Viewed from the train, after dark, a game of football in Berwick is an almost ethereal thing. The rain and mist swirl around the floodlights, the stands are plunged into darkness and an other-worldly oval of light looms up among the quiet suburbs of Tweedmouth. Closer to the action, as steam from the nearby factory pours over the pitch, the game takes on a dream-like quality. It’s a curiously ‘edge of the world’ location for football.
Unfortunately, remoteness tends to mean sporting struggles. Although Berwick Rangers traces its origins back to 1881, it has been conspicuously unsuccessful for the past 125 years or so. Joining the Scottish League in 1951 it has spent almost every subsequent season in the bottom division. Financial crises have seen it lose its ground to a greyhound racing company and stave off more than one imminent bankruptcy. A position propping up the league table is generally more probable than a promotion push and cup glory is limited to a famous day in 1967 when Rangers were vanquished in front of a record 13,000 crowd at Shielfield Park.
Berwick’s main problem is one of geography. Historically it’s been fought over for centuries, changing hands between England and Scotland 13 times until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Today it’s a remote outpost between Newcastle and Edinburgh, far from any rival team. As a result, its greatest claim to fame is a pub trivia stalwart: what’s the only English team to play in the Scottish League? The team’s small size and geographic remoteness added extra savour to that Rangers cup win: it came just two seasons after the Glasgow giants sought to boot Berwick and three other minnows out of the Scottish League as part of a reshuffle intended to benefit the big boys. It took a court hearing to keep Berwick on both sides of the border.
Not that the town feels all that English. The local accent, as heard on the terraces of Shielfield Park, offers a meeting between Scotland’s ‘heid’ and Northumberland’s ‘berl’. Local pubs tend to stock Scottish brew Belhaven Best rather than the Farne Island Ale popular just to the south. The local regiment, long garrisoned in the town’s barracks, was the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. The King’s Arms hotel flies a Scottish flag next to a British one, but has no space for St. George. The locals get antsy when their players are branded ‘wee English bastarts’ by visiting fans. Typically, players and coaches are recruited from around Edinburgh rather than drawn from Northumberland or Tyneside. At various times, Rangers have even organised training sessions in Edinburgh rather than drag the squad down to the Borders unnecessarily.
It’s not been a great season, though. When Elgin City arrive, the Black-and-Gold are hovering near the foot of the table. On the terraces, under the Ducket roof, early optimism engendered by Berwick taking the lead is quickly quashed by the ease with which Elgin find an equalizer. Defending is not Berwick’s strength and Elgin are soon in front. In the second half Elgin stretched that lead. Over in the seats, where the sufferers on the terraces are invisible in the gloaming, yet groaning through the darkness, the mood is one of resignation. A late goal sparks hope of an unlikely fightback, but it ends 2-3.
Berwick is doing everything it can to generate support in a town where Scottish League Two football isn’t much of a priority. Many footie fans are inclined to look to Newcastle or Glasgow for their action, TV action takes its toll on gates at Shielfield. In response, the club offers junior season tickets for just a fiver but struggles to attract punters willing to pay the £12 adult admission. After the game, the clubhouse is almost deserted: the décor tells of the speedway team that shares the stadium but says little about football. A reportedly home fans pub is nothing of the sort; 400 or so fans melt away into the mist. Football in Berwick remains an elusive thing.
Shielfield Park, Berwick, England.
December 12, 2015. Scottish League 2
Berwick Rangers 2 (McKenna, Lavery) Elgin City 3 (McHardy, Cameron, Gunn)