BRILLIANT Ben Barker spearheaded a stunning transformation as Peterborough Panthers took control of their bitter Premier League play-offs quarter-final battle against Sheffield last night (Thursday).
The city racers recovered from a nightmare start to mount a rousing revival and snatch an unlikely 46-44 first-leg triumph at Owlerton Stadium.
Their season threatened to crumble before them as they were on the receiving end of a hat-trick of 5-1s in the opening three races, but this Panthers side is made of stern stuff.
Not even the adversity of Injuries, illness and farcical fixture planning could prevent them from taking victory as maximum man Barker dragged his side out of the doldrums.
He reeled off six terrific triumphs to collect an 18-point full house and received plenty of valuable support as a 12-point deficit became a two-point advantage in the space of just eight races.
It was the third time Barker has gone through the card in only seven meetings since being drafted in by Panthers last month – not bad for a man laid up with a broken back for most of the summer.
Barker said: “You can imagine what we were all thinking after three races.
“I managed to steady the ship by winning heat four and that was the most important one as far as I’m concerned.
“It was only a 3-3, but it stopped the rot and showed us that we could win races and give Sheffield problems.
“I gave the rest of the lads a hard time when I got back into the pits and told them the meeting wasn’t over.
“We were determined to close the gap up for the second leg and to end up winning is a huge bonus.
“It was a fantastic team effort from everyone in the team and I’m telling you now that we would not let a lead like that slip.
“I bet Sheffield now regret bringing us there on a date when they knew we were against racing, but we all know the tie is not over by any means. We’ve still got a job to do in the second leg.”
Captain Jason Garrity picked himself up off the deck to follow in Josh Bates as hosts Sheffield began with a bang. Their reserve duo Robin Aspegren and Paco Castagna followed up in the next race before David Bellego and Nicolai Klindt completed the triple-whammy in heat three.
But Barker triggered a fine response by completing a successful solo mission in heat four after Emil Grondal had tumbled out to earn an exclusion.
It was the first of six successive race wins from Panthers riders but only a maximum from guest Jonas B. Andersen – drafted in on the morning of the meeting for sick Anders Thomsen – and Michael Palm Toft in heat seven allowed them to eat into their arrears.
Bates did briefly give the home fans some cheer by taking a shared 10th heat but Barker and stand-in skipper Simon Lambert quickly set about slashing Panthers’ deficit further.
They teamed up for a 5-1 in heat 11 when both men scythed their way past Andre Compton on the opening lap before bagging a 4-2 in heat 13 to close to within two points of the increasingly toothless Tigers.
The turnaround was completed when Grondal and Palm Toft both powered past Aspegren in the penultimate race to bank another 5-1 and Barker preserved their advantage by completing his own flawless performance in the finale.
But he admitted: “Sheffield is not really a track I enjoy. I find it quite boring to ride in all honesty, but I can get round it quickly and that’s all that matters.
“I’ve had good scores there before and everything just clicked last night. I shot out of the starts lovely and got to the first corner in front.”
Panthers are hopeful of staging the second leg at the East of England Showground on Sunday, September 27.
SHEFFIELD: David Bellego 11+1, Josh Bates 9+1, Jason Garrity 8+1, Robin Aspegren 7+1, Nicolai Klindt 4+3, Andre Compton 3+1, Paco Castagna 2+1.
PANTHERS: Ben Barker 18 (max), Jonas Andersen 8+1, Emil Grondal 8, Simon Lambert 6+1, Michael Palm Toft 5+3, Rafal Konopka 1, Rider replacement for Ulrich Ostergaard.