by STUART RUTHERFORD
THE oldest club in the Borders has faced myriad struggles in recent years and it all came to a head at the start of the current season when a player shortage led to two games being called off, a points deduction and the threat of expulsion from BT East League Division Two. However, the club’s chairman, Kenneth Pool, who has been there through thick and thin, is adamant that Langholm are in a good position to turn things around.
Born and raised in the ‘Muckle Toun’, Pool has been involved at Milntown since 1984 and his passion for not just the club but the whole town is obvious as he discusses the team’s current misfortunes.
“Up until the mid-90s we could easily field a 1st, 2nd and 3rd side. Then, by the end of the decade it was 1st and 2nd team only. Now, it has obviously become a struggle to get fifteen players out. I’d say it has actually mirrored the way the town has gone,” he reflects.
“Over the course of the 90s the mills started to be closed down and they were never replaced with something significant. So you had this drift of young people away from the town, going to university and college, because there was simply nothing here for them.”
“Those who stayed in the area started to get jobs in Carlisle: many as long haul drivers or as other jobs that meant they were away from home quite a lot. So the commitment of players to training became less and less because they weren’t in town for a Tuesday or Thursday and could only play on a Saturday if they got the time off. It’s become more and more acute in the last eight years with there being even less work in the town.”
Of course, this story is not exclusive to Langholm. In 1997 the textile industry had already been in decline for a number of years but still accounted for 50 percent of all manufacturing employment in the Borders. Since then that base has been decimated. Hawick was hit particularly hard, going from having around 9,000 locals employed within the sector to fewer than 1,000 in the space of 15 years according to one estimate, but their local rugby side – although struggling in comparison to an illustrious past – has been able to survive at the top end of the Scottish game. Geography and demographics mean that the impact on rugby in Langholm has been far more catastrophic.
“Our nearest ‘big’ town is Carlisle and because of the regulations [which prohibits players being registered with the RFU and SRU simultaneously] you cannot pull their players out of England. So the next biggest town is Hawick and to be fair, we do get a bit of help from their junior teams when it’s needed,” explains Pool.
“It’s really just the position we are in. We are two hours from Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the guys who are moving to these cities find it really difficult to commit to come back and train or play on a Saturday. I think towns like Selkirk, Gala or Melrose, who are within an hour of Edinburgh, are able to retain a lot of the younger guys as they are able to travel back with ease, but with us just having that extra hour, it makes all the difference.”
“For the vast majority of our history the team was made up entirely of guys who stayed and worked in Langholm. Then, as time went on there were odd guys who came in from the likes of Castle Douglas, Dumfries and further afield, because at that period of time we were up in the old first or second divisions, so we were able to attract good players who wanted to test themselves at a higher level.
“In the late 90s, a lot of players from the Hawick junior teams came to play for us for the same reasons but, of course, all of that has changed because Langholm are actually below the likes of Hawick Harlequins now.”
With so many amateur clubs throughout Scotland now financially rewarding their players to turn out on a Saturday, Langholm would not be behaving outrageously if they looked to bolster their numbers with paid recruits, however, this is a route that Pool will not entertain.
“We would just have to keep subsidising something that is unsustainable and it simply wouldn’t work. You see other clubs, bigger clubs, throwing a tonne of money at players who are really just looking for the next step-up in terms of finances. It’s really not a long-term solution,” he says.
“We’ve got a really good youth section. There are 240 kids at Langholm Academy, so that’s about 120 boys, and we are managing to field three teams up to under-16 level, plus we have several boys playing under-18 rugby in Hawick – which translates into about 40 per cent of the boys in the town playing the game,” he continues.
“Hopefully we will start to see these youngsters feed into the senior team when they are old enough. The big challenge for us is to keep things going until that happens. We’re trying to build the club from the bottom up by developing the youth section and improving the facilities, rather than just throwing money at players like some other clubs are doing.”
“There is no point looking over your shoulder and pining for a return to the glory days. We understand that unless we are willing to throw thousands of pounds at players, we’re never going to be there. But really we have no aspirations to return to those days. We just want to be a club that plays rugby and has a great social atmosphere. What we’re trying to do is get enough youngsters coming up from the colts to feed the senior team. It might just be two or three a year, but as long as we can keep the teams at a level that is sustainable then we’ll be perfectly happy.”
“I think a lot of clubs are going that way. So much has changed in rugby in the last 20 years that to try and imagine that Border’s rugby will return to the good ole’ days just isn’t feasible. You have to try and cut your cloth accordingly.”
Cutting your cloth accordingly is a fitting adage for a town and club built on the back of the textile industry. Langholm’s tale may be a poignant reminder of the Borders’ forgotten past, however, it is also a story of unfaltering determination in the face of adversity. The Borders club may never return to the lofty heights of the 60s and 70s, but for now, simply being able to play on a Saturday is more than enough.