Gretna Football Club: Football’s Icarus

The fragility of football.

By Cameron Deacon – @Cam_Deacon21

If you have ever sat down to play footballer manager or FIFA video games before, then you will know that one of the fan favourite things to do is take a lower league side through the divisions right to the top, creating your own underdog story guiding a small unknown side into superstardom. In video games you could take your team up all the divisions winning every single season, but the reality is, that isn’t really possible. It takes years of slow growth and planning to take a side from near insignificance to the top, surely a scenario like this is something that you would only ever see in a video game?

Let me introduce you to Gretna Football Club. A small town with little over 2,500 population, Gretna is most commonly known for its weddings and not much else. Gretna football club was formed in 1946 and until 2002 played all their football in the English amateur and semi-professional Northern leagues, due to their proximity to England. For 10 years Gretna played their trade in the Northern Premier League, a division which today hosts the likes of Lancaster City and Whitby Town. They were the first Scottish team to feature in the FA Cup since the Queens Park team of 1887! In the 10 year which they resided within that division they never finished any higher than 6th. Destined for very little within that league for three consecutive years the board applied for a place in the Scottish Football League (SFL) and eventually in 2002 they were elected into the league at the expense of Airdrieonians. It was almost immediately after this that the club were taken control by the late Brooks Mileson a multi-millionaire businessman.

Brooks is one of the many factors of Gretna’s story which, despite being the centrepiece, is often forgotten about. Brooks was, by all accounts, a non-league football fanatic. Years before his involvement in Gretna the businessman had made many donations to non-league football with one estimate putting his wealth as having been shared between no less than 70 non-league football teams. It should have been no-surprise that that owning one of these teams was next on his list. Especially considering that he had already made a failed attempt at buying the club he supported Carlisle United. After hearing about Gretna FC’s promotion to the SFL Brooks saw an opportunity to buy a league team for the price of a non-league side and promptly took control of the club.

From the outset it was clear that Mr Mileson did not want Gretna to sit idly by in the Scottish fourth tier. Oh no he wanted more. For the first two seasons there was a clear show of intent as Gretna finished 6th and then 3rd before Mr Mileson decided he wanted more. He bought heavily into a host of high quality, Premiership standard, players who would remain with the club for several years, and Gretna made their first big step. They bought in Kenny Deuchar from East Fife and he struck 38 goals utterly decimating the previous league record of 24. He scored so frequently in-fact that his name became legend in the ‘Soccer Saturday’ studios and was gifted the name “The Good Doctor” by host Jeff Stelling (Due to the fact he is also a practising medical doctor). Gretna went on to score 130 goals that season and finished top 20 points clear of second placed Peterhead.

The 2005-06 season was phenomenal for Gretna in more way that one. Not only did they destroy the 3rd tier at the first time of asking finishing top by 18 points, scoring 97 goals, and losing only four games but they also managed to reach the Scottish Cup final! Beating then Championship side Dundee 3-0 in the Semi Finals. In the Final they would eventually fall to Hearts but only on penalties after a hard fought 120 mins in which either side could have taken the win. But with Hearts finishing 2nd in the SPFL that season and getting Champions League qualification things were about to get much better for Gretna as they became the first 3rd tier side in Scotland to ever qualify for the UEFA Europa League!

Within four season Gretna had gone from non-league obscurity to Europa League football and they weren’t even in the 2nd tier of Scottish Football. A true daydream for a set of fans who less than a decade before couldn’t have even imagine their team playing league football let alone one of its most prestigious competitions. A feat that I think you’d agree is phenomenal even in the realms of fantasy.

2006-07 the fantasy continued, despite having their European journey cut short thanks to a 7-3 loss on aggregate against Republic of Ireland’s Derry City, the Anvils continued to impress in the SFL and once again at the first time of asking they finished 1st! They managed to get automatic promotion at the skin of their teeth, taking it right down to the final day and the final minute of the season, when James Grady, who had been with the club since the 2005 season, scored a last minute winner against Ross County in 3-2 victory which would send Gretna Football Club to 1st place and to the Scottish Premiership!

The journey that Gretna had been on had been more than amazing. In three seasons Gretna had finished 1st in uncharted territory, three times in a row. In that time, they had scored just short of 300 goals and lost only 14 games in 108 league games. They had gone form an English 8th tier side to a Scottish Cup finalists and Europa League side. No matter how much money was spent in that time to keep up that sort of consistency is unbelievable and something that not even Rangers could replicate as they built their way back up the ladder. Manager Rowan Alexander who had been in charge at the club since the year 2000 had to mould the players he was given, into an outfit that would go on to beat just about everyone in the SFL. For reasons I am yet to understand why Rowen was ‘officially removed from his position’ in pre-season but was not officially sacked until November that year. And when Rowen arrived at the clubs first game of the season, he was refused entry from the ground? I don’t fully understand what happened here, but I know I signalled the first stage of failure for the club. 

Under the new management of Davie Irons, it took seven games for Gretna to record their first SPFL victory. A 3-2 win against Dundee United would be the first of only five wins that season. The club had also been told that they must play all their home games at Motherwell’s Fir Park because Raydale Park was deemed unsuitable for top tier football. But this was only the tip of the iceberg.

In early 2008 it was announced that Gretna were £4 Million in debt, soon after due to ill health Brooks Mileson withdrew all his financial support and left the club with non-league facilities rock bottom of the Scottish Premiership. 10 months later Mileson had not recovered from his ill health and passed away on November 3rd, 2008.

In February it was announced that the club’s staff and players had not been paid then less than a month later, on 12th of March 2008 the club was placed into administration. This led to an automatic points deduction of -10 points. 

Removal from the SFL and liquidation was soon to follow for Gretna, but this footballing Icarus story does have a happy ending. On the 13th of May 2008, Gretna Football Club played their final ever game as a football club at home (Fir Park) against Heart of Midlothian. The game was slow and sodden, the clubs impending doom sat over Fir Park like the Grim Reaper. The rain came down onto a ruined pitch with neither side looking particularly up for the challenge. But then in the 90th minute Gavin Skelton who had played for the team in the English non-league, missed a crucial penalty against Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final and was playing his 200th game for the club flashed the ball past Steve Banks from 15 yards to score the clubs final goal, the clubs final win and secure a revenge victory over the side who had denied them Scottish Cup glory two years prior.

On the 8th of August 2008 Gretna official ceased existing as a club.

However, 1 month earlier on July 2nd the Gretna Supporters Society formed a new club called Gretna 2008. In 2011 they bought back Gretna’s Raydale Park, in 2013 they became founding members of the lowland league and even better, last year Rowan Alexander who was the man who had led Gretna Football Club on their charge up the leagues and was mysteriously removed before he came a Premiership manager was announced as the new head coach of Gretna F.C 2008. 

Football clubs are fragile. The people who run the club have the power to make a club great and then tear it down in an instance. Some people say what Brooks Mileson did was nothing more than an ego trip. He didn’t improve the club’s facilities and he didn’t manage the club in a way which meant they would go on to survive after her died. But what he did do was he led the small town of Gretna into a dream which may never have happened. They now play in the lowland league and the fans will probably never experience something like that ever again. But at least they got to do it. They ventured far and beyond their means and then got brought back to reality. It’s why we should enjoy the success of our team’s day by day, enjoy every victory and experience every high and every low, don’t cry because a journey has ended be happy that it got to happen, because before you know it, it could all be gone. 

The phenomenal story of Gretna FC.

Published by Callum McFadden

Football CFB founder, @backonside ambassador. Freelance football writer & broadcaster - Enquiries: footballcfb@gmail.com

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