"Aye," Berwick's groundsman pondered, "I suppose you could look at it that way. We're three miles inside the border here. But I dinna look at it that way. I'm just happy that we have a team in one of the senior leagues, that's mentioned in the football scores on telly every Saturday tea-time."
Berwick Rangers, of course, are the English team who play in Scotland - or the Scottish team who play in England, depending on which way you look at it. Since 1951 they have been members of the Scottish League. Since 1482, though, Berwick-upon-Tweed has been an English town. It has changed hands on 14 occasions. But, thanks to the decisive away victory scored by Richard III and his chain-mailed team, it has been England's most northerly town for 517 years now.
It might have been different, but when the Rangers of Glasgow were humbled by the Rangers of Northumberland in a Scottish Cup first-round tie at Shielfield Park in 1967 the invading Scots chose to wreck the town rather than take it. In 1305 William Wallace's left arm was hung on the old town walls as a warning sign to other Caledonian bravehearts. In 1967 it was both arms of Jock Wallace that kept out the Scots. The future Ibrox manager was Berwick's goalkeeper and manager in their famous 1-0 victory.
Not that the keeping out of Scots is a preoccupation in Berwick. Far from it. The coach trip arranged by Berwick Rangers Travel Club to the Wembley leg of the Euro 2000 play-off will carry both English and Scottish supporters. "Most of the lads who support the football club are very much English," Ray Graham, secretary of the travel club, said. "If you were to go into the pubs in town you'd probably find a ratio of three or four to one who are pro-English. But it's a good rivarly up here. There's never any trouble. We're all looking forward to a good day out."
At the end of that day out there will be celebrating as well as commiserating on the bus back to Berwick, where English and Scottish flags can be found fluttering in alternate order from the top of Castlegate to the bottom of Marygate - a cross of St George conspicuously positioned above the Scottish Power showroom. "Being on the border is good for business," Brian Johnson, manager of McGurk Sports, said. "We score on both sides. We sell England shirts, Scotland shirts... Celtic, Rangers, Sunderland, Newcastle... It's a good position to be in."
Though the border line is strictly drawn three miles north at Lamberton, the national boundary seems blurred in Berwick, where the accent is more Scottish than Geordie and where many of the 12,000 residents have roots that twist through English and Scottish soil. "My dad was Scottish but I'm English," Dennis McCleary, secretary of Berwick Rangers, said. "He was from Kirkudbright and I'm a Berwicker. But you're neither one thing nor the other if you're from Berwick."
Not that Liz Breckons, Berwick's mayoress, considers her townsfolk to be afflicted by a national identity crisis. "Not at all," she said. "I think Berwick's got an identity of its own - a mixture. The two halves come together very well, I think." They do indeed. As Ian Oliver reflected, as he gazed out from Shielfield Park towards Berwick's stunning townscape and Scotland beyond: "We've got the best of both worlds here."
Queen Victoria was not exactly amused by the place when she opened Robert Stephenson's monumental Royal Border Bridge in 1850. She spent fully 12 minutes on the station platform, performing her ceremonial duty, before chugging off back to London, sad case that she was. So dismissive, in fact, was Victoria of the gleaming jewel of a border town it was an oversight on her part that led to Berwick being famously at war with Russia.
The town having been mentioned specifically in royal proclamations since its annexation from Scotland, when she signed the declaration of war against Russia at the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 she did so with her full title: Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and the British Dominions beyond the sea. When she signed the Paris Peace Treaty, however, Berwick was not mentioned. "It became a publicity gimmick, really," Sir Lawrence Airey, chairman of Berwick History Society, said. "But it was resolved in the 1960s when some Russian diplomat or minister came over and solemnly shook the mayor's hands. They agreed that the war was over so that the Russians could sleep peacefully in their beds not worrying about suddenly being attacked by all the Berwickers."
In one respect, however, Berwick remains feared as an attacking force on foreign fields. Berwick Rangers boast the best away record in the Scottish Third Division - but one of the worst at home, on the English soil of Shielfield. It may be mere coincidence, but all except one of their players happen to be Scots living north of the border. Their manager, Paul Smith, is Scottish too. He lives in Edinburgh, where the squad meet to train twice a week. "For a team who are looking to go up this season our home record is letting us down badly," he lamented. "Maybe we should think about moving Shielfield Park over the border into Scotland."
If that were to happen Ray Dixon's bedroom window, in Shielfield Terrace, would no longer look out over the goal into which Sammy Reid struck the giant-slaying winner against Glasgow Rangers 32 years ago. Not that he would be guaranteed to notice. As chairman of the Berwick branch of the Manchester United Supporters Club, he spends his Saturdays far from the maddeningly low crowds (510 average) on his backdoor step. "We run a bus from Berwick to every game," he said. "I'm no glory-seeker. It's in my blood. I've followed Man U since 1954."
Other Berwickers have got away too. Trevor Steven was a ball-boy at Shielfield in the 1970s. "We couldn't sign him on schoolboy forms," Dennis McCleary recalled, "because Berwick High School is affiliated to the English Schools' FA and the club is affiliated to the Scottish Schools' FA." Such are the complexities of life on the border-line.
Steven, as it happens, was a member of the last England team who ventured north of the border - to the ground his home-town team visit the week after Alan Shearer and Co. To the lone Rangers of north Northumberland, Queen's Park at Hampden will be just another Scotland-England game.Reuse content