COVENTRY Storm’s brave bid for National League title glory ended with a 44-46 defeat to Cradley at Leicester on Friday.
The City Gearboxes Storm trailed by ten points from the first leg before the return was switched to the neutral territory of the Jordan Road Surfacing Stadium due to the unavailability of Brandon.
And outstanding performances from skipper James Sarjeant and Dan Greenwood, who both dropped just one point from five rides, ensured the Heathens were given one of their closest matches of the season, second only to the Easter Monday clash at Brandon in which the Storm took victory.
There was never any suggestion that the defending champions would reel off a succession of 5-1s as they have done on so many occasions this year.
Instead, Cradley initially concentrated on a containing job as the Storm produced a string of early race wins but were unable to back them up with race advantages – and after a good gating performance, Coventry were left to reflect on a meeting they could well have won on the night.
Six of the first seven heats were shared, the only exception being Heat 4 which was won by Heathens captain Paul Starke in what turned out to be Sarjeant’s only defeat, with Danny Phillips going inside Martin Knuckey for third place off turn four.
Starke won his first two rides for Cradley before seeing his winning run ended by Greenwood’s fine second-bend move in Heat 9, at which point the Storm were still only two points down on the night.
But Max Clegg, a Leicester regular in the Elite League this year, got the better of Storm guest Simon Lambert in a fine Heat 10 battle, and with Luke Priest falling on turn three the Heathens were edging closer to their target.
They secured the title with a fortunate 5-1 in Heat 12 after race leader Stefan Nielsen suffered mechanical trouble at the end of the first lap, allowing Clegg and Phillips to go through for maximum points.
It put the gap on the night up to eight points, but the Storm fought back strongly in the closing stages with Sarjeant taking Heat 13, Greenwood the next race after an excellent first lap against Tom Perry, and the duo then combined for a 5-1 over Clegg and Starke in the last race.
Runners-up position in only their second National League campaign was still a fine achievement for the City Gearboxes Storm, and although Cradley are worthy champions after losing just one match all season they were at least made to work for their success and an eventual 12-point aggregate margin.
Coventry owner Mick Horton said: “Congratulations to Cradley this evening. Personally I’m very despondent because I feel as though we’ve let our boys down by not racing at Brandon, and I can only apologise for that.
“I’m disillusioned at the moment because I feel that had we ridden at Brandon tonight then maybe it could have been a different outcome.
“But many thanks to the fans who turned out, and once again well done to Cradley.”
NATIONAL LEAGUE GRAND FINAL, 2nd leg COVENTRY 44: James Sarjeant 14, Dan Greenwood 12+2, Simon Lambert 7, Luke Priest 3+1, Stefan Nielsen 3, Martin Knuckey 3, Ryan Terry-Daley 2 CRADLEY 46: Max Clegg 11, Paul Starke 10, Nathan Greaves 9+1, Danny Phillips 6+1, Tom Perry 5+2, Ben Morley 4+2, Matt Williamson 1+1 Cradley win 98-86 on aggregate
CITY GEARBOXES STORM 44 Simon Lambert 3 2 2 0 = 7 Luke Priest 0 1* 2 R = 3+1 Stefan Nielsen 0 2 1 R = 3 Dan Greenwood 3 1* 3 3 2* = 12+2 James Sarjeant 2 3 3 3 3 = 14 Ryan Terry-Daley 0 0 M 1 1 = 2 Martin Knuckey 3 0 0 0 M = 3
CRADLEY 46 Ben Morley 1* T 2 1* = 4+2 Nathan Greaves 2 3 3 1* = 9+1 Max Clegg 2 2 3 3 1 = 11 Tom Perry 1* 1* 1 2 = 5+2 Paul Starke 3 3 2 2 0 = 10 Matt Williamson 1* 0 0 0 = 1+1 Danny Phillips 2 1 1 2* 0 = 6+1