The man who could reasonably claim to be Mr Berwick Rangers points to an internal window in the lounge of his golf club. “It was like the manager was right though there,” says Eric Tait, “and I thought: ‘Bloody hell, what’s he up to?’” Harry Melrose, boss of the Wee Rangers, was watching the teenaged Tait training in the modest wall-barred surroundings of a school gymnasium and he was about to make the lad’s dreams come true.
Recalling this, the chance to play for his heroes, Tait’s eyes moisten. Not for the first time today, or the last. Indeed when he next uses the window as a prop it happens again.
Twelve years on from signing for the club, Tait was Shielfield Park’s player-manager. “And my father was the groundsman. There was torrential rain for 24 hours before a game against East Stirling but Dad made sure the pitch was playable. I remember he was worried right up until kick-off about a soggy patch of grass down at the Railway End no bigger than this table which he hadn’t been able to clear – he was such a perfectionist. That day was my mother’s birthday, we were having a party at night. Dad and I were always last out of the ground and the floodlights being turned off was the sign for my wife, just along the street, to put on the kettle. I went looking for him because one of the goal nets had been taken down but the other one was still up. And I peered through to the storeroom and saw his upturned welly boots. He’d collapsed – died of a heart attack.”
Life and death. Good times and bad. Four hundred and thirty-five appearances and 114 goals, making him the top man for both. Laughter and bust-ups. Long awayday bus rides and a visit from George Best. Tait has seen it all at Shielfield and now he fears there might be no more.
Today Berwick teeter on the edge of the trapdoor which could plunge them right out of senior football. The bottomest of the bottom, drunk on defeats, they stumble into the Pyramid Play-off against Highland champs Cove Rangers – frisky, ambitious wannabes from 190 miles up the road who are intent on usurping their nickname and their status.
“We’ve lost seven in a row and haven’t scored a goal – I can’t see how we’re going to get through this,” laments Tait. “I’m sick with worry and can’t sleep. If we go out of the league it will be dreadful for the town and I don’t know if we’ll be able to come back. This could be the end for my club.”
Now, it might seem a bit “North-East Man Lost at Sea” to be preoccupying ourselves with Berwick Rangers in the wake of those incredible Champions League blockbusters, but it’s right that we do. No offence to Cove who must do their job but they’ll be ruining a great story if they win. The story of Berwick is one every schoolboy knows: the club from England who play in Scotland. The club who lend us the air of eccentric, benevolent lairds. “I love that Berwick have played all the time in Scotland and I think it reflects well on Scotland that we have,” adds Tait. “I say that even though in my day the team would go to places like Arbroath and Montrose where they’d shout ‘English bastards’ at us. That was pretty funny because I was the only English bastard in the side!”
The Wee Rangers are the club from the town which, following various border skirmishes, has changed hands 14 times. The club from the town which was once at war with Russia. An oversight by Queen Victoria was behind this wonderful myth: her signature to mark the start of the Crimean War in 1854 listed her full title of monarch of “Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and the British Dominions beyond the sea” but Berwick was missed off the peace treaty. So what of the Rangers of Northumberland dumping the Rangers of Glasgow out of the Scottish Cup in 1967 – if the current team fail does that become mythology, too?
No chance, not with guys like Tait still around. “I was in the Duckett that day, squashed down the front with mates from school,” he says of Shielfield’s shed. “They all wanted a shot of my rattle – black and gold with the names of the players painted by me in tiny writing: Kilgannon, Coutts, Lumsden, Dowds, Wallace, Reid…”
Wallace was Jock Wallace, the manager-keeper, and Reid was Sammy Reid, the goalscorer with Tait fantasising about one day filling his boots, although strictly speaking his first idol was Ken Bowron.
“I was a pupil at Springhill Secondary and Ken was gamesmaster at Tweedmouth Modern and Berwick’s centre-forward.” In 1963-64, Bowron plundered 50 goals including one against Rangers at Hampden in the League Cup semi-finals which is rated by many as the club’s best-ever. Tait springs to his feet to imitate Bowron’s walk, a comical toff’s flounce. “Every lunchtime I used to rush down to the wall dividing our school-fields and watch Ken fire balls at one of his pupils: Brian Boyd, nicknamed Tarzan, who later became the Shielfield barman. On matchdays all the Tweedmouth boys would shout: ‘Come on, Mr Bowron!’”
Today has brought another monsoon, one that Berwick’s old groundsman might have fretted about. Passing Shielfield on the right coming down the East Coast Main Line, I’ve been collected by Tait in Newcastle who’s driven me to the 19th hole at his local course on the city’s outskirts. He’s a well-preserved 67 and looks like he could still do a job up front. In Geordie tones with a distinct trace of Lowland Scots, he talks about his club with a blazing passion, having passed on this devotion to 15-year-old son Ben, which is remarkable in an era when Barcelona and the rest of football’s glamorama are accessible to all. At that age, all Tait had were Berwick but that was enough.
He grew up in the village of Cornhill-on-Tweed where dad Wilf was a shepherd and mum Nora a caretaker. Money was tight but a boy’s season ticket for Shielfield cost just half a crown. He skived school to watch his favourites and on Christmas Day, 1965 bore witness to Berwick’s biggest-ever victory – 8-1 against Forfar Athletic. He was 18 in 1970 when, playing for Coldstream in the East of Scotland League, he was offered his trial. “My heart skipped a beat. I ran down to the local pub and bought everyone a drink. Maybe I was only going to play once for Berwick but that needed celebrating.” He netted in the trial and Nora went round Cornhill telling everyone. “Someone said: ‘I don’t think he did, love. The report in the paper gives the goal to Trialist.’ Then there was a knock at the front door. John Scott, our club secretary, didn’t have a car so he cycled down to tell me to be at the Newcastle Arms in Coldstream for six o’clock. I met Harry Melrose: ‘We liked how you played so how would it be if we signed you?’ Wow. John went: ‘Aye, very well, noo what’s Coldstream Fitba Club going to get?’ Harry Paterson, the Rangers chairman, said: ‘Fifty quid and a match ball.’ John said: ‘Nah, nae deal.’ Disaster! Then came the clincher: ‘You can have twa’ balls’!”
Berwick did well out of that transaction, acquiring a trusty goalscorer who would become a legend and eventually have a Shielfield lounge named after him. Old boys this notable can have looming presences at clubs this small. At the start of the season Tait was a director. There was a boardroom coup which was squashed and he ended up resigning. It’s been a sad and messy year for the Wee Rangers.
In charge today is John Brownlie, the Hibernian great only being appointed as Johnny Harvey’s replacement last week, and what a task confronts him over the pyramid’s two legs: the most vital matches in the club’s history. Tait knows his “Onion”, having signed Brownlie for Berwick towards the end of the Scotland full-back’s career. “He was a fantastic player before his leg break and still classy for us. I wish him all the best but it’s a shame he didn’t come earlier.”
Back to Tait’s career: debuting in the old Second Division he made a fine start and was soon being watched by big English clubs. “There was a wee chance I might have gone to Spurs but this muckle Brechin centre-half clobbered me and I didn’t play again for 14 months.” So he continued banging them in for Berwick, journeying the length and breadth of the club’s adopted country in the black and gold. His favourite awayday? “Queen of the South, for their lovely pitch.” Least favourite? “Stranraer – the journey from hell.” The bus for away games would set off from Edinburgh, where most of the players were based, with Tait having hitched a ride from Shielfield in a director’s car, team hamper in the boot. “I remember the coach breaking down on the Forth Road Bridge and us having to pay to get it towed off. Money was aye tight. You couldn’t even lose a sock.”
Once embarrassed by his handbag-brandishing Auntie Rose, intent on hunting down the opposition player who’d put him on a stretcher, Tait became a constant amid regime change in the Shielfield dugout.
There was Walter Galbraith: “He carried an old doctor’s bag but no one ever knew what was in it. He’d stroll into the dressing-room, adjust his cravat and smooth down his moustache in the mirror and sigh: ‘Same team as Saturday.’ Once, for a midweek game, kick-off 7.30, he didn’t stroll in until twenty-past. ‘But, boss,’ I said, ‘two of us got injured on Saturday.’ He looked at the five reserves and picked a couple at random. They could have both been goalies for all he knew.”
There was Frank Connor: “Compete football obsessive. I asked his wife: ‘Does he talk about it in his sleep?’ He was tough, but so were guys like Moyesy – David Moyes [no, not that one]. Once Frank warned him about a speedy winger. Moyesy – mad, frizzy hair and front teeth removed ready for battle – said: ‘What’s he like when he’s limping?’”
Between Galbraith and Connor there was Dave Smith, a Big Ranger during the 1967 humiliation, and, according to Tait, “our best-ever manager”. By the second half of the 1970s there were three divisions and Berwick under Smith were winning promotion to the second tier and giving Hibernian a fright in the Scottish Cup. “That was when Bestie played at Shielfield, which was brilliant, as I rate him the all-time greatest, even better than Lionel Messi. He didn’t come back out for the second half, though. I used to joke that was because I’d sneaked a crate of beer into the away dressing-room.”
Tait talks warmly of old team-mates: Johnny Hamilton and Willie Callaghan at the start, ex-Hearts and Dunfermline Athletic respectively, then Gordon “Pogo” Smith, Stuart Romanes and poor Ian Cashmore: “He scored all our goals in a 5-0 win at East Stirling and the next day at training he broke his neck.” Tait played every position for the club, including goalie when the regular keeper was sent off, and he holds up the middle finger bent back at Brockville in the act of preserving a clean sheet. Then he had his shot as manager but found it hugely frustrating. There was still no money. “I scoured the juvenile leagues and bought eight players for £1,100.” He wanted promotion again but this seemed impossible, so he quit.
He admits it: Eric Tait, Berwick Rangers immortal, was worried about his reputation. “I didn’t want anyone thinking my team were rubbish.” These concerns surfaced again in the lead-up to the failed autumn coup. “I never wanted a seat on the board. I was asked to become director of football but I didn’t fancy that either. What I’d like to think I am is an ambassador for the club. And what’s one of them? Just a fan who got lucky. ”
It’s still lashing down as he drives me back to the station, the sky full of foreboding. “Miracles have happened in football this week,” he says. “Now we need another one at Berwick…”