How Gretna rose to Scottish football’s pinnacle and collapsed in six short years

How Gretna rose to Scottish football’s pinnacle and collapsed in six short years

Buying success: it’s an accusation that is, perhaps correctly, levelled at an increasing number of football teams. From modern giants like Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, to the young pretenders of RB Leipzig and Wolves, money, it would appear, is everything in football. 

It’s a divisive subject, of course. Purists are quick to denounce these clubs, their lack of history at the top level rendering their newfound success illegitimate; an unfair advantage tantamount to financial doping, no more than the vanity project of some distant billionaire. The others – we could call them realists – may counter that in the increasingly monetised world of football, success generates wealth, which in turn breeds further success. The game is high stakes and, if you want a seat at the table, you’ll need to meet the buy-in.

Both sides have their points, but both are no doubt united in their passion for a bygone era. A time where all bets were off, before football’s arms race reached its zenith. Those romantic days when a team could come from nowhere, rising through the leagues to the very top with no astronomical budget, like an unfancied horse charging from the back and taking the Grand National in the last furlong.

The deserving underdog will no doubt always have its place in football’s folklore: see Clough’s Nottingham Forest, for example, or better yet consider the now legendary Leicester side, football’s foremost anachronism, a team that reminded everyone that the impossible was still possible. 

Somewhere in the middle of this lies Gretna Football Club, occupying the grey area between supreme underdog and unsustainable vanity project. 

Hailing from a small Scottish town close to the border with England, Gretna spent most of their history competing in the English amateur leagues before successfully applying to take the place of the defunct Airdrieonians at the bottom of the Scottish pyramid for the 2002/03 season.

The club was soon taken over by eccentric millionaire Brooks Mileson, who oversaw their rise from obscurity to the top flight – along the way, competing in a Scottish Cup final and even bringing European football to Gretna, before spectacularly imploding and going into liquidation, all in just six short years.

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In a sport littered with fallen giants, Gretna can sooner be described as a fallen minnow. Their remarkable and rapid rise to the top seems a lifetime ago in comparison to their almost instant decline. Criticise your Chelseas and Citys all you like, but it is unfair to dismiss them as plastic. Both had long histories, albeit often modest. Gretna, on the other hand, were nothing.

A town with a population of under 3,000, their rise was made possible by the financial backing of Mileson. Whilst success at the top level requires unfathomable sums of money, Scottish football was turned on its head with comparatively modest investment. Mileson followed a simple model: he recruited seasoned pros, often at the end of their careers, from the higher echelons of Scottish football. Not household names by any stretch, but players with pedigree from sides like Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Hibs. Their talisman, however, was poached from lowly East Fife. Step forward Kenny Deuchar. 

Ask anybody who remembers to name a Gretna player and they will likely say Deuchar. A qualified doctor – who continued to practice part-time at Wishaw General Hospital throughout his time at the club – Deuchar’s goals fired Gretna all the way through the divisions. His exploits gained him a degree of fame, not least among viewers of Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday, whose host Jeff Stelling would refer to “the good doctor”.

With 63 goals in 93 appearances, Deuchar’s story is deserving of its own article. His feats include smashing the record for most goals in a season in the Scottish Third Division, with 38 in 30 games, as well as equalling Jimmy Greaves’ British record for the most hat-tricks in a season (six). After Gretna he would go on to play for Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer, where he scored one and had another disallowed against David Beckham’s LA Galaxy. A true from scrubs to riches story. 

It is Mileson, of course, Gretna’s enigmatic owner, who can take most credit – and indeed blame – for their incredible story. A divisive figure in Scottish football, he had long flirted with the idea of club ownership. Numerous donations to various lower league supporters’ clubs were followed by a rebuffed takeover at Carlisle.

Newly-promoted Gretna proved more receptive to his advances and provided a platform for his ambitions. And he was nothing if not ambitious. His £8m pound investment propelled Gretna through the leagues, attaining consecutive promotions from 2004 to 2007. Critics may dismiss this achievement in light of Gretna’s financial muscle, but they would do well to remember that even the mighty Rangers were unable to repeat this feat after their demotion to the bottom tier in 2012 – and with far greater resources at that. 

Arguably more impressive than their rise to the summit was Gretna’s appearance in the 2006 Scottish Cup final, a valiant losing effort against Hearts. The then-second tier side pushed their top-flight rivals all the way to penalties after a gripping 1-1 draw in normal time.

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As painful as the defeat was, it was no doubt cushioned by the fact that their appearance in the final had already guaranteed them European football the following season, as a result of Hearts having gained entry to the Champions League by virtue of their league finish. The European journey would prove short: Gretna fell at the first hurdle after a 7-3 defeat to Derry City, but their very appearance was victory enough for a club that had only turned professional four years prior.

The sleepy town of Gretna would have made a fine target for thieves on the day of the Scottish Cup final – nearly every resident of the town made the journey to Glasgow for the match. Perhaps any would-be burglar joined them as Gretna inexplicably brought 12,000 fans to Hampden, four times that of their population. Amongst them stood Mileson, dressed in casual clothes, cheering on his side. 

Ever a man of the people, Mileson stands apart from other millionaire owners in his grassroots devotion to his project. Often found working in the ticket office of the club, every penny paid to his players came directly from his own pocket. Player bonuses included the possibility of borrowing his Aston Martin for the week. His work transcended the club and affected the community as a whole.

A committed Christian, he sought to include schools and community groups. He forged links with over 100 schools, providing professional coaches free of charge in an effort to give them a direct route into the team. For the club itself, he promised to build a brand new 6,000-seater stadium that would replace Raydale Park and comply with Premiership regulations. An idea that seemed ludicrous for a town of only 3,000 people, in early 2007 it seemed that nothing could stop the Anvils and their ambitious chairman. 

However, the cracks were already beginning to show ahead of their top-flight debut. The side had managed to throw away a 12-point lead by the time James Grady’s dramatic stoppage-time winner handed Gretna promotion on the final day of the season. A simple case of the yips, perhaps? Possibly, but it doesn’t account for the bizarre situation regarding manager Rowan Alexander, who missed the final month of the season with a mysterious, unspecified illness.

The managerial situation would continue to confuse the Gretna faithful into the next season, when Alexander, who had led Gretna through their whole journey, began showing up at SPL grounds attempting to lead his side, only to be refused entry altogether. Alexander claimed he was only asked to take a break from his position, and Gretna never officially clarified his status. Nonetheless, it was assistant David Irons who sat in the hot seat for Gretna’s first year in the Premiership. 

By late 2007, the cracks had turned into chasms. What should have been a triumphant debut at the pinnacle of the Scottish game turned into a nightmare. The town itself was denied the chance to host Scotland’s elite, Raydale Park failing to meet the criteria as Gretna were forced to ground share with Motherwell, a team based just outside Glasgow.

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The Gretna faithful would have to travel almost 80 miles to attend home games, and the side’s already meagre attendances would soon reach embarrassing levels, setting an all-time low SPL attendance record in February 2008 when only 501 punters attended a match against Dundee United. Poor attendances were matched by poor performances, with Gretna waiting seven games for a top-flight victory, winning only five games all season. 

Behind the scenes, things weren’t much better. Rumours had long circulated that Mileson’s heath was deteriorating rapidly, and they were proved true when he abruptly withdrew his funding midway through the season. Without his backing, the deep flaws in the project were brutally exposed. Players went without pay – and soon refused to play. The now full-time temporary manager Dave Irons jumped ship.

The dire financial straits led to a ten-point deduction, and Gretna finished the season with a paltry 13 points. With Mileson nowhere to be seen amidst the chaos, the Scottish Football League were forced to put together a financial package that allowed Gretna to complete the season.

A campaign that promised so much ended in relegation, administration and eventually liquidation in May 2008. The club soon resigned from the Scottish Football League and were replaced by Annan Athletic, just as Gretna had replaced the fallen Airdrieonians a few years before.

Mileson would sadly pass away in December of that year, and surely even his biggest critics would have to admire his achievements. A man who, after a childhood accident, was told he would never walk again, he was used to conquering adversity.

There’s an element of romance about the Gretna story – fitting, no doubt, for a town whose first claim to fame was as a place for young couples to elope and marry without their parents’ consent. On the other hand, it is a story that was always doomed to failure. An argument can be made that Gretna’s rise was too quick. Perhaps a few years in the lower leagues would’ve allowed time for their stadium to be built. Maybe the youth set up would have succeeded eventually, and Gretna could have replaced its ageing stars with academy products. It’s a nice thought, but ultimately unlikely.

Gretna only ever existed as the product of one man, and like a forgotten Football Manager save, once the player loses interest, the dream simply ceases to exist. Rarely has football seen such a remarkable rise and fall in such a short span of time. It’s an example, perhaps, to others of what can happen when a team overextends its ambition. Without the fans and the history, what is left when the money disappears?

By John Sands

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