It’s strange that when Manchester United are playing some Johnny Foreigner team in a European competition, I become their biggest fan. And Arsenal, and Chelsea and evening blinking Liverpool. Normally – with the possible exception of Chelsea who are my son’s team – I usually want them all to lose every Premier League game they play. The difference with European matches is that I see them as representing England, and I’m as patriotic as the next man.
Now I hear the arguments that you’d struggle to field a decent 11 amongst the England-qualified players in the first teams of the ‘Big 4’, but nonetheless I like to see English club sides demonstrate that our domestic leagues are the strongest in Europe, if not the world. I take the view – contest it if you wish – that La Liga is a bit like Scotland, with just the two clubs in with any reasonable shout of sharing their domestic honours year after year, whilst Serie A – once lauded as the best in Europe – has failed to produce any qualifiers in the last 16 of this season’s Europa League (Russia has four and even the Dutch can boast three) and it looks likely that their three remaining Champions League sides may not clear the current hurdle.
I mentioned Scotland earlier in this post, and it is north of the border that I return again this weekend for my tenth annual Berwick Rangers ‘Away-day’. It also happens to be a Six Nations Rugby weekend, which reminds me of a previous occasion when we were in Edinburgh and dropped into a pub on Princes Street. The England v France match had just kicked off and the whole pub was cheering for ‘Les Bleus’. Some had even gone to the trouble of donning berets and stripey tops for the occasion. A curious kind of patriotism, but how we laughed….
Today my journey to Glasgow involves a 5.00am alarm call, four trains and and six-and-a-half hours travelling time. I’m gagging for a pint when I meet up with Eagle Bobster, the Boston publican, in the Pot Still just before 1.00am but he has one already poured and sitting waiting for me. It’s one of the Kelburn beers which are usually to my taste and this one doesn’t disappoint. We’re staying at the Travelodge just off Sauchiehall Street and when we do manage to find it there’s a delay whilst the check-in girl decides if our room is ready or not. Eventually sorted, we just have time to dump the bags before heading off to Queen Street station and the 20-minute rail journey to Coatbridge.
A gaggle of street urchins alight in front of us at Coatdyke, the nearest station to Albion Rovers’ Cliftonhill Stadium, and we reason they will know the best route to follow. Within a minute they’ve turned back and are asking us for directions! Seems they are young Celtic fans taking advantage of a day out to visit a new ground. Doubtless young Hoppers in the making! They tag on behind us and we all enter the stadium through an open gate which we quickly ascertain to be the tradesman’s entrance so Bobster and I back-track. The urchins carry on regardless.
Cliftonhill is a characterful but tired old ground. The main stand, with its many supporting but visually obstructive pillars, is used by the bulk of the fans from both sides while others – myself and Bobster included – line the crash barriers either side of it. Opposite is a large covered terrace which looks disused. A large Albion Rovers flag adorns one of the rear walls with the date 1882 written on it. I joke that that was when the flag was stuck up there, and nobody’s been back since to take it down. Bobster is vaguely amused.
He wastes no time checking out the Scotch Pies and cups of Bovril from the standalone snack bar behind us. Sadly they have failed to import supplies of the Macaroni variant of the pie, and so it is just a Twix for me. The next man in the queue wants a Bovril with two sugars in it – Scottish cuisine is truly a wonderful melting pot of tastes.
Before the teams run out we play our ‘Guess which Dayglo colour the officials will be wearing today’ game, which turns out to be bright blue. Berwick are in their away strip of red and black and after a very poor recent run, they are definitely the underdogs. It’s bright but getting colder and I pause to imagine the attractions of Glasgow’s warm pubs which we plan to explore later.
Albion start off like a train and Rangers are lucky not to be two down in the first five minutes. But they settle and we’re treated to an ebb and flow encounter with both defences looking jittery. From out of nowhere Berwick take the lead and at the break can be reasonably satisfied with their first half performance. The second half display is even better but they spurn a series of good opportunities and you get the feeling that Rovers will level it up before the end. They go close but not close enough and the points go back south of the border.
Oh to be an Englishman savouring a victory in the land of the ‘Auld Enemy’. Unfortunately the vast majority of the Berwick players are unlikely to be sharing the patriotic elements of our celebrations. Sadly, they’re Scots to a man!
Programme: £1.50 from sellers outside the ground. Not bad for a Division 3 club.
Floodlight pylons: 4
Parakeets: None, probably scared off by all the Golden Eagles
Club Shop: Yes but closed
Toilets: Just inside the turnstile at the back of the main stand
Tannoy music: Can’t recall
Player with the quirkiest name: Berwick’s Steve ‘Norbeast’ Notman (you might have to think about that one)