The rise, fall and rebirth of Gretna football
by Anton Hodge
Chequered Flag, £11.99
Reviewed by Paul Brown
From WSC 347 January 2016
The rise and fall of Gretna FC is one of the most fascinating football stories of recent times. After swapping English non-League for the Scottish Third Division in 2002, the border-town club won three successive promotions, reaching the Premier League and a Scottish Cup final, plus the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds. But, after just six years in League football, the club fell into administration and folded. Then came the rebirth, the tale of which Anton Hodge is well placed to tell, as he was the first chairman of phoenix club Gretna 2008.
Hodge opens his book as a Gretna FC fan at the 2006 Cup final, among 12,000 fellow supporters – a remarkable number considering the population of Gretna (including Gretna Green) is less than 3,000. Second Division Gretna lost to Premier League Hearts on penalties, but the occasion remains one of the best-remembered moments of Gretna’s Icarus-like rise.
That rise began in 2002 with the arrival of Sunderland-born self-made millionaire Brooks Mileson. According to Hodge, the pony-tailed benefactor invested around £8 million in Gretna over five years, allowing the club to live far beyond their means – and drawing resentment and criticism from opposition clubs and fans. By 2003, Gretna’s annual wage bill was more than £750,000, while an average attendance of less than 500 meant annual gate receipts only totalled around £70,000.
One of Mileson’s many signings was Kenny Deuchar, the goal-scoring GP well known to Soccer Saturday viewers by the Jeff Stelling-anointed nickname “The Good Doctor”. During three successful years at Gretna, Deuchar was reckoned to be the most prolific striker in world football. Hodge describes the Deuchar-spearheaded team as “a footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters”. “It was an exciting time to be a Gretna supporter,” he writes. “Success was almost guaranteed at games where there was a real feeling of joy and camaraderie.”
However, promotion to the top flight in 2007 proved to be a last hurrah. Mileson became seriously ill and his financial support disappeared. Unable to pay players and staff, Gretna FC entered administration and were liquidated in August 2008. Mileson died three months later, leaving what Hodge describes as “a mixed legacy”. While Mileson seems to have had genuinely selfless intentions, he allowed the club to become entirely reliant on his generosity, and they were unable to survive without him.
Hodge admits that he and his colleagues had no real idea of where to start with regards to forming a new football club. Nevertheless, this very readable account of their efforts ends with Gretna 2008 in the Lowland League, financially stable, run by a supporters’ trust and eyeing a return to the Scottish League. If they get there it will be a success achieved on their own terms, without the aid of a wealthy backer. Hodge and his colleagues had always insisted that their new club would be very different from the old one. “What we really meant was that it would not be like Mileson’s Gretna,” says Hodge, “it would be Gretna’s Gretna once again.”