BERWICK Rangers have been forced onto the defensive in an effort to explain their decision to overlook the youth football club on their doorstep and join forces with an Edinburgh club instead.
Jamie Stewart, the chairman of Berwick Rangers Juniors, has described the move to establish a partnership with Edinburgh-based Salvesen Boys Club as a “disgrace” and says it is a “kick in the teeth” for the 120 youngsters at his club.
Criticism has also been voiced by some Berwick Rangers fans and local football coaches.
They fear the senior club’s decision to link up with Salvesen and create a training base for the first team, reserve team and under-19 team at Forrester High School in the west end of Edinburgh could backfire by alienating supporters and young players from the Berwick area.
John Bell, the Berwick Rangers director of youth development, says he is happy to explain the decision to Berwick Rangers Juniors coaches when he returns from his four-week trip to Bolivia in four weeks’ time.
He describes the criticism as a “knee-jerk reaction”, and says the link up with Salvesen is needed in order to have a fully qualified coach for the under-19 team.
He also argues that there are not enough players in the local area with the attitude and work ethic required to play semi-pro football at Scottish Third Division level. “The reality is that we have to go where there are players with drive and commitment,” he said.
Mr Bell points to the success of Saturday’s open session held at Old Shielfield, where nearly 100 local children were offered a free season ticket and trained with the first team, as an example of the club engaging with the community.
But critics say it was a one-off gesture that won’t be repeated once the season is under way.
With reserve forward Michael Robinson now the only player from Berwick on the club’s books following an overhaul of the coaching staff and playing pool below the first team by new head of youth development Mark Lamb, there are growing concerns that the club will become too detached from the town.
“It is now effectively an Edinburgh club playing in Berwick,” said Mr Stewart.
Berwick Rangers manager Ian Little, who lives in Tranent, is sympathetic, but says his focus must stay on the first team for now.
“In an ideal world I would like to lift the Forrester set-up and move it down to Berwick, but that still wouldn’t get away from the geographical differences,” he said.
“Most of our players come from Edinburgh and the central belt, so it makes sense we train up there as it does away with the need for travelling. I would like to foster better relationships with the youth clubs down here, but at the moment I probably have enough on my plate. In a few years’ time, if I’m still here, then maybe, but for the time being all my efforts have to go into the job I already have.
“I need to get that right first before taking on any extra work.”
In a letter to the Advertiser this week, Ian Nicholson from Seahouses, a Berwick Rangers fan for 40 years, writes:
“Until things improve and we get some local talent to watch, the poor crowds will get worse rather than better.”
Coldstream FC assistant manager Stephen Roughhead, from Spittal, writes: “The board should stop this nonsense now and return the Rangers to Berwick. What will happen, or even has happened, to the best local players being given the chance to make a name for themselves with their hometown club?”
Mr Stewart believes that chance has now gone and revealed that Berwick Rangers Juniors may consider cutting all ties with the senior club now that Berwick Rangers are focusing on a new partnership with Salveson Boys Club.
“We’re supposed to be affiliated, so to be overlooked like this is disgusting,” said Mr Stewart. “I’m disappointed that we were never asked for a meeting to discuss it. The first I knew of it was after it had been in the Advertiser. We are supposed to have an affiliation, but this decision makes me think we should just cut all ties.
He added: “We have never been after money, because we are self- funding as it is. We just wanted Berwick to show a genuine interest in what we do.
“We’ve got 120 kids at our club, running 12 teams as well as fun coaching sessions for five to eight year-olds. They use our kids as ball boys, but we get nothing back.
Stewart says the high turnout at Saturday’s open day in Berwick underlines just why the club should be investing their time and effort in local youngsters rather than those from a city 60 miles away.
He says Berwick Rangers have already missed out on some promising local youngsters by deciding to scrap its locally-based youth initiative teams at under-17 and under-19 age groups. With all of the Rangers teams now training in Edinburgh, he says local youngsters who have potential end up with nowhere to go in Berwick.
Mr Stewart added: “The lads have been left in limbo. Berwick can’t make up their mind. One year they are running youth initiative teams in the town, the next year they drop it. It’s not fair on our local young players.
“When our lads are 15 to 17 there is nowhere for them to go and they are often forced to play adult football before they are physically ready. I don’t understand why they can’t keep the youth initiative teams running.
“There are younger kids in the Berwick area who are good enough to be looked at, but they are ignored by Berwick Rangers and end up going to other senior clubs. The best young players are falling through the net because Berwick don’t take any interest.
“We’ve had younger players going for trials with the likes of Hibs and Darlington because their is no pathway for them to progress through the ranks at Berwick Rangers.”
Mr Bell added: “The first-team and reserve team have trained in Edinburgh or East Lothian for years. The only thing that has changed is our link up with Salveson’s youth teams.
“We must have an SFA level four coach to run the under-19s, and after the two we had last season had to step down for personal reasons we have been scratching around. That is when Kevin Martin, from Lothain Thistle Hutchison Vale, was recommended to us as our new under-19 manager.”
He added: “The reality is that we have to go where there are players with drive and commitment, and we’ve just not had that from Berwick in the past. All the numbers for training have come from Edinburgh and Lothians players.”