PREVIEW Friday 2nd July 2021, 11:00am
Newcastle Gems' withdrawal from the National Development League after just two meetings has dealt the sport in this country a devastating blow. Should we be surprised though? The truth is a number of clubs across all three divisions face, or have faced, acute financial hardship on a daily basis as they fight to fend off ruin.
Of the Gems' own demise, club owner Rob Grant insists the decision, awful though it was to make, was necessary to safeguard the survival of Newcastle's Championship side, the Diamonds, at least until the end of the season.
Of course, for six riders just setting out on a career on the track (skipper Max Clegg can at least rely on his Diamonds day job for ongoing employment) the consequences of the Gems' collapse are afflictive. Thankfully, at least for two of them, the future looks rosier again. Kelsey Dugard and Archie Freeman have each found new homes with the Kent Royals and Armadale Devils respectively, but even for them the entire episode must have been unsettling. It is to be hoped there remains something out there for their erstwhile team-mates.
16-year-old Archie arrives in West Lothian as the replacement for the departing Sheldon Davies. It's never nice witness a young rider cast aside due to difficulties in maintaining a certain standard. Yet I'm sure even Sheldon himself would freely acknowledge his point-scoring record had fallen beneath expectations and the sad fact is clubs these days are showing less and less patience in this respect.
And, to a degree, you can see their point. A rider making scant contribution will only negate the more substantial efforts of a heat-winning colleague, and there can be nothing worse than one of your big hitters storming to victory frustrated in the knowledge that the best his toil will yield the team is a 3-3.
No matter, Sheldon leaves with the best wishes of everyone at the club for a brighter future in the sport.
Of course, mid-season personnel changes rarely come with a guarantee. However, in Archie Freeman, the Devils pick up a rising star universally tipped to make it to the very top. Newcastle through and through, the former Diamonds' mascot had his first experience on a speedway bike at the age of six and, once smitten, never looked back.
2018 became something of a breakthrough year for the talented Tynesider. Competing in the 125/150 cc category, he saw success in the GP Youth Championship and Northern Junior League Riders' Championship as well as partnering Danny Smith to victory in the Northern Junior Pairs.
Graduating to full-size 500 cc powered equipment, Archie's career continues to go from strength to strength. Even this season's final two outings with his ailing Gems – both against Armadale – yielded a highly-creditable aggregate points tally of 14+4 for the youngster.
Now sporting blue and gold, Archie makes his Devils debut on Friday with reigning NDL champions Leicester Lion Cubs providing the opposition. The teams last met on May 29th at Beaumont Park with the hosts running out 50-40 winners. The Cubs' victory was enabled in no small way by the scoring exploits of the twin Thompsons, Dan and Joe, who combined to score 26 points (16 and 10 respectively) which accounted for over half of their team's overall tally.
For Armadale, Nathan Greaves (13) and Tom Woolley (11) accomplished the same, just not to the same extent.
The Thompsons aside, Leicester will look to skipper Joe Lawlor to weigh in with a significant contribution, and you never know, he might just have a little inside knowledge of the Armadale track combining, as he does, life as a Lion Cup with that of a Monarch.
Also surviving that previous meeting with the Devils are 21-year-old Tom Spencer and teenagers Ben Trigger and Kai Ward while recent recruit Mickie Simpson has been introduced at reserve to replace long- term injury victim Jamie Halder.
With the early season form of both sides encouraging, this weekend's clash looks certain to be closely contested, particularly at the top end where the one-to-ones between Dan Thompson and Nathan Greaves may prove pivotal in deciding which team comes out on top.
Tickets are still available at ArmadaleDevils.co.uk (or can be purchased from the ticket kiosk outside the carpark) for those unable to attend then as all matches at Armadale will be this year the live stream is available from the EMTV link on the same site.