Devils riders put troubles on Hold
UNCERTAIN times for the Plymouth Devils, whose stunning 53-35 victory over fellow Premier League strugglers Berwick masked an uncomfortable atmosphere at the St Boniface Arena.
In the background, a four-man consortium is said to be interested in taking the club over lock, stock and barrel from chairman and promoter Mike Bowden, the man who has been at Plymouth's helm for more than five years.
Very much in the foreground before the meeting even started was a protest staged by the Devils' squad, who declared they were not racing unless they were paid. The meeting wasn't delayed, but there was a lengthy queue of Devils fans waiting outside the Arena wondering what was going on before they were eventually let in.
They weren't the only ones wondering just what is going on at the St Boniface Arena. Promises of payment were made to the Devils squad, who promptly went out and put in arguably their most impressive home performance of the season.
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At stake is a post regular season place is what could be justifiably dubbed the Premier's plate competition, for teams who didn't make the top six and the play-offs.
The only team who won't get into the plate is the league's bottom side, the position Devils occupy.
To set the scene, Devils had to win twice in their last two league matches by the fearsome total of 24 points to get off the Premier's basement. The first part of the job was completed against Berwick, who lost by 18 points. The rest must come against a formidable Newcastle team if this Friday's meeting at the St Boniface isn't to be the last of the season. Whether Devils succeed or not depends also on results elsewhere.
For a team which has already taken pay cuts to keep the city club afloat, Devils' riders – whatever their grievances about their pay – seem only to bear grudges for as long as it takes them to kit up and get their bikes out onto the circuit.
No sooner had the dust settled on their pre-meeting dispute than Ben Barker was leading his team-mate Todd Kurtz to a 5-1 first-heat win.
"It's up to the riders," Bowden told the crowd before the end of the meeting, when Devils were so far in front they couldn't be caught. "If they fail next week, then it's the last meeting of the season here. The more points we can get this week, the less we need next week."
It was a message not lost on his riders, whose only reverse came in heat five, when they suffered a 5-1 defeat. Otherwise, they mercilessly piled the points on an injury-hit Berwick, who were mathematically well beaten by heat 13, but metaphorically thrashed well before that.
Biggest success of the night came when reserve James Holder, who hasn't enjoyed the happiest of seasons with the Devils, was pitted against former Plymouth rider Ricky Wells.
Team-mate Ryan Fisher and his other opponent David Bellego were excluded for various offences, leaving Holder to face Wells, Berwick's number one for the night. Nobody would have put money on Holder doing anything other than eating Wells' exhaust fumes, but the Australian confounded his critics with a perfect gate and held the lead to the end of the race, despite a few wobbles.
Holder was presented with the man of the match award for that feat, although it was Barker and Fisher who applied the coup de grace with 5-1s in heats 13 and 15.
Bowden was inclined to shrug off the pay protest afterwards as one of those things. The Devils chairman said it was late payment by other clubs to Plymouth – each home club pays for the visitors' expenses – which had affected his ability to pay his riders. The Devils chairman, who stoically endured unwarranted cheap shots from certain sections of the crowd about not having the money to pay the referee, said: "Basically, the riders get paid when I do. One club has just sent us their payment after a month. Another cheque turned up on Friday. How I'm supposed to cash that with the weekend in between I'm not sure?
"We always pay up, but it's other clubs who put us in a difficult position. It's not good business and it gives us a lot of aggravation."
Meanwhile, Bowden was pleased with his team's performance, especially Holder.
He said: "It was good racing and the riders did well. They know if they don't, then the season's over. It was certainly James Holder's best performance of the season – the boy did really well."