Life In The 3rd

Photographs & Text by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

  • Share This:
“I would die for Rangers. I really would die for them. If you told me I could see them win the Champions League, and then I’d have 24hours to get drunk and enjoy it, but then at the end of that extra day I had to die, I’d do it.” I’m standing on a mud track at the side of a very basic football ground, Berwick Rangers’ Shielfield Park, in the Scottish Irn-Bru 3rd Division, it’s bitingly cold, there are flurries of snow in the air, and 50year old Stuart Pitches, a life long supporter of Glasgow Rangers FC, is describing to me his passion for his club.

But for fans like Stuart this season their love for their club has been tested, their desire to see Rangers FC conquer Europe is for now a dream. Rangers FC have this season found themselves battling in Scottish football’s lowest professional division, three divisions down from the Premier League which they usually dominate alongside their old time rivals of Celtic FC. Rangers find themselves in the 3rd Division not due to bad results on the pitch, but by bad results in the boardroom, years of financial mismanagement and a subsequent restructuring of the company. This restructuring, which resulted in a new company being formed by new owner and investor Charles Green, was then subjected to a vote by Scottish Premier League officials and teams on whether the new company, the new Rangers FC, could stay in the top league or had to battle back to the top from the bottom of the lowest league. Rangers lost the vote, and a season in the 3rd Division has ensued.

Rangers, winners of a European Cup Winners Cup trophy, 54 Scottish league titles, and a host of other silverware, are reputed to be the most decorated club in football history. This season they're playing away games with new adversaries such as Elgin City FC, Berwick Rangers FC and Annan Athletic FC. Scottish media, who have dissected every twist and turn of both the football and the Kafka-esque goings-on of the boardroom business saga, wondered whether fans would desert their team in their hour of need this season, but it hasn’t turned out that way. Even in the depths of winter.

Outside the Berwick Rangers FC ground a little earlier, fans had decamped from their supporter’s bus, windows wet with condensation from the singing and drinking within, “Is this the stadium or the fucking training ground?” a fan had remarked as he set eyes upon the hedgerows of gardens and a small lane between two council houses leading to the low level football ground. As usual the flag sellers hawked their wares, “Hats, scarves, flags!”, and the police politely requested people to stay on the pavements and not wander on the roads.

“This is what we want, this is what it’s about. We’re happy here”, says Stuart Pitches as he swings his arm around, showing me the panorama that is Berwick Rangers FC’s Shielfield Park footballing grounds. The stand housing the Away fans, today the Rangers traveling supporters, is known as “The Shed”, the sheltered area for fans in wheelchairs is known as the “bus shelter”. Half the fans stand on earthen embankments, kids sit on stone walls, Berwick Rangers team scarfs and souvenirs are sold out of the side door of a white transit van, and the hamburgers are half-cooked. Behind the stadium the silver factory of Tweed Valley Maltings looms, and around the ground council homes house nervous locals. “Honestly”, says Stuart, “I’m happier coming here than going to the same old grounds of Hearts and Kilmarnock week in, week out. It’s boring, we know what that feels like. Many stadiums are just boxes, no atmosphere. Here, this is a real football ground, it’s got character.” A few minutes later and in front of us, Rangers score, on their way to a 3-1 win, but the cheers are lukewarm, and Stuart barely notices as he recants stories to me of a headier day in Manchester in 2008 as his team took on Zenit St. Petersburg in the UEFA Cup Final.

The Rangers supporters have rallied around their team this season, with some home game attendances at Ibrox Stadium, with a high of 49,913, being in the top ranked highest attendances at games that day in the UK, behind the likes of Manchester United, or Arsenal. New records have thus been set for 3rd Division attendances. But in contrast the away games are played in front of a few thousand fans, at Annan Athletic a mere 2,517 fans watched the 0-0 draw between their club and Rangers FC, on a grey, cold afternoon.

I ask fans how they obtain the now much-sought after away game tickets, and I get a variety of answers, “it’s a lottery system”, “the supporters buses get an allocation”, “you get points for how many tickets you buy”. Whatever is the system very regularly I see the same fans at every game, people like Stuart whose father is a Rangers fan, and whose son is a Rangers fan. “These are just working class guys, having a day trip,” Stuart tells me, looking at the terracing full of Ranger’s fans, “we get to go to new pubs this year, new towns, new adventures.” At one away game, early in the season I remember, the sun was shining and a fan had his shirt off, on his back were fingernail scratches, the results of an amorous encounter the night before with a local girl. His pals joked with him, telling him he’d have to hide his back from his wife. Truly for some this season has brought new adventures.

For the other teams in the Division this year there is the chance to earn some extra money, due to higher attendances when Rangers come to town, and clever marketing of tickets. I get told stories that if you wish a ticket to see your small team play Rangers, then you have to attend the club’s matches prior to the Rangers game, attaining points, and only then can you buy the desirable ticket for when the mighty ‘Gers role into town. Clubs such as Stirling Albion took it one step further and produced souvenirs for their first game against Rangers; mugs, key rings, mouse mats were all on sale, all emblazoned with the details of the footballing fixture.

The season still has a few weeks to go, and already Rangers are sitting more than 20 points clear at the top of the table. Within a few games the remainder of the season will become just a formality for Rangers as no other club can catch them up. But the victory of winning the 3rd Division may be hollow. The footballing authorities are deciding on a restructuring of the league system, changing the number of teams which will compete in each division, and if it goes ahead Rangers may well find themselves still competing in the bottom division next season, playing the same teams as this season. Their hard work will all have been for nothing, with no promotion to the 2nd Division awaiting the team and their fans.

Fans like Stuart are not put off with the travails of 3rd Division life, he attends every game with a true love of his club, “when SPL (Scottish Premier League) voted on kicking Rangers out (of the Premier league), I felt like they were trying to kill one of my children. I’ll never set foot in a SPL stadium ever again, I really won’t. And I don’t even care too much about seeing us play Celtic again. I’m happy here.” We both look round the basic stadium and for a few moments we watch the football, and as we stand quietly contemplating 3rd Division football, the snow flurries turn to a blizzard of hailstones, and around us there is a desperate ‘hurry up and finish’ feeling about the game from the fans who are hunching their shoulders and collars higher to keep warm, and for whom the final whistle can’t come fast enough.

This feature was shot between August 2012 and March 2013.

Full edit of 163 images available on request.