Friday 7 March ~
While watching a meaningless mid-table encounter this month, many supporters will be reflecting on how much better things could be if only their club had more money behind it. This is nothing new – spectators have entertained such thoughts since the 19th century. But you have to be careful what you wish for. Backed by Durham-based millionaire Brooks Mileson, Gretna rose very quickly through the Scottish league, which they joined in 2002 having spent the previous 20 years in the English non-League system. Now Gretna are rooted to the foot of the Scottish Premier League and in danger of going out of business.
Gretna are having a crisis meeting today. Their chief executive doesn't seem too hopeful, asking: “Does any club have a future when only 501 fans turn up?” But that is the essence of the problem. Gretna were playing in front of a couple of hundred fans in the Northern Premier First Division when Brooks Mileson took over. Mileson is a Sunderland supporter but, while extremely wealthy by most people's standards, he didn't have the sort of funds that would have enabled him to buy into his favourite club. Instead, he became a football philanthropist, sponsoring the Northern League and making donations to several supporters' trusts. Money from Mileson, who is now seriously ill, enabled Gretna to achieve three successive promotions. But it takes longer than three years to build a solid supporter base – the club's efforts in this respect being hampered by having to groundshare this season at Motherwell's Fir Park stadium, 70 miles away.
There are recent parallels with Gretna in English football. In the early 1990s, Max Griggs, the owner of the Dr Martens footwear company, was rebuffed in an attempt to take control of his local League club Northampton Town. So he instigated the merger of two small non-League teams to create Rushden & Diamonds who, after a decade of steady progress, became members of the Football League in 2003. However, Griggs withdrew from direct involvement two years later, while making a cash donation to the club, and Rushden are now back in non-League. This season they have been playing Conference fixtures against Histon, a club from a village in Cambridgeshire who were promoted from the Conference South in 2007. Chairman Gareth Baldwin has been in charge since 1992, when the club were in the Eastern Counties League. Histon's ground, recently renamed the Glassworld Stadium, is ready for the Football League and they could yet meet local rivals Cambridge United in the promotion play-offs. Histon's rise has mirrored Cambridge United's recent decline and it's likely that they are now pilfering some support from their more established neighbours.
Two clubs recently promoted from the Conference, Dagenham and Accrington, are drawing the lowest gates in the League, both with an average of just under 2,000. Histon's attendances have nearly doubled during 2007-08 to an average of 1,164 but they would surely be the poorest-supported League club if they go up any time soon. As Barnet and Macclesfield have also proved, clubs who aren't able to expand their support base are destined to struggle in the long term. The Histon board will hopefully know that success can be achieved slowly. But Gretna serve as a dire warning of what can happen if ambitions outstrip means.