Witches aim to land Lanham

SPEEDWAY: Leigh Lanham has proved himself to be a big fans' favourite at Foxhall Stadium and the former British Under-21 speedway champion is a target for Ipswich Witches for 2002.

By Elvin King

LEIGH Lanham has proved himself to be a big fans' favourite at Foxhall Stadium and the former British Under-21 speedway champion is a target for Ipswich Witches for 2002.

Lanham's name appeared so often in the questionnaire printed in The Evening Star before the home Knock-Out Cup final leg against Peterborough that the Witches management has moved fast to try to agree a deal.

The son of former Ipswich rider Mike, Lanham has been on loan to Premier League Arena-Essex for the last few seasons and this year proved that he has fully recovered from a bad leg break he suffered in early 2000.

Lanham has yet to commit himself, but Ipswich are adamant that he is the rider they want and he would come into the team with a 4.44 average.

The rider, who mixes his speedway with helping his father and brother Nicki run the family fish and chip shop in Reynolds Road, Ipswich, is now keen to move up to the Sky Sports Elite League.

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The Ipswich asset said: "There is nothing like representing your home town and it would be great to be back riding at Foxhall again.

"The time is right for a move up from the Premier League and Ipswich would be my first choice, but there is no rush and I have to consider all my options.

"The Elite League is a tough place to ride and the experience I have gained with Arena-Essex will hold me in good stead. I have enjoyed myself there and I understand that they want me to stay.

"I will think over the Ipswich offer and everything should be sorted out before too long."

Lanham is associated with a Swedish First Division club that rides its home matches on Thursday nights, the same time as Witches home matches, but he sees that as no problem.

"They operate a squad system and I am not a regular by any means, so I would be available for all Ipswich matches," he said.

Lanham started riding for Ipswich as soon as he left school and quickly became a big favourite. He still has many fans at Foxhall and was included in many of the supporters' dream teams included in the questionnaire.

Witches director Magda Louis said: "We received nearly 300 replies which is exceptional and we would like to thank everybody for taking the trouble to help us with our team-building.

"We have looked at every reply and will be taking every opinion into account. Leigh's name appeared regularly and it is obvious that he is a huge favourite at Foxhall.

"It is our main aim to have him back in the team as he is an excellent rider and a lovely lad."

Scott Nicholls came out of the poll as the Ipswich fans' favourite rider with Jarek Hampel not far behind.

The vast majority of replies were happy to see Ipswich keep the same top five as this year, although there were very few votes to retain reserves Savalas Clouting and Jason Bunyan.

"I said after our defeat by Peterborough that we would not be making the same mistake again, so it is certain that we will have two new riders at the bottom end of our side in 2002," said Mrs Louis.

She added: "I am keeping tabs on a couple of young Polish riders. They are rising stars and have indicated that they want to ride for Ipswich, but they will not be ready for a year or so.

"We had to wait two years before we could get Jarek over here.

"Jarek was the only junior Polish rider regularly appearing in the Elite League in 2001 and he has had to give us a miss next year because he cannot fit in all our dates.

"With Under-21 events, pairs meetings etc taking place in Poland on Thursdays Jarek would have missed too many matches to have been viable proposition for us to keep.

"But he will be back at Foxhall one day. He will be re-negotiating his contract with his Polish club Pila this time next year and hopefully he will be able to find more leeway so that he can return to our side in 2003.

"Jarek was bitterly disappointed at missing out on a nominated Grand Prix place. He was told he was going to be included but obviously he did not carry enough weight in the offices where decisions were made.

"He has got over it now and says that he wants to qualify in a way in which he can be proud – on the track. We have not seen the last of Jarek."

Nicholls, the glamour boy of British speedway, has already agreed a deal that will keep him at Foxhall in 2002. He will be riding in the Grand Prix series on a full time basis for the first time next season.

"Around 85 per cent of questionnaire replies were happy for us to keep the top five from 2001," added Mrs Louis.

"We have tied up Scott and are now talking to Chris Louis, Craig Boyce and Jeremy Doncaster – plus of course Leigh Lanham.

"The top five bonded very well and although I can't promise we will be keeping the other four of our top five we will be doing our best to put our fans' wishes into practice.

"There was a big desire for a return to second-half junior racing and we will be seeing what we can do. The main reason fans do not come to Foxhall every Thursday is first family commitments and then poor weather.

"If our meeting is televised live the majority watch at Foxhall and record the TV programme. Around 30 per cent say that they stay at home and watch on TV."

Prizes will be sent to five lucky people who replied to the questionnaire. "We will be drawing their names out of a hat and sending gifts to them," added Mrs Louis.

"We would like to thank the Star for their help and will be printing the winners in the paper very soon."

Mrs Louis would give little away on the riders she and her husband John – plus team manager Mike Smillie – will be seeking to complete the line-up. "What I will say is that there are riders out there who under-performed in 2001.

"We will be zooming in on riders who can come to us with an average that they are more than capable of improving in 2002.

"Bjarne Pedersen has a big future and he is a rider we have made inquiries about. He has gone from Newcastle to Poole for 2002 and good luck to Poole. There are riders out there who we are after and ones who we will be going after, but our priority at the moment is to agree a deal with Leigh," she said.

John Louis attends the annual British Speedway Promoters' Association conference in Edinburgh next week when the proposed one GP rider per Elite League team rule and a 45-point combined average team limit are expected to be confirmed.

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