Borders in spotlight as Gala take on Melrose

IT WAS a momentous occasion in Galashiels when Andy McLean entered the world.
Fraser Thomson of Melrose RFC and Andy McLean. Picture: Phil WilkinsonFraser Thomson of Melrose RFC and Andy McLean. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Fraser Thomson of Melrose RFC and Andy McLean. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Few, other than his mother and father perhaps, realised how special it would prove to be but, 31 years on, the Maroons full-back is on the verge of helping the Borders town return to 1983, the last year Gala last sat atop Scottish club rugby.

David Leslie was the skipper when the club finished off a run of three championship successes in the first four years of the 80s, joining Heriot’s in providing speed bumps in Hawick’s 
stunning run of ten titles in the national league’s first 14 years.

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It was a memorable, visceral period in Borders rugby as Gala and Hawick vied for top billing and matches between the two featured countless internationalists, drew crowds touching 10,000 and usually spilled blood with challenges that would make Stuart Hogg’s on Saturday seem like a friendly tickle.

Times have changed but, this weekend, two Borders clubs are at it again. Gala and Melrose will play not in the same ground, rather four miles apart, but knowing that either could finish the day as Scottish Premiership Champions.

Melrose supporters have grown used to trophies in the past two decades and can be expected to keep the heat on as they seek victory over Currie but thousands of Gala denizens will head for Netherdale on Saturday with memories of 1983 swirling in their minds. Coach George Graham is trying to keep his players firmly focused on the challenge of beating reigning
champions Ayr, helped probably by the fact that few were even born when Leslie’s heroes reigned. But McLean has grown up with the longing and admits the sooner he hears Saturday’s whistle the better.

“This is a massive game for the club, for me as an individual and for the team and supporters,” he said. “We’ve been there or thereabouts for the past couple of seasons and we just want to get over that final hurdle now. The good thing is that it’s in our hands. I started playing rugby at five or six up in the Victoria Park in Gala. I played for the Mini Maroons, Gala Red Triangle, Galashiels Academy and the Wanderers youth team.

“Playing with the Academy and at the Wands with your mates was a great environment and we enjoyed success [he won the Scottish U18 Cup] so, when you step into the Gala senior team and pull on the famous maroon jersey, all you want is to achieve success.

“That’s not quite the way it went and we’ve had some pretty dark times but, over the last four or five years, we’ve worked hard to get back up to that level and it’s been about trying to sustain that and get over that final hurdle. Now we’ve given ourselves the chance.”

Gala are two points clear of Melrose so victory of any sort would bring the trophy back to Netherdale, while a draw might also do it, although there are various other permutations,

Gala also have a cup semi-
final with Glasgow Hawks around the corner.

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Different times to those when McLean made his debut as an 18-year-old against Heriot’s and played alongside George Graham as the current coach drew his playing career to a close. Relegation to the second division and the drop to the third remain all too vivid in McLean’s memory, alongside the criticism, scornful looks and just disinterest which that brought to the proud rugby town. He took a year out of the game at one point, needing to be refreshed, yet has still reached the milestone of 300 club appearances, and is third behind Peter Dods and Arthur “Hovis” Brown in the club’s points-scoring chart with 1,233, which includes 36 tries.

Longevity is one thing, but what McLean wants is tangible success, and one individual has brought that within reach.

“George Graham has something to do with it,” the full-back said, with a grin. “He commands respect. It’s not solely down to George, but he’s a big part of it. His attitude, his discipline… people want to play for him. But we have also had a lot of good young players coming through the system, which has really developed again, and some good players have come to the club from elsewhere.

“We’ve got a really good 
second team again now, which has helped to really push everyone and keep standards high.

“Playing in Division Three was difficult, but we stuck together and got back up. It has been slow and we’ve had to keep working, taking a few seasons, but we’ve had three or four years in Division One now, continued that rebuilding process and it’s win or bust now on Saturday.”

There will be nervous people around Galashiels this week as opponents Ayr pipped the 
Borderers to the title last season by just three points after clinching home and away wins, and will no doubt be seeking both revenge for a home loss to Gala this season and a winning 
send-off for coach Peter Laverie.

But Galaleans have waited a long time for this and few could want it more than McLean, for whom, it would be fair to say, bringing silverware back to the Borders town has been a life’s work. “We had a really good win at Ayr this season and weathered pressure well, and we have done that in a lot of games this season and shown the character and confidence there is in the squad. We will need to win on Saturday because I fully expect Melrose to beat Currie. There will be pressure but that’s part of life and we have to deal with it, to get the win. The final hurdle.”