Matt Maher: Fans are keeping the Heathens name alive

“Why am I doing this?” asks Andy Hawthorne. “I guess when it comes down to it, I just wasn’t ready to let Cradley Heathens die.”

Thanks to the efforts of Hawthorne and his fellow speedway fanatics, the flame is flickering still.

Later this month, the Heathens will ride again, nearly two years on from when the engines last fell silent.

A four-man team wearing the famous colours will compete in three events over the course of the summer on the Isle of Wight, the first of which takes place a week on Thursday, July 29.

For one of speedway’s most famous names, it might not sound much. Yet for fans who refuse to give up hope of a return to former glories, it is hugely important.

“It is about keeping the name alive,” explains Hawthorne. “As long as we can keep the Heathens in the public consciousness, maybe the moment will come when we can get a team back in the league.”

There are few stories in West Midlands sport which spark such frustration and sorrow as that of the Heathens.

One of the biggest teams in speedway and perhaps more importantly, a huge part of the community during their 1970s and 80s heyday, the club was kept alive by the will of supporters after being evicted from Dudley Wood Stadium in 1995.

Having returned to league racing in 2010 at Monmore Green, initially under the Dudley Heathens banner, there was for a few years genuine hope they would find a new permanent home.

Yet despite the tireless efforts of a management team fronted by long-time Wolves promoter Chris Van Straaten and backed up by Gary Patchett and Nigel Pearson, the moment just never arrived and in November 2019, it was confirmed the Heathens would withdraw from league racing once more.

Now the responsibility for keeping the Heathens alive lies with the fans again and Hawthorne, along with friends and fellow supporters Richard Jones, Martin Lee and John Lown have picked up the mantle.

After plans for a Cradley team to race at a meeting in Newcastle last year were scuppered by the pandemic, they turned attentions to the Isle of Wight where the Wightlink Warriors, who themselves withdrew from this year’s National League, were looking to organise a series of one-off events.

The Heathens will go up against the Warriors and the Oxford Cheetahs in a trio of three-team tournaments.

Luke Harris, who rode for the Heathens in the National League between 2015 and 2019, has agreed to head up a Cradley team which also features Chris Watts, Scott Campos and Patryk Daniszweswki, a Polish ice speedway rider aiming to make his big break in the UK. Chris Widman, another former Cradley rider, is primed to take part in the third and final event.

Cradley Heathens, at Monmore Stadium. Luke Harris..

“The original plan was to have a challenge match, Cradley against the Warriors,” says Hawthorne. “We certainly had enough riders to make a seven-man team.

“But we ran into a few issues and with Oxford also keen to be involved it was decided the best format was a three-team challenge with four-man teams.

“The Warriors are helping with the ferry fees and mileage but the rest is being funded ourselves. John Lown, another Heathens fanatic, has agreed to sponsor the fuel. Overall the costs are into four figures but it is worth it.”

Hawthorne, a long-standing member of the Heathens’ supporters trust, was first taken to Dudley Wood in 1964 when still a baby. Between 1977 and the 1995 closure he did not miss a meeting, on one occasion discharging himself from hospital in order to get his speedway fix.

“I’d been involved in a car accident which required 100 stitches in my head,” he says. “It hurt like hell but I told the doctor I felt fine. There was no way I could miss the speedway.”

His passion for the Heathens is far from unique. There might be 150 miles of road and a ferry crossing between the Black Country and the Isle of Wight but the latest iteration of the Cradley team won’t be without support.

“We’ve already had a number of people get in touch to say they will be travelling and have planned holidays to coincide with the events,” says Hawthorns.

“People will always follow Cradley. I might be biased but it is my honest belief the sport never recovered from Dudley Wood closing.

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“The fanbase was so big and we used to take crowds everywhere. When Cradley went the other clubs missed out on them and it got harder. Speedway needed the Heathens.”

Belief those days might yet return is what drives Hawthorne and his team on. Already there are plans for a Heathens team to ride on the Isle of Wight next year.

“As long as we can afford to do it, we will do it,” he says. “We’ve already spoken to the Isle of Wight promoters about potentially doing the same next year and as long as we can carry on, we will.

“The dream, obviously, is to be in a position where the Heathens once again have their own track and are back racing in the league again.

“Of course, we are realistic and know how tough that is going to be. But you can’t give up hope.”

The Heathens will race at Smallbrook Stadium on the Isle of Wight on July 29, August 12 and August 24. Tapes up at 6.15pm each night.

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