Wednesday, 15 October 2014

SEX AND DANGER ON TWEED



From When Saturday Comes, a review of Tom Maxwell’s mightily entertaining book about Berwick Rangers, the most northerly of all North East clubs.
 
 

Ninety per cent of all players in the club's history have come from another country, they play in a stadium that is overlooked by grain silos and has "a sound system comparable to a Walkman in a bowl of soup", one of their all-time-greats is the son of a shepherd, they are not allowed to play in their county cup competition for political reasons and they won their first ever football match by a margin of "one goal and two tries to nil".

All in all it is probably safe to say that Berwick Rangers are a singular football team. Indeed, the fact that they are an English club that plays in Scotland is probably one of the least remarkable things about them. Though as Tom Maxwell points out in this lively account of Rangers' many trials and tribulations, playing in a foreign land does place them in a small band of clubs that also includes Monaco, Wellington Phoenix and the Puerto Rico Islanders.

Since that first unusual victory over the Royal Oak back in Victorian times the Shielfield Park side's history has never quite risen to the chequered, more it has been the standard plain-cloth of lower-league football the world over. There's been a narrow scrape here, a close call there and such infrequent flickers of glory that every mention on national TV – even if it's a joke by Nick Hancock – is squirrelled away by fans like a toothsome nut.

Aside from the Scottish Second Division title in 1979, a campaign masterminded by player-manager Dave Smith – compared to Bobby Moore and David Beckham by one excited local football reporter – and a famous 21-game unbeaten run under boss Jim Jefferies (working as an insurance broker in Coldstream at the time) that earned the club a feature on Saint and Greavsie, Berwick's greatest moment was probably  the victory over those other, slightly better known, Rangers back in 1967. The player-manager of the Borderers at that time was Jock Wallace. Wallace - who'd end up at Ibrox - had an army background. A Scottish journalist once told me ‘as a young man, Jock was parachuted into the jungle and in many ways he never left it’. Whatever, Wallace was a coach of such ferocious discipline even his one act of kindness – allowing the players a slug of Scotch to warm them up before matches on cold days – has the bitter whiff of the battlefield about it.




Berwick's geographical location in an isolated corner of Northumberland, the clannish nature of Border society and the fact that the town has changed hands between England and Scotland 13 times give it a uniquely mixed-up character. This is perhaps best exemplified by the complex local accent, familiar to many via the TV appearances of Trevor Steven – who sold programmes at Shielfield as a teenager. Maxwell brings this unique region to life via personal recollections and interviews with fans and former players.

Sadly, or maybe not, there's nothing that really explains why the fans sing "I want to be a Berwick Ranger/Only live for sex and danger", unless perhaps it's the account of the career of John "Yogi" Hughes, whose reputation as a dressing-room joker seems to rest mainly on his habit of biting his team-mates as they relaxed in the post-match bath.

 

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