Young guns will be hard to beat: Smillie

IPSWICH Evening Star Witches team manager Mike Smillie will be looking to guide his side to success at Foxhall Stadium this year.Smillie's side opens their Sky Sports Elite League home campaign against title favourites Poole Pirates on Thursday.

By Elvin King

IPSWICH Evening Star Witches team manager Mike Smillie will be looking to guide his side to success at Foxhall Stadium this year.

Smillie's side opens their Sky Sports Elite League home campaign against title favourites Poole Pirates on Thursday.

Last Saturday they were beaten 48-42 by a fancied Coventry side, who hit back in the later stages to win.

The Pirates fixture will give Ipswich fans a barometer of how the season could go. Quoted as rank outsiders by the bookies, Witches may not have the top-end strength to win too many meetings on their travels, but Smillie is still confident of a good year.

He said: "We have tried to build a team that will be hard to beat particularly at Foxhall. If we drop too many home points then we will not reach the play-offs.

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"Hopefully we will not struggle too badly on our travels. The one worry is that there may not be anybody other than Scott Nicholls who we can use as a 'natural' tactical substitute.

"I will be adopting a 'horses for courses' policy on tacticals this year. Paul Hurry or Chris Slabon may fly at one track while Daniel Nermark or Jarek Hampel might go well somewhere else – it will be a case of wait and see.

"We have a much younger team than last year, but they all have a lot of experience.

"The three oldest members will be the three newcomers – Paul Hurry, Daniel Nermark and Tom P Madsen."

The team has been tagged Smillie's Babes and the long-serving team boss warned what would happen if the youngsters fail to come up with the goods.

"If we drop too many home points and crowds drop, we will be looking for a move into the Premier League next year," he confirmed.

"Some people may say that it is just an idle threat to try to boost crowd levels, but I know that Magda Louis is adamant that we cannot afford as a club to continue losing money."

The Witches have already officially applied for a Premier League spot in 2004, but will stay in the top flight if finances permit. Last year they suffered a considerable loss, reported to be around £18,000.

Smillie ran through the men under his control. Speaking about number one and skipper Nicholls, he said: "We are hoping and praying that 2003 will be injury-free for Scott. He will lead from the front and could be back to the ten point-plus man we had in 2001.

"The British champion will always give 100 per cent, sometimes he tries to give more, and we will be looking for him to fire up other youngsters in the team.

"Paul Hurry comes on loan from Oxford despite having spent most of his career away from his parent club. Success seems to follow him around as he won the title with Eastbourne in 2000 and last year with Wolves.

"Paul normally rides Ipswich well and is not afraid to mix it with others. Paul's average is lower than Craig Boyce (who he replaces), but both have a very similar away average so I reckon his average will improve.

"Daniel Nermark is the second 2002 Wolf to sign for us and he replaces Chris Louis. I was a little surprised when he became surplus at Monmore.

"We acted quickly to replace Chris and Daniel's actual average last year was about the same as Chris', but with rolling averages in force it means we can use him as a second string, not a heat leader.

"Tom P Madsen comes on loan from Berwick and he too makes Foxhall his favourite British track. I am pleased to see him lining up in heat two for us rather than against us as he often proved to be a thorn in our side whenever King's Lynn visited.

"The beauty of having a balanced team is that if Tom, or indeed Danny or Leigh, improve their average sufficiently they will be able to be replaced at reserve by Daniel or Chris, or even Paul or Jarek, which is not impossible.

"I remember in 1995 when Ben Howe went from heat leader to reserve on the first set of averages and Leigh Lanham went the other way.

"One rider under a lot of pressure this year will be Jarek Hampel, who will begin the season as number one. His toughest tasks will be in the latter stages of matches with heats 13 and probably 15 being his hardest when up against opposition star names.

"If Jarek can respond as last year, when riding at number one he improved his average by half a point he will become a real force.

"Chris Slabon will be starting his first complete season in Britain and we all have high hopes that he will be a big hit again. Towards the end of last year, Chris was riding well.

"He's going to be racing a bit in Sweden this year, but ironically there is no guarantee that he will have an automatic team place in Poland as Wroclaw have strengthened their side considerably and there may not be room for him every week.

"We have decided to keep the same pair of floaters who served us well last year and I rate both Danny Bird and Leigh Lanham highly. Danny was quite a hit last year and I know that he enjoyed himself at Foxhall once he sorted his racing lines out. He was also very good on the away trips.

"Leigh surprised us last year and at times he seemed to struggle a little, but other times he was really on form and one outstanding performance was at Coventry in the Craven Shield Final when he scored paid 12 points.

"We have not seen the last of Chris Louis and have included him in our British League Cup squad in case he fancies giving it a go later in the summer.

"The BL Cup is ideal for riders in that instance, because it does not involve the normal pressures of Elite League racing. It will give riders coming back from time out of the saddle some idea of how they can cope in the harder league."

Ben Howe, Kim Jansson and Daniel King will also compete to take the place of Nicholls and Hampel in the Witches British League Cup side.

Smillie hopes the tournament will be treated with the respect it deserves. "It would be nonsense and make a mockery of the sport in some circles (particularly the media), if the authorities allowed riders to ride for more than one club in the same competition."

Smillie has his own outspoken views on rolling averages.

"My main gripe is that it keeps strong teams strong while not allowing weaker teams to strengthen

sufficiently," he said.

"I know it can be a nightmare for promoters of weaker teams who are struggling to keep their businesses afloat."

The Elite League is made up of eight sides, Poole Pirates (6-5 with William Hill for the title), Coventry Bees (3-1), Eastbourne Eagles (6-1), Wolverhampton Wolves (8-1), Peterborough Panthers (11-1), Belle Vue Aces (11-1), Oxford Silver Machine (14-1) and Ipswich Witches (28-1). Each team meets each other home and away twice, with the top four at the end of the season involved in a play-off to determine the champions.

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