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Tai Woffinden interview: Wolverhampton Wolves hero and likeable champion

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If only more sport stars were like Tai Woffinden. The double world speedway champion may be loud, opinionated and hot-headed, but he's also charming, good-natured and friendly, writes Matt Wilson.

Most of all, he's infectious. More often than not his charisma manifests itself in a naughty grin spread wide across his face, but when you're with him you feel in on the joke.

The 26-year-old is a superstar in his sport, the biggest name with the biggest draw, but he's more than happy to lean back on his chair in the corner of a dimly-lit pub in Wolverhampton and divulge all.

"Everything I've always said I've backed up," he shrugs. "I wouldn't say it otherwise."

Woffinden doesn't lack the confidence sport stars at the top of their profession need, but he wears it well.

This year is a big one for him. Although he returned like the prodigal son to Wolves last year and helped them lift the Elite League Championship for the first time in seven years, there was personal heartbreak in the World Championship, where he came second behind Greg Hancock.

"It's top or nothing," he said. "I won't be celebrating coming second. I feel like I had a bad year performance wise, missed out on three semi-finals, but I'm still second in the world.

Woffinden admits that 'it's top or nothing' for him.

"Some people struggle to make the top eight, in my s*** years I finish fourth and second. When I'm on it, I'll win."

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Woffinden is adamant his name is on the trophy in 2017, when he will strive to become the first Brit to win the world title three times, because he won it in 2013 and 2015 too.

Not that 2016 wasn't without its highlights. When he's asked what he prefers, to win with a team or as an individual, there is a long pause as he contemplates the answer. His response shows how much he has matured.

"I think it's pretty cool with a team now," he says. "First World Championship was amazing, I can't explain the feeling, best thing ever, better than winning a league match.

"But then the second one wasn't the same, the second one was OK.

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"It was weird because I won it (in 2015) the round before, I got to the last round and thought 'do I have to ride? I've done my job'."

Scunthorpe-born Woffinden may have grown up in Perth, Australia, where he now lives, but he has a huge affinity with Wolves, the team he spent five years at.

"Obviously I started at Wolves in my Elite League career and the fans have always been there by my side," he said. "The cheer that I got when I came back to Wolves last year was amazing. It was like being with GB. (Team manager) Pete Adams is like a father figure to me, he's been with me by my side ever since I signed for Wolverhampton.

"He's got me out of some very sticky situations that I got myself into when I was a bit younger. He's still a person who is very close to my heart and always will be."

Those are incredibly pertinent words because Woffinden lost his father Rob, a speedway racer himself, to cancer back in 2010 when he was just 19 years old.

It's clear that Woffinden's affinity to Wolves runs deeper than a professional one, it's a personal one too.

Tai Woffinden (right) lost his father Rob (left) who was also a speedway racer, at just 19 years of age.

He won't be racing for Wolves this year because he's only allowed to ride in two countries and he's picked Poland and Sweden, but he hasn't ruled out returning one day.

"(Owner) Chris Van Straaten has always been loyal to me," he continues. "He's always respected me, I've always respected him. If I decide I'm going to ride in England again, it will be for Wolverhampton, simple as that."

But the respect Woffinden has for Wolves is not mirrored with Great Britain, a set-up he labelled 'unprofessional' in a lengthy and foul-mouthed tirade.

He's decided not to race in the World Cup this year and won't return to his national team until things change.

"I told them what I wanted to be enforced to take the next step as a team," he said. "Things that Poland, Denmark and Sweden are doing but I guess it fell on deaf ears. I don't think they've got the right people in the right places. I want it more than any people on the terraces, more than any British fans, at the end of the day I want to win a World Cup."

Last July, Great Britain came second behind Poland in the World Cup final held in Manchester.

"I want gold," says Woffinden." Who gives a f*** about silver, you're first loser, let's celebrating losing, f*** that.

"I'm on the podium and everyone's got a smile on their face and I'm thinking 'why's everybody happy, we f***ing lost!'"

As team captain, Woffinden organised his own personal trainer to assess the fitness of all the GB riders and help them improve it.

"No riders turned up," he says, bluntly. "I've reserved time with my personal trainer to fitness test these guys, expenses paid, don't worry about it. No-one turned up. That's when it all started.

"Last year we went to Vojens (Speedway Centre, Denmark). Everyone drives 40km and has a nice meal. We're taken to a f***ing pizza shop, a kebab shop.

"It's a World Championship race off with Team GB and we're eating in a f***ing kebab shop."

Woffinden has made it clear he won't be switching allegiances to Australia, he still wants to race for GB, and he's left the door open for a return in 2018. But he's also contemplated another, far more drastic solution for Speedway Great Britain.

"The best thing for me to do is to try to buy the rights for it and run it myself, as I run my company," he said. "I've put it forward to them. We'll see what happens. I own the rights for five years, I find the sponsors, I build the thing. In five years we'll win that gold."

Woffinden is confident in his own abilities, shown by his numerous successes in his career so far.

Not many 26-year-olds are contemplating building an empire, but the fact Woffinden is thinking long-term shows just how far he's come since those days as a teenager who flew off the rails and regularly got rip-roaringly drunk.

But because of the death of his father, Woffinden has been forced to grow up faster than most. He is now teetotal and gets his buzz in other ways. In December he got married to Faye on a beach in Perth, and he's looking forward to starting a family with his new wife some day.

"For sure I want to have kids," he says. "When I go back to Australia, a few of my mates have had kids now, and I get a bit broody when I'm out there. But I don't know about starting a family just yet. I want to focus on my speedway."

Like all stars in the limelight, Woffinden has to deal with one of the downsides of modern life, the abuse on social media.

"I haven't even got anything on my phone anymore," he says. "All the stuff I've been tweeting hasn't been me. I've got somebody to tweet it for me. I just can't be arsed reading it.

"It's British fans, they build people up and then they want to knock them down as fast as they can. I've still got plenty of fans out there that are loyal to me. Once you've blocked the majority of them there's not actually that much stuff you read. But then you realise, it means nothing."

Woffinden may be content, but he's also determined to improve, which is a worrying mix for his rivals. So what does the rest of his life entail? What are the aims of a double world champion?

"Win as many world titles as I can," he says, simply. "And we'll see what happens with British Speedway as far as the World Cup is concerned. I'd like to win one of them. Then when I finish racing I'll go back to Australia, buy a house, teach my kids how to surf and just enjoy life."

You get the feeling he'll have absolutely no problem doing that.

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