March 31, 2020
Even before the coronavirus outbreak dramatically changed the sporting landscape, George English was bracing himself for a significant step into the unknown.
Earlier this year an individual synonymous with speedway in the North East made the ‘gut- wrenching’ decision to step down from his myriad roles at Newcastle Diamonds and clear the way for new owners and a fresh approach.
A co-owner for the past 24 years and a director since 1990, George has done everything but ride a bike during his long and colourful association with the Brough Park-based organisation.
However, with the club’s 90th anniversary celebrations well underway and an ambitious new off-track team in place, the 61-year-old sensed an opportunity to retire from Newcastle’s frontline and go back to the future as a Diamonds fan.
“That was the plan,” confirms George as he continues to assess the wider ramifications of the COVID-19 virus on speedway and sport as a whole. “This was going to be the first season where I could take my mother to the speedway and she could actually watch a race.
“For as long as anyone can remember she’s been working behind the scenes at Brough Park and this was going to be the first time in a very long time that she was in a position to enjoy a home meeting.
“She’s 82 now and for decades she was a huge driving force behind speedway in Newcastle.
“Who could have predicted that the coronavirus would put paid to our best-laid plans?
“You have to go as far back to the 1950s to find the last time speedway was halted in its tracks in this country.
“These are unprecedented and unpredictable times.”
It was 1961 when Newcastle Speedway last reopened following a post-war layoff: the English family celebrated the sport’s long-awaited return to Tyneside en masse. Mum, dad and two-year-old George attended that comeback meeting and barely missed a single heat during the sport’s glorious heyday – a period when the Evening Chronicle published its best-selling Monday night speedway special and a time when the roar of the bikes and the familiar smell of fuel and fumes attracted thousands of spectators every week.
“My parents, George Snr and Joan, were supporters in the 1940s and they went straight back as soon as it reopened,” adds George. “They took me along as a toddler and as a family we’ve been going back ever since.
“The 60s were fabulous for me growing up as a kid. There were huge crowds and the atmosphere was electric.
“When you’re young you tend to latch on to one of your heroes – an idol if you like. For most people that adulation and that connection wanes as they get older.
“It was the opposite for me.
“When Ivan Mauger joined Newcastle in 1963 he instantly became my favourite. He was with the Diamonds for five years and won his first World Championship title as a Newcastle rider in 1968.
“He went on to become the greatest of all time and I followed him all over the world. I was in Poland with him in 1979 when he became the first rider to win six world titles.
“That was the pinnacle of his career but I watched the highs and the lows and it was often a struggle to get to that point.
“He’s still the only rider to lift a World Championship while representing Newcastle. Ivan passed away in 2018 but he was a major part of my speedway journey.”
George has worked with hundreds of riders during a decorated career at the top of his sport but a lifetime of highs has been punctuated
by inevitable lows. He describes almost losing 25-year-old Lewis Kerr, during a four-team tournament in Peterborough, as his ‘darkest day’ and still shudders at the memory five years down the line.
“Lewis was actually pronounced dead at one point following a collision with another rider,” explains George. “The crash sent him into a fence and the impact caused head injuries which kept him in an induced coma for several days.
“It affected me for a long, long time. When Lewis did come round one of the first things that he said to me was that he’d be riding again the following year. I told him that even though I thought so much of him he wouldn’t be riding for me. I just couldn’t face the prospect of him crashing again.
“It was such an awful experience and, having been by his side and watched him recover, the idea that he could ride for me again was something I simply couldn’t contemplate.”
Impending danger is what still draws the crowds to a sport synonymous with high-speed drama and a daredevil mentality. Nevertheless, Lewis’s 2015 injury remains the exception to the rule and, as George explains, it’s all about the brakes…or lack of them.
“When people realise there are no brakes on a speedway bike they immediately think the worst,” he adds. “Part of the reason that there are so few accidents is precisely because there are no brakes.
“Whenever we’ve done school visits we get four children to line up behind each other. We tell them to walk and then tell the kid at the front to stop suddenly. Of course, you get a concertina effect with the three other children walking into the back of each other before they’ve had time to stop. That’s what would happen if the bikes had brakes. Any slight touch on the brake in such a small area would cause a pile-up within seconds.”
Riding a bike is about the only job George hasn’t had (he jumped on and straight off again during one moment of madness in Sunderland during the 1970s) during his near 60-year association with speedway. Turnstile operator, programme editor, promoter and team manager all appear on his varied CV and it’s little wonder he was approached to reprise his role as the sport’s major events coordinator in 2020.
Coronavirus permitting, the prestigious position requires the full management of four key meetings as far afield as Teesside and Somerset later this year. The so-called ‘shared events’ guarantee much-needed revenue for clubs across the country and George explains: “I run them on behalf of the British Speedway Promoters’ Association (BSPA) and I have to ensure that every club receives its fair share of the income.
“It’s a job I’ve done before and a job I’d been looking forward to doing again. Coronavirus has meant the postponement of all speedway before the start of the season but we have to stay positive and hope the situation will change.”
Positivity appears to be a wholly necessary trait in the speedway arena. Dwindling crowds, increased competition, a shrinking pool of major sponsors and minimal media coverage all add up to a challenging environment where survival instinct is key.
“When it comes to folding completely, we had a couple of very close shaves,” concedes George, who stepped down as co-owner, director and team manager earlier this year. “We went public about it once. I remember Ian Murtagh, who wrote about speedway for the Chronicle and Journal at the time, telling me that we could only do that once. He was absolutely right and fortunately we never had to do it again.
“Over the years we’ve had to rely on the loyal support of a hardcore support and one or two invaluable sponsors. However, during my time with the club two things made a difficult operating environment even tougher.
“On the one hand, the emergence of the Newcastle Falcons and the Newcastle Eagles created an increasingly congested marketplace. One team and one sport will always dominate in this city and we have always accepted that.
“For everyone else it means attracting a share of a much smaller audience that is open to sports other than football.
“The second problem we have faced is the emergence of consoles and gaming. More and more people never consider attending a live event and yet, for me, live is where it’s at. It always has been and always will be.”
George knows better than most the unique challenges facing new owner Rob Grant but he believes a change in ownership can bring about a change in fortunes. At the same time the long- time face of Newcastle Diamonds deemed it necessary to distance himself from the new regime and its ambitions for the future.
“During the winter we decided we had to sell the club and a new owner came along in the shape of Rob,” he explains. “Initially, the plan was for me to work alongside him and to continue as his team manager.
“However, Rob’s got lots of new ideas and I respect that. When you’ve been there for so long it can be counter-productive to stay involved. My heart said stay but my head said now’s the time
to go – I didn’t want to be a potentially negative presence at a time when Rob and his team needed to stamp their own mark on the club.
“It was important that I stepped aside and allowed the new ideas to take hold. Rob needs to work things out for himself and he doesn’t need a chap in his 60s suggesting he does this and he does that!
“My various roles with the Diamonds have taken a lot out of me over the years and the last few years, in particular, have been a real struggle. It was just the right time to hand over the reins. I’m still there if Rob needs me for any reason at all.
However, I’m sure he’ll be fine and I’ve wished him the very best of luck.”
For all his measured reflection, George is putting a brave face on severing the ties of a lifetime and facing an uncertain future. With the dust settled and the season delayed are there any lingering regrets?
“I can’t deny it felt very strange in the first couple of weeks after I left,” concedes George. “Very strange. If I’m honest it was a gut-wrenching decision. It was a really difficult thing to do but I haven’t had any regrets.
“People keep ringing me up and asking me questions about the speedway club. All I can say is that it’s nothing to do with me anymore. I’m afraid that I can’t answer those questions for the first time in decades.
“I will assist Rob and his staff in any way I can but I needed to make it clear that my time was up. I couldn’t have done it in stages or maintained some kind of part-time role.
“I had to make a clean break; otherwise, it would never have happened.”
If George, Byker born and bred, will forever be a part of the Diamonds’ fabric then it’s deeply ironic that his happiest memories of speedway in the North East belong to the early 1970s and a brief dalliance with Sunderland.
“I annoy a lot of people when I say this but my best times in speedway – apart from growing up in the 60s – were when Newcastle was closed,” he reveals. “It was between 1971 and 1974 and the club’s licence was taken away and moved to a new track in Reading.
“It was felt that there wouldn’t be an appetite for second division speedway on Tyneside so management upped sticks and moved to Sunderland. Once again my family was heavily involved and it was back then that I did all of the jobs under the sun.
“I knew the housing estates across Wearside inside out as we delivered leaflets during the week and promoted the meetings at the weekend. Ultimately, too few people were prepared to come through from Newcastle to make the Sunderland operation viable.
“It was always a massive struggle but you couldn’t fault our gang mentality and our commitment to the cause. They were the four happiest years of my speedway life.”