10,000 Days Later
Dateline: Tuesday 15 November 1983
It was about 2.30pm in an office in Leicester. I was just getting stuck into my work after returning from lunch, probably completing a client's tax return, when I got a phone call from Tony. Like me Tony was a speedway fanatic, and like me worked in an office near the station.
In a voice full of dismay he said "go get a copy of the Leicester Mercury - they're shutting the speedway - it is all over the back page. " Recalling my childhood trauma at the loss of the Tilehurst track in my native Reading I dashed to the newsagents with grim foreboding.
Glancing at the front page of the Mercury, which informed Leicester's citizens of the death of Dad's Army's John Le Mesurier, I followed the front page trailer ('Leicester Stadium Shock') to the back page of the paper. And there it was: "Stadium under Threat - doubtful future for speedway, dogs, stocks" splashed across most of the page.
accepted an offer for Blackbird Road stadium....
managing director Charles Ochiltree said; "it is purely
a business decision."
The article did not reveal the identity of the prospective purchaser, but the tone of the piece made it clear that it was unlikely the stadium would continue as a sporting venue.
The story remained on the front page the next day. Unfortunately the headline: "Stadium Rescue Hopes Look Slim" didn't give much cause for optimism.
By Thursday the front page carried a story speculating that Barratt's the builders were the likely purchaser and that the stadium would be flattened and redeveloped for houses. 'British soccer Faces Euro-ban' took top billing on the front page. The back page sports lead was not Gary Lineker's recall to Leicester's football team, but Martin Rogers's search for a new home for Leicester's speedway team.
By Saturday our worst fears had been confirmed and "Stadium to Make Way for Houses" was the main front page lead. The story moved on to speculation about a new home for the Lions (and the other sports which shared Blackbird Road). The cycle track on Saffron Lane was floated as a possibility, but given its proximity to housing it never looked like a credible option due to the noise issues.
It soon became apparent that there would be no quick fix. Just nine days after the news broke the Mercury announced that " Leicester Lions are set to put all their riders up for sale because there now seems no chance of speedway in Leicester next year." Leicester's licence was sold to Exeter who rejoined the British League for a single season in 1984. Les and Neil Collins showed a distinct coolness towards joining Exeter and the Falcons ended up with Ivan Mauger, who rode only in home meetings, and a string of guests for away matches.
Neil and Les Collins went to Sheffield. The Lions other heat leader Mark Courtney had already been sold to Belle Vue - a story that broke on the same day as the sale of the stadium. Aussie Steve Regeling followed Martin Rogers to King's Lynn. When the Lions rode in a challenge match at Long Eaton nine years later five of the team that rode in the last ever Blackbird Road meeting were still in the line-up (Les and Neil, Courtney, Regeling and David Blackburn). A sixth member of that 1992 line-up was Colin Cook who had been in the Lions 1983 team but missed the latter part of the season due to injury.
It is a testament to the efforts Martin Rogers had made to reshape the Lions as an exciting dynamic young team, that the three heat leaders in his 1983 team were all still riding twenty years later.
Having only recently moved to Leicester, I hadn't fully transferred my allegiances to the Lions. Just over a year before Leicester's closure I turned up at Smallmead, as normal on the Monday night, and then the following day loaded up my mini and headed for Leicester. Within hours of arriving in my new home I was heading for Blackbird Road. (A misnomer as the stadium was actually on Parker Drive/Somerset Avenue)
The track was housed in an archetypal 1928 built greyhound stadium. And like many others constructed on the arrival of greyhound racing in the UK it showed its age. But it had nicely banked terracing that gave fantastic views of the exciting spectacle that racing afforded on the 380 yard racing strip - one of the finest of the modern era.
I quickly found myself at home. As a result of my extensive travels following the fortunes of Reading Racers I already knew some Leicester fans and joined them in roaming the country in search of speedway. (In those days we were young, trains ran much later and young persons' railcards were even better value than they are now - so we spent much time on trains.)
After an exciting Tuesday evening's racing (and none could surpass the night Neil Collins passed Ole Olsen in a last heat decider to seal a 40-38 victory over local rivals Coventry), we would adjourn to the bar and discuss where we might visit that week. With eight of us in the group it wasn't difficult to get a car-full to go to Sheffield or a party to take the train to Cradley. As a result I ended up doing over a hundred meetings in 1983.
Our greatest adventure took us to Edinburgh by train. Leaving Leicester at 8am four or five of us travelled via Birmingham New Street to Edinburgh Waverley. Unfortunately as the journey progressed it became increasingly obvious that we were in for a wet day. On arriving in Scotland's capital we stopped at a 'greasy spoon'. Bob got a tin lid in his portion of baked beans - slightly disturbing! Having established that the meeting was indeed off we decided to trudge through the rain to Powderhall. On the way we bumped into a car of Leicester fans, and briefly retired to a pub.
At Powderhall (another of my all-time favourite tracks) we were rewarded with the sight of a back-straight under water and an invitation to the Monarchs Supporters Club post-match disco (which had been brought forward in the absence of a meeting). I remember being told by Brett Saunders that we were mad to travel all the way to Scotland for a challenge match. When a speedway rider says you are mad it's time to doubt your sanity!
The overnight return trip was a noisy one as we shared the train with hordes of Scottish rugby fans heading towards Cardiff Arms Park for a five nations match (note: not the Millennium Stadium for a six nations match). After spending the early hours of the morning on New Street station we finally arrived back in Leicester at 8am on Saturday. So at a cost of �14 (�28 for Tony who was too old for a young persons railcard) we had 'enjoyed' the pleasures of a Monarchs disco, an eventful journey and the camaraderie created by our shared experience.
Leicester's encounters with Reading were a rather special event. I travelled down to Reading via a World Team Cup meeting at Wimbledon on the Sunday with some of my Leicester friends. I proudly wore my red and yellow scarf to the Smallmead fixture with the principle intention of winding up the many Racers fans I had shared the highs and lows with over the previous decade or so. It was a meeting that Leicester could have won as they only lost by three points despite the non-arrival of Mark Courtney.
Then on Tuesday we all travelled back to Leicester on the Reading supporters club coach. Home and away fans travelling together on the same bus contrasted with the troubles of football that were frequently making the headlines in the 80s. On arrival at Parker Drive I donned my extravagantly long pale blue and white Racers scarf to march through the season ticket-holders' entrance - a few eyebrows were raised at that! Racers won 41-37.
With the possible exception of 1990 (A Racers league and cup double and Per Jonsson's world title) 1983 remains my favourite speedway season.
As friends we continued to socialise together and played in the Leicester Speedway Supporters Club Darts League. The 'mighty' Chilton Foliat Flyers were never one of the competition's 'glamour' clubs. (The February 1984 Bulletin in my possession shows them in 12th out of 16 teams. My average was a modest 5.91, but it did put me ahead of Martin Rogers [4.86].) A few years further on and only three of us were still going to speedway, with Long Eaton on a Wednesday becoming our regular fix.
In a densely populated urban area the search for a new site was always going to be a challenge. Beaumont Leys, on the north-west edge of the city, seemed the only possible alternative to a track way outside the city boundaries. Foremost among those looking for a new track was Ken Naylor. The Leicester Mercury often featured these efforts and has also covered the fortunes of local lad David Howe and highly respected referee Tony Steele (a member of the Leicester track staff from 1968 to 1983).
And after an extraordinary amount of hard work by David Hemsley and many others, 6 August 2009 was a landmark day; Leicester City Council granted planning permission for a new speedway stadium in Beaumont Leys.
And now after much more hard work by many more people the day has finally arrived. Exactly 10,000 days after the Leicester Mercury announced that Leicester speedway had been issued a death warrant the Lions are re-born in all their red and yellow glory.
"Congratulations to all Leicester fans on getting their speedway team back after 28 years-I can only imagine the feeling of absolute ecstacy which they will be experiencing. I've never quite given up the slim hope that there might one day be another set of returning Lions!"
"It was amazing what you could do as 16 year old in 1983 on just the family allowance & paper round money. Leicester on tuesday on the buxtons coach from the foxhunter and cradley on a saturday by train and the occasional trip in the Arnie or Burt mobile. The Wimbledon / Reading / Leicester trip is still one of my best experiences. AS a reward for doing well in my O levels, my parents paid for me to go to 1983 world final in Norden Germany (via Amsterdam). We managed to abandon the aforementioned Bob on the tram whilst journeying to the others hotel, unfortunately he ended up getting off at the right stop and was given the right room number and we were given the wrong one. I'd love to know what whoever was in that room made of the note pushed under the door! I am surprised you have not got the full stats for the Chilton Foliat Flyers though - Happy Days. Now the Lions are back and I am looking forward to my 6 year old enjoying speedway in his home town for a long time to come."
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