Looking back at the greatest Peterborough Panthers' nights of the Millennium

The 2006 Grand Final winning Panthers teamThe 2006 Grand Final winning Panthers team
The 2006 Grand Final winning Panthers team
The new Millennium brought change, change, change and yet more change.

Panthers raced in the top division, known as either the Elite League or the Premiership, from 2000 until the end of 2013 and again from 2019 until the current campaign.

They were in the second tier (Premier League and now Championship) between 2014 and 2018 and, like every other club in the country, never raced a league meeting in Covid stricken 2000 when all competition, apart from 16 events, spread between three British Finals (at Under 19, Under 21 and senior level), a handful of challenge matches and the five-round British Youth Championship, was suspended because of the pandemic.

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The only tracks that did operate, with strict crowd restrictions, were Belle Vue, Berwick, Edinburgh, Ipswich, King’s Lynn, Leicester, Plymouth and Scunthorpe, and there was no racing at all at the East of England Arena.

Hans Andersen (left) and Ulrich Ostergaard celebrate Panthers' 2006 Grand Final success.Hans Andersen (left) and Ulrich Ostergaard celebrate Panthers' 2006 Grand Final success.
Hans Andersen (left) and Ulrich Ostergaard celebrate Panthers' 2006 Grand Final success.

TOO MANY OWNERS!

The biggest change at the Showground was in the number of people who owned the club during a relatively brief period.

Panthers had 16 different promoters in 23 years: Jim Lynch (1998-2003), Ian Jarvis (1999-2002), Phil Wing (2002), Mick Horton (2003-2006), Neil Watson (2005-2006, 2018), Colin Horton (2007-2008), Mick Bratley (2007-2009), Rick Frost (2009-2013), Julie Mahoney (2010-2014) Peter Oakes (2010), Trevor Swales (2012-2017), Ged Rathbone (2015-2018), Colin Pratt (2019-2021), Carl Johnson (2019, 2021-2023), Richard Greer (2021-2022), Rob Lyon (2023).

Admittedly, multi-person groups were involved but, between Danny Dunton opening Peterborough in 1970 until the end of the 20th century, there were only 10 promoters – Danny, his son Lee who joined him in 1979, Martin Rogers, David Hawkins, James Easter, Peter Oakes, Vaclav Verner, Sarah Gudgeon, Jim Lynch and Ian Jarvis – in 30 years.

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Panthers celebrate their win in the 2021 Grand Final. Photo: David Lowndes.Panthers celebrate their win in the 2021 Grand Final. Photo: David Lowndes.
Panthers celebrate their win in the 2021 Grand Final. Photo: David Lowndes.

The other sea-change was in the loyalty bond between club and rider and between rider and club.

TOO MANY RIDERS

When Ryan Sullivan, who first signed for Peterborough in 1994, left to move to Poole in 2004 his switch more or less signalled the end of what you could call a one-club man.

‘Sully’ had made his debut as a Panther when he was 19 and spent nine out of 10 seasons at Alwalton, missing only the 1998 second-tier campaign when he left on loan to ride for Elite League Poole when he returned the following year when Peterborough moved up to the top-flight.

A traditional speedway celebration after Panthers win the 2021 Grand Final. Photo: David Lowndes.A traditional speedway celebration after Panthers win the 2021 Grand Final. Photo: David Lowndes.
A traditional speedway celebration after Panthers win the 2021 Grand Final. Photo: David Lowndes.

In those nine seasons, the Australian crowd favourite made 339 official appearances and would add a further 55 when he returned for three separate spells in 2006, 2008 and 2012.

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Compare that sort of enduring stability to the seven-man team that started the current season with their total meetings in Peterborough’s colours in the Spring.

In all, Sullivan rode in 394 matches – the combined total appearances for all seven of this season’s starting line totalled just 358 (Hans Andersen (167, spread over 17 years in five different spells), Niels-Kristian Iversen (134), Ben Basso (23), Jordan Jenkins (12), Ben Cook (0) and Richie Worrall (0)).

And ‘Sully’ wasn’t a rarity when it came to serving one club as Stamfordian Ian Barney clocked up two shy of 400 meetings for his local team in official competition alone, without taking into account scores of challenge matches and the like!

If the speedway’s New Millennium is known for anything it has to be the rapid turn-over of riders as clubs are forced to let favourites go, replacing them with alternatives who come within the team-building restrictions.

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Despite this turnover of personnel the Panthers have tasted more success on track and have punched well above their weight over the years.

SUCCESS COMPARISON

Belle Vue, the most famous and longest-established club in the country had to wait 30 years (from 1993 until last season) to win the First Division championship in the 2000s.

King’s Lynn, who were first members of the league in 1966, have never won the top-flight title, and East Anglia rivals Ipswich, who raced their first league match way, way back in 1952, haven’t done a lap of honour with the First Division league trophy since 1998, the year before the Panthers broke their top-flight duck.

But, since then, Peterborough have been crowned the top team in the country twice, in 2006 and again in 2021.

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The only clubs with a superior record of success this century have been Poole, Coventry and Wolverhampton who have won eight, three and three titles respectively.

Peterborough’s two victories were totally contrasting in nature. In 2006 it was very much an against-the-odds victory that captured the imagination of the big Showground crowd and those watching at home on Sky Sports.

The most recent success was less eye-catching, but as richly deserved as the team, dubbed ‘Dad’s Army’ and written off by all the pre-season pundits because of the squad’s average age which was approaching 40.

Let’s wind the clock back to 2006 first….

2006

A contemporary report on the Panthers’ website summer up a quite remarkable drama: “Panthers took their fourth League Championship and their second Elite League title with a dramatic last-gasp piece of magic to devastate their opponents last night.’

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It was only the fifth time the Elite League title had been decided via the play-offs and Peterborough’s previous experience in 2002, 2003 and 2005 saw them go out in a one-leg semi-final against Wolverhampton and then Coventry twice.

The regular season had seen the Panthers finish top, but only one race point difference ahead of Reading, and they got some revenge over the Bees for their previous play-off defeats, beating them by 12 points in the battle to reach the two-leg Grand Final.

Opponents Reading had accounted for Swindon in their semi, but it was the Panthers who psychologically held the advantage, after going down by only two points in the away leg at Smallmead.

The odds favoured the Panthers but, with three races left, the Bulldogs, ironically managed by former Panthers promoter Jim Lynch, had a seemingly impenetrable 12-point lead. They were 10 points ahead in the second leg with 12 laps of action to go.

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The Showground then witnessed the three most unbelievable heats in its history.

WHAT A FINISH AND WHAT A NIGHT

Hans Andersen took a tactical outing (which the rules allowed to count for double points) in heat 12, and beat 1997 world champion Greg Hancock (who went on to win three further gold medals) while journeyman reserve Richard Hall collected a valuable and vital third place. A 7-2 for the home side, but they were still seven points adrift.

In the penultimate race, heat 14, Ryan Sullivan and Hall were first and second to trim the leeway to three points, but if there were four finishers in the last race the only way Peterborough could be champions was with another full house.

And that’s exactly what Sullivan and Andersen did, relegating Hancock and Polish ace Janusz Kolodziej to third and fourth.

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The Panthers had completed the most dramatic and unexpected recovery anyone watching had ever, or was ever likely to, witness.

Niels-Kristian Iversen, the only current Panthers who was in that record-breaking side recalls: “I crashed in the Swedish League play-offs and had an injury to my elbow, was stitched up and missed the first leg.

“I remember actually having the stitches out on the morning before the second leg of the Final. We were under a lot of pressure during the meeting because it didn’t look like we were going to win it. But it all turned around for us in the space of a couple of races and we managed to get their lead back.

“Hans (Andersen) and Sully (Ryan Sullivan) did the business in the last three heats. I think at some stage we were quite convinced we weren’t going to go on to win it. But everything turned around and, all of a sudden, at 12 points down [on aggregate], we managed to get it back.

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“I don’t think I have ever been in the position we were, but probably because there was the chance to bring in a tactical who scored double points, we could still win it.

“I don’t remember the meeting in detai,l but I think Hans and Sully were won each of the last three heats and Richard Hall from reserve got a couple of vital third places.

“We had a big celebration at the track, the place was pretty much on fire, and then we went to town and it was a heck of a good night!”

A 12-point deficit had been turned into a one point title victory, in the space of little more than three minutes’ actual track action!

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It was the equivalent of Posh winning the Premier League by scoring three goals in the last five minutes of a game against Manchester City!

Now fast forward to 2021….

2021

The Panthers began the season with a May Bank Holiday Monday home-and-away clash with Belle Vue, drawing in Manchester, but then losing by 10 points in front of their own fans.

They lost again to the Aces in the middle of summer and also at Wolverhampton and Sheffield, but they were the only defeats in a 20 match regular season programme as Panthers finished at the head of the table a point in front of Wolves.

Team boss Rob Lyon made the shock decision to choose the Black Country team as semi-final opponents, but was totally justified as his charges went on to record a home and away double to qualify for the Grand Final, against bogey side Belle Vue, who had lost to Panthers only once in their previous ten encounters!

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A two-point defeat at the National Speedway Stadium where Lyon had to juggle his resources after Hans Andersen suffered concussion in a first race crash was the foundation for another Alwalton trophy decider.

Andersen was ruled out of the second leg, but was with his teammates in the pits and another slow star saw Belle Vue open up an early four point aggregate lead

"But three successive heat advantages around the halfway stage inspired Panthers to roar into what was an insurmountable lead and they eventually ran out 95-85 aggregate winners to win a sixth season as league champions and a 23rd major piece of silverware.

Surely that’s a record that is worth fighting for rather than letting the most nationally successful city sporting club disappear because their home has been sold for a housing development?

COMING SOON: Peterborough’s honours through the decades – and an all-time Panthers’ seven.