A proud history and a proud club - Ipswich Witches: a timeline
For almost 50 consecutive seasons, Foxhall Stadium has roared to the sound of speedway bikes during the summer months, and this weekend they will be back on track once more as the 2017 season gets underway.
Ipswich Witches fans have become accustomed to having a speedway club in the town and while many clubs nationwide have come and gone, the Witches continue to thrill, excite and put Ipswich on the map – a proud club with a proud tradition.
On Saturday night, against Sheffield Tigers, the Witches commence their 48th consecutive season of racing and while the crowds are not as big as they used to be, the excitement has never stopped.
Foxhall Stadium was purpose-built for speedway in 1950, and meetings were held there from 1951 to 1965 when the track was resurfaced for stock car racing.
The only fatality there has ever been in a speedway meeting at Foxhall occurred in 1962 when, on April 13, Jack Unstead was killed while riding for the Witches.
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It happened during a National League match with Southampton when Unstead lost control and crashed into a lamp standard. He died instantly.
Attendances approached 20,000 in the ‘50s and made stars of riders such as Syd Clarke, Junior Bainbridge, Tich Read and Peter Moore. But the sport closed at Foxhall Heath in 1965 as crowd levels dipped.
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After a four-year absence - in 1969, John Berry and Joe Thurley helped build a new, smaller track inside the stock car circuit at Foxhall and re-opened the club with a team which included the current boss John Louis – speedway has been staged at Foxhall continuously since.
Berry proved to be the Ipswich Witches equivalent of Bobby Robson at Ipswich Town Football Club, just down the road from Foxhall.
Both men patiently built sports teams in the town that became the envy of the country.
Proud of promoting local riders and footballers, Berry and Robson brought untold success to Ipswich and Suffolk - success that has never been surpassed.
Almost 50 years ago the Witches were soon picking up silverware.
In 1970 they won the British League Division II Knock-Out Cup twice, before the club took the decision to apply for membership of Division I in 1972.
What followed was a golden era of speedway in the town as the Witches became one of the best and most successful teams in the country.
They won back-to-back League championships in 1975 and 1976, while doing the ‘double’ in the long, hot summer of ‘76, as they won the KO Cup too.
Things cooled off a bit as the decade finished and when Berry announced his top two stars, John Louis and Billy Sanders, who had been pivotal in the team’s decade of success, were to be moved on, it caused fan fury.
But Berry knew his stuff.
It was time to shake it up and he did that in no uncertain terms at the start of the 1980s, bringing American superstar Dennis Sigalos and fellow American John Cook to Foxhall.
After a settling-in period, the American duo became huge fan favourites with their all-action style, as the Witches rose back to the top of the speedway pyramid – the crowds returned in numbers.
The team won their third League championship in 1984 and a second ‘double’ with a KO cup win to add icing on the cake.
Billy Sanders had returned and all in the garden seemed rosy at Foxhall once more.
However, dark days were just around the corner.
When Sanders took his own life at Nacton in 1985, it ripped the heart not just out of the team, who were flying in the league and looking favourites to win the title again, but more importantly it hit Berry hard.
The man who turned Ipswich Witches from country cousins to one of the most respected teams in the land later quit and the club struggled to find its feet again.
Eventually, in 1988, a new consortium, led by former Witches favourite John Louis breathed life back into the club and although they dropped down a league to the National League, a new, young, exciting team, including John’s son Chris and future world champion, Mark Loram, moved from Hackney Hawks to Foxhall.
Two happy years in the National League followed, with new tracks visited, new friends made and new teams gracing Foxhall.
But it was top-flight racing the Foxhall fans craved – although as the mid-90s arrived, those cravings looked bleak – very bleak.
The club was suffering financial issues and in the winter of 1995-96, it looked as if the proud tradition of speedway in the town was coming to an end.
The Witches were threatened with eviction from Foxhall Stadium until a campaign prompted by The Ipswich Star newspaper (then Evening Star) and spearheaded by local MP Jamie Cann, attracted support and gathered momentum – money was raised and the sport in the town was saved in January 1996.
Incredibly, just two years later the Witches were on top of the speedway world once again.
In 1998 they put together one of the strongest British league teams ever to take to the track.
Tony Rickardsson, Tomasz Gollob, Chris Louis, Scott Nicholls, Savalas Clouting and Toni Svab swept all before them in an historic season that saw the Witches win the treble - including a fourth League Championship, a fifth KO Cup and the Craven Shield.
Teams were put to the sword across the country.
Such was the power of that team, Rickardson won the world title, Louis the British title, Nicholls the British U21 title. Gollob finished third in the world title race.
It was a team of power that has never been seen on British soil since.
The Witches have never reached those heights since, and indeed since 1998 the only meaningful trophy to sit in the Foxhall cabinet was the Premier League Fours, which the team won in 2011, having dropped into the Premier League that year.
Since then, while the entertainment at Foxhall has continued to be of a high standard, Witches teams have failed to get over the line in pursuit of trophy glory.
Last season they reached the Premier League play-offs after a stirring finale to the season, but were beaten by Somerset Rebels in the semi-finals.
Tipped as one of the favourites in the revamped and newly-named Championship, this year the Witches, led off-track by former rider Chris Louis, include British champion Danny King as their No.1.
Nationally, and through thick and thin, speedway has managed to retain a traditional and happy family image, while the accessibility to the riders and thrills on the track are as good as any sport on the planet.
Some fans call speedway one of the country’s best sporting secrets.
Maybe that’s so.
Certainly, while there is concern over the continuation of the sport in hotbeds like Coventry right now - and while many tracks over the past 50 years have closed down - Ipswich Witches are in a good place.
Long may it continue.
IPSWICH WITCHES HONOUR BOARD
Division One Champions 1975, 1976, 1984, 1998
Division One KO Cup Winners 1976, 1978, 1981, 1984, 1998
Division Two KO Cup Winners 1970, 1971
Craven Shield Winners 1998
Spring Gold Cup Winners 1976
Inter-League KO Cup Winners 1977
Four-Team Champions, Division Two 2015
Pairs Champions, Division One 1976, 1977
Pairs Champions, Division Two 2015