Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Wee Gers

The Easter international break which coincided with our birthday this year consisted of a trip to the Scottish borders to cover Berwick Rangers’ game against Elgin City. Not quite international but somewhere entirely different in any case.

Berwick upon Tweed is the northern most town in England. It is most definitely not in Scotland despite the assertions of a window cleaner of our acquaintance. It has been part of Scotland in the past and had the Scottish National Party Member of Scottish Parliament, Christine Grahame got her way in 2008 it still would be. Nevertheless, Berwick upon Tweed is now very much in England and has been since 1551.

Berwick Rangers, the town’s football club are unique in that they are the only English club playing in the Scottish Professional Football League. Founded in 1881, the ‘Wee Gers’ are currently in Scottish League Two, the bottom rung of the Scottish professional ladder and it is at that level they have spent the majority of their existence. However, despite their lowly heritage there have been sporadic highlights including a 3-0 cup win over Dundee in 1954, a twenty one game unbeaten run under the stewardship of Jim Jeffries in 1988 and a momentous 1-0 win over Rangers in the Scottish Cup in front of a record crowd of over 13,000 in 1967. Their lowest point was arguably in 1989-90, when on the brink of bankruptcy they were locked out of Shielfield Park and forced to play their games elsewhere.

John Coughlin
©Shutter Press
They are currently under the supervision of John Coughlin who is almost certainly the only person born in the USA to manage a British professional football club. Born in New York City on 11 April 1963 we are unsure how long Coughlin remained stateside but suspect it wasn’t long, as he embarked on his playing career with Scottish Junior Club Newtongrange Star, was capped by the Scottish Junior Football Association before signing for Meadowbank Thistle now known as Livingston in 1991 and Berwick two years later.

More démodé than contemporary, Shielfield Park is not only home to Berwick Rangers but also to the town’s speedway team Berwick Bandits. A name we mused over, eventually deciding that it was perhaps more alliterative than any connection with the "Wee Gers of Sin". The speedway track runs around the outside of a central, oval shaped, grassed area which houses the football pitch. Situated in Tweedmouth adjacent to Simpson’s Malt, the ground’s capacity is allegedly 4,500 with 1,366 of them getting a seat. On our visit there were 3,988 fewer but not all of them wanted a seat with some of the home support preferring to stand in the curiously named 'Ducket enclosure' opposite the main stand.
The Ducket Enclosure
©Shutter Press

The thirty or so opposition fans that made the 236 mile trip from Moray were seated in sections 1 & 2 of the main stand. As it was a typical 'dreich' Scottish or more accurately Northumbrian day our entry to the arena was via the tunnel, out on to the speedway track and straight in to the away dugout to shelter from the drizzle. At least until its legitimate tenants arrived. The playing surface itself is on an incline meandering gently upwards from the Maltings end towards the River Tweed and the Fish & Chip van end.

Prior to the game, Elgin City were lying third in the in the Second division table, well placed for a play off spot and a dozen points above Berwick. Nonetheless, 
Blair Henderson
©Shutter Press
Elgin’s boss Jim Weir was quoted as saying "Berwick have proven to be very mean in defence under John Coughlin and they have also turned Shielfield into a bit of a fortress so this will be a tough game to get the three points from." His assumption proved to be correct as with only five minutes on the clock Elgin’s Archie McPhee decked Steven Notman in the penalty area allowing Rangers’ tall, fair-haired, centre forward Blair Henderson to convert the resultant spot kick. Five minutes later Notman was again in the firing line taking the ball full in the face and having to leave the field. Elgin continually pressed hard for an equaliser but it was Berwick who took the plaudits and the points sealing their victory with header late in the second half which gave Blair Henderson his and their second goal of the game.

Our celebrations continued long in to the night but to be honest that was more to do with our birthday than the "Wee Gers" unexpected victory.