The Night I Met Ivan
Seeing the picture of the greatest living speedway rider I have watched in action in a recent "Plus Points" feature brought back a lot of memories for me, and prompted me to pen this story. I hope some of those older fans reading it might find it as memory evoking I did, and maybe even show a side to great people that very rarely gets highlighted.
Most people are destined never to meet their sporting heroes. I'm not one of them. It's now over thirty years since I met Ivan Mauger, at that time the 4 times World Speedway Champion, at a function organised in aid of the then ailing Paisley Lions, and the memory of meeting him when I was but a boy remains with me today, when my hairline is getting closer to the Bobby Charlton sweepover look, while my waistline these days is a toss up between a Barum and a Dunlop round the middle. Certain events in your life are never forgotten, and the night I met my all time speedway hero, a legend in every sense, is right up there with any other event in my life.
Towards the end of the 1976 season, the Paisley Lions had announced serious financial problems (emanating from a disastrous losing start to their season which had seen them fail to win a match at Love St until early July), arising from dropping crowds, and which placed their future in serious doubt. A sleeping giant was aroused in the shape of the Paisley Tartan Team (I suppose, a distant relative of a Paisley Pattern), who very quickly organised themselves into a vociferous band of renegades at home and away games, but, in the context of the financial problems, started to put together a calendar of fundraising events which sought to whittle away the deficit incurred and maybe give the club a future, by clearing the red figures in its account (Indeed, I got more serious with my wife of 29 years to date at one of these, there is a lot to answer for in this story!). As a founder member of the earlier Glasgow Tigers' Loyal Squad who introduced loud cheering, a ditty or three in deference to certain team members, and originated the use of air horns, away from home in particular, and as one who likes to think he helped introduce a similar regime along the road at Paisley, I believe the importance of Scottish away fans, in introducing pro-active (and highly vocal) support in aid of their team in the late 60's into the 70's, remains a phenomenon which should not be understated even to this day!
Anyway, like I always do when telling a story, I digress. As momentum gathered in the shape of essential monies coming in through the regularity of fundraising events at the end of the 1976 season and into the dark winter months, following one of the regular clan gatherings held by the Paisley Lions Supporters Club at the time, Dick Barrie came up to me and suggested quietly (well, as quietly as Dick ever suggests anything) "Why don't you invite Ivan Mauger up to one of your dances-he might bring a few more people to it?" Now, the possibility of the then (and still, in my opinion) greatest rider the speedway world has ever seen, appearing at a Lions' function, seemed as likely as a film about a famous Scottish warrior winning an Oscar, and how the Hell could we afford the kind of appearance fee which the best in the world could ask for (and get)?. However, with the promise of the world's greatest exponent of the sport appearing at a Lions' function sorted, as a result of Mr Barrie's silvery tonsils, for no more than the price of two return air fare tickets to Manchester, and a bed for the night (which Dick provided at a discounted rate-only kidding!), the deal was done. I digress again for a minute, but only to say that the sometimes maligned Mr Barrie was a much underrated figure in the context of his Love St connections, as while his prior contractual commitments at Berwick usually stopped him from appearing at Paisley (both were Saturday tracks) very often, he nevertheless was hugely influential behind the scenes, as his success in tempting Mr Mauger north of the border illustrates.
As the (sort of) organiser of the evening in question, I wasn't quite sure of a lot of things-because of Ivan's heavy schedule, we had to have the dance on a Monday night, not usually the best night in the week for a social (even in Scotland, where any excuse!) and only 5 days before Christmas, when people were spending a lot of bawbees on other things, so I didn't really know how much of a gamble the event would be in terms of its fundraising potential. Well, as soon as Ivan had mentioned his confirmed attendance at the dance on his regular "Speedway Star" column, I got my answer. My telephone went into meltdown as a result of phone calls received from all over Scotland and beyond, from people wanting to come to the dance, with all manner of Scottish luminaries wanting to make sure they were there for a night which was clearly going to be THE event of the season, as far as Scottish speedway was concerned-such was the drawing power of the greatest living Kiwi to have graced the sport over its 80 year history to date. I won't put into print how many people actually attended (all I'll say is that it was at the Renfrew Town Hall and the attendance perhaps was amazingly close to the numbers actually permitted by the terms of the lease we received from Renfrew District Council-there may be people reading this little piece who have a background in auditing). However, let's just say that I suspect the venue will never again see the sort of attendance we got that night. (I think that Dick might even have paid for his ticket that night, how much would THAT receipt be worth these days on "Bargain Hunt" or "Cash in the Attic"?)
Having got sorted the fact that the world's greatest speedway rider was actually going to appear at our little soiree when we would inevitably be introduced, I then had to ponder how I was going to address him-"Ivan", "Sir",or just plain "Mr Mauger" were the obvious three. But just how DO you address the best in the world at your favourite sport without appearing either as an ingratiating reporter who doesn't know his speedway from his road racing, or a star struck fan (which I certainly was) unable to string a couple of words together without mumbling or giggling hysterically, and do you bow or curtsey when being introduced to speedway royalty?
The moment arrived. The dance was barely underway, and The Great Man duly arrived with his wife Raye, and Dick, and I was on the door taking tickets and welcoming guests. "Hi Bill, I'm Ivan, delighted to meet you, Dick's told me what you're doing, what do you need me to do tonight to help, oh, and here's a few things I've brought with me that you can raffle or auction off and help the cause". With one sentence, he blew away all the doubts and reservations in my head, put me completely at my ease, and set about using his considerable profile to give us all the help he could give us in our hour of need. Not for him was the quiet sitting in a corner, sipping on a lemonade or something and staying for the standard hour or so before slipping away, he was in and mixing with the gobsmacked punters (not used to seeing a legend mixing with the ordinary supporters) and clearly having a ball. Before too long he was asking me over and enquiring of me if there was a corner that could be reserved for something he had in mind. Now, if you imagine a hall absolutely heaving with speedway people having a good time, this was not going to be an easy task, but having done so, his next request was a bit easier to comply with. "Has anyone here got a camera which we can use for a wee while?" (Half an hour into the night, and already the man is picking up our quaint local parlance!) This was a somewhat less onerous task, given that all of those attending appeared to have brought with them anything from a Polaroid to the latest Leica (for younger readers only familiar with the digital age, ask your mum or dad!) in the hope of getting their photie taken with him, and his next request sorted all of that for us. "Can you let everyone know that I'll be in the area reserved for as long as it takes and I will be happy to have my photograph taken with them for a suitable donation to the club cause?"
Well, I've been to a lot of sporting functions in my time, and I never thought I would ever see the day when there would be a queue longer than that to the bar at any of them, but I did that night-Ivan must have been in that small area for perhaps a couple of hours calmly smiling, exchanging a few pleasantries with literally hundreds of supporters, one at a time, before being snapped with them. Even some of the riders in attendance wanted to be photographed with him, such was (and is still) the stature of the man. At the end of the session, which resembled a scene from Santa's Grotto at Christmas time, and with the fundraising coffers now groaning, it was back for a quick refreshment, a blether with a few more people, before taking to the stage again (if my memory serves me, possibly with Bert Harkins) to help push the auction along, with several original race jackets worn by him and other personal memorabilia all going under the hammer. By the end of the auction, and with the club's collection boxes now pleading for mercy, all the money which could be taken from the crowd in aid of the Lions had been duly extracted, and the rest of the evening, from my recollection, was spent in celebration of a very special night in the lives of many Scottish speedway followers, many of whom were for that evening at least in the company of greatness. I do believe also that Ivan may have sampled some interesting new Scottish liqueurs offered to him by grateful supporters during the final couple of hours, interspersed with some unusual variations of Scottish country dancing and other forms of dance commensurate with the 70's! The amount of money raised on the night in today's terms would have equated closely to a five figure profit, such was the phenomenal financial pulling power of the eventual 6 times World Speedway Champion. If he had simply come along that evening, performed the statutory drawing of the raffle, and then left the evening, we would have been more than satisfied, but here was a guy willing to take a chunk out of his limited free time to come to our rescue and really do far more than anyone could reasonably expect, and using his exalted position within speedway to do the very best he could for the sport, and for people he had never met before that evening-class personified!
The story doesn't have a happy ending, in that in spite of the monumental efforts made by the Paisley Lions supporters, their team didn't make it to 1977, although a junior team carrying the club name did help make the Scottish Junior League an embryonic forerunner of today's Conference League. However, the memory of that night will always be with me (and, perhaps, a few others with long memories who attended the event), and I don't think I ever got the chance to say it to him at the end of the night, so I'll say it now- THANKS IVAN!
This article was first published on 18th December 2008
"Great story. The first time I met Ivan in 1980, my flustered brain threw in a rather superb(?) Richard Cranium qustion: "Ivan, does your Gold Bike actually run?" DOH!"
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