Over the last six or seven years, the name “Michael Renwick” has generally become a punchline amongst fans of SFL clubs. A nervous and very ordinary defender, the player experienced an indifferent career across a number of clubs and developed a reputation for continually turning in anxious and jittery performances. It almost came to the point where opposition fans were gladdened when they learned he would line up against their side.
While Renwick’s playing career might have been underwhelming, his managerial career was simply abject. His six-month spell in charge of Berwick Rangers is likely to be remembered as one of the most extraordinary in the history of the SFL – under his guidance, he drove a sinking ship straight to the bottom of the ocean floor. Only 12 months previously, Berwick had celebrated the Third Division title; their return to the basement of Scottish football was as quick as it was painful.
And yet, while Renwick’s short tenure at Berwick was an unmitigated disaster, it would be unfair to lay the whole blame at his door. To understand the anatomy of Berwick’s relegation, the 2007-08 season as a whole must be understood.
The previous year had been an untarnished triumph for Berwick Rangers as the club secured the Third Division championship. Berwick had won the title in trying circumstances – before the season began, five of John Coughlin’s key players decamped to Stenhousemuir – but after an uneven start, their promotion bid gathered pace. By late January, the club clambered to the Third Division’s summit, a position they would not relinquish.
The summer of 2007 should have seen Coughlin build on last term’s success and develop a squad capable of keeping their place in the Second Division; instead the opposite occurred and the championship-winning side was slowly stripped of its key players. The popular defender Grant McNicoll – a fine player who had made more than 250 appearances for the club over ten seasons – was thoughtlessly jettisoned. The classy Gary Greenhill was allowed to join East Fife, while hulking forward Kevin Haynes was sold to Bathgate Thistle after reportedly returning for pre-season training more than two stones heavier than when he left.
Coughlin’s replacements were inferior: Scott Gemmill was an honest striker, but lacked the necessary ability to carry the goal-scoring responsibility of the team, while Tommy Lennox was a hopeless full-back recruited from Albion Rovers. Perhaps even more distressing for fans was the re-singing of Kevin McLeish. The midfielder – one of the notorious “Stenny Five” – was viewed with a mixture of suspicion and scorn. Coughlin’s side were to begin the season with an unbalanced and underwhelming squad.
Despite these concerns, Berwick began the campaign reasonably well, securing four points from their first three league matches and progressing through the first rounds of the Challenge and League Cups. This brief success at the beginning of August was to be the high point of their season.
While never truly outplayed, the side were regularly outscored. Berwick picked up a single point in September and began October with a comprehensive 0-3 thrashing at home to Alloa Athletic. Bottom of the table with a measly five points, Coughlin resigned from the club and fled to Stenhousemuir. Speaking at his first assembly with the Warriors supporters, the manager bemoaned how a lack of money had been invested in his Berwick squad, and spoke of evenings spent driving through Edinburgh in a bid to find a suitable public park to train his team.
Coughlin had left Berwick in an almighty shambles. Propping up the Second Division with certain relegation looming, the club required an experienced manager, well-versed in fire-fighting with an ability to motivate a dejected and under-performing squad. Instead, and in one of the most bizarre managerial appointments in recent memory, Berwick’s board of directors opted to hire a youthful coach with no management experience.
Michael Renwick had spent eight years at Hibernian, making 47 appearances before enjoying short spells with Ayr United, Greenock Morton, Cowdenbeath, East Fife and Stenhousemuir. After leaving the Ochilview club, Renwick accepted an offer from Mixu Paatelainen to return to Cowdenbeath as a coach. Cowden supporters spoke highly of his coaching ability and claimed the players found his methods engaging. Des McKeown, his former manager at Stenhousemuir, described him as “the most professional player I’ve ever worked with”.
However, good coaches do not make good managers. The difficulty of Renwick’s task was laid out in front of him during his first match in charge, a 0-4 thrashing at Airdrie United. It would take him eight attempts to secure his first win, a dogged 2-1 victory over Raith Rovers at Shielfield Park on Boxing Day. The club would not win again for more than ten weeks.
Where Berwick were previously conceding one or two goals per game, defeats by three or four goals was now commonplace. Renwick’s solution to his side’s defensive fragility was to turn to an old teammate: Robbie Henderson.
Renwick and Henderson had played together at Stenhousemuir over the 2005-06 season. Henderson had left Pollok Juniors in mid-November and had not played at a competitive level for over two months before he was invited to join Berwick. It was a bizarre signing. Even by Third Division standards, Henderson was a limited defender – there was nothing at all cerebral about his style of play: he was a stopper. Nothing more, nothing less. Stenhousemuir supporters even used to joke the player “headered bricks for a living”.
Henderson’s solitary performance coincided with the inarguable low-point of Renwick’s tenure in charge of Berwick – a humiliating 2-9 defeat at Peterhead on 19 January 2008. The defender played atrociously throughout and was directly responsible for a number of the home side’s goals. Unfit and out of his depth, Henderson’s match was abruptly ended on 63 minutes when he collected a second booking. Had striker Iain Diack not scored his second goal of the match with two minutes remaining, Berwick would have equalled their record defeat.
At this point and for reasons known only to himself, the manager began to dismantle Coughlin’s side and purge the majority of experienced players from the squad. Talismanic midfielder Danny Swanson had already joined Dundee United in the New Year before Renwick began to alienate senior team members. Iain Diack was transferred to Brechin City, while defenders Jordan Smith and Michael Bolochoweckyj were dispatched on loan to Stenhousemuir and East Stirlingshire respectively. Long-serving goalkeeper Gary O’Connor had fallen out with Renwick and forced the manager into issuing him with an ultimatum: train with the reserves, or find a new club. O’Connor also joined the Shire on an emergency loan agreement.
With the club staring at relegation, Renwick’s decision to replace the experienced players with loan signings made up of callow, soft-centred youngsters seemed absurd. Tactics were altered on a game-by-game basis and players were frequently shunted into new, unfamiliar positions. The manager’s changes had little impact on his team and the results did not improve: a 0-4 home defeat to Ross County; a 0-3 loss at Airdrie; a risible 0-5 tanking from Brechin at Glebe Park.
The club were eventually relegated in late March after a home draw with Peterhead. Renwick dug in, soldiered on and declared his intent to continue managing Berwick, promising he could ensure an immediate return to the Second Division. He was denied his wish. On the penultimate game of the season, he was dismissed following a 2-5 reverse at home to Raith Rovers. Jimmy Crease took charge of the club for the final game of the season – perhaps he should have been the man to take charge of the club after Coughlin’s resignation.
Renwick’s six-month spell in charge of Berwick was catastrophic. He took 11 points from 25 games, with a win rate of eight per cent, making him statistically the club’s worst ever manager – their points total of 16 is the Second Division’s record low. The season was a shambles and perhaps only five years later have Berwick sufficiently recovered enough to mount a challenge to return to Scotland’s third tier.
Michael Renwick has gone on to successfully coach teams at Heriot-Watt University and at Heart of Midlothian’s academies. Regardless of these achievements, Renwick is another example of a decent coach, over-promoted and out of his depth and completely unable to make the transition to management. In truth, he should never have been allowed to take charge of a club in Berwick’s position in the first place. Any manager would have struggled to tidy up the mess left by John Coughlin.