Speedway: Dog's life at the home of speed aces: Guy Hodgson examines the plight of Belle Vue and a sport in decline

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THE surroundings, a chilly mobile home with a neglected, unwelcoming feel to it, conveyed a sense of decline. 'I'd offer you somewhere to sit,' John Perrin said, 'except all the chairs are damp.' That seemed to say everything.

Perrin is co-promoter of Belle Vue Aces, a club formed in 1922 that could make a reasonable claim of being the most famous in speedway. But the Aces, like the sport, are in a state of decay. The cold of Belle Vue's insubstantial east Manchester offices is nothing to the financial chill that imperils their future. Standard-bearers in their sport, they have assumed the role of ailing exemplars with a prosperous past and wholly uncertain future.

Belle Vue should have been basking in their status as British League champions this New Year, but their financial circumstances have forced them to apply to be relegated. Their top riders, including the world under-21 champion Joe Screen, have gone on the transfer list; the very existence of the club is in jeopardy. The comparison that comes easily to mind in Manchester is United jettisoning their Premiership status, Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs in search of reduced overheads.

'It costs around pounds 8,000 a week for us to stay in the First Division,' Perrin said, 'while in the Second we can run at around pounds 5,000. It's a sad situation. I don't want to go down. There's a lot of people slagging me off, asking me why we want to be relegated, but not one of them has come forward with some money. Don't get me wrong, people pay their money to watch speedway and we're grateful they do. But they can walk away afterwards, they don't have to come in on a Saturday and face the bills.'

The red ink of the demands has been less easy to face since Belle Vue Greyhound Stadium, which has played host to the Aces since 1988, announced that speedway will be ousted from its normal Friday night spot this summer. The club are already struggling to survive on gate money alone - all parking and bar profits go to the landlord - and the prospect of racing on Mondays has forced their hand. 'We've no axe to grind with the greyhound people,' said Perrin, whose profits from his Salford catering firm have helped prop up the club in the past. 'They have to be a viable concern or we won't have a stadium to race in. But we can't keep spending money we don't have.'

Belle Vue's plight is mirrored throughout a sport that 20 years ago could boast it was the second biggest spectator sport after football in Britain. Then the Aces, who included two world champions in Ivan Mauger and Peter Collins, would ride before crowds of 15,000. Now they are lucky to get a tenth of that while the sport has virtually no television coverage and London, an old hotbed, has no speedway track at all.

At Belle Vue, reminders of the past are particularly poignant. Once the playground of east Manchester, an Edwardian Euro Disneyland ahead of its time, and also home of a thriving rugby league club in the Forties and Fifties, Belle Vue Rangers, now only the bikes and the dogs survive. Rival attractions have eaten into the spectator base but Perrin does not believe the administators have helped with their frequent alterations to the rules and their reluctance to deal with escalating wage rates for the top riders.

Some can demand pounds 10,000 a year in signing fees and then earn pounds 40 a point during the season. Against that, they have to provide their own equipment but Perrin, for one, hardly feels they are hard done by.

'They'd take the shoes off you if you'd let them,' he said. 'I don't want to slag them off but the top riders like Joe Screen and Bobby Ott (another Belle Vue rider) want the kind of money to sign on for us that we can't possibly make in a year. So we're going deeper in trouble. The way things are going the sport will go amateur by the turn of the century.

'I believe if the British Speedway Promoters' Association made one league we would eliminate top riders' wages. If we were all on Second Division rates they'd have the choice of riding for practical amounts or going elsewhere.'

The BSPA has no intention of doing that and it will require a 75 per cent vote in Belle Vue's favour at the meeting on 17 January if they are to be allowed to drop a division. 'We can't change the league structure just because one team is having problems,' Jim Swales, the secretary, said. 'Obviously we are concerned that a club with Belle Vue's past is in trouble but we have to look at the broader view. At the moment we have the best speedway riders in the world competing in Britain and we would be reluctant to jeopardise that.'

In Manchester the feeling is that doing nothing now will hasten the decline. 'The sport is at a crossroads,' Stuart Giles, Belle Vue's commercial manager, said, 'and if they don't get it right now it could die. Speedway is being run like it's still the Fifties and Sixties. It can't be allowed to wither away. It would be like lopping off the top of the Pyramids just because they're not as popular as they used to be.'

(Photographs omitted)