Fricke is ambitious but some fear if he stretches himself before he is ready, it could lead to mistakes.
However, Harkess points out: “Max knows what he is coming into this year, he knows all the tracks in the league now. I think he will be a completely different rider because he has come on in leaps and bounds.
“Last year was a big step up for him. No one will be pushing him to become our third heat leader, but knowing Max, it is something he will want to aim for, but in his own time.”
Cook was fairly vociferous in 2013 about the lack of support he received, feeling he had to go it alone more often than not, and it’s a refrain that could be repeated if things go awry.
Harkess said: “There is always pressure at the top because of the constant need to win races but I would like to think our middle order will produce the goods as the season goes on, which will ease the strain on Craig and Sam.
“But we are paying the penalty for taking Craig back on such a high average. We could have gone down the route of having two three-point riders’ at reserve which would have allowed more leeway in choosing the middle order, but it was considered too big a gamble.
“If you were to lose one of your reserves through injury, it is almost impossible to replace them if they are both on a three point figure; that’s something we discovered to our cost last year.
“And that’s why Steve Worrall, who is on a three-point average, has been paired with Justin Sedgemen, who comes in on a 4.99 mark – it’s a bit of a safety net. If Justin can get back to what he is capable of, then who knows, he could even push for the third heat-leader spot and has already indicated he is keen to do so.”
Meanwhile, Monarchs’ air fence fund has inflated to almost £12,000 over the last few weeks with 32 of the 33 panels which form the barrier now sponsored. The final cost is expected to be £20,000 and the air fence challenge matches against Glasgow Tigers, which will raise the curtain on Monarchs’ new season, is expected to close that gap.
A Monarchs spokesman said: “Obviously fundraising has been a bit quiet over the festive period but we expect momentum will gather pace again now. The total raised so far has been fantastic when you consider we only launched our appeal in late October.”