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An afternoon which began with what threatened to be total calamity ended with the Mildenhall Fen Tigers – proudly sponsored by Manchetts Rescue and Recovery – on the very top of Speedway’s National Development League [NDL} and confirmed into the title-deciding end of season Play Offs.

The double header on Sunday (4/9) saw the existing table toppers Berwick Bullets and second from bottom Plymouth Centurions arrive from their respective long distances and contrasting league positions and with the reigning champions, Mildenhall knowing that two wins would guarantee them a route to defending their title; but anything short of that and it could be curtains for their 2022 NDL campaign. 

The latter was basically unthinkable – until on the very first bend of the opening heat when Berwick’s teenaged prodigy Ace Pijper completely missed the turn, spearing straight into the Fen Tigers’ skipper and talisman, Jason Edward sending them both at hugely high speed into the air barrier. The pair were on their feet quicker than any watching could truly have anticipated and under their own steam walked into the medical room. Pijper excluded for causing the crash had concussion and was out not just of the rerun but the meeting. Then came the news the West Row faithful were holding their breath and praying it wouldn’t be so – Edwards was also unfit to continue, a shoulder injury and very badly shaken up. The number one out of the meeting – which of course in this case meant not one match but two. Surely the injury jinx which has bedevilled Mildenhall all season wasn’t now going to mean they fell at the final hurdles?

There was some respite in match one – a relatively new rule for the NDL, “Injury Rider Replacement” means riders ruled out in the opening couple of heats can have their remaining rides covered as if under the R/R process. But of course that wouldn’t apply in match two – frantic behind the scenes actions were in place, later to be revealed to the crowd.

But the business now was to repel the threat of the Bullets – and they weren’t shooting blanks, providing four of the heat winners in the opening five races. The exception had been heat two when what was to be an excellent afternoon for the in-form Alex Spooner began with a win, his reserve team mate Luke Muff following close behind for an important 5-1. 

Going into heat seven that early lead for the hosts had been reduced to two points, but the match was about to turn decisively in the Fen Tigers’ favour,. Shrewd team management by Jason Gardner and Malcolm Vasey (the latter defying the pain barrier after himself falling on the centre green and suffering a cut hand) saw Spooner brought in to partner ‘Guest’ Connor Coles in heat 7: the result a second 5-1. Which quickly became a third when Josh Warren (in his first match in the main body of the side) combined with Muff.  

Halfway through and all good – with a 10 points lead established. And it’s fair to say that the second stanza was all about the Fen Tigers – reeling off a hugely impressive five heat advantages in the seven races: a further three heat wins for Coles, and one more each for Warren and Spooner, both times being joined for 5-1s by Jack Kingston (who’d recovered from the disappointment of shedding a chain when leading in his opening ride). The Bullets had been well and truly disarmed.

To lose their number one so early and in such circumstances and then have all remaining five team members record paid double figures (Spooner with a career-best paid 18 and Coles on 17 topping the score charts) was a truly incredible performance.

Just one more match to negotiate to ensure they finished their season on top of the pile (as they’d ended 2021 of course) for the Fen Tigers,

And those frantic behind the scenes discussions? Well, Pit Marshal Steve Bebee had offered up a solution – Kent Royals race at midday and their meeting with Armadale would long be over by the time the second match at West Row vs. Plymouth was due to start. Why not get a rider from one of the travelling Scottish team to hot foot it to Suffolk and cover as ‘Guest’ for Edwards? A genius idea and a ‘phone call and a hurried discussion saw Armadale’s Danny Phillips procured and in his van West Row-bound!

Plymouth may be sitting one place and one point off the bottom of the table but with their own ‘Guest’ from the first match, Kyle Bickley and using R/R for Ben Trigger which meant all of their riders including the highly useful Adam Roynon could cover, there was definitely a danger lurking.  

A danger though very quickly snuffed out by a totally dialled-in Fen Tigers’ side. Three 5-1s in the opening four heats broke the back of their opponents. 

Coles went on to gain a full five ride maximum this time – it won’t take a need to look up the stats book to establish that the one-time Fen Tigers’ 10 race wins reeled off in a row in this meeting is the most impressive return by a ‘Guest’ rider in Mildenhall’s history. Phillips ably played his part – beating Roynon in his first ride without so much as a warm up, in the same impressive fashion he’d dealt with the traffic queue at the Dartford Crossing!

To be fair to the Devonians they did mount a plucky performance to attempt to stem the tide: Bickley and the always good value Richard Andrews delivered a face saving 5-1 of their own and then Andrews was involved in the race of the whole day in heat 10, overhauling both Phillips and then Josh Warren to go from third to first on the line. There was a race almost as good two heats later with Luke Muff holding off the most determined of challenges from former GB Youth champion Rhys Naylor. 

But in the end the score was nearly identical to the first match – and the six points secured lifted the Fen Tigers to the top of the table.

Team boss Jason Gardner was delighted with how the job got done,

“Obviously it was a very sticky moment when we lost Jason but the way the lads pulled together and worked as a team was simply outstanding. We are very proud of them.

“It is a great feeling to be top of the table at the completion of our fixtures and more importantly knowing that we are guaranteed a place in the play offs.  

We are actually the only team in the top four to have lost a couple of home matches and that shows that our away form has actually outstripped all others in the division – with the only blot being a big defeat at Belle Vue when we went with a severely weakened side. So with that away form and with the emphatic home wins we’re now delivering, do we have to fear anyone in the Play Offs? Definitely not.”

And of his stricken co-manager Vasey?,

“Malcolm got himself home safely – proving what a trooper he is by staying on to see the boys to victory – and he’s told me he’s off to hospital to get his hand looked at and like as not stitched up. I hope he doesn’t have to wait in A&E too long”.

And it’s the waiting game the Fen Tigers now have to play to see the positions the top four finally get into before knowing who their Play Off semi-final opponents will be.

Mildenhall Fen Tigers 57

Jason Edwards          0                          = 0 (withdrawn - injury R/R)
Josh Warren              1’, 2, 0, 3, 3, 1, 0    = 10+1
R/R – Sam Bebee
Jack Kingston            EF, 1’, 1’, 2’, 2’        = 6+4
Connor Coles (G)       2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3        = 17
Luke Muff                 2’, 2, 2’, 1, 1           = 8+2
Alex Spooner            2, 3, 1’, 2’, 2, 3, 3    = 16+2

Berwick Bullets 33

Kyle Bickley              3, 3, 2, 2, 1’            = 11+1
Ace Pijper                 X                           = 0 (withdrawn - injury R/R)            
Mason Watson         1, 0, 0, 0, F             = 1
R/R - Luke Crang
Greg Blair                  3, 3, 2, 3, R, 2        = 13
Kieran Douglas          0, 1’, 1, 0, 0, 0        = 2+1
Ben Rathbone           1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 2, 1     = 6

Heat details

1 (rerun) Bickley, Spooner, Warren, Edwards (injured), Pijper (exc. UR) 52.1 [3-3]
2 Spooner, Muff, Rathbone, Douglas 53.5 [8-4]
3 Blair, Warren, Watson, Kingston (EF) 53.8 [10-8]
4 Blair, Coles, Spooner, Rathbone 52.8  [13-11]
5 (rerun) Bickley, Muff, Kingston (exc. 2 mins; 15m), Watson 53.6 [16-14]
6 Coles, Blair, Douglas, Warren 53.5 [19-17]
7 Coles, Spooner, Rathbone, Watson 53.9 [24-18]
8 (rerun) Warren, Muff, Douglas, Rathbone [M 15m] 55.1 [29-19]
9 Blair, Spooner, Kingston, Douglas 54.3 [32-22]
10 Warren, Kingston, Rathbone, Watson 55.5 [37-23]
11 Coles, Bickley, Muff, Douglas 53.8 [41-25]
12 Spooner, Rathbone, Muff, Watson (fell) no time (A) [45-27]
13 Coles, Bickley, Warren, Blair (EF) 53.8 [49-29]
14 Spooner, Kingston, Rathbone, Douglas 54.7 [54-30]
15 Coles, Blair, Bickley, Warren 53.5 [57-33]

Mildenhall Fen Tigers 56

Danny Phillips (G)        3, 1', 1, 1              = 6+1
Josh Warren                2, 3, 1, 1', 2          = 9+1
R/R – Sam Bebee
Jack Kingston              2', 0, 2, 3              = 7+1
Connor Coles [G]         3, 3, 3, 3, 3           = 15 [M]
Luke Muff                   2', 1, 1, 3, 1           = 8+1
Alex Spooner              1', 3, 2', 2, 1', 2', M = 11+4

Plymouth Centurions 34

Kyle Bickley [G]           3, 3, 3, R               = 9 (withdrawn - illness)
R/R
Rhys Naylor                0, X, 2, 0, 2            = 4
Richard Andrews         1, 2', F, 3, 2, EF       = 8+1
Adam Roynon             1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 2         = 11
Tim Colley                  1, FX, F, 1', 0           = 2+1
David Abraham            0, 0, 0, 0                = 0

Heat details

1 Bickley, Warren, Spooner, Naylor 55.3 [3-3]
2 (rerun) Spooner, Muff, Colley, Abraham 56.  [8-4]
3 (rerun) Warren, Kingston, Andrews, Naylor (exc.) 57.1 [13-5]
4 Coles, Spooner, Roynon, Abraham  55.6 [18-6]
5 Bickley, Andrews, Muff, Kingston  55.3 [19-11]
6 (rerun) Phillips, Roynon, Warren, Colley (fell exc.) 55.1 [23-13]
7 Coles, Naylor, Muff, Andrews (fell) 54.1 [27-15]
8 Bickley, Spooner, Warren, Abraham 57.0 [30-18]
9 Roynon, Kingston, Spooner, Colley (fell) 56.6 [33-21]
10 Andrews, Warren, Phillips, Naylor 57.5 [36-24]
11 Coles, Spooner, Roynon, Bickley (ret.) 54.3 [41-25]
12 Muff, Naylor, Colley, Spooner (exc. 2M) 56.7 [44-28]
13 Coles, Roynon, Phillips, Colley 54.1 [48-30]
14 Kingston, Andrews, Muff, Abraham 55.1 [52-32]
15 Coles, Roynon, Phillips, Andrews (EF) 54.9 [56-34]