Berwick Rangers left Ibrox with their heads held high and legions of new admirers after they made a major contribution to a hugely entertaining encounter that saw the champions-elect extend their lead at the top of the Third Division to a near-insurmountable 19 points.
This was also going to be a tough one for the Black and Gold, but they kept their nerve after losing a soft early goal, before recovering from a 3 goal deficit to haul themselves back to the brink of a sensational result. Ian Little and his team delivered a brave performance, resisting the temptation to park the bus in front of Ian McCaldon’s goal and choosing to stick to their patient passing game, When confronted with runaway leaders strutting their stuff before an audience equivalent to the aggregate home gates at Shielfield over five seasons, it takes some guts to walk on to the park with clear instructions to play your natural game, but the Black & Gold did it with style, and they did the 500 away fans and the town proud.
Berwick lined up with the same starting eleven that had comfortably seen off Shire a week earlier. Their west coast namesakes were without top scorer Lee McCulloch and the suspended Ian Black, and it showed in the early stages with Lee Currie and Neil Janczyk spaying the ball around with ease. They were quickly disabused of any notions of a comfortable afternoon when The Rangers took an eighth minute lead. Andy McLean blocked Sandaza’s run but the ball broke fortuitously to Northern Ireland international Andy Little who nutmegged The Eagle from an acute angle. It was a soft goal to lose and Berwick wobbled for a few minutes before resuming their customary poise on the ball. Two minutes later, Eagle diverted Sandaza’s snapshot for a corner after The Rangers broke with speed following the breakdown of a patient Berwick move. McLean then cleared Templeton’s shot in front of goal before Dylan Easton started to work his magic in midfield. For all the hosts’ advantage in sheer physicality, most of the midfield craft was being produced by players wearing back and gold, with Currie and Janzyk prominent and Easton regularly forcing Cribari and Wallace back towards goal.
Sandaza was inches away from connecting with Templeton’s driven 23rd minute cross, and then Shiels escaped Townsley but Eagle bravely blocked the ball at the strikers’ feet. Berwick were still in it and they matched their hosts in the possession stakes, but too often well-constructed passing moves broke down due to the quality of the final ball, while top scorer Darren Lavery was finding playing as a lone striker a bigger test than against other opponents this season. For all their neat and tidy football, Berwick found it difficult to engineer a sight of Alexander’s goal, though Janczyk was millimetres away from putting McDonald clean through on a storming 34th minute break. It was McDonald himself who registered Berwick’s first shot on target with a tame 20 yarder three minutes from the break.
Having got through the first half unscathed after conceding such a soft goal, the second half started disastrously for Berwick. Templeton broke past the exposed Devon Jacobs and fired in a fast cross from the left, which Little volleyed neatly past the Eagle from 8 yards out. It might not have been game over, but it was getting might close to it. Or so it seemed. Lavery, grafting hard with intermittent support, outpaced Perry and Cribari on the left but there were no takers for his dangerous low cross. Just when Berwick looked to fashion a route back into the game, Sandaza supplied Templeton with the cross for an acrobatic volley in the 53rd minute to leave the Black & Gold trailing by three goals. Lavery again outfoxed a lumbering Rangers defence four minutes later to set up Easton on the edge of Alexanders’ box, but the twinkle-toed midfielder was dispossessed after trying to beat five men too many. They might have been three goals adrift but this Berwick team is not wanting for spirit, and Lavery once again created good space but spoiled it with a weak shot at Alexander after doing the hard part with half an hour remaining.
On 62 minutes, Easton cracked in a dipping twenty yarder that a shaky-looking Alexander spilled, but no one was sharp enough to pick up the rebound. Three minutes later Berwick got their reward. Thirty seconds after replacing Easton, Ross Gray collected McDonald’s cushioned layoff, took a good first touch and slotted a neat 18 yarder beyond Alexander and into the corner to spark ecstatic celebrations in a well-lubricated away end. The Rangers paid for slacking off after building their lead, and they started to look uncertain for the first time in the match. Perry made a brilliant block on McDonald after a slick one-two with Currie, but Berwick stormed back to further reduce the deficit with a thumping near post header from Fraser McLaren from Currie’s expert corner. I don’t know what it is with McLaren and Rangers, but if I was Ian Little I’d tell him he’s playing against them every week. Anyway, just when Berwick looked on the verge of the greatest comeback since Lazarus rode into the distance astride Shergar, Rangers finally killed them off with a fourth goal in the 74th minute when Little broke through to slot a low shot beyond the Eagle. As John Cleese once said, “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand….”
There was still time for Templeton to clatter a shot back off the post and into a grateful Eagle’s arms, before Berwick, gutsy to the last, created two excellent chances in injury time, McLaren firing in 22 yarder which Alexander diverted for a corner, before the same player latched on to Townsleys’ lofted pass only to hook the ball on to the roof of the net with only the keeper to beat.
The Black and Gold were a long-shot to take anything from this game, but the confidence and quality of performance should feed in to next week’s critical encounter with Elgin. The real business starts then, and though they’ve slipped to seventh, they are a mere five points from second place with a game in hand. Disappointing post-match news that Livingston have recalled Ross Gray, but Ian Little will still be looking to add to his squad with a physical presence up top a priority. If Berwick can sustain their current momentum, they remain a good bet for a playoff spot.
Man of the match: to be honest, this was another excellent all-round team effort, with Currie looking the most accomplished midfielder on the park, and Easton outdoing even Templeton for trickery, but special mentions for McLean for seamlessly slotting into the back four in place of the suspended Brydon, and another cool as a cucumber shift form Damon Gielty at left back
McCaldon 6; Jacobs 6; Townsley 7; McLean 8; Gielty 8; McLaren 7; Janczyk 7 (Notman); Currie 8; McDonald 7; Easton 8 (Gray); Lavery 6 (Carse)
Crowd – 44,976