PREVIEW Friday 8th April 2022, 12:41pm
This Friday evening sees a welcome return to the Lothian Arena of "The Speedway". With the Monarchs not in action until the following week, it's the Armadale Devils who take to the track to get season 2022 off and running.
I almost called them the new-look Devils but as can be seen from this latest line-up, very little about them can be described as "new". No fewer than five of the septet who gave such an encouraging account of themselves a year ago are back to bolster a line-up that, if anything, looks stronger and better prepared for the rigours of a competitive division.
It is to be hoped that, free from the stop-start disruption that marred much of last season, Danny Phillips, new skipper Tom Woolley, George Rothery and brothers Gregor and Lewis Millar will all benefit from being able to gain the type of momentum an unhindered fixture programme is bound to offer.
All five have shown how capable and, indeed, entertaining, they can be. Now they have a real chance to hone their skills and increase their averages with more regular action.
The two empty slots that came up for grabs due to Nathan Greaves' retirement and the departure for pastures new of Archie Freeman have been filled by riders with widely differing backgrounds.
Hailing from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 25-year-old Josh Embleton spent last season in the National Development League with the local Gems until their untimely demise part-way through. He has previous experience with Birmingham and Stoke in 2018 and, in 2019, the Leicester with whom he enjoyed League and Knock-Out Cup success as part of the Lion Cubs' double-winning side. Josh is likely to operate at no.2, starting with an average of 4.83.
Completing the Devils line-up is a rider of vast experience who needs no introduction to fans of the Blue and Golds. At 35, Perth-born William Lawson has been over the course a few times, and now he's back as Armadale's second heat-leader on a starting CMA of 7.82.
Apart from his anticipated ability to consistently pick up point at NDL level, Willie can hopefully use his many years in the sport to help bring on the team's younger riders.
The loss of Newcastle Gems and Eastbourne Seagulls during last year's title race left the NDL with only six clubs battling for silverware. Yet it was an unenviable set of circumstances that the organisers did well to make the best of. As the campaign concluded, Mildenhall Fen Tigers were crowned worthy champions with Armadale finishing fifth (or second bottom depending how you look at it).
However, had the Devils managed to fulfil their final meeting at Kent and emerge victorious, a far more impressive third place finish would have been the reality, and that would have been a remarkable achievement for a team so long away from regular league speedway.
For Friday's opener, we welcome last season's NDL runners-up, the Berwick Bullets, and we couldn't have had a tougher test to begin the new campaign. Much like the Devils, Berwick II are on similar lines to last year's team, with skipper Kyle Bickley, Kieran Douglas, Ben Rathbone, Greg Blair and Mason Watson all continuing their stay at Shielfield.
Augmenting this extremely strong outfit, are a couple of familiar names, again with contrasting back-stories. 31-year-old Luke Crang had the briefest of spells with Edinburgh last term after returning to the sport following a lengthy hiatus.
Finally, at no.7 for the Bullets is an exciting young hopeful whose development has probably been tracked as closely by fans at the Lothian Arena than anywhere else. Son of current Berwick Bandit, the incomparable Theo Pijper, 15-year-old Ace Pijper has had an amazing amount of faith bestowed upon him by the Newcastle management and it will be interesting to witness where his career goes from here.
So it's all systems go for an epic opening meeting and a thrilling season from start to finish.