Milton Keynes...The Last Season
At the beginning of 1992 the future of the Milton Keynes Knights was looking very bleak indeed. They just had come through a traumatic 1991 season which had seen them temporarily close mid-season due to financial problems, only being able to complete the campaign after an appeal to supporters for interest free loans. Along the way they'd also lost star rider Gordon Kennett in an attempt to stem losses.
The club was operating out of Elfield Park, a purpose built venue that had become their home after being evicted from the town's greyhound stadium in 1988. The stadium was basic in the extreme and the BSPA had issued warnings stressing that immediate and substantial improvements were necessary.
Club owner and promoter Terry Cheney admitted that making those stadium improvements was not going to be easy:
"My sole aim has been to keep Milton Keynes Speedway going, but it has been a difficult job and I have blown all my money."
Against this background - a skint promoter, a side in need of investment and a stadium requiring major works - it seemed unlikely that club would be able to continue.
In early February, help came from a most unlikely source - Exeter.
Exeter promoters Colin Hill and Roger Jones stepped in and agreed a deal with Cheney that would see them run the team, while he retained control of the track and stadium. Jones, who had actually been sacked as Milton Keynes promoter by Cheney a few years earlier, would take control at Milton Keynes while Hill would concentrate on activities at Exeter.
The Exeter promotion had a number of motives for getting involved. The Knights were actually their nearest rivals in the second division and they didn't want to become even more isolated, they also had unused rider assets that were of little value if they weren't employed and it's also fair to say they acted out of concern for the sport as a whole. Another lost track was the last thing that the sport needed - Wimbledon and Hackney had just closed and Peterborough were only saved by the intervention of Peter Oakes and James Easter.
Milton Keynes was not actually the first choice venue for Jones and Hill. Their initial target had been Mildenhall, where speedway had not been staged the previous year. The drawback of the Fens track was that as a new club they'd had to have paid a joining fee to the league, no such payment being necessary at Elfield swung the decision that way.
Jones was optimistic after the takeover was completed:
"Milton Keynes has got an awful history, but I feel that if it's promoted properly, and a cost-effective team is put in then Milton Keynes can support speedway and we can get by there."
In an attempt to boost crowds they applied to switch race night from Tuesday to Saturday, no doubt hoping to make it more family friendly in the process. Their application was refused after Coventry raised an objection that their own crowds might be affected by the increased competition - which seemed unlikely then and just as ludicrous in retrospect.
Within three weeks they had assembled the bulk of the side, which would race once more in red, white and blue - rather than the jade and orange of the previous season. It was a side that certainly didn't lack in experience, consisting of Richard Hellsen, Ian Barney, Peter Glanz, Dave Steen, Lars Munkedal and (surprisingly) Gordon Kennett who agreed to return despite the abrupt end to his earlier spell as a Knight.
Kennett and Hellsen had both been riding since the early seventies and were now very definitely at the veteran stage. Hellsen, who had not been fully recompensed for his efforts for Peterborough the previous year, shared his thoughts on the eve of the season:
"I'm looking forward to riding at Elfield Park. For a start I know I'll get paid there. The place has potential, if they just put down some grass seed instead of the earth banks it would look good."
The Knights opened their season with a home match against Rospiggarna from Sweden on 31st March. By this time Justin Walker had signed up and Frank Smart, an Exeter asset, had been recruited to replace Ian Barney who'd thought better of signing for Milton Keynes. The Knights lost the match by 56 points to 34 - a youngster called Tony Rickardsson scoring a 14+1 paid maximum for the visitors in the process.
Even in defeat there was cause for celebration - this was the first time in the four years at Elfield Park that the opening meeting had gone ahead as planned.
The following night the team got their official campaign underway at Long Eaton. Gordon Kennett belied his years to notch 15 points from his six rides - though his team-mates only managed another 24 collectively and the home side took the Gold Cup points on offer. The Gold Cup being similar to the current Premier Trophy competition.
An away defeat wasn't an unexpected or unacceptable outcome from the meeting so everyone was in good heart before the first home Gold Cup meeting on April 7th when Rye House were the visitors. The good moods lasted only four heats before the meeting had to be abandoned. The following week's home meeting didn't even get that far, an early postponement preventing Mildenhall (who had been reopened by another promotion) taking to the track.
The team eventually managed to race another meeting the following Monday at sister-track Exeter. The Knights struggled on the notoriously difficult County Ground and no rider managed to score more than five points, the team total reaching only 27 as against the 63 of the home side.
The Knights got their revenge at Elfield Park the following evening, winning by 46-43.
Another team change was made at this point, Lars Munkedal was replaced with Ian Barney who had eventually been persuaded to join up. The suggestion at the time was that Munkedal was after more money, though the lack of home meetings suggested that a cash-flow problem may be at the root of it.
Gordon Kennett, even at 38, was proving to be the top man in the side, though he was less than happy with track conditions:
"The track is a nice shape, but it's full of holes, has adverse cambers, is badly watered and they use the wrong shale."
Despite his criticism of his home track, it was on his travels that he picked up torn shoulder ligaments. The Knights going down 53-35 at Rye House on the day that Kennett was injured. Ian Barney made his debut in this meeting and demonstrated his legendary inconsistency with a scorecard that read 0-3-0-0.
The home meeting on April 28th was to be another postponement and perhaps the most damaging of all the events to engulf the Knights that season. The meeting was called off at 7pm, heavy rain in the morning leading to damage that couldn't be repaired with the available equipment. Terry Cheney, who was still responsible for track preparation, took the brunt of the blame and tensions between the promoters and stadium owner were becoming clear.
Peter Glanz hit form to score 17+1 when the Knights visited Mildenhall the following Sunday. He was equally impressive when he scored an 18 point maximum in the home league clash with Middlesbrough that followed - the Knights winning 48-42 in a rare home meeting devoid of drama or extreme track conditions.
Away visits to (eventual champions) Peterborough and Glasgow led to predictable defeats. The 30 points the Knights scored at Peterborough being most notable for a 14 point contribution from Ian Barney.
It was to be one of his last meetings for the Knights as he quit the club once again. Kieran McCullagh was promoted from the junior side to replace the former NLRC champion.
An inter-league cup clash with Arena Essex was next on the menu for the Knights' fans. The Division One side convincingly winning the clash by 61 to 28.
After the meeting Colin Hill admitted the club had severe cash-flow problems, mainly the result of paying for eight away meetings from the income from four home ones.
The home clash with Stoke on May 19th was most notable for some controversial refereeing decisions from Stan Green. The visiting Potters won the match despite Gordon Kennett returning to the Knights' side for the first time since his shoulder injury.
In the corridors of power there was increasing unrest about the track and stadium conditions at Elfield and a threat to withdraw the track's licence was issued.
Things were no better on May 26th when the start of the meeting against Peterborough had to be delayed for 60 minutes to allow the track to be adequately watered. The Knights, by now without the injured Peter Glanz, losing the Gold Cup clash by 49 points to 41. Nobody knew it at the time, but this was to be the last ever meeting in Milton Keynes.
The following week's meeting against Long Eaton was postponed at 7pm after a track inspection showed the circuit was unfit for racing.
The Speedway Control Board now had little option and suspended the Elfield Park licence. They issued the following statement:
"The SCB, upon the request of the BSPA, after an investigation of all the circumstances surrounding the events at Milton Keynes this year, have decided that both the promoting and track licences be suspended until such time as the stadium and track meet the requirements of the BSPA".
These required improvements were the installation of lighting in public areas, acceptable toilets and cover for spectators.
As the days passed it began to look less and less likely that the track would reopen. Hill and Jones wouldn't return until the track improvements were made and Cheney refused to start work until the two promoters confirmed they would definitely return. A classic impasse.
In the interim, the Knights raced three away rounds of the Four Team Tournament competition, though there were few signs that they would ever race at home again.
Eventually, Roger Jones confirmed the inevitable:
"Following the recent problems at Milton Keynes Speedway, the promoter Roger Jones regrets to announce the withdrawal of the Milton Keynes speedway team from the Homefire League for the 1992 season having experienced financial losses at the venue due to various operating difficulties."
Hill and Jones pointed the finger squarely at Cheney for the failure of the venture, pointing out that the problems were mainly to do with the track and stadium, which were both under his control. Cheney suggested that some of their problems were self-inflicted and that they had reneged on an agreement to pay certain bills, including the purchase of shale.
There has not been speedway in Milton Keynes since, despite irregular rumours of a new track. Terry Cheney held out hope that the club could be relaunched in a mooted new third division, sadly for the Knights the new league did not get off the ground until 1994, by which time the track and stadium had long since been left to rot.
Retrospectively we can see that Richard Hellsen was the last ever heat winner for Milton Keynes - being their only heat winner in the Rye House round of the 4TT on June 21st 1992.
The last ever race at Elfield Park was won by Mike Howe in the junior match that followed the delayed May 26th meeting against Peterborough. The last race of that main meeting was won by Paul Hurry of the Panthers, but only after his team-mate Jason Crump had fallen.
The Knights competed in nine Gold Cup meetings and collected two match points. They raced in two league matches - a win and a defeat. These results were subsequently expunged from official records.
This article was first published on 26th February 2009
"Was a regular @ Elfield through 90 & 91. Didn't go in 92 as it was already apparent that it was going to be a struggle to keep going. I seem to remember feeling at the time, the BSPA, had been doing their best to close the Knights in their time at Elfield. Bad enough Terry had to put up with constant vandalism, the early withdrawal of his partners and the "nimbys" at nearby Furzton estate. Being fined for allowing an article into a programme that critisised the BSPA, didn't help, when a warning, followed by a public written apology by Terry would probably have been sufficient. As well as the perception that the board were backward at offering assistance. A weaker person than Terry would have washed their hands well before the end."
"This article brings back some happy memories. Although I am a Cradley fan, I regularly went to Elfield Park between 1990-92. I loved the place, it reminded me of a mini Odsal but without the stands. I remember seeing the Hungarian team there and also a touring team of Swedes. Rumour has it, that there was an underground stream underneath the first bend. Is anything left of the track? Not been anywhere near, since 92?"
"Such a shame that speedway didn't continue at Elfield Park. I loved visiting the track there, even though you were never quite sure what you'd find when you got there. They seemed to move everything around between my visits, the pits certainly changed sides and ended up on top of a hill if I remember rightly. Strange but fascinating place."
"I do question the way in which the authorities were complicit in the closure of MK at Elfield. It was known behind the scenes that there were several members of the sports hierachy who had had their feathers ruffled over the previous couple of years by the straight spoken and occaisionally erratic views and actions at what was regarded as a 'maverick' track. I know from personal experience that when that last meeting against Long Eaton was called off the amount of 'inspection' by those in authority was absolutely minimal - I stood next to one 'official' who didn't even go down to the track but stood by the referees box and in less than a minute made his mind up. Interestingly, a very senior and well known visiting Promoter stood alongside him 'advising' him in his decision making!! I have massive respect for Terry Cheney for all that he did (even though there were times we could have strangled him), but that night in particular I saw a side of the sport I did not enjoy. "
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