Miracle in Berwick – 50 years on

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In Berwick on January 28th, 1967, a miracle happened. In the late Saturday afternoon dimming winter light, the town was lifted up to heaven on clouds of black and gold, choirs of angels singing the praises of the wee Gers. Along with 13,364 other souls, not all of them in a state of divine ecstasy, I was witness to the extraordinary, inexplicable event which even now 50 years later burns brightly in the memory. This is my recollection of the day, writes Keith Ryan

Turning left out of our 43 Dean Drive gate opposite the Cinder Path, dad in the middle, Michael on one side, me on the other, duffle coated twins in everything except age, black and gold bobble hats and rosettes, chins dug deep into our skin lifting black and gold rough woollen scarves, rattles in hand, mingling amongst brown ale’d men from the Bonar, we are on our way.

The Woodyard chimney, dull brown against cold grey, looking down kindly upon us, we breath in the comforting, familiar Prior Park smokey air. Passing the homes of fellow footballing youngsters - the Dalrymples, Wilkinsons and Laws – and reaching the junction of Dean Drive and Shielfield Terrace, my eight year old heart thumping and stomach tightening, we dive into an ocean of blue, white, and red. Rangers fans, not Berwick, Glasgow; hoards of them, Glaswegian accents instantly recognisable thanks to the family’s enduring friendship with our neighbours, John and Margaret Malcolm. John was a Glasgow man, a true Rangers blue, and he and Margaret were the truest and best of friends to the Catholic, Celtic supporting Ryans across the road.

A short walk up the road, a right turn down and through the squelching mud approach to the low grey walls of Shielfield Park and into the ground through the black, heavy iron, clacking turnstiles. Being small is an advantage. Michael and me, dad standing behind with protective hands on our shoulders, stand at the edge of the pitch on the encircling cinder in years to come speedway track, in front of the Ducket End where, in our early teenage years, brother and me will, with three dozen others, serenade the team as Molly Mallone wheels her wheelbarrow from the Grove to the Harrow.

Already a supporter and regular attender, I know the giant Jock Wallace, fair haired Gordon Haig, little Sammy Reid, and the rest of the team. Alan Ainslie, who I’ll learn in adulthood is a distant cousin close enough for me to bask in a little reflected glory, is on the left wing. And there in the flesh are Glasgow Rangers. I can see their captain, John Grieg and goalkeeper Norrie Martin; I know them well from back kitchen Saturday afternoon wireless commentaries and recognise them instantly from their Scottish Daily Express and Sunday Post football pages photos.

Thirty two minutes. For as long as I live I’ll always remember the 32nd minute. Sammy Reid, just outside the penalty box, left foot shot, the ball clips the goalie’s left hand post and settles joyously in the back of the net. Divine intervention; the miracle is beginning to unfold before disbelieving eyes. Mayhem; in a heartbeat, the goal is followed by a pitch invasion, though not involving the two youngest Ryan family members; a father’s previously protective hands on shoulders now become a vice-like, shackling grip. Derek, three up from me in the in the order of Ryan children, too old to be seen with his younger brothers and too full of teenage rebellious pride to be seen with his father, is not so encumbered. He is, he claims afterwards, first on the pitch, carrying the banner. The photos in the Sunday papers, the dailies and Thursday’s Berwick Advertiser are inconclusive; I can see the banner alright but faces are unidentifiable in the black, white and grey collage.

Celebration is followed by dread; my stomach stops tightening and starts churning; I feel sick, I want to be sick. They will equalise and then they will go on to win; that is the natural order of things; Berwick are Berwick and Rangers are Rangers. In truth, it was too much for an eight year old, helplessly hoping that the inevitable was not inevitable, too young and callow to know that football isn’t everything. It is said, and it is undoubtedly true, that the lessons of life can’t be learnt in a day. It is equally true, however, that you have to start somewhere, and between the 33rd minute and the final whistle I had my first, though by no means last experience of one of life’s more perplexing lessons. Time does not run at a constant pace; like Mary, it is contrary, slowing, crawling, stopping, when all you want it to do is be gone.

In the second half, Rangers are attacking the Shielfield End goal. Jock Wallace saves all that comes his way. His goalkeeper’s jersey is, in my memory, Celtic green. I dare say I could go online to check whether, 50 years on, I’m a reliable witness, but no, right or wrong give me fond recollection over reality every time. Anyway, in the never ending second 45 minutes Rangers do not have it all their own way. Not only do they fail to beat big Jock, but Alan Ainslie cuts in from the left wing and unleashes a 30 yarder that hits the bar.

A boy’s beating heart beats even faster and, eventually, in the floodlightless near dark 94th minute it is over; in the first round proper of the 1966-1967 Scottish FA Cup by the score (words in print carrying so much more meaning than mere numbers) of one nil Berwick Rangers have beaten Glasgow Rangers. In years to come, chroniclers will tell of the Tweed estuary choking in half a city’s worth of blue, white and red scarves discarded by the Rangers fans as they crossed the New Bridge on their desolate, raging way back to the railway station. The young Ryan brothers and their dad follow a different path, back up Dean Drive to sit in their roaring coal fire front room to watch David Coleman on the family’s weekly rented Redifussion black and white television announce the miracle to the world.

As for what happened next, well, still joined at the hip to my brother Michael, I remember a coach trip to Edinburgh, the two of us hanging around in the cold outside a social club as my dad and his Bonar pals quenched their collective thirst while big Jock and his giant-killers readied themselves for an Easter Road battle against the mighty Hibs. A single goal for the home side brought our team, the town, and an anguished now nine year old back down to earth; paradise lost in the 75th minute.

Four decades later I returned to Easter Road, not to the football stadium but to the burial ground that sits peacefully in its shadow. There, at Edinburgh’s Eastern Cemetery, 20 years after my dad’s death, I laid flowers on the common ground where his mother, Annie, and his never named baby sister rest. On an early June pre-penicillin day in 1923, Annie and her four day old daughter died of bacterial infections. Orphaned, my dad and his three brothers were fostered out across Edinburgh, West Lothian, and the Scottish Borders, never to be reunited and never to know where their mother and sister lay.

Thank you Jock; thank you Sammy; and thank you the 28th January 1967 Berwick Rangers team; you gave an eight year old boy the right to believe in miracles. And you know what, he still does.