It had all been so optimistic for the Eastbourne Eagles at the start of the year.
After roaring to a second-place finish in the 2011 Elite League table, acquiring the services of Russian speedway captain Denis Gizatullin and securing a spot in the inaugural FIM Speedway Club Championship, everyone at the club was excited about the prospect of a busy and successful 2012 campaign.
But it wasn’t to be as wave after wave of bad news both on and off the track hampered the Eagles’ title hopes and their season ended on a disappointing note as they missed out on a play-off spot and with it, any chance of glory.
However, the season was more testing for reasons away from the race spotlight as the riders lost one of their own following the death of Lee Richardson in May of this year.
The former Eastbourne number one, who captained the side to a Knockout Cup triumph in 2008, died in tragic circumstances after he crashed head-first into a solid fence during a Polish league match.
The 33-year-old was said to be conscious after the collision but later passed away after being rushed to hospital with leg injuries, breathing difficulties and severe internal bleeding. His death touched everyone associated with the Eastbourne Eagles, from the riders who rode alongside and against him to the Arlington faithful, many of whom will remember watching his father Colin Richardson and Uncle Steve Weatherley race alongside current team manager Trevor Geer back in the 1970s.
Since the tragic accident, every member of the speedway family has paid their respects to Lee, who was affectionately known as ‘Rico’.
And proof, if ever it was needed, about how highly Lee was held in the eyes of the fans can be seen by the astonishing £39,098 donated to the support fund set up for the wife and three children Lee sadly left behind.
Both Cameron Woodward and Trevor Geer paid tribute to their friend, with the captain saying, “I just couldn’t believe it when I heard the news. It came as a real shock because he was not a dangerous rider. He didn’t need to be because he was one of the most skilful riders out there.” Manager Geer added, “During my time here at Eastbourne, it’s fair to say he was one of the best riders I have dealt with. Always honest, easy to deal with and always with a smile on his face.”
The heart-breaking loss came at a time when the Eagles were ambling along in the Elite League, having to make do without their number one, Joonas Kylmakorpi.
The Finn ended up missing half of the Eagles’ 2012 meets after picking up a shoulder and collar bone injury in just the second race of the season against Kings Lynn Stars.
It was a huge blow for Trevor Geer’s men, who went on to lose six of the 14 meets without him.
During his absence, boss Geer was adamant that the Eagles’ stuttering form would pick up upon his return to the starting seven, but that wasn’t to be as they won only two of their last nine fixtures to slide down the table and out of the play-off places.
When considering what their undoing was, it would be hard to overlook a disastrous series of results on the road that saw the Lifestyle Eagles pick up just two victories on their travels.
That record came in stark contrast to their blistering performances on Arlington shale, where they won all but two of their meets, only losing out to champions Poole Pirates and play-off contenders Lakeside Hammers.
After opting out of the Knockout Cup to race against the best teams in Europe in the FIM Speedway Club Championship, which was cancelled before a wheel even hit the track, the Eagles’ only hopes of success were in the Elite League.
And once that boat sailed on the back of four consecutive away defeats, the Eagles were left empty-handed and looking back on a disappointing few months.
One beacon of light from a frustrating season though, was the form of Timo Lahti. The young Finn, who was riding in reserve for the Eagles, was promoted up the order in early September after he wowed the crowds with a series of lightning-quick top-scoring performances.
Even Geer was impressed by Lahti’s ability, saying, “We had high hopes for him this year but his scoring has been a revelation, even to us. I think we truly have a star in the making.”
As the Elite League season draws to a close for most of the teams, it’s safe to say this season hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations of many of the Eastbourne contingent.
However, the promise of young stars like Lahti gives fans a reason to smile about the future while they also remember those stars who shone in the past.