Review of the season: Where did it all go wrong for underachieving Ipswich Witches?

The 2015 Witches were expected to be serious contenders...it didn't work out like that

The 2015 Witches were expected to be serious contenders...it didn't work out like that - Credit: Archant

Mike Bacon takes a look back at a 2015 speedway season which simply didn’t go to plan for Ipswich Witches

The 2015 Witches were expected to be serious contenders...it didn't work out like that

The 2015 Witches were expected to be serious contenders...it didn't work out like that - Credit: Archant

If you had to describe Ipswich Witches’ 2015 campaign, one word would suffice... DISAPPOINTING!

A talented team put together by promoter Chris Louis had all the pundits, pre-season, predicting big things from the Suffolk outfit.

But the team bottled it completely and totally underachieved, leaving fans and management frustrated by the earliest end to a speedway season on the Heath since . . . well since many can remember.

I don’t think I, or any Witches fans would mind if one looked at the 2015 starting line-up – Danny King, Rohan Tungate, Cameron Heeps, Gino Manzares, Ritchie Hawkins, Stefan Nielsen and Nico Covatti – and thought . . . ‘That looks a poor side’.

But no-one felt that, in fact most felt the opposite, the vast majority of pundits in the speedway press predicting the Witches wouldn’t just make the play-offs, but win the Premier League outright!

Win it? That proved a laugh.

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The team were so poor they couldn’t even make the top six and the play-offs. . . In a league which only contains 13 teams.

Failure in the two cup competitions meant there were no end-of-season cup finals either.

Throw in an ugly spat between captain Hawkins and new team boss Phil Hilton that resulted in the captain calling it a day in June, and you can tell it really was a poor state of affairs at Foxhall.

Chris Louis, looking for a stronger mental approach from his 2016 side

Chris Louis, looking for a stronger mental approach from his 2016 side - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

All in all, roll on 2016. It simply can’t get any worse.

Of course, as in every team sport, whatever a team achieves, there are a few high spots.

Admittedly there not many in the Witches’ side of the pits, although Danny King and Nico Covatti certainly did their bit for the cause time after time. International riders with international mind-sets. Hopefully both will be back next season.

Aside from those two however, it was a season that promised much, but delivered little. It’s going to be a long winter for Witches fans but Louis is working on a 2016 strategy – let’s just hope the riders he picks follow it through this time.

HOW THE SEASON UNFOLDED

MARCH

The Billy Sanders Memorial was won by Rory Schlein, but the Witches suffered an early season injury blow as captain Ritchie Hawkins cracked a rib before he even got to the first turn in a nasty crash. Two nights later Cameron Heeps starred in a narrow defeat at Rye House in the League Cup.

Emil Grondal (yellow helmet), Rohan Tungate (blue), Gino Manzares (red) and Ulrich Ostergaard battle

Emil Grondal (yellow helmet), Rohan Tungate (blue), Gino Manzares (red) and Ulrich Ostergaard battle during heat five of the Ipswich v Peterborough (Premier League) meeting at Foxhall Stadium, Ipswich, Suffolk, UK on 27 August 2015. Picture: Steve Waller www.stephenwaller.com - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

APRIL

The Good Friday double header between the Witches and Peterborough Panthers saw Ipswich fly to success in the afternoon meeting, with solid contributions throughout. The evening clash was postponed because of rain.

Fog caused the early abandonment of the next home meeting between the Witches and Somerset after heat 12, but the home side already had the points in the bag and the League Cup campaign continued apace with Plymouth sent packing from the Heath pointless a week later. The win over the Devils however saw Gino Manzares injured – another early season blow to the Witches.

A draw at Somerset was a good result, although King and Tungate conceded a 5-1 in the final race which was frustrating and then Rye House were easily beaten at home.

King and Covatti led the charge at Sheffield in the team’s first Premier League fixture of the season, which they lost by seven points, failing to pick up a single bonus point in defeat.

MAY

The first chink of fragility in the Witches of 2015 came on Bank Holiday Monday, May 4, when Sheffield, who have had an awful Foxhall record over the years, picked up all three points in a 49-45 win. Covatti (18) and King (9) were the Witches’ top scorers, but the tail wagged long as did some of the Ipswich riders’ excuses.

Richie Hawkins left the club midway through the season

Richie Hawkins left the club midway through the season - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

“I think that several riders need to sort out quickly why they are under performing as we cannot carry on like this,” was team boss Hilton’s reaction to the loss.

Hawkins, who had endured a nightmare start to the season, came to life at Berwick in the first round, first leg of the KO Cup, as the Witches held the Bandits to a narrow four-point deficit. Twenty-four hours later the Witches came back from 11 points down to grab their first Premier League point of the season at Newcastle in a narrow defeat in the north-east.

All the Witches’ good work at Berwick was undone in a shabby performance at home to the Border side in the second leg of the KO Cup. Needing a 5-1 in the last heat to go through, Tungate suffered ‘arm pump’ a condition which meant he found it hard to hold onto his bike, as both Bandits nipped past the struggling Australian, for an aggregate victory.

Tungate redeemed himself the next night at Plymouth with 15 points in the Witches last League Cup group clash – the 49-41 win putting them into the semi-finals. But the knock-out cup defeat to the Bandits was still raw.

Redcar were beaten home and away in the space of three days as the month ended positively for the Suffolk side however.

JUNE

A first trip of the season to Edinburgh ended with the inevitable defeat but that was nothing compared to the defeat at home to Newcastle six nights later.

Missing Manzares and King who were in World Cup action, star guest and Edinburgh captain Craig Cook had a nightmare meeting for Ipswich as the lowly Diamonds couldn’t believe their luck and took all three points.

Rohan Tungate crashing out after being run into by Ben Barker during heat nine of the Ipswich v Pete

Rohan Tungate crashing out after being run into by Ben Barker during heat nine of the Ipswich v Peterborough (Premier League) meeting at Foxhall Stadium, Ipswich, Suffolk, UK on 27 August 2015. Picture: Steve Waller www.stephenwaller.com - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

“I would like to apologise to the fans for the poor display we put on tonight,” Hilton lamented.

But it was now two home league defeats for the Witches and the season was hardly underway.

Yet incredibly, as bad as the team were the night before – with King and Manzares back 24 hours later – the Witches pulled of a terrific victory at Peterborough, King and Tungate securing the win in heat 15.

Yet, still the home form frustrated and Somerset took away two points in a draw at Foxhall, before the Witches gained single points on the road at Workington and Glasgow in two more defeats, but not after poor starts in both cost them the chance of victory.

It was announced Hawkins was leaving the club after a torrid season, with Ashley Morris arriving from Plymouth, where he had been made surplus to requirements – King took over as captain.

JULY

It was a good start to July but no-one could forecast what lay ahead in the coming couple of months after the Witches thrashed Plymouth and Rye House, before winning at Berwick with King and Tungate in flying form.

Cook returned to Foxhall, this time with his Edinburgh side and predictably raced to a 15-point maximum as again the Witches drew a home clash.

Nico Covatti was a rare bright spot for the Witches

Nico Covatti was a rare bright spot for the Witches - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

But one of the turning points of the season was on the horizon.

The Witches travelled to Scunthorpe looking for Premier League points.

It was nip and tuck until heat 10 when Tungate and home rider Josh Auty clashed.

At the end of the race, won by Auty, Tungate appeared to knock off the home No.1. The Ipswich man denied it was intentional and said he couldn’t slow down in time.

But he was found guilty a week later – and although the Witches won the clash, Tungate was banned for 21 days.

In his last match before his ban started, Glasgow became the next team to make Ipswich’s track appear to have little home advantage as they raced to victory, the Witches’ play-off hopes were now starting to become a concern, despite a big home win over Scunthorpe at the end of the month.

However, there was more injury woe for the Witches in the Premier League Fours at Peterborough, where Covatti broke his finger in a clash with Ulrich Ostergaard.

AUGUST

The Ipswich season was done and dusted in September, with the 16-lap classic

The Ipswich season was done and dusted in September, with the 16-lap classic - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

Guest Richie Worrall raced to a maximum as the Witches saw off Workington at Foxhall but Plymouth then thrashed the Witches in Devon, King racing to 16 points in a one-man rearguard action.

A depleted team and another heavy 22-point defeat at Edinburgh, this time in the League Cup semi-final, first leg, meant any cup hopes were now as good as extinguished.

King and Tungate, who had won the PL Best Pairs at Somerset earlier in the season in one of the Witches highlights of the campaign, showed their liking for the Oak Tree Arena as they grabbed Ipswich a vital point at the end of a rugged Premier League clash against the Rebels.

Tungate’s 16 points was a terrific effort.

But Ipswich’s poor home form had opened up the opportunity for Plymouth to sneak into the final play-off place and they won at Somerset to keep up their momentum.

The Witches finished well, with big home wins over Berwick and Peterborough, as well as a narrow away win at Rye House – their fifth away win of the season.

But it was all too little, too late.

Their inconsistency had caught up with them and although they beat Edinburgh in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final, they were never going to pull back the 22 points they were behind after the opening leg in Scotland.

Plymouth held their nerve to win their final three home meetings, as well as take a big four-point victory at Rye House and the Witches were out of the Premier League play-offs.

It was still September when captain King won the 16-Lap Classic at Foxhall as the season came to an end for the Witches.

And while many other clubs continued for another few weeks, with cup finals and play-offs, the Witches were already booking their winter breaks away – hopefully reflecting on a job poorly done!

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