Team manager Alex Harkess today insisted Edinburgh Monarchs’ speedway season was far from a write-off despite seeing them surrender their grip on the Premier League championship crown.
Harkess does concede, though, that, gauged against their triumphant silverware juggernaut of 2014 and 2015 when they dominated the sport’s second tier, this year’s title defence had been “disappointing”.
Harkess said: “We finished fourth in the league table to make the play-offs again. And many other sides would have been very happy to have achieved that.
“We got through to the latter stages of every other competition with the exception of the League Cup at the start of the season when a home defeat by Berwick Bandits in our qualifying section led to our elimination.
“But, by our own standards – and this is how this club is judged nowadays – it was a disappointing year. It was unfortunate how things panned out and the weather dictated everything for us.
“Nine rain-offs stopped us picking up any momentum and gave us so many various track conditions to ride on.
“As a result, when we brought new riders into the team, it was a real struggle for them. No matter who they were they faced a different Armadale track every week through no fault of their own.
“It had a huge bearing on our home season but these are the things you have to overcome and we did not overcome them well enough.”
Monarchs entered the season at a disadvantage following the not-unexpected departure of talismanic skipper Craig Cook and Justin Sedgmen, who were scoring pathfinders the previous year as Monarchs scooped their fifth championship crown.
Their absence cast a long shadow and lumbered Monarchs wth a sizeable headache in terms of filling the huge void the duo left.
“It was a pretty major thing for us,” admitted Harkess. “Purely because of the changes we had to make to replace them.
“We had no choice and there was no regret about it. However, it did mean early in the season it proved difficult for some of our new riders to make their mark because they required time to settle in and the weather disrupted that.”
Harkess continued: “By the end of the season, things were certainly starting to come together. And, had Dan Bewley not been injured in August, we might still have been involved in every major competition. He proved impossible to replace due to the level of performance he was producing at reserve.”
Monarchs’ 2016 squad was assembled with a strong emphasis on their top four of Sam Masters, Kevin Wolbert, Ryan Fisher, and Erik Riss shouldering the scoring burden. It was a weighty expectation which wasn’t executed on a consistent enough basis.
Harkess said: “It was very simple when everybody produced to their capabilities the team were absolutely fine but not everybody produced their best all the time. When that happened you then had to rely on others to pull you through and it didn’t always work.
“It affected us in one or two matches in particular.
“Our meeting at Ipswich Witches for example, which knocked us out of the play-off quarter finals, was a setback because not enough of our team produced the goods on the night to give us a reasonable first leg score and that was regrettable and came back to haunt us.”
The portents for success in what Monarchs described as a” transitional year” are often crystallised by early season preparation. Yet with a week to go before they opened Monarchs still hadn’t completed their starting septet.
This tardiness was greeted with alacrity by some supporters, who felt Monarchs waited an age for Aussie ace Mitchell Davey to receive his passport in order to fill the vacant No.7 role and then proved ineligible for inclusion which forced Monarchs to hold an open night at the track for alternative candidates. They struck lucky when Bewley impressed and signed on the dotted line And Harkesss insists as a consequence there was much to enthuse about from Bewley and senior reserve Max Clegg as they began to dominate their rivals at the tail-end.
He said: “Max got better over the final weeks of the season and Dan remains probably the best prospect in British speedway.
“He is still to fulfil that promise but it’s early days yet.”
And it’s no secret Monarchs want Bewley on their roster for 2017.
For skipper Masters, following in Cook’s gold-plated tyre tracks could have proved daunting, if not impossible. Harkess paid tribute to the magnificent job and exemplary leadership the Aussie displayed in his role as the club’s No.1
“Sam was superb all the way through,” said Harkess. “He took over from Craig and filled his shoes make no mistake about that.
“He was an outstanding performer.”
And the Monarchs gaffer revealed that Masters looks set to to remain in the Premier League next season despite speculation to the contrary.
“It would be wrong to suggest he won’t be back because I don’t think that is the case and it’s not fair comment.
“We will be very happy to have Sam back although he is not our asset. There there is no reason to suggest Sam won’t remain in the Premier League.”
Monarchs are already formulating their plans for next season with rumours suggesting brothers Mark and Erik Riss have agreed to return, and Harkess added: “It is virtually impossible to bring back the same team in speedway every year – even if you finish fourth in the league.
“We know what we want to do but have to wait and see what the overall team points limit is going to be first of all.
“You can’t have success every year. It is a lovely thought and it would be nice. The triumphs we enjoyed two years running caused some resentment and it’s already been said it will be nice to have a new name on the league trophy this week. But it will be the wrong name, it should be ours!”