OLIVER HOLT: Ordinary heroes who stood in front of the bulldozers to save a cathedral of sport

In sport, not all heroes wear football boots. Not all heroes take seven wickets in the second innings of their Test debut or come from two sets down to win the Australian Open men’s final or date Taylor Swift and break one of Jerry Rice’s most famous NFL records on the way to another appearance in the Super Bowl.

Sometimes, heroes live near Coventry. Sometimes, as the sad light of a January afternoon in the Midlands fades to dusk, they find themselves standing in the shadow of the derelict stadium they have spent much of the last seven years of their lives fighting to save against all the odds.

The Coventry Stadium, just outside the village of Brandon, was once home to the Coventry Bees speedway team. The greats of the sport, men like Ole Olsen, called it their home track and it attracted 30,000 spectators for its biggest meetings. Opened in 1928, it was one of the favoured venues for British stock car racing, too.

That all ended on November 5, 2016, when the stadium staged its last stock car meeting and its new owners, property developers Brandon Estates, closed the stadium and released plans for 137 homes to be constructed on the site even though it is land designated for sporting use.

All sorts of indignities have been visited upon it since. Vandals have set fires in the grandstand. Some buildings are charred beyond recognition. Sections of the roof are blackened by the flames that threatened to engulf it. Every wall, interior and exterior, is defaced by graffiti.

In sport, not all heroes wear football boots… sometimes, heroes live near Coventry

Sometimes, as the sad light of a January afternoon in the Midlands fades to dusk, they find themselves standing in the shadow of the derelict stadium they have spent much of the last seven years of their lives fighting to save against all the odds

Sometimes, as the sad light of a January afternoon in the Midlands fades to dusk, they find themselves standing in the shadow of the derelict stadium they have spent much of the last seven years of their lives fighting to save against all the odds

The Coventry Stadium, just outside the village of Brandon, was once home to the Coventry Bees speedway team. The greats of the sport, men like Ole Olsen, called it their home track

The Coventry Stadium, just outside the village of Brandon, was once home to the Coventry Bees speedway team. The greats of the sport, men like Ole Olsen, called it their home track

Signs outside say ‘Dangerous Buildings: No Entry’. Not that anyone has taken any notice. They have been defaced by graffiti, too.

Travellers have set up camp here seven times in the last six years. They, and others, have stripped the grandstand of anything they consider of any value. All the windows are broken. A puppy was found abandoned in a cupboard and taken to a rescue centre.

It seemed as if it were only a matter of time until the developers got their way. The more the stadium was allowed to decay, the more often it was attacked, the deeper its ruin, the more thorough its desecration, the more likely it seemed that the developers would win, almost by default.

But the men who stood in front of the ruins of the stadium last week, wandering through a car park overgrown with weeds and grass, refused to give up. They point-blank refused to give up. They fought and they fought. They formed the Save Coventry Speedway and Stox Campaign Group(SCS) and devoted all they had to saving the stadium.

I’m a stadium nerd. Sports stadiums like the Coventry Stadium live and breathe, as far as I’m concerned. You might think they’re mute but they tell stories and they hold memories and they bind families through the generations and they are part of our cultural heritage and they should be protected with way more care than they are.

Our sports stadia should be heritage sites. They have as much cultural value as a concert hall or a theatre. For large sections of the population, they are our concert halls and theatres and our cathedrals, too.

And yet places like the Baseball Ground in Derby and Maine Road in Manchester and the Boleyn Ground in east London and The Dell in Southampton and the Vetch Field in Swansea are allowed to be swallowed up and obliterated. Only Highbury, Arsenal’s former home, has been given the respect and the protection it deserved.

And so sometimes it takes men like Jeff Davies and Dave Rowe to stand up for the cathedrals of British sport instead and place themselves in front of the bulldozers. Jeff was Coventry Bees’ club photographer for 34 years, he came here as a child, he saw the joy it brought close up and he refused to let it go.

Jeff Davies (pictured on the left), and Dave Roe are trying to save the Brandon Stadium, also known as the Coventry Stadium

Jeff Davies (pictured on the left), and Dave Roe are trying to save the Brandon Stadium, also known as the Coventry Stadium

Having opened in 1928, it was one of the favoured venues for British stock car racing, too

Having opened in 1928, it was one of the favoured venues for British stock car racing, too

Places like the Baseball Ground in Derby and Maine Road in Manchester and the Boleyn Ground in east London and The Dell in Southampton and the Vetch Field in Swansea are allowed to be swallowed up and obliterated

Places like the Baseball Ground in Derby and Maine Road in Manchester and the Boleyn Ground in east London and The Dell in Southampton and the Vetch Field in Swansea are allowed to be swallowed up and obliterated

He estimates that since the developers took possession of the stadium on January 1, 2017, he has made 240 visits to it to document its treatment in pictures and to try to protect it from interlopers. He and Dave and other members of the committee have ploughed their own money into the campaign to save it.

‘I was brought here as a baby by my family,’ Jeff says, ‘and I have been coming here ever since. You think of riders you watched over the years as a kid growing up. Riders like Ole Olsen, world champions racing for the club, Greg Hancock in the late 90s. The ashes of one of our greatest riders, Nigel Boocock, are interred beneath the track.

‘A stadium is like music. It brings back memories. When you listen to music, it takes you back in time and that’s what it does for me. I am an old man now but I would love to see the stadium reinstated and brought back to life for speedway and stock cars for the young kids of today to enjoy it in the way I did.’

Dave mentions music, too. In the same way Everton play Z-Cars every time the team runs out at Goodison Park, each meeting at Brandon began with Rimsky Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee blasting out from the sound system at the stadium. Each meeting ended with Andy Williams singing May Each Day.

So Jeff and Dave, who is the British Speedway Press Officer, and Dave Carter, a planning consultant whose expertise has been invaluable, and the other members of the nine-strong SCS committee have never given up. And to their delight, others have flocked to the cause.

When they needed to raise £20,000 to pay for a barrister to represent them on the latest stage of the legal struggles against the developers, more than 500 supporters raised the money in less than a week.

And earlier this month, after Rugby Borough Council, to its everlasting credit, refused to buckle in the face of pressure from the developers, Brandon Estates suffered its most significant defeat yet when its appeal over its failure to secure planning permission to build homes on the site was dismissed by government planning inspector Helen Hockenhull.

Highbury, Arsenal 's former home, has been given the respect and the protection it deserved

Highbury, Arsenal ‘s former home, has been given the respect and the protection it deserved

In her written judgement, Ms Hockenhull said: ‘Whilst speedway has declined to the extent that it is now a minority sport, I do not consider it is dying. The same is true for stock car racing. There is demand for Coventry Stadium demonstrated by SCS [campaigners] and supporters in the racing community.’

So Jeff and Dave and the SCS committee and the wider speedway community and the stock car fraternity are all winning. They have not won yet but Brandon Estates and their owners appear to have been defeated in their plans to demolish the stadium. It is hoped that they will sell up. There is no shortage of people interested in buying the stadium back.

And so, there is at least hope. If there were to be a sale in the next six months, and even if spectators could only be housed along the back straight to begin with, while damage to the grandstand is assessed and repairs are carried out, Jeff and Dave think speedway could even be back at the Coventry Stadium by March 2025.

It is still a dream. The owners may refuse to sell. Big obstacles litter the way forward. But otherwise ordinary men like Jeff Davies and Dave Rowe share at least a few things with Jannik Sinner and Travis Kelce and Tom Hartley. They are made of the right stuff, the stuff that makes sporting dreams come true.

The attack on referee Halil Umut Meler was a warning 

When referee Halil Umut Meler was attacked during a Turkish Super Lig game last month, many warned it was only a matter of time until it happened here. It is an inevitable corollary of the unrelenting need of some managers to blame all the shortcomings of their team on match officials. 

And so, if there was some horror at the sight of referee Craig Hicks having to run from the pitch at Vale Park on Saturday, while being pursued by an enraged 62-year-old Port Vale fan, aggrieved at a failure to award a free-kick for his team in their defeat by Portsmouth, there could be little surprise. The game reaps what it sows. 

When referee Halil Umut Meler was attacked during a Turkish Super Lig game last month, many warned it was only a matter of time until it happened here

When referee Halil Umut Meler was attacked during a Turkish Super Lig game last month, many warned it was only a matter of time until it happened here

A Port Vale fan chased referee Craig Hicks off the pitch after he gave Portsmouth a penalty

A Port Vale fan chased referee Craig Hicks off the pitch after he gave Portsmouth a penalty

Marcus needs support not more criticism

I don’t know what is ailing Marcus Rashford and I don’t know whether his absence from Manchester United’s squad to face Newport on Sunday had anything to do with his visit to a Belfast nightclub last week.

I do know, though, how quickly we forget. It is not long ago that Rashford waged a high-profile campaign to persuade the Government to provide free meals to vulnerable children in England throughout the school holidays during the pandemic. He put many of our politicians to shame. 

Now, things are different for him. He looks as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Even on the pitch, he looks careworn and stripped of joy. People are queuing up to lambast him because that is what we do in sport, particularly in football. It would be better if we remembered how much Rashford did for so many so recently and gave him our support while he works out his problems instead. 

It is not long ago that Rashford waged a high-profile campaign to persuade the Government to provide free meals to vulnerable children

It is not long ago that Rashford waged a high-profile campaign to persuade the Government to provide free meals to vulnerable children

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