Doug Stenhouse explains why Berwick Rangers, rescued from the brink of oblivion, have more reason than most to be thankful to their supporters' club
You might know Berwick Rangers as the only English team in the Scottish League. You might even know that through a quirk of history, the town of Berwick was left out of the peace treaty at the end of the Crimean War, so Berwick was technically at war with Russia for over 100 years. You probably do not know that Shielfield Park, Berwick Rangers’ ground is owned by their supporters, a unique situation brought about by a tale so bizarre even the script writers of Baywatch would have found it too far-fetched.
The club suffered severe financial problems in the late Eighties and were forced to sell the ground, Shielfield Park, to the council from whom they leased it back. A firm of butchers then bought the club and installed a chairman younger than most of the players. He promised to get into the Premiership in three years, but forgot to add it would be with another club (Falkirk) and that he would take the Berwick manager and coaching staff with him.
Next was a local ‘businessman’ with big plans but no money. “Premier football is our aim,” he said, but neglected to explain how it might be achieved. Sure enough, after arranging for his debts to be addressed to Shielfield Park, his various companies went down, nearly taking the club with them. It was only funds raised by the supporters that kept Berwick afloat.
Worse was to come. With the club in administration, the remaining directors sold the ground lease to a greyhound promoter who promptly threw out the football club, forcing us to groundshare with a succession of other Second Division clubs. (The Glasgow press seemed to revel in Berwick’s misfortune and frequently argued that we should be thrown out of the league in favour of one of the Highland teams. They could have at least acknowledged the fans gallant attempts at fund-raising, but no, we are English and yes we did once beat their beloved Rangers.)
The greyhound promoter finally agreed to sub-let the ground back, but only for use on Tuesdays and Saturdays, a situation we endured for two years until a group of supporters, dismayed by a report that a speedway team were to buy the lease, got together and decided something had to be done to safeguard Berwick’s future.
The football club had no money, but the supporters’ club had a regular supply of cash from the weekly draw which was paying the rent on the ground anyway. With the help of the bank and the club sponsors, the supporters’ club (whose members, unusually, include most of Berwick’s backroom staff) were able to buy back the lease.
Berwick are not out of the woods yet. Attendances have fallen this year, the revival of Newcastle and Sunderland prompting an increased exodus of locals to the bigger teams on a Saturday afternoon. Nonetheless the manager, Tom Hendrie, has assembled a young squad who play swift, attacking football, unusual in a league dominated by more direct, up and under teams.
Off the pitch, the club is reasonably stable, no longer dependent on some tin-pot businessman hellbent on leading us into oblivion. And we, the supporters, are busily working on our property portfolio. I hear that Elland Road is up for sale.
From WSC 109 March 1996. What was happening this month