Picture courtesy of Steve Dixon
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By Derek Barclay
It was another meeting of high drama, thrills, spills, injury set-backs and a comeback from behind to take the National League [NL] points in a de facto last heat ‘decider' last night (Monday 15th July) - it was frankly business as usual at Kent Speedway.
In a season where the race for the top four is going to be more competitive than ever and surely go down to the wire, third in the table going into the match (Kent TouchTec Kings) vs. fourth (Cradley Heathens) always had the feel of a pivotal meeting in that race and so it may well prove. A four point win in a truncated 13 heat match in favour of the beleaguered hosts (41-37) may then prove vital but equally so may be the ‘bonus' point taken away by the visitors - though there was a sour taste in the mouth left by the tactics employed at the death to secure that additional point.
More of that later - it was the start of proceedings which essentially defined this match and again it was savage misfortune afflicting Chris Hunt's already depleted ranks. Heat one saw newly-installed number one Anders Rowe on track with recently returned from injury Alex Spooner taking on the West Midlanders' Max Clegg and former Kings' rider, the largely unheralded Luke Harris. For once Rowe wasn't fastest out of the traps - as the Cradley pair stormed to the front. The stand-in Kings' skipper got past Clegg but Harris was holding on when at the back, Spooner crashed heavily on the home straight, landing with a sickening thud on that already troublesome shoulder. The race awarded to give the visitors an early advantage - the concern was for Spooner and again there was the unwanted sight of a Kent rider taking an ambulance ride off the track and away then to hospital.
Already using Rider Replacement for the collar-bone injured Rob Ledwith, Spooner's withdrawal meant it was certain to be an extremely busy night for the young reserve pairing of Dan Gilkes (his first meeting back after a broken pelvis suffered back in May) and rookie Jake Mulford The teenager from Norwich was suffering machine woes early doors - out of heat two entirely as he failed to get the bike going within the allotted two minutes and then put back 15 metres for a similar problem in heat four, Mulford though was hugely impressive once more. Making light of that handicap to storm into the points and then in heat eight involved in one of races of the season, coming from fourth to overtake first Harry McGurk then the experienced Harris in a brilliant pair of passes to bring the whole stadium to his feet.
Gilkes meanwhile was in imperious form - recording three brilliant heat wins in a double figures total - and arsing phoenix-like from a simply shocking crash in his third outing. That crash in heat seven saw Cradley's Tom Spencer get completely out of control and spear Gilkes into and through both the air barrier on the fourth bend and the wire mesh catch fencing behind it. The gasp around the stadium was huge as was the clearing up job needed by the hard-working track staff but both Spencer and Gilkes somehow emerged unscathed. The Kent youngster getting back on his bike to not only win the rerun but then the next race too in a mid-match purple patch which ultimately proved decisive for the hosts,
Up to that point Cradley had had the better of the early exchanges - moving into a six points lead after five heats. Cue Drew Kemp coming in as a rarely-used tactical substitute (the rule brought back to the sport in the NL this season) to lead the Kings' revival. And maximums in heats six to eight inclusive actually turned a six point deficit to a six points lead meaning this time the visitors were to use the T/S ruling to their advantage: Clegg and Jack Smith combining to ensure the gap was back to two as the teams and officials battled against the clock to try and reach a conclusion with the 8.30pm curfew closing in. A coming together with the wooden fence on bend two by Smith (who rarely seems to be a happy visitor to Central Park) in heat six had been the cause of another delay and more work for the hard pressed track staff.
Rowe And Kemp steadied the ship with race wins in heats 10 and 11 but with Dan Halsey impressing also for the visitors, going into the always vital heat 13 two things were certain. Rowe and Kemp needed to be at their best to protect the four points lead and that with the clock ticking down there wasn't going to be time for a reprise in heat 15.
Heat 13 was a classic scrap - with the Cradley skipper, Clegg reeling in Kemp and producing a brilliant passing manoeuvre to get past the Kent man to take the win on the last lap. So it was 41-37 with time for one more race. One might have expected a team in such circumstances knowing a 5-1 could get them a draw would enter the last race decider with relish but instead there was clearly doubt in the Cradley management's minds that the bonus point could be lost if the race (pitching Kent's plucky ‘Guest' Jason Edwards and Gilkes again against the hapless Spencer and McGurk) went the way of the hosts. And so it proved with Spencer moving clearly at the tapes to force a restart and then leaving nothing to chance by ploughing straight through the starting gate the second the green light was on to sacrifice himself and ensure that heat 14 could not be staged.
The crowd at Central Park had hoped such gamesmanship (seen before unfortunately as some visiting teams seek to abuse the curfew restriction) and there was unhappiness that once again the spirit of the sport had not been followed by a visiting team manager - as Kent boss Chris Hunt told the SFM Sports Team: "It's very disappointing that I have to sit here and apologise to the fans for being cheated out of an extra race. Cradley shouldn't be doing things like that."
Of the injury crisis, Hunt commented: "Well I'm not sure what we've done to deserve our shocking run of bad luck. We might have a full team back for the play offs but at the moment we have to face up to Alex who looks like he might have broken his collar bone joining the injury list"
Back from injury and unfazed was hero of the hour Gilkes who astonished the fans at the Press Conference by declaring: "Everything's happened today - won three races, gone though a fence! After the crash I was absolutely fine. It was I guess just the adrenaline clicking in of being back racing. So during the delay I just went back to the pits, laid down and chilled out! And came out and won the next two races! It's great to be back"
And the team are next back in action taking on National League Fours champions Stoke Potters at Central Park Stadium next Monday 22nd, July, tapes up at 6.30pm!
Kent TouchTec Kings 41
Anders Rowe 2, 2', 3, 1' 8+2
Alex Spooner Fx withdrawn injured 0
Rider Replacement - Rob Ledwith
Jason Edwards (G) 3, F, 1, 2 6
Drew Kemp 2, 3, 2', 3, 2 12+1
Dan Gilkes 3, 0, 3, 3, 1, 0 10
Jake Mulford M, 1', 1, 2', 0, 1' 5+3
Cradley Heathens 37
Max Clegg 1, 3, 3, 2, 3 12
Luke Harris 3, 2', 1, 1' 7+2
Dan Halsey 2, 1, 2, 3 8
Tom Spencer 1', Fx, 0 X 1+1
Jack Smith 3, Fx, 2', 0 5+1
Sheldon Davies 2, 1, 0 3
Harry McGurk 1', 0, 0 1+1
1 (awarded) Harris, Rowe, Clegg, Spooner (fell exc.) no time (2-4)
2 Gilkes, Davies, McGurk, Mulford (exc. 2M) 59.7 (5-7
3 Edwards, Halsey, Spencer, Gilkes 60.6 (8-10)
4 Smith, Kemp, Mulford (15 m for 2M), McGurk 59.3 (11-13)
5 Clegg, Harris, Mulford, Edwards (fell) 59.3 (12-18)
6 (rerun) Kemp, Rowe, Davies, Smith (fell exc.) 58.8 (17-19) .
7 (rerun) Gilkes, Kemp, Halsey, Spencer (fell exc.) 59.7 (22-20)
8 (rerun) Gilkes, Mulford, Harris, McGurk 61.3 (27-21)
9 (rerun) Clegg, Smith, Edwards, Mulford 59.9 (28-26)
10 Rowe, Halsey, Gilkes, Spencer 59.7 (32-28)
11 Kemp, Clegg, Harris, Gilkes 59.6 (35-31)
12 Halsey, Edwards, Mulford, Davies 61.1 (38-34)
13 Clegg, Kemp, Rowe, Smith 59.7 (41-37)
14 (rerun/not rerun) Edwards, Gilkes, Spencer (exc. tapes), McGurk
MEETING ABANDONED AFTER 13 HEATS - RESULT STANDS