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Fear and Loathing at Love Street
By John Callaghan

The Owen Brothers

My most memorable...blah blah blah. We've all read plenty of those, right? Victories, triumphs, trophies, glory?

Not for me (and, I suspect, not for many others, if we're honest).

My most memorable night at speedway sticks so vividly in the mind because it was full of argument, controversy, disputes and bizarre events. Sure, some good racing, too, but that's not what I recall so well about the night the Newcastle Diamonds came to Love Street in Paisley in August 1975...

I was a regular at the home track of the Paisley Lions throughout their two year life-span, having been away from the sport for a few years beforehand and it is fair to say that it wasn't the finest circuit for racing. Built around the outside of the pitch of St Mirren FC, it was necessarily a very long track at 427 yards, but - often the case with football or rugby grounds - not a very wide one. In fact, that's where the events of the evening started to get weird.

Newcastle, under the leadership of Ian Thomas (yes, that Ian Thomas) were a title-challenging side and in particular they had the best one-two punch in the sport. The Owen brothers, Tom and Joe, each sported an average in excess of 11 - in fact, if memory serves, at that stage of the season they were both well in excess, Joe with at something like 11.6 and Tom around 11.2. In other words, they were virtually unbeatable, and certainly the rag-tag assembly that the Lions put on the track couldn't expect to live with them.

Headed by a bold 8 point man in Sid Sheldrick (assisted intermittently by his younger brother Mick), the Lions otherwise relied on Mike Fullerton for points (a lightning trapper, but I swear to god I never saw him pass anything faster than the tractor in two years; he was allergic to traffic) and a selection of Australians from central casting, each madder than the last. Oh, and Chris Roynon (father of Adam) was there as a 6-point man. With this cobbled up side, the Lions generally won at home with a combination of fast gating (very useful on the narrow track) and the Aussies' demented fence-bouncing antics, the only way to pass at Love Street without a subsequent visit to Casualty. However, good sides did come to Paisley and win, five times in all that season (and sometimes by considerable margins), so the Diamonds, with the likes of Robbie Blackadder, Ron Henderson and Brian Havelock in support, and reserves who could compete with other teams' heat leaders, could only have expected a huge away win.

Until Ian Thomas saw how narrow the track was...

Now, this was Paisley's first season and the track's specifications had clearly met the technical requirements at the start of the year, and had become no narrower since, but.yes, that first corner in particular did look awfully tight. And so, the start of the meeting was delayed as Mr Thomas produced a tape measure (from where?) and scampered back and forth across the track on that first bend, measuring its width in a frankly camp display, all determined pointing and arms akimbo, like a villain in a panto. The (fairly large) crowd enjoyed this enormously, of course - while pretending not to, as evidenced by the boos and catcalls that Mr Thomas was attracting.

As the delay lengthened, numerous other people joined Thomas in wandering around the first corner and Paisley's promoter Neil Macfarlane began his own show of strutting and posturing on the track, playing to the crowd like an old-school Italian footballer protesting against all the injustices of a non-awarded penalty. More pointing, forehead-slapping and despairing throws of arms to the sky followed. The crowd continued to love it but the delay lengthened further until it was announced that one of the many people milling about on track was the referee and, in fact, he agreed with Ian Thomas's view (and measurement), to the effect that the Love Street track was narrower than the minimum allowed by the league, thereby placing the meeting in severe jeopardy.

Presumably, there would have also been a case that this finding would have invalidated the previous 20 meetings which had taken place on the same track, but that wasn't Macfarlane's concern in the short term - instead, he picked up a shovel from somewhere. What the hell's he going to do with that? Surely he's not going to.oh yes, he is! Macfarlane took the shovel and began to dig away at the inside of the track - or, to put it another way, he began to dig up St Mirren's football pitch.

More (much more) debate and posturing followed, but Macfarlane (now with the track crew as accomplices to the vandalism) continue digging away around the corner flag until the track (or, more accurately, the distance between the fence and where the grass now started) was several feet wider. The fact that there was no longer any white line and the inner edge of the "track" was just several feet of subsoil seemed not to bother anybody except Ian Thomas and the referee declared that the meeting could now begin, after a delay of, I don't remember, but maybe 45 minutes? Longer? How long does it take to dig up a corner flag? Whatever the time, the crowd could fairly be described as charged-up by the delay.

And it wasn't the last extraordinary decision the referee would make that night.

So (eventually, after more protests, parading up and down and general peacockery) at last we arrived at Heat 1 and the first appearance of the unbeatable Tom Owen - so unbeatable that Sid Sheldrick felt he had to try and start early and as a result blasted through the tapes, collecting an exclusion and leaving Paisley with his brother Mick and debutant Aussie Geoff Snider to face the mighty Owen. Against all the odds, they both blasted away from the start and led Owen around the (now uniquely wider) first corner. That wasn't going to last and Owen dived into the third corner on the inside of Mick Sheldrick, unaware that there really wasn't any kind of inside line on this track, with the inevitable result that the two clashed heavily on the bend. Owen, typically uncompromising, sought to drive through the gap that wasn't really there and knocked Sheldrick off - more than that, he drove him all the way across the track and into the fence, parting company halfway across the track with his bike, which then bounced inelegantly back into the centre of the circuit.

For inexplicable reasons, the referee did not put on the red lights at this point, but instead lit up Owen's white exclusion light, which the rider unsurprisingly did not see as he pursued Snider, still leading. On the same corner of the second lap (by which time the track staff were holding up the black exclusion flag along with Owen's white helmet colour), Owen performed the same hard inside drive on Snider that had demounted Sheldrick. Again, there was a mid-corner collision, but this time Snider did not immediately fall off; instead, the handlebars locked as the riders came out of the fourth corner and it was well into the straight before another nudge from Owen dislodged Snider and sent the Aussie and bike cartwheeling separately down the straight. With body and debris on the track, the referee finally hit the red light and stopped the race, whereupon he then made another extraordinary decision.

Tom Owen was excluded from heat 1 (no surprise to anybody who had seen the exclusion light, or indeed had watched his demonstrably unfair riding) but was ALSO excluded from the entire meeting as a disciplinary measure for having failed to respond the exclusion light! I have never, before or since, heard of anything this bizarre and nor had Ian Thomas, judging by the fresh repertoire of conniptions and fist-waving that followed from the Newcastle manager.

More protests, more delays, more crowd "involvement", more fun. But the referee wasn't to be moved and his bizarre decision stood, so the 11-point Newcastle star would take no further part in the meeting.

Meanwhile, back at Heat 1....the two Lions blasted out of the gate again, only for Snider to haul off his machine and collect an exclusion of his own...bringing about the fourth attempt to run the race, having got down to a match race between the two survivors. This one did eventually produce a result, after Mick Sheldrick yet again steamed away from the gate and led for 3 and three quarter laps before Ron Henderson - hey, it's his first appearance in this article - nipped round the outside to give Newcastle a 3-2 lead, only (and I'm guessing here) about an hour and a half after the scheduled start.

Well, that was most of the drama over for the night - or, at least, most of the absurd, unprecedented drama. Because Newcastle, with their resources, still had a great chance of winning - captain Havelock had been outstanding in an individual meeting at Paisley on a previous occasion, and hadn't Ron Henderson won his first race from the back? Well, Heat 2 went 5-1 to Paisley, but Joe Owen won heat 3 by the length of a straight in a 4-2 for the away side, so it was 9-8 to the Lions at that point, but the next few heats set the tone for the way the meeting was to proceed.

Heat 4, and the theoretically capable Havelock rode round a distant last, looking uninterested. Why? Was he disgusted with the refereeing, the makeshift extra-wide track, something else? Or had he just become a much crapper rider in the previous half-hour? Then, Henderson joined the ranks of those with F/X next to their name after a Heat 5 crash, before the next race saw Havelock once again ride round a distant last, as if he couldn't wait to get home. Joe Owen won easily again in Heat 7 but that still left Paisley six points in front (strangely, it was 23-17, since one of the Lions had contrived a machine failure after Henderson's exclusion, leading to a second missing point, as if there wasn't enough strangeness going on already).

Still, Joe O was out again as a tactical sub in Heat 8 with the likely-looking Henderson, so an away was still on the cards, especially if Havelock woke up from his slumbers. However, what happened was that Henderson crashed yet again, his exclusion the fifth of the night in total and, worse yet, he was too unfit to carry on. It was then announced that Havelock had withdrawn from the meeting (can't recall the official reason), leaving Newcastle with only four riders to complete the meeting.

The home victory was pretty much assured from that point, and four successive heat victories stretched the lead to an unbelievable 16 points, although not without further incident, as two more exclusions were recorded, one for a fall, one for wiping out an opponent, plus a solo fall for Newcastle reserve Phil Michaelides (an especially unpopular name, given the number of programme changes required that night).

And so, the Lions won 46-30 in the end, but mention must still be made of Sid Sheldrick, who had started the on-track fun with his Heat 1 tape exclusion. Coming out in Heat 10 against the unbeaten Joe Owen, who alone of the Diamonds had lived up to his reputation, few gave him any chance, even when he streaked from the gate, because Owen had won his previous three rides by huge margins in the three fastest times of the night. But Sid prevailed, after four laps of neck-and-neck battling, inside, outside, up to the fence, across the football pitch (now temporarily part of the track) and everywhere in between. And didn't he go and do exactly the same thing two races later? Eight points on the night for Sid, and six of them from two wins over the unbeatable Owen.

So, maybe the Lions would have won anyway, if the whole team had needed to show the spirit that beat the league's best twice in a row. As it was, it remains a night crammed full of controversy and liberally topped with incident. Quite what was going on in the heads of various people - riders, managers, referee - that night is impossible to guess.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

What my programme tells me is that only three Newcastle riders participated in the second half - Joe Owen deciding not to bother, along with the excluded Tom O, the injured Henderson and the mysteriously absent Havelock.

What my memory tells me is that Newcastle came second in the league that year and, in Paisley's second and final season, the Diamonds won the equivalent fixture at Love Street by a whopping 53-25.

What nobody can tell me is the reaction of St Mirren FC's groundsman on the Monday morning when he discovered that a corner of his pitch had been dug up and dumped in a heap. Maybe he planted some vegetables.

 

This article was first published on 15th January 2009


 

  • Jon Smith:

    "What a brilliant story! Certainly brings back memories of the National League (and the NNL) always seemed to have controversy at some point then! Do miss those days."

  • Mike Fullerton:

    "Why pass on a narrow track if you can trap eh? And by the way I had the tape a metre up my sleeve when we measured it at the end, yes it was a bit narrow. By the way who holds the track record? Paisley was a great time - the start of British summers as they are known now and a great team atmosphere with some real characters."

  • Bill Elliot:

    "Loved the story about the lowly Lions hammering the then mighty Diamonds in 1975. Remember the meeting and some wins always gave you more pleasure than others, this one in particular being especially sweet-for all his famed magical abilities, Ian Thomas couldn't figure out what stunt had been pulled on him, other than he was certain he'd been conned-think there was an adjustable tape measure being used on the night in question. Wouldn't necessarily agree that there wasn't a lot of passing at Love St, as there were plenty of entertaining meetings there, but enjoyed the piece nevertheless."

  • Jim Baird:

    "Brilliant article, VERY funny. I never missed a home match and trundled round the UK watching our heroes getting some right gubbings, but I still hanker back to those halcyon days. Stuart Mountford was another one who couldn't catch a bus, but if he trapped, he was bloody quick. I seem to remember Stoke protesting as well about the track. Can't remember who finished up with the track record, was it Brian Collins ? My cousin, Grigor Grant, was the supporters club secretary...a mere lad of 16....Have started going along to watch the Monarchs, but it's just not the same....thanx for bringing back some great memories."

  • Mike Sheldrick:

    "I remember that night very well but it was Geoff Snider who Tom Owen knocked off first and then me after his exclusion light had been put on, going into the third turn. I remember everyone going mad at Tom and the Paisley crowd wanted to lynch him. Tom Owens tactics that night was a bit unsporting and I believe its because I was beating him and he didnt like that due to the fact we didn't get on at Barrow. Neil McFarlane was also complaining I think he is the only rider to be banned from a meeting? On the subject of Brian "Pogo" Collins he was never beaten around Paisley till the Champion of Strathcylde beat him in that meeting and that was ME!!! Great times and the Paisley people were great."

  • Chris Berry:

    "Good to read the article from Mike Sheldrick. Mick ( as known then on the terraces ) and brother Sid were very popular at Barrow and even now thirty odd years later I have often wondered what happened to them. Other members of the Barrow team have been in the speedway press over the years but not Sid & Mick to my knowledge. And yes a belated congratulations on the Champion of Strathclyde win all these years later. Shame Barrow closed - square track and remote - but it started a love affair with speedway that carries on.... "

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