Love Tait re­la­tion­ship

The man who’s seen it all at Ber­wick fears for the English club’s fu­ture in Scot­tish foot­ball if they lose play- off tie with Cove

The Scotsman - - WEEKEND SPORT - By Ai­dan Smith Sports Fea­ture Writer of the Year

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 my­fa­ther 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 bus­tups. 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, Ber­wick­upon- 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 man­ager­keeper, 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 and the rest of footb ac­ces­si­ble to all. At t were Ber­wick but tha

He grew up in the v Tweed where dad W and mum Nora a ca tight but a boy’s seaso cost just half a crown watch his favourites a 1965 bore wit­ness to B vic­tory – 8- 1 against Fo 18 in 1970 when, play in the East of Scotla of­fered his trial. “My I ran down to the lo ev­ery­one a drink. Ma to play once for Ber ed cel­e­brat­ing.” He n Nora went round Corn “Some­one said: ‘ I don The re­port in the pa Tri­al­ist.’ Then there front door. John Scot didn’t have a car so he c

ON BER­WICK RANGERS’ PLAY- OFF TIE V COVE “I can’t see how we’re go­ing to get through this. I’m sick with worry and can’t sleep. If we go out of 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”

ON GE­ORGE BEST’S SHIELFIELD AP­PEAR­ANCE “I rate Bestie the all- time great­est, even bet­ter than 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”

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 s i gned Brown­lie f or B er wick 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 hand­bag­bran­dish­ing 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 dress­in­groom, 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…”

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