Tai Woffinden leads charge as Sheffield Tigers look to retain British Speedway title

HAVING been the ‘hunters’ for so many years, Simon Stead believes the speed at which Sheffield Tigers adapt to being the ‘hunted’ will be key to their fortunes as the tape goes up on the British Speedway Premiership season tonight.

After nearly a century of competition and the last few years getting close but not quite crossing the line in pursuit of a Premiership title, Sheffield did so in dramatic fashion last October when overhauling a huge points disadvantage from the first leg to defeat Ipswich Witches in the Grand Final on a grand old night at Owlerton Stadium.

Now to do it all over again.

“We’re up there to be shot at now, people are assembling teams to beat us,” Simon Stead, Sheffield’s team manager, a former rider and before that fan of the team, told The Yorkshire Post.

Back-to-back?: Simon Stead, back right, celebrates with his Sheffield Tigers team after they won the Sports Insure Premiership Grand Final against Ipswich Witches last October. (Picture: Ian Charles | MI News)Back-to-back?: Simon Stead, back right, celebrates with his Sheffield Tigers team after they won the Sports Insure Premiership Grand Final against Ipswich Witches last October. (Picture: Ian Charles | MI News)
Back-to-back?: Simon Stead, back right, celebrates with his Sheffield Tigers team after they won the Sports Insure Premiership Grand Final against Ipswich Witches last October. (Picture: Ian Charles | MI News)
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“We’re no longer the chasers. We’re eager to retain the title, but being the hunted is something we have to embrace, that’s just the reality of the position we’re in.

“We strived to achieve the title of champions and now it’s up to us to retain that.

“Whether it’s a world or a British championship, as an individual or as a team, we’ve seen how difficult it is to retain titles, whatever the sport.

“We know it will be difficult but we’re up for it.”

Bringing back key riders was important to Stead and the club’s promoter Damien Bates.

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Speedway is different to most sports in that riders are self-employed and can race for as many five teams across the world in a week.

During the middle of last season Sheffield managed to lure Scunthorpe-born former three-time world champion Tai Woffinden back after a long spell away from British speedway. Getting him to come back for 2024 was a key moment in the off-season.

“That was really important, we wanted to start with a really strong backbone for the team, so being able to retain Tai and (Australian) Jack (Holder) gave us that strength at the top end that we needed,” explained Stead. “We adhere to a points limit in speedway which enables teams to assemble how they see fit; some go for strength in depth, some go top heavy, but the trick is to find the balance that you’re comfortable with.

“We wanted continuity with some of the guys that had ridden for us, once we’d tied Tai and Jack down the rest fell into place.”

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Long-serving captain Kyle Howarth returns, alongside Chris Holder and Josh Pickering. Rising stars Jason Edwards and Dan Gilkes will also ride for Sheffield again.

“It’s nice to have that continuity, not just for us as a club but also for the fans,” said Stead, whose side open the season at Oxford Spires tonight, a team on the rise that is generating a lot of publicity and interest.

“Ultimately you’re assembling a team to retain a title, as much as continuity is great you’re also striving to be the best you can be.”

Despite the number of injuries they suffered last year and the amount of guest riders they needed to parachute in, the spirit in the Tigers camp remained strong, and Stead believes it will need to be again.

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“Ultimately our team spirit and the way that we performed was testament to the boys riding for us,” he said.

“If we’ve got a lot of the same going on and we’re working hard for each other then I believe we’ve got the right team to retain the title.”

Off the track, the 2023 title win and the dramatic nature of how it was achieved captured a number of new fans, many of whom are intent on coming back for more.

Stead added: “That side of things has been really good and our season ticket sales have been really strong.

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“The general interest around speedway and what we’re doing in the area has been really good for us.

“Success breeds success - if we can continue making the people of Sheffield proud then let’s hope they continue to come and watch us in good numbers.

"If we can have more unforgettable nights like the play-off final then we’ll see attendances rise.”