PLYMOUTH Gladiators kept their slim hopes of making the Cab Direct Championship play-offs alive with a thrilling 45-44 victory over rivals Berwick Bandits at The Coliseum last night.

It was their first win in over four months and only their second in the league all season – since defeating Scunthorpe 49-41 at home on May 2.

There was drama even before the match began, with Gladiators' Richie Worrall and Berwick's Steve Boxall withdrawn on 'medical grounds'.

The Speedway Control Board later issued a statement, saying: “The SCB arranged for four riders to be randomly alcohol and drug tested at the Plymouth v Berwick fixture on Tuesday September 5

"Unfortunately, one rider from each team produced a non-negative result on their test, and they were therefore excluded from the event.

"The samples will now be sent to the laboratory for further analysis. Both riders will now have their SCB Registrations suspended until the results are confirmed from the laboratory.”

It was a particularly huge blow for the Gladiators, who were already without the injured Dan Gilkes, Ben Barker and Dan Thompson, using guests Joe Thompson and Justin Sedgmen and rider replacement, and it left them with a five-man team.

Australian Sedgmen rides for Gladiators' play-off chasing rivals Birmingham and was a major disappointment, managing only four points from four rides, but Thompson – the brother of Dan – was a sensation, scoring nine points, including helping skipper Kyle Howarth to a match-winning 4-2 in heat 15.

Reserve James Pearson was also magnificent as support for Howarth, grabbing 13 points from seven rides, while Ben Trigger started the evening well with six points from three outings before tailing off badly with four last places.

The Gladiators led by eight points after four races, but Berwick hit back with a 5-1 in heat five, helped by a tactical substitute ride for the impressive Jye Etheridge.

It remained nip and tuck, with the scores level at 36-36 after 12 heats, setting up a cracking finale.

The Bandits can feel aggrieved over a couple of refereeing decisions that didn't go their way in the closing stages.

In heat 13, where the hosts were only able to track one rider, former Gladiator Hans Andersen clashed with Howarth on the third bend of lap one and ended up in the air fence, but the Dane was remounting to get his side a point when referee Simon Humphrey-Kennett was too swift to put the red light on and stop the race.

Schlein beat Howarth in the re-run to give the Bandits a one-point advantage, and the next race was drawn, setting up a last-heat decider.

Schlein outgated Howarth in heat 15, but the referee called it back for Howarth moving at the start, and in the re-run, Howarth made no mistake, with Thompson riding a great race to leave Etheridge at the back and seal what had seemed an unlikely victory for Plymouth.

It was a perfect way for the Gladiators to end a home campaign which has been dogged by huge amounts of bad luck, numerous injuries to riders, wet weather and track problems.

Plymouth trail sixth-place Edinburgh by five points and realistically need to win at Birmingham tonight, Edinburgh on Friday and Berwick on Saturday to stand any chance of making the play-offs.

With four riders missing, their season is likely to hinge now on who team manager Garry May can bring in as guests for those meetings.

Plymouth 45: James Pearson 13+1 (7 rides), Kyle Howarth 13 (5), Joe Thompson 9+2 (6), Ben Trigger 6+1 (7), Justin Sedgmen 4+1 (4), Richie Worrall DNS.

Berwick 44: Rory Schlein 13 (5), Jye Etheridge 12+2 (6), Leon Flint 8 (4), Hans Andersen 6 (4), Jacob Hook 4+2 (7), Jason Garrad 1 (4), Steve Boxall DNS.

Birmingham: Lewis Kerr (guest), Alfie Bowtell, Troy Batchelor, Paul Starke, Justin Sedgmen, Stefan Nielsen, Sam Hagon.

Plymouth: Kyle Howarth, Dan Gilkes R/R, Simon Lambert (guest), Matt Marson (guest), Rory Schlein (guest), James Pearson, Ben Trigger.