Covid-19 lock-down leaves Edinburgh Monarchs waiting for tapes to go up on 2020 speedway season

EVEN just a few short months ago, the Capital’s speedway fans, like those of all other teams be they football, rugby and everything in between, could hardly have imagined they’d be facing life without seeing their sporting heroes going into action.

Saturday, 28th March 2020, 3:52 pm
Ian Hoskins
Ian Hoskins

Now with the 2020 speedway season suspended until mid-June, supporters face a long wait to see the new Edinburgh ‘What The Fork’ Monarchs squad in action - the first meeting of the year was originally planned to be raced last Friday.

Disappointing as the delay is, a quick look back through the clubs history reveals it’s not the first time the club, which now races out of Armadale Stadium in West Lothian, have found themselves on the wrong end of a hiatus.

The Edinburgh Monarchs first raced at Old Meadowbank, the then home of Leith Athletic Football Club, in the 1950s. Old Meadowbank sat on the site currently being redeveloped to the right of the new sports centre, Edinburgh Monarchs were first lost to the city in 1954 when, controversially, the post-war entertainment tax was applied to the sport, making it no longer financially viable.

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Edinburgh Monarchs v arch rivals Glasgow Tigers at Old Meadowbank

It returned to the same venue six years later and fans once more turned out in their thousands between 1960 and 1967 when speedway once again disappeared from the city, this time for 12 years, as Old Meadowbank closed and was demolished to make way for the 1970 Commonwealth cycle track. Speedway returned to the Capital in 1977 when Powderhall became the home of the boys in blue and gold, before moving to Armadale in 1997.

So as the current promotion await permission for the tapes to go up on another season, what better time to recall one of the larger-than-life characters from the Monarchs history, the man widely responsible for putting Edinburgh speedway on the map... well, his dad Johnnie did invent the sport. Now 96-years-young, Ian Hoskins believed in having ‘flaming good fun’ at his speedway tracks, hence the image of him desperately trying to blow out the flames engulfing his hat.

It’s a sight that would be familiar to the thousands who flocked to cheer on the Monarchs at Meadowbank in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, Hoskins decided against eating his hat if his team were defeated... he just set it on fire instead. Unfortunately for the city’s speedway fans – but more fortunate for his milliner – the burning of Hoskins’ trademark pork pie hat became something of a regular occurrence. Not that he was remotely bitter about it.

“I have always believed that speedway is more than just a sport, it’s an entertainment,” insisted Hoskins, who was promoter of the Edinburgh Monarchs throughout the swinging sixties.

Current Edinburgh Monarchs riders Richie Worrall and Josh Pickering

“After all, if you’ve had a boring meeting you have to give the crowd something to remember. So I’d put on interval attractions. That way if their team had been hammered the fans might forget the fact that they’d been beaten.”

While those attractions included beauty pageants, bicycle racing and donkey derbies, the one the crowd most wanted to see was his flammable hat.

“On average I got through one hat a week. The riders would grab it, pour methanol on it and set it alight. The crowd loved it. When speedway closed down, Dunn and Co the hat makers went broke,” he recalled with a laugh.

Hoskins, now lives in New Zealand, where latterly he tried his hand as an author, has certainly had a colourful life; fighter pilot, cinema manager, actor and playwright all feature on his CV.

But it’s as one of the country most flamboyant sports promoters that Hoskins is best remembered. He promoted the Monarchs from 1960 to 1967, but his involvement with the speedway scene pre-dated that spell by 12 years. The problem was, at the time he also owned the team that, to this day, are Edinburgh’s greatest rivals.

Following in his father’s tyre tracks, Hoskins took control of his first team, the Glasgow Tigers, in 1946, at the age of 21. He recalls, “In 1946 and 1947 we got really big crowds in Glasgow, so I decided that we should try to get a team in Edinburgh. At the close of the 1947 season I chartered an aeroplane and pilot and flew over Edinburgh. It was the quickest way to discover if there was a suitable venue. I saw the Leith Athletic ground and thought ‘that’s an interesting place’.”

That “interesting place” turned out to be the Old Meadowbank Stadium. “I arranged to bring speedway there the following year,” he recalls.

Speedway originally ran at Old Meadowbank, with the Hoskins family keeping a low profile, until 1954, when the post-war entertainment tax started to make the sport unprofitable.

Six years later, it was a different story when, with the tax scrapped, Hoskins reintroduced the sport to Old Meadowbank.

This time Hoskins himself was in the spotlight although that could be a double-edged sword as he discovered in 1963 when British speedway suffered one of its darkest hours. On September 20, former world champion Peter Craven crashed at high speed while attempting to pass Monarchs rider George Hunter on the last lap. As reported at the time, Craven had already won his first three races when Hoskins asked him to take a 20-yard handicap in his last heat to give fans a chance to see his legendary passing skills. Craven, it is said, agreed, although match reports suggest that he did actually start level with the other riders at the gate. Having passed two of his three opponents, Craven crashed while attempting to take the lead from Hunter. He died four days later in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

“The Peter Craven disaster,” Hoskins reflected quietly, “makes you realise that speedway is indeed a dangerous sport.”

When the Monarchs were turfed out of Old Meadowbank at the end of 1967 to allow the stadium to be re-developed for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, Hoskins took his team to Coatbridge for two years after a request to race at Powderhall had been turned down - although the stadium would later become the Monarchs’ home from 1977 to 1995.

Since 1997, Monarchs have raced at Armadale Stadium, where they have enjoyed their biggest successes with five League Championships to their credit. The team won the coveted trophy in 2003, 2008, 2010 and back to back in 2014 and 2015.

Could 2020 see a return to that form? We will have to wait and see what happens when the new squad, Sam Masters, Josh Pickering, William Lawson, James Sarjeant, Richie Worrall, Kye Thomson and Lasse Fredriksen finally take to the track.

Monarchs’ chairman Alex Harkess reflects the thoughts of the whole of Edinburgh speedway family when he says of the Covid-19 delay, “This is not the news any speedway fan would have hoped for... but the most important thing is that we all follow the government advice to stay home and to stay safe.”

In the meantime, fans can get their weekly fix of speedway at www.edinburghmonarchs.co.uk every Friday at 7.30pm, where EMTV: Rewind will see some of the club’s most exciting matches of the past rerun online.

Speedway will return to Armadale Stadium, Fridays, later in the year