Shaleman on Eastbourne Eagles brave last stand in speedway’s Grand Final

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EASTBOURNE Eagles’ quest for league glory fell at the final hurdle as they went down to defeat at Poole on Monday night.

The Lifestyle Eagles took an eight point lead from the first leg of the Elite League Grand Final to Dorset and only the super optimists thought it would be enough.

Fans, in their heart of hearts, knew it would need Poole to blow up big time if the league title was to come to Sussex for the first time since 2000.

It didn’t happen. The Poole machine slipped quickly into gear and scored a 5-1 in the opening race. And after that the Eagles were desperately trying to play catch-up against a Poole side that were determined not to let lightning strike twice.

A year ago they went into the final as favourites but lost in controversial fashion to Coventry. This year, Poole promoter Matt Ford strengthened his side at the end of August to cover for injuries and poor form.

In came Kevin Wolbert, the German champion at reserve, with Swede Thomas H Jonasson slotting into the main body of the team at No 4.

How much these two signings cost Ford, one can only guess. However, it is likely to have been a pretty penny because the riders would know how keen Poole were to win the title and would no doubt have adjusted their demands accordingly.

Jonasson fired blanks in the first leg at Arlington but on his home track it was a different story, taking 11 points from four rides – a truly killer performance as far as Eastbourne were concerned.

Poole’s top two of Chris Holder and Darcy Ward were expected to get big scores and they didn’t disappoint.

If Eastbourne were to stand a chance, they had to control the likes of Jonasson but he ran riot and it was game over.

Eastbourne’s big guns of Bjarne Pedersen and Joonas Kylmakorpi never really got going. Captain Cameron Woodward top scored with 14 points but he suffered a total of three exclusions during the night; perhaps the result of over-trying.

However, the Eagles kept in the hunt with Poole only securing the trophy in heat 14. They went on to win 57-36 on the night and 98-85 on aggregate. The result is certainly disappointing but should not cloud what has been a magnificent season for the boys from Arlington.

They led the Elite League table back in the spring and were in the top four throughout the campaign, eventually finishing second.

It was the first time they had qualified for the play-offs since 2005 and the first time in the grand final since 2002.

In the KO Cup, the Eagles reached the semi-finals, only to be dumped out of that competition – by Poole.

Earlier in the season, the Eagles had the upper hand in clashes with our south coast neighbours but when push came to shove the Dorset side had the edge.

Plus points this year from an Eastbourne point of view are:

n For the first time in a few seasons, the club was not scrabbling around at the bottom of the table, hoping to avoid the wooden spoon;

n The return to Saturday night speedway has seen an increase in the number of spectators;

n The number of sponsors backing the Eagles this year has increased.

Eastbourne have also managed to virtually keep the same side together as they started the season.

The only change was to bring in Timo Lahti for Dawid Lampart and that switch was forced upon the club.

With the season only just started, Lampart’s Polish club withdrew his “start permission” for him to ride in England. It is likely Lampart would still be in the team had it not been for the change of heart in Poland.

The Eastbourne way is not to chop and change and sack riders who don’t immediately do well. Lahti, at many clubs, would have been shown the door. Eastbourne persevered with the young Finn and in the end he came good and for my money should be in next year’s team.

The Eagles are not a “money-bags” club able to rival the likes of Poole, Coventry and Peterborough. They can afford to bring in riders from abroad, pay high wages and subsidise the other costs a rider faces.

Here in Sussex, there has to be a careful watch on spending, but 2011 has proved what can be done on a tight budget when you put together seven riders who ride as a team.

It’s been a breath of fresh air for the supporters and, I think, for many in speedway to see Eastbourne once again running at the top of the table.

There will also be pleasure in many parts of the country that Belle Vue had a “run in the sun” this year while unfashionable Lakeside seem to be able to conjure up a play-off team year after year.

It’s not the end of speedway at Arlington this year. On October 22, Team GB U23s will take on a Young Aussies side. Lewis Bridger will captain the home team with Woodward captaining the Aussies. More on this in the run up to the match.