Oliver's army are here to stay as Duns return to senior ranks

FROM being presented to the English football media alongside Frank Stapleton as Blackburn Rovers' new star to holding the fort in Falkirk's defence against the Old Firm, Neil Oliver has never been shy of a challenge.

Now 44 and back in his native Berwick-upon-Tweed, the former defender speaks with just the same passion as he talks of opening the season with Duns FC, the newcomers to East of Scotland League. The 'Dingers' have, in fact, been here before, just not for nearly 40 years.

Some with good memories might recall the heady 1950s when the team from the small Berwickshire town - more famous for the exploits of racing driver Jim Clark - faced evential winners Celtic at Parkhead in the 1951 Scottish Cup, going down with a fight 4-0, and entertained Aberdeen in the market town in the second round three years later, losing 8-0.

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Since then the club has maintained an enthusiasm for good football, but after dropping into the amateur leagues in the 1970s the following dwindled and the town's rugby team has been the main source of sporting pride with appearances in Murrayfield finals. Until Oliver came along.

Oliver left Berwick Rangers in 1989 to join Blackburn, signing on the same day as Irish legend Stapleton, but after making just six first-team appearances in two years at the start of the Jack Walker revolution, he returned north and began an eight-year period with Falkirk, in which he made 170 senior appearances, and notched three goals. He later played with Hamilton, Clydebank, back at Berwick and East Fife until retiring in 2002, at 35 with 323 senior games, four goals and a wealth of great memories in his locker.

He helped Sandy Clark coach at Berwick and returned to the electrical trade, but after stepping back to spend more time with his young family was asked to help out at amateur club Duns two years ago. His ambition was piqued and with assistant Steven Lennon he has led the club to the Borders amateur championship unbeaten and a successful bid to re-enter the semi-professional East of Scotland League.

"The club was in the East of Scotland 40 years ago," Oliver said. "It was a founder member I'm told, but got turfed out after a farmer reclaimed land. Once I got involved I could see that the boys needed more to push for here. It is a small town, but there are a lot of very good footballers all around the area and the history of playing against Celtic and Rangers, and having Aberdeen down here, in the Scottish Cup just began to float about in my head. So, I set about looking at the criteria to get in and have been hell-bent on getting us back into that league ever since.I knew there were a lot of lads from around the town playing East of Scotland elsewhere, and I wanted them to come back, but they were better than amateur level, so to grow as a club we needed to be playing at as high a level as we could."

The club were left out of the opening competition, the sectional League Cup, due to there being an odd number and being the new entrants, but Oliver has welcomed that as giving him extra pre-season time to get them up to speed. Having played with John Hughes at Falkirk for many years, he remains close to him, David Weir, Kevin McAllister and others in the pro game and last week his side drew 1-1 with a Hibs Under-19s team in front of a crowd of more than 250. The return to a higher level has begun to stoke passions in the market town, memories of striker Derek Renton who went on to play for Rangers and Hearts, the Scottish amateur cap Davie Watkins and the exploits of Liam Craig, the St Johnstone midfielder who hails from nearby Chirnside.

While using the new Berwickshire High School premises for a pitch with changing room facilities that satisfies the East of Scotland League, the club is still working on ambitious plans with other sports in the town, under a SportDuns banner, notably the rugby club, to create a multi-sports facility at the old school in the future. "There is a lot of excitement and ambition," added Oliver. "It's about trying to improve the club, football and sport as a whole around here, and give guys something to aim for.

"I've regrets a bit about not making more of my time at Blackburn, but I enjoyed my football career and I've got lads at this club who without a doubt that could play full-time, and a good standard of part-time football too. You lose sight of the Borders when you're involved in football in the central belt, I think, and if they don't compete with better clubs across Scotland, boys here can think they're not up to it.

"There are fewer players than in the city and they might have a softer edge at times than guys who have been brought up through harder competition from an early age, but there are skills and quality there, if given an opportunity. That's what I want to do and one day I'd love to think that Duns could follow the Spartans example and get back into the Scottish Cup and we can see Celtic or Rangers drawn with Duns again. You don't get anywhere if you don't try."

Duns kick off their new chapter with a local derby with Eyemouth, at home on Tuesday, 23 August.