“We are in a tough group, but an open group,” declared Edinburgh Monarchs’ team manager Alex Harkess as he prepares to lead his side into the defence of their League Cup speedway crown at Armadale tonight.
Monarchs face a solid-looking Workington Comets team as they open their qualifying campaign, but with a resurgent Glasgow Tigers sitting top of the table after home and away victories over Berwick Bandits last weekend, the capital outfit are going to have work hard to secure their spot in the semi-finals.
And Harkess agreed that Monarchs’ other group challengers all fancy their chances of progressing to the last four. Harkess told the Evening News: “We are in a tough-looking section. Glasgow think they will do well, as will Workington. Berwick probably also thought the same until they lost against Glasgow, but they are not that far away and did pick up a point in the return meeting against Glasgow at Ashfield.
“Berwick were in control of their home tie with Glasgow and should have won. Therefore I think every match in our group will be very tight.”
Asked if Monarchs were already feeling the heat with Glasgow having six points in the bag, Harkess replied: “We don’t think like that. We have got three away matches to go and we’ll see what happens. Glasgow have got to come to us, but will they pick up anything? Who knows. Will they get anything at Workington? We might, and we might also collect something at Berwick tomorrow night. It’s far too early to think about feeling pressure, though as the current cup holders we know everybody else will be out to get us.”
Harkess added: “In a small group like ours you have always got to try and pick up a win away from home. Glasgow have already done that and have made a good start for sure.”
The Bandits may be perceived as the weakest of the candidates given that they lost their new No.1 Ben Barker with injury in his first match. However, the Englishman is now back in the saddle, but unfortunately the Bandits were hit by a fresh blow this week losing their new Slovenian ace Matic Voldrih with a broken leg after he crashed in the first round of his National Championship in Krsko.
“Glasgow got a bit lucky at Berwick,” said Harkess. “They used a tactical ride to get back in the match after going 12 points down at one stage. Berwick will look at themselves, because they were poor in the second half.”
The open spaces of Shielfield Park may suit Monarchs’ young German star Erik Riss, who is still trying to adjust to the smaller confines of Armadale. Harkess said: “Berwick should favour him, and he’s not the world long-track champion for nothing. He should do all right, and I’ll be disappointed, as a team, if we have a low score.”
Workington, in theory, should give Monarchs a stiff examination. The Comets retained the Ian Thomas Trophy over two legs against Newcastle last Sunday and team manager Tony Jackson said: “That gave us a nice lift ahead of our official fixtures, but we know how hard it will be against Edinburgh, who are so strong round their own track.”
Monarchs opened their Lothian Arena campaign by retaining the Spring Trophy against Glasgow seven days ago and Harkess was happy with his side’s display, while confessing: “It was difficult for our new riders’ because the track wasn’t what they were expecting due to the heavy rain earlier in the day.
“It was a bit iffy to start with and Erik struggled in the wet conditions. But he practised extensively after the match and has also been practising this week to move forward. And he is determined enough to work things out.
“But Kevin Wolbert’s failure to win any races was disappointing for him and left the No.3 and 4 pairing pretty weak. Kevin needs to sort his equipment out. The new engines he had been expecting didn’t arrive, but he should have them for tonight.”
Monarchs will be wary of their short trip to the Borders bearing in mind that Berwick were one of the few teams to beat them during their record-breaking march to the league championship last year.
“Losing Barker was an early setback for Berwick,” said Harkess, “because they were dependent on guests. If a guest scores 14 or 15 then you don’t really miss the rider he is replacing, but if a guest only gets six or seven it’s a different story. And now they have Voldrih sidelined, Berwick are certainly not enjoying the best of fortune.”
This will not unduly concern Monarchs, who don’t have an great record in the Borders, but they know what they must do over the next three weeks to book their spot in the semi-finals.