IT is 6.30pm on Tuesday evening. The impressive new stand looms over Raeburn Place, looking almost good enough to move in, but it is shrouded in darkness and just not quite ready yet. Meanwhile, Edinburgh Accies head coach Iain Berthinussen rummages in the boot of his car looking for a wrench so that he can jack-up one of the temporary floodlights being used to illuminate the small patch of grass between the 1st XV pitch and the building site, where his team is about to start training.
“I’ll be with you in a minute – just some running repairs,” he apologises. Coach, handyman and he’ll have to be a master motivator, too, these next few weeks if Accies are to complete a great escape from the Premiership relegation zone by picking up enough league points in their two remaining matches to sneak ahead of either Glasgow Hawks or Musselburgh. With second top of the table Currie Chieftains coming to Raeburn Place on Saturday, and top of the table Marr due at the famous old ground seven days later, the challenge ahead is formidable.
“We’ve talked about taking six points from the last two games to give ourselves a chance,” says Berthinussen. “I’m pretty optimistic – maybe not realistic – but we’ve got to be like that.”
It’s pretty chilly and starting to rain. We were going to sit in the small portacabin which has been set up as the club’s HQ, but it is already packed out with players getting physio treatment and changing into their boots, so we stand in the temporary car park instead. Captain Jamie Sole joins us.
“You can see a bit of what has been going on here this season,” says Berthinussen. “We’ve got this [gesturing towards the stand], which is great – but not any use to us at the moment.
“Meanwhile, that’s our hut which has an office and physio room in it, but not really enough room to change. You’ve seen me out there trying to winch up a floodlight which we had to lower last week because of the wind, and the other coaches are over there moving another floodlight manually so we can get an area that is decent to train on. But you know what? We’ve just got to keep on going. What will be, will be.”
Accies knew it was going to be a tough – but not as tough as it has been – this season as their famous old ground finally began to be renovated after years of struggling through the planning process in the face of some pretty fierce opposition from local residents and the neighbouring Grange Sports Club (some of the objections were understandable, while others were clearly cynical and self-serving).
“I think the fact that we are five months behind is the thing that is wearing,” says Berthinussen. “We’ve used Peffermill [Edinburgh University’s sports ground], we’ve used Broughton High School, we’ve used a few different places, and our player numbers have been pretty good throughout, which is a testament to the boys. We regularly have 35 plus at training, which is probably capacity for the facilities we are able to provide at the moment.”
The end is in sight
It is hoped that a recent change in the team managing the development will help speed phase one – which includes nine commercial units along the back of the stand and a new clubhouse with temporary changing and storage facilities – through to completion ahead of the start of next season.
The original plan was for two subsequent phases to build permanent changing and storage facilities, function suites, kitchen area, restaurant, café, bar/lounge, corporate boxes, terraced seating for 2,500 sports spectators and a museum, but nothing is set in stone.
“It has been a long process, but we can see what is coming when this is completed, and it is pretty exciting,” says Sole. “I take my hat off to all the coaches because it can’t have been easy finding different venues each week when this was all waterlogged. There is a long-term vision and I think everyone has bought into that, which makes battling through this tough period a little bit easier. When it gets going, it will make a huge difference.”
Accies arranged for the first eight games of this Premiership campaign to be played away from home while the heavy construction at Raeburn Place was going on. They did not too badly during that period, picking up wins at Jed, Musselburgh and Selkirk, as well as a draw at Marr – but since then they have managed only one more win against Jed and a draw against Musselburgh.
With the development falling behind schedule, home advantage has been neutered. On matchdays, the players from both teams use the changing rooms at the Botanic Gardens end of nearby Inverleith Park, meaning a half mile jog to get to the pitch. On days like last Saturday, when the weather was relatively mild, that’s more of an inconvenience – but in the height of winter, such as the day they played Jed in mid-December, it has been fortunate that nobody had contracted hypothermia by the time of kick-off.
“We finished 10th last year and if it had been a normal season we would have been in National One this year,” reasons Berthinussen. “We were very lucky to keep some guys we thought we might lose to Super6, but we’ve lost others, and there is always a natural turnover of players for us because of where we are in the city which means we attract a lot of students and professional people, whose work is their priority.
“When you lose every week it gets harder and harder to take opportunities,” he adds. “If you can just get that one win, the psychological impact of that can be huge.”
Fight for survival
Accies had a big chance to ease their relegation fears when they took on fellow strugglers Glasgow Hawks last Saturday but came up well short in a 0-17 loss. With that in mind, what chance have they got against the top two teams in the division?
“Hopefully I am not shooting myself in the foot here, but the games when we’ve gone in as underdogs and there has not really any expectations on us have tended to be our best performances, and the games where we would be seen as having a really good chance we have underperformed,” says Sole. “So, I think that is the big frustration, but hopefully works in our favour these next two weeks when I don’t think anyone is really giving us a chance.
“You can’t fault the effort,” he adds. “Last weekend, we started well but didn’t make it count on the scoreboard, and fair play to Hawks because their defence was brilliant. By the end, you could see we were not getting anywhere, but we were still battling away. Motivation isn’t a problem – it is about making the right decisions.”
Berthinussen agrees. “We turn up for these sorts of games, but we haven’t turned up in other games we think we should have won this year, so the fault there lies with us – we can’t blame this building site for that,” he says, stressing the point that while external factors have not helped his team, their destiny has alway been – and remains – in their own hands.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how the boys take on this challenge. Currie will analyse the hell out of us, they’ll bring their physical game and we’ve got to outwit that. We’ve got a plan in place and we’ll see what happens.
“Last weekend is gone now. We are expected to go down. So, we’re in a position where we can chuck the kitchen sink at it, and if it doesn’t go our way then we’re no worse off than we were at the start of the day.”
“Come Saturday at 5pm, we will have a better idea of our fate – it will either be a bump in the road or an opportunity to go out again the following week to fight to stay up. If it is a bump in the road then we’ve not been good enough and we’ll reassess. But we’ve got a pretty loyal group of guys here, and after a year of being in five different facilities and a bowling club that doesn’t let you stay after 6pm, they’ll be desperate to make the most of next season, regardless of what division we are in.”