Kevin McKenna: How speedway is putting heart back into hardscrabble Glasgow district

Glasgow Tigers <i>(Image: colin mearns)</i>
Glasgow Tigers (Image: colin mearns)

NOTHING prepares you for your first taste of live, close-up speedway in the raw. You’d watched it as a child on Saturday afternoons on BBC’s Grandstand, or was it ITV’s World of Sport? And you’d been thrilled by some of the crashes, then awestruck when these shilpit, young lads with a bantam-weight’s build had walked away unaided.

To the eye of the first-time beholder these bikes are death-traps: 500cc engines fuelled by pure methanol; one fixed gear; no brakes and a clutch. Methanol, I’m told later, boosts the engine much more quickly than other fuels, resulting in higher speeds (more than 70mph on a short straight) and a thunderous acceleration capacity.

It’s only by the deployment of pure, elevated technique reinforced by feral instinct that they avoid serious injury. That and the courage of coal-miners. There have been deaths, but these are very rare. More common are the chipped collar-bones, which they seem to regard with the same insouciance as footballers with pulled hamstrings It’s Tuesday evening in Glasgow’s north-west and the Glasgow Tigers, the pride of Possilpark, are entertaining Redcar in the second leg of their Knock-Out Cup quarter-final. You knew about this little arena because it was the long-time home of Ashfield Juniors FC.

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Speedway was one of the great, working-class spectator sports, with clubs from industrial areas all over the UK. There were several in Glasgow alone. Attendances of 20,000-plus were the norm here until the 1950s.

And then the Government imposed a crippling entertainment tax on the sport, at three times the rate of football and rugby, arguing that it didn’t fulfil all the criteria for it to be called sport. It became harder to pay good wages and the crowds began to thin.

In Possilpark though, it’s beginning to thrive once more. Sweet methanol fumes hang heavy on this airless Glasgow night and the roar of 14 motorcycle engines revving up for the fray is drowning out Blue Oyster Cult telling us not to fear yon reaper.

A few minutes later the first four of these lean methanol men are waiting for the starting tape to rise, two from either team. And then the machines jerk forward, the riders crouched low, braced for the impact of an acceleration surge that eclipses a Formula One car.

In seconds they’ve reached the first bend and you wince as all four embrace it in a frenzy of rubber and dirt. There’s going to be a crash. Surely they can’t avoid 70mph contact with each other. Only by use of their feet and a twist of the front wheel do they slow their approach into the curve.

HeraldScotland: Gerry Facenna of the Tigers
HeraldScotland: Gerry Facenna of the Tigers

Gerry Facenna of the Tigers (Image: free)

Somehow their wheels never touch and they’re racing down the straight at full throttle towards the next bend. You narrow your eyes once more in expectation of a dusty apocalypse that somehow never occurs. Only by about the eighth race of 15 do you permit yourself to relax at these bends.

And then, the first crash of the night. A Glasgow Tigers rider hits the wall on the second bend and lies motionless for a few seconds as the track marshalls flag the other riders to a halt. Momentarily, a hush falls on the crowd of 900 or so and you expect to see a stretcher. But he gives himself a shake and walks sullenly back to the trackside refuge. “They’re like wee rubber men,” says Gerry Facenna, owner of the Glasgow Tigers.

Facenna is regarded as the saviour of the Glasgow Tigers. He’s a kenspeckle presence around Possilpark where his Allied Vehicles car manufacturing plant employs 650 people.

“I wasn’t really into speedway,” he says. “But six or seven years ago this club approached me for sponsorship and I gave them £7000 and then another 7k the following year. Then they told me they were in trouble.”

He points to an older man, George Barclay, of stately bearing and kindly grace who will be my guide for the evening. “The club was run by a committee of eight or nine committed souls who were barely managing to keep the club alive. George was stacking shelves at ASDA, but had put £15,000 of his own money into the club to help keep it going. But they still had 100k of debt and didn’t seem to understand they were all personally liable.

HeraldScotland: Glasgow Tigers fans
HeraldScotland: Glasgow Tigers fans

Glasgow Tigers fans (Image: free)

“In recent years they’d been finishing near the foot of the table, but they had a decent core of about 400 fans, many of whom followed them everywhere.”

I suggest that most third tier Scottish senior football clubs would be delighted with a fan-base like that. He nods, which is perhaps why he agreed to assume ownership of the Tigers, clearing their debt and then beginning the task of smartening the place up. “There were no toilets to speak of and puddles everywhere. The electricity meter had been bricked up.”

He then bought the stadium outright from Ashfield Juniors, giving them a much-needed cash boost and freeing the Speedway team from the stiff monthly rentals. “Even then, I didn’t realise how badly dilapidated the stadium was,” he says. “I spent £3m bringing it up to scratch. In the first year we lost about 300k before reducing that to about 200k the following year. Then, just as we were about to start washing our face, Covid came. But I’m optimistic we’ll soon be breaking even.”

He beckons over “wee George” who looks like an older, more wizened version of a speedway rider.

“George, this is Kevin from the Glasgow Herald.”

“How you doing, sir?”

“Brand new.” I compliment him on his AC/DC tats.

“I’ve told Kevin you’re the worst fan we’ve ever had.”

Gerry then turns to me. “Do you know he actually got drunk and spelt his tattoo ‘Glasgow Allied Tigers’ instead of ‘Allied Glasgow Tigers’.”

HeraldScotland: George Barclay
HeraldScotland: George Barclay

George Barclay (Image: free)

George has a chore to do and promises to be back in a few minutes. “What a pair of hands he’s got,” says Gerry. This is Glasgow and you can’t be handing out compliments willy-nilly to people’s faces. Just not done. Giving them gentle grief is code for saying “you’re really a prince”.

“Doesn’t matter what you give him,” says Gerry. “He’s just an old fashioned joiner. Fast too. He’s on the facilities team. He looks after this place.

Another older fellow appears. This is Donald Forbes. “He used to be the chief exec at Glasgow City Council,” says Gerry.

“Hello boss, how you doing,” says Donald.

“Donald this is Kevin from the Glasgow Herald. He’s wanting to write a story about us.”

“Oh, is that right? You used to write bad stories about me.”

“I can understand that,” says Gerry.

Donald says: “I’ve been watching the Tigers since just after the war. I loved motorbikes. My uncle was my hero. He flew 54 sorties over Germany and brought me to see the speedway after the war.” And then he reels off their legendary post-war team.

Gerry Facenna regards the Glasgow Tigers as a family club serving a disadvantaged community. It becomes clear that he wants the Tigers to be a source of pride for Possilpark, but also a social outreach.

“We want to turn the middle of the arena into a training facility for speedway. I see these kids running around Possil with stolen bikes. I want to work with the police to get them in here. We can train them and say ‘you could become a speedway rider. But you need to come in and learn something about mechanics and panel-beating’.

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“If they do well here then there’s a future for them. We can instil some discipline in them and get them into the habit of turning up for their work on time.

“There’s a lot of goodness in this community. I do a lot with John Devine at ng Homes (North Glasgow Housing Association). Up the road at Saracen Cross we put £18,000 for a Christmas tree and Christmas lights and gave all the kids a present. Sometimes on Christmas Even you see mums with discounted selection boxes and you know that they’ll be the only gifts their children will receive.”

His son, David, runs their Ashfield Allied Charitable Trust, who work with Possobilities, a long-established outreach offering support and respite to disabled and vulnerable people in the community. “We’ve just given them two buses and they use our canteen.”

BACK down at trackside, the Tigers are having a tough time of it. They’re seeking to claw back a 16-point deficit from last week’s first leg and it’s clear from the first few races that this won’t be happening. But they’re in two other cups and competing well in the league.

The riders earn £100 a point and the best ones turn out for other clubs across Europe to maximise their income. The league imposes an average, points-based ability cap across each team. This prevents clubs buying success and ensures that most meetings are keenly and evenly-contested.

“It’s a good measure,” says Gerry. “But having to rebuild a new squad each year can make it difficult to instil a good spirit. This year, though, we’ve got a really solid and close-knit team.”

However, I’m not really keeping score. I’m just mesmerised and thrilled by the speed and the guts and the agility of these riders. And I’m offering silent prayers at the bends and marvelling at the roaring spectacle of it all.