Welcome to the first instalment of our new mini-series on teams who play their football in a country that is not their own. Meet THE OUTSIDERS
BY MARK GODFREY
As you approach from the south, staring wistfully out at the slate grey North Sea reflecting the equally slate grey sky over the sand dunes of Cheswick and Goswick, the quaint walled-town of Berwick-upon-Tweed – perched neatly atop the sloping banks of the famous River Tweed – slowly and neatly begins to frame this picturesque view of northernmost Northumberland. As the train lurches across the Robert Stephenson-designed Royal Border Bridge, leaving the villages of Tweedmouth and East Ord in its slipstream, one could easily be fooled into thinking you were entering another country. The shimmering, twinkling surface of the Tweed – that most renowned of salmon grounds – gives one a sense of a natural dividing line between England and Scotland. Indeed, throughout the centuries and the turbulent history between the two neighbours, it often has. However, since 1482, at the height of the Anglo-Scottish wars, Berwick has remained firmly under English control.
The closest conurbations to Berwick are that of Edinburgh, 56 miles away up the Scottish coast, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 63 miles south, and with no other reasonably sized towns within 30 miles, it feels very much apart from the rest of the country it belongs to and the one that lies just five minutes up the road. There is an apocryphal tale that illustrates this perfectly; when Queen Victoria signed the declaration of war against Russia that began the Crimean War, she is supposed to have referred to herself as the “Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions”. When that conflict was ended by the Treaty of Paris, there was no mention of this tiny town – and now seemingly a separate state within the British Empire – in the document, meaning that Berwick stood alone in a state of permanent war with the might of the Russian Empire. It’s a fascinating little story, except it just wasn’t true. However, the fact that it was perceived as being so for over 100 years just goes to emphasise Berwick’s relative isolation.
Even the people are different; this is no more evident than in their accents. Paradoxically, fellow Northumbrians (don’t call them Geordies) consider them to have a decidedly Scottish twang laced throughout their throaty local burr, while those from just over the border distinguish them as being of obvious Northumberland origin. Berwick is England’s furthermost geographical outpost and simultaneously a curious anomaly of Scottish football.
Berwick Rangers Football Club was founded in 1881, although they weren’t officially constituted until three years later. Their early days were spent playing locally and against fellow clubs from Northumberland before, in 1905, they became affiliated with the Scottish Football Association, probably as a result of finding opposition from further south hard to come by due to travel expense and time incurred – the basis of Berwick’s Scottish status that still exists today. From then until 1951, the Borderers played in non-league when a restructuring of the Scottish League system saw them admitted to the newly-formed third tier. Three years further down the line they became permanent residents at their current ground Shielfield Park (which they share with speedway team Berwick Bandits), mainly thanks to the gate receipts of a Scottish Cup quarter-final tie played against Rangers at Ibrox that were used to purchase the old main stand from Valley Parade, home of Bradford City. Club officials and supporters dismantled, transported and reassembled the structure themselves on the plot of land next to their preceding ground.
As you might imagine, Berwick have never played at the highest level in Scotland, one Second Division and one Third Division title top their list of league achievements. However, it is one particular Scottish Cup exploit that remains the club’s greatest ever moment.
Glasgow’s Rangers were pivotal in the history of Berwick’s equivalent once again. On January 28th 1967 the two met in the archetypal David vs. Goliath cup clash at Shielfield in front of a club record attendance of 13,365. The game was made all the more intriguing by the whiff of bad blood between the two; just a few years earlier, Rangers had proposed a restructuring of the Scottish League system. If successful, it would have meant an end to Berwick’s status as a league club. Initially, Berwick and the other four clubs involved lost their fight but defiantly took Rangers to the Court of Session to appeal the decision. Eventually – with the backing of Celtic – they won a reprieve.
So it was against that backdrop that Berwick pulled off possibly the greatest upset in Scottish football history, one that is really only rivalled by Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s win over Celtic in 2000. Jock Wallace’s men certainly rode their luck at times but held firm under pressure with Sammy Reid’s 32nd minute goal securing a result that not only knocked the holders out of the competition, but also sent reverberations through the Ibrox club that took them several years to truly recover from. Indeed, it was Wallace himself who helped to restore Rangers when he took over as manager five years later. Defeat to Hibernian in the subsequent round put paid to that famous cup run, but their accomplishments of that day are secured in the annals of Scottish football forever.
Further ‘success’ failed to materialise until the late 1970s when as well as their Second Division title triumph in 1979, they had one of the greats of the world game grace their humble surroundings – albeit at the tail end of his tumultuous career. It was March 1980, and in yet another Cup meeting with Hibs – this time at Shielfield – Berwick faced George Best, by this time in the depths of the wayward drinking phase that contributed greatly to his increasingly nomadic and sporadic appearances at various clubs at home and in the US. Famously, the Manchester United legend missed the team bus – for reasons one can probably guess – and had to take a taxi down the A1 to Northumberland. He played the first half of the 0-0 draw before being withdrawn at half time due to poor performance.
As you might imagine, survival for a club whose crowd counts in the hundreds rather than the thousands often takes precedence over anything more ambitious. Berwick have faced the financial abyss on more than one occasion, only to save themselves by one means or another. By the late 80s and early 90s they were locked out of their home ground, eventually having to sell off Shielfield Park to lease it back, and were on the verge of bankruptcy twice within the space of four years. While the worst of the recent recession may be over and the club are on a sounder footing, Berwick face another threat to their time in the Scottish League.
At time of writing, they find themselves at the foot of the league’s lowest tier which, if they fail to climb away from by the end of the campaign, would see a play-off final against the best team from either the Highland or Lowland League just to retain their current status. Montrose survived by the skin of their teeth in last year’s inaugural play-offs, but the gap between League Two and the leading sides of the non-league scene is negligible. How significant an impact dropping out of the league could be is an unknown, with no recent case reference to speak of.
Last year, the Scottish independence referendum sparked fears that Berwick Rangers would have their SFA membership revoked if the ‘Yes’ vote had prevailed and Scotland had chosen to secede from the United Kingdom. This would undoubtedly have jeopardised the club’s existence for the very travel and financial reasons they had for playing north of the border in the first place. In the end, the UK as we know it remained intact thanks to the 55% ‘No’ vote and Berwick were not forced to play in a lowly and costly rung of England’s pyramid system. However, in reality, Scottish independence may have had little impact on the status quo, even if there had been devious interference from those trying to exploit Berwick Rangers’ situation to score cheap political points; not including Welsh clubs playing in the English leagues, there are plenty of other examples of a club playing under the jurisdiction of the football association of another sovereign state, usually for geographical convenience and to reduce the burden on finances.
The future for Berwick Rangers looks as uncertain now as it always has. The bottom line of the balance sheet is always the bottom line in their existence. Yet, one thing remains constantly unaffected – the town, its people and the football club are proud of the otherness and singularity of their identity. English and not, Scottish and not. Somewhere and nowhere – they are both and neither.