IT IS hard to improve on finishing top of the league, but Newcastle Diamonds’ George English is not satisfied.
The Diamonds ended up heading speedway’s Premier League last year but a change in the rules at the start of the season meant they missed out on being crowned champions.
After a five-year hiatus, the re-introduction of play-offs to decide the league champions – and injuries to key riders Richie and Steve Worrall which ended their seasons early – meant the Diamonds missed out, with Scunthorpe Scorpions winning the title despite finishing a point behind Newcastle in the regular league campaign.
Team boss English accepts the rules, but cannot hide his disappointment at the twist which denied his side their first league title since 2001.
They could at least console themselves at getting their hands on the Premier League Knockout Cup, a trophy they have won for the second time in three years.
English said: “It was a successful season for us, all things considered.
“As well as winning the Knockout Cup against Ipswich Witches we finished top of the league – it was just unfortunate we finished top of the league in the very year play-offs were introduced!
“I’m a traditionalist. I believe whoever finishes top of the league is the best team and should be crowned champions.
“So many sports have play-offs these days – it’s just the way things are going. Those are the rules and you just have to abide by them.
“The sad thing is, I think we would have probably won the play-offs last year if both the Worrall twins had not been out with broken legs.
“We still finished top of the league and it was an honour to do so.
“We would very much like to finish top of the league again this year and match it up with a play-off victory as well.”
The Diamonds ended the season with nothing to show for their efforts in the league but that could yet change.
English added: “I’m really disappointed the powers that be – of which I am one because I am on the committee – did not present us with anything for finishing top of the league.
“That is going to change this season because I think people realised it was a mistake.
“This year the team which finishes top of the league will win some kind of trophy – and it may even be retrospective so we might yet get something for finishing top of the league last season!”
While acknowledgement for their achievements last season would be nice, English is more concerned with the new campaign, which gets under way this weekend with a double-header against Workington Comets in the Ian Thomas Shield.
The start of a new season is generally a time for optimism, but news of a major injury to new signing Andrew Tully has taken some of the shine off things.
Tully broke a bone in his back in a practice session this week and his absence as the season gets underway is a major concern.
English said: “What a blow this is, coming so soon after the injuries to the Worrall brothers which cost us the league title last year.
“We have been told it could sideline Andrew for six to eight weeks and I am still trying to fully take in the news, especially with our first matches coming up at the weekend.”
Tully’s arrival from Edinburgh Monarchs was one of two changes to the Diamonds’ line-up over the winter, with the promising Lewis Kerr also joining while Aussie captain Mark Lemon and Dane Claes Nedermark have departed.
Number one rider Sunderland-based Stuart Robson takes over the captaincy.
While Tully’s injury is the worst possible start to the new season, English is confident that – injuries permitting – the Diamonds will be in the hunt for the title once again.
He said: “I would be very, very disappointed if we don’t challenge this year.
“We have a good enough squad to do so but, yet again, it all comes down to staying clear of injury problems.
“If you avoid major injuries throughout the year, and if you can consistently keep most of your team together, that is a big help.
“You can have all the talent you want, but if your rider is in the wrong place at the wrong time on the track then he can have his season ended through injury. That’s what happened to us in 2011, which was a disastrous year for us in terms of injuries.
“Providing we can keep the lads on the track and largely stay clear of injuries, I am confident we can have a very good season.”
The Ian Thomas Shield gives way to a series of cup fixtures next month, the Diamonds due to compete in the Tyne-Tees Trophy, the Premier Shield, the League Cup and begin their defence of the Premier League Knockout Cup before their league season gets underway on May 5, at Glasgow Tigers.
THE Diamonds travel to Workington’s Derwent Park Stadium for the first leg of the Ian Thomas Shield on Saturday (7pm), with the return leg at the Newcastle Stadium on Sunday (6.30pm).
English said: “It’s a very special event because the shield is named after Ian Thomas, who was promoter at both Newcastle and Workington. I’m sure both clubs would like to win it.”