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Friday, 25 July 2014

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Keith Denham: I did it my way

Keith Denham’s speedway love affair began in the 1950s, and his rise to power at Workington Comets was a classic example of the fan turning owner.

As a young man, he marvelled as legendary riders Ivan Mauger and Ole Olsen honed their craft around Newcastle’s track, and he dreamed of building his own star-studded line-up.

In 2008 Denham put his money where his mouth was and bought the club from Tony Mole, with two simple goals – to put together a team he actually rated and to win trophies.

Five years later, Comets fans have seen Peter Karlsson, Kauko Nieminen, Rusty Harrison and Daniel Nermark fly round the Derwent Park track, with the Young Shield secured in a record-breaking 2008, 2009, and 2010.

They also won the Premier League fours and pairs during the most successful period of the club’s history.

But one honour frustratingly eluded Denham – the league title.

He says: “When speedway was re-launched in 1999, I was one of the first people through the turnstiles.

“I watched every single match from the second bend, but Carl Stonehewer and Simon Stead apart, we never had a good team, and I knew things weren’t being done properly.

“I didn’t realise the financial constraints, but believed I could put together a better side.

“I have never tried to buy success though, and never went over the top in an effort to bring riders to Workington.”

Bad luck and horrific injuries were blamed for Comets’ lack of league titles, with one traumatising incident still haunting the Thomas Armstrong construction firm boss.

Swedish rider Nermark was lucky to come out alive after landing on his neck following a collision at Redcar in 2008.

Denham struggled to get over the life-threatening crash, and debated walking away.

“Daniel nearly died, and that’s not what I signed up for,” he insists.

“I have never felt so low and helpless as I did that night. I can still see it vividly. Daniel clipped Ty Proctor’s back wheel and was launched into the air like a missile.

“He came down so quickly, and landed on his head. He was unconscious for what felt like forever.

“After that I considered quitting. It was a shocking night visiting Daniel at 1.30am, knowing it could have been so much worse.”

The second big low point of Denham’s tenure was as team manager when close friend Ian Thomas died in 2010.

Denham was warned he would not get on with fellow big personality Thomas, but recalls: “We only had bad words once. And that was only for a few seconds.

“We had respect for each other, and it was a terrible blow for everyone when he died and I lost a great friend.”

Despite the lows, there have also been many incredible highs.

And nothing makes Denham prouder than seeing local talent Richard Lawson and Craig Cook speeding round the bends.

“Watching Richard and Craig not only progress from motocross to speedway, but excel too, is my most satisfying achievement,” he says.

“When I first saw Richard on a speedway bike, he was as smooth as you could get.

“The two riders are two completely different animals and Craig’s rise to the top has been quite unbelievable, while Richard’s has been more of a steady improvement.”

Since handing over the club to Laura Morgan, and her brother Steve Whitehead, Denham will return to being what he always was at heart – a fan – but insists he will never turn his back if the club needs him again.

“I would never shut the gates and leave because Comets have so many loyal fans, and this town needs its speedway,” he says.

Speculation surrounding Comets’ future was rife in September before Morgan and Whitehead stepped in.

Denham said he would never let the club go out of business, but had to stop his financial backing as the burden of keeping Comets afloat became too much.

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