Monday 22 January 2018

Playing in England North of the Border

It's a classic pub quiz question. 'Which English football team actually plays in the Scottish leagues?' The answer is of course Berwick Rangers. Based in the in the north Northumberland town of Berwick-upon-Tweed and right on the Scottish border, the Scottish League Two part-timers are however hardly one of the bigger names in Scottish football. Nicknamed The Borderers and playing in Black and Gold, they have never appeared in the country's top flight and three Quarter Final defeats are the furthest they have ever progressed in the Scottish Cup. Nevertheless Berwick are a prominent feature in the lower divisions of Scottish league football and have been so for nearing 70 years now.

Berwick have been playing at their modest Shielfield Park home since 1954 and prior to that playing on an adjacent pitch known as 'Old Shielfield Park'. The new ground was completed when Berwick effectively went into the transfer market to purchase Bradford City's old grandstand for £400, and was opened with a friendly match against then English Third Division North side Darlington.
The ground is surrounded by a cinder track that is used by fellow stadium tennants the Berwick Bandits speedway team, and which was also briefly used for Greyhound racing in the 1990's. Shielfield Park has a a capacity of  4,099 with 1,366 seated in the main stand which runs along one side of the pitch, there is partly covered terracing along the other side and the aforementioned speedway track separates spectators from the playing area.

Sitting in the main stand during a match you will notice it is a very family orientated affair with plenty of parents and grandparents sat alongside small children enjoying an afternoon out and hopefully some entertaining football. It really feels like a club where all are welcome. Head around to the terraces on the other side of the pitch however and it is a far more noisy event with many of the Berwick faithful passionately screaming and shouting their way through the ninety minutes, and the roar of the crowd prevalent when the team surges forward. Shouts of 'Come on Berwick!' and 'Come on you Gers!' are also common place amongst the wee band of locals who stand on the terraces every other week supporting their team.

Formed in 1881, having played in the Border League and then it's replacement the East of Scotland League, the club did not join the Scottish Football League until 1951. Since then Berwick's league history has certainly had it's ups and downs, both on the pitch and off it. Under the stewardship of manager Dave Smith and with record appearance holder, goalscorer, and future player manager Eric Tait in the team, the club spent two seasons in the second tier of Scottish football between 1979-1981, having previously only played at that level when the league only had two divisions. That was probably the clubs high point in terms of league football but it did not last long as by the end of the 1980's they were nearly bankrupted, and for a brief period even locked out of their ground and having to play elsewhere. In more recent times with the four division set up in the league, Berwick have plied their trade in the bottom two tiers, having since 2008 continuously been stuck in the bottom division these days known as League Two. A fourth placed finish followed by a play-off semi final defeat to East Fife in 2013 is the closest they've came to promotion in the years since, whilst at the time of writing they find themselves in sixth place out ten having played 12 league games under the supervision of ex player at the club Robbie Horn who was appointed manager in August of this year.

The above mentioned play-off season will also be remembered for the four games with Glasgow Rangers. The giants of Scottish football had gone bankrupt earlier that year and the reformed club were forced to start life in the bottom Division of the league. 4,140 turned up at Shielfield Park in  the third game of the season as the minnows of Berwick held out for a 1-1 draw, whilst the Glasgow side won 3-1 at Berwick in the February with another bumper crowd of 4,476 in attendance. There were 4-1 and 1-0 defeats for the Black and Gold when they travelled to Rangers' Ibrox home. Those league games with Rangers brought back memories of several famous cup ties played between the two sides over the years. There may have been only limited cup success for Berwick Rangers in years gone by but the club has certainly had it's moments, particularly against the blue half of Glasgow.

28 January 1967:  It was considered one of the biggest upsets in Scottish football history. Little Berwick Rangers knocked the mighty Glasgow Rangers out of the cup. The clubs had met three times previously with the Glaswegians winning 4-0 each time, and this occasion was expected to be no different. Having been through two preliminary rounds Berwick entered the first round of the Scottish Cup as massive underdogs, but the 13,365 who crammed into Shielfield Park were not to be disappointed. It was Sammy Reid who blasted the ball home on 32 minutes to seal the victory as try as they might the Glasgow giants could not find an equaliser in what is possibly the most famous match in Berwick Rangers' history.

The pair met again in another famous Scottish Cup tie in 2002. This time the youtube footage is not quite so grainy and a 0-0 draw at Shielfield Park forced a replay with an eventual 3-0 home win for the blues.

Other cup success has mostly been limited to a League Cup semi final defeat in 1964, also against Glasgow Rangers, and three Scottish Cup quarter final defeats having never progressed beyond that point in the competition. The first of those came in 1954 where a 4-0 defeat at you guessed it Glasgow Rangers had followed a 3-0 home win against Dundee. The second two came against Hibernian whom in 1980 they took to a replay after a 0-0 draw at home, whilst in 14/15 they lost 4-0 away. In the Challenge Cup competition played amongst league clubs outside the Premier Division the club has also never progressed beyond the Quarter Finals. The club may have never came close to winning a cup of any sort, however events such as those in 1967 will long live in the memory for Berwick supporters and one can only wonder if we'll ever see many occasions like that at Shielfield Park again?

Yes they may be minnows in Scottish football, indeed their average attendance last season was just 427, but they are the team that has on occasion put the little town of Berwick-upon-Tweed on the map, and the hardy souls that turn out to support them come rain or shine can be proud of their club and what it has achieved as outsiders inside the Scottish game.

Berwick Rangers:

Full Name: Berwick Rangers Football Club
Nicknames(s): The Borderers, The Black and Gold
Founded: 1881
Ground; Shielfield Park
Capacity: 4,099

Honours: 1 Scottish League  Division Two (third tier) title, 1  Division Two runner up position, 1 Division Three title, 2 Division Three runner up positions, 3 Scottish Cup quarter finals, 1 League Cup semi final.

5 Year Record:
16/17 League: 8th League Two, Scottish Cup: 2nd Round, League Cup: Group Stage, Challenge Cup: 1st Round, Ave att: 427
15/16 League: 6th League Two, Scottish Cup: 2nd Round, League Cup: 1st Round, Challenge Cup: 2nd  Round,  Ave att: 461
14/15 League: 8th League Two, Scottish Cup: Quarter Final, League Cup: 1st Round, Challenge Cup: 2nd Round, Ave att:  466
13/14 League: 5th League Two, Scottish Cup: 4th Round, League Cup: 1st Round, Challenge Cup: 2nd Round, Ave att:  468

Matchday Guide: 
Getting to the Stadium: Walking to the ground is a 31 minute stroll from the railway station passing through the town centre and then across the River Tweed via Bridge End. Alternatively you can get the B2 bus from Railway Street next to the station and alight at Shielfield Terrace.

Eating and Drinking: The stadium has it's own clubhouse with a bar that is usually busy on matchdays, whilst heading away from the ground The Grove pub is also popular. There are also a few other pubs and takeaways along the route from town towards the stadium but most of main pubs, bars, cafe's, and restaurants are situated in the town centre itself. The Curfew Micropub and Barrels Alehouse are popular pubs in the town whilst Bear Claw Brewery in Spittal is also worth a visit. Upper West Street offers Sandwiches and afternoon tea whilst Maisie's Chocolate Parlour & Creperie offers many sugary delights. If dinner is what you want then Limoncello Italian restaurant, and Foxtons Restaurant and Wine Bar will both offer you a hearty meal.

Buying a ticket: Games never sell out so unless there is to be another colossal cup tie again then it will always be a case of paying at the turnstiles for each match. Tickets are priced at £12 for adults and £7 for concessions.

Getting to Berwick-upon-Tweed: 
If you are not driving, the town's railway station is situated right on the East Coast mainline that runs between London and Edinburgh, and various services stop at Berwick before heading north of the border. For those travelling from further afield, the nearest airports are Edinburgh in Scotland, and Newcastle to the South.

The Town:
The historic town of Berwick upon Tweed was for many centuries disputed territory between the kingdoms of England and Scotland, with both having laid claim to the town at one point or another.
Founded as an Anglo Saxon settlement in the 10th century, the first English invasion came two centuries later when Henry II captured the town which by that point had came under Scottish rule, whilst Richard I later sold it back to Scotland to help fund his campaign in the Crusades. Between 1315 and 1318 Scottish armies besieged and blockaded the town, finally invading and capturing it in April 1318, however the English retook Berwick shortly after the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. In 1461 Berwick was ceded back to Scotland in return for Scottish help in Henry VI's fight against against the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses, then in 1482 England recaptured the town and it has remained on the south side of the border ever since.

A very short walk from Berwick train station takes you to the castle ruins. Berwick Castle was built in the 12th century and for many years a key stronghold in the battles between the English and the Scots. Perched on the banks of the river Tweed, when standing amongst the castle ruins you can see the impressive Royal Border Bridge. Built between 1847 and 1850, the railway viaduct designed by Robert Stephenson son of famous engineer George and opened by Queen Victoria is still used by the East Coast mainline today.

Other architecture of note in the town includes the historic Town Hall. Building work began on the structure in 1750, and Monday-Friday between Easter and the end of September there are daily tours of the building where you can visit the old town courtroom and jail.

During his life famous painter L.S. Lowrey regularly holidayed in the town, and the Lowrey trail throughout Berwick offers you the chance to follow in his footsteps and visit some of the places he discovered on his trips there, taking in the Elizabethan walls and crossing the river into Tweedmouth. Sadly there is no permanent exhibition of his work in the town.

Finally, another popular attraction in the town is The Maltings Cinema and Theatre. Opened in 1990, it was built in the ruins of an early 19th-century malthouse that had been destroyed by fire in 1984.
For a small town Berwick upon Tweed has a very big history, and it's quaint town centre with antiques shops, second hand book stores, and delightful tea rooms is definitely worth a visit. The town has some excellent historic architecture, and set in beautiful surrounds of the Scottish Borders along the river Tweed there are plenty of walking trails with lots of pleasing countryside, making not just the town itself but also the surrounding area a delightful gem before you head north of the border.

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