A Special Brew! How Ipswich Witches shook up the Premiership in 2019...
© Copyright Stephen Waller
It was a sensational speedway season for Ipswich Witches in 2019. MIKE BACON looks back...
It seems strange that, while Ipswich Witches didn't actually win anything in 2019, the season felt like a massive victory.
I suppose it all starts when you are written off before the campaign begins.
It happens in football, rugby, cricket and many team sports. The 'experts' take a look, give you the thumbs up or thumbs down - and off we go.
It was a thumbs down from many when Ipswich Witches announced their 2019 line-up!
A new side, back in the big league.
Back in the sport's big time - yes, where they should be. But likely 'a bit of cannon-fodder, old chap'.
Admittedly, like the town's football team at Portman Road, history hangs heavy at Foxhall Stadium for modern day Ipswich Witches as, year on year, teams are reminded of halcyon days gone by.
Yet, like Ipswich Town fans, loyalty is a given at Foxhall. Crowds are still among the best in the land and for the most part Witches riders 'wear the Witch' with pride.
The class of 2019 did.
Back in British Speedway's equivalent of football's Premier League - the Witches gave it their absolute all this summer.
Led by amiable team boss Ritchie Hawkins, they surprised almost everyone - except themselves - with some outstanding team performances, home and away.
While other teams could boast No.1 riders with eight and nine-point averages, the Witches were happy to start the season with 7.59 Chris Harris at No.1... The rest had averages of six points or less.
Solidity was the key and boy did the Witches turn that lock.
Their first Premiership meeting of 2019 was at home to Belle Vue Aces. A more iconic club in British speedway you couldn't wish to meet in your opening league fixture - memories of old Aces v Witches clashes of the '70s and '80s came flooding back.
However, if the Witches wanted the best start possible to 2019, they got it... A 52-38 win over the Aces that had the crowd rejoicing.
It was the start of a beautiful campaign.
If their first home meeting back in the Premiership had the perfect result, the team's first away meeting didn't... A 40-50 loss at Wolverhampton.
However.... And here was the crucial point even at this early stage.
While, yes, the Witches did lose by 10, they started the meeting brightly and led by six after four heats. A nasty crash for Cameron Heeps when he was leading heat nine was pivotal as Wolves took control. It could have been very different.
Hawkins' side had made a statement. They were going to be no pushovers.
A bank holiday afternoon win over old rivals King's Lynn at Foxhall was just what the doctor ordered to back up the Belle Vue victory, before the first of two terrific results at Peterborough - a 51-39 win - saw Ipswich take all four points.
The Witches were top of the table and the home wins kept coming - Wolves, Peterborough and Lynn (again), all succumbing at Foxhall. With dominant reserves Heeps and Jake Allen to the fore, the Witches were a force.
Richard Lawson took over the No.1 slot from Harris going into June, by which time six of the seven Witches who were on parade on Press Day, had at one time or another top-scored - only Pole Krystian Pieszcek had not - and he was to put that right at Belle Vue in July.
A stunning Harris last-heat manoeuvre at Lynn grabbed the Witches a draw at the Norfolk Arena before there was another win at Peterborough, although that was marred by a nasty injury to Panthers man Hans Andersen.
Ten meetings in and the Witches were top. But there were tough tests ahead.
A narrow two-point defeat at champions-elect Swindon in July, after former world champion Jason Doyle passed Pieszczek on the final bend was followed by defeat at a rain-soaked Belle Vue.
Poole inflicted the Witches first home defeat of the season. It could have been significant in denting the Suffolk team's confidence. But, once again, Ipswich refused to feel sorry for themselves, coming back from eight points down to draw at Wolves.
Home wins over Wolves and Belle Vue and the Witches were almost play-off bound as we headed into August.
However, two heavy defeats at Lynn and at home to Swindon saw nerves jangle. All season the Witches had been in the top four, now Belle Vue were breathing down their necks for the final play-off place, as Poole, Wolves and Swindon hit form.
But the Witches got over the line with an easy win over a hapless Peterborough.
Ipswich were in the top four but Hawkins and promoter Chris Louis were looking to make team changes - a boost ahead of the play-offs.
Out went the unlucky Pieszczek and Eddie Kennett, who had come in earlier in the season for David Bellego. In came Grand Prix star Niels Kristian-Iversen and James Sarjeant.
September:- The play-offs were here and with the weather playing havoc the Witches went to Poole for a sensational first leg.
Conditions were tricky but the Witches cared not and were in control of the tie, building a 12-point lead after just eight heats in front of the BT Sports cameras.
However, it all came crashing down in the second half of the meeting, the Pirates rallied and hit six 5-1s in the last seven races to build up a 10-point lead to take to Foxhall. They were dancing in the streets of Poole at that.... Had the Witches blown the best chance they were going to get?
The answer was no.
Just as all season long, the Witches class of 2019 didn't know when they were beaten and in another incredible tie, the second leg saw 5-1s go this way and that, before Lawson and Sarjeant sewed it up in heat 14 at Foxhall for the home side.
The scenes were extraordinary as the pair went over the line to win. The roar could be heard miles away.
The Witches were in the Premiership final...
... OK, it was one step too far.
Hot favourites Swindon proved too hot too handle, home and away in the final as the Witches lost by the biggest-ever margin since Premiership grand finals were introduced!
A disappointing end... Everyone wants to win a final.
However, the bigger picture was just that... A real picture.
Ipswich Witches, after dropping down into the Championship in 2011, were - and are - back in the big time of British Speedway.
For Witches fans the year was an absolute treat.
The secret is keeping that Witches broomstick flying high in 2020.
Roll on March....