Border crossing

Ken Gall describes Gretna's meteoric rise from the depths of English football to taking the Scottish Third division by storm

To those sadly unenlightened individuals not au fait with the gálactico-fest that is the Scottish Third Division, the news that Gretna FC had only just lost a seven-goal classic to Dundee United in the third round of the Scottish Cup might have caused some surprise. (Among those so surprised would be those Bolton Wanderers fans who can recall their side knocking Gretna out of the FA Cup just over ten years ago.)

To fans north of the border (including those only just over it), the result was merely the latest evidence of the progress made by a club in the unlikeliest of locations and with the unlikeliest of backers. The ponytailed, chain-smoking, Aston Martin-driving philanthropist millionaire Brooks Mileson may sound like a character from the novels of Mr Harold Robbins, but Gretna’s backer is anything but fictional.

Having made his money in insurance, Sunderland-born Mileson invested in various professional, semi-pro and youth clubs around the north of England before a youth sponsorship deal led him, and his generous nature, to Gretna, the somewhat surprising new arrivals in Scottish football from the Unibond League.

Gretna’s ability last year to offer a lucrative full-time deal to David Bingham, a player with plenty of Scottish Premier League experience and wanted by several higher-profile clubs, showed that something might just be happening deep in the borders. An Italian pre-season training camp, at a facility used by numerous Serie A clubs, was another novelty; pre-season training elsewhere in the Third Division has tended to commence with the players dropping their fag-ends into their cans of lager before setting off around the public park.

But it was once the season got under way that things started to get really interesting, with Gretna recording the sort of scores usually associated with Melchester Rovers. An 8-1, an 8-0 (at Cowdenbeath) and several sixes suggested that the title race in the Third Division might not necessarily go down to the wire this season; although Peterhead, to their credit, have managed to keep within touching distance with a side whose resources dwarf their own.

The announcement of plans to provide Gretna (population 2,500) with a 6,000- capacity, SPL-compliant, all-seat stadium showed exactly where Mileson and the club were looking, and the cup tie with United provided an early opportunity to gauge progress. But rather than follow procedure and double ticket prices for a “glamour” cup tie, Mileson decided on a novel approach not likely to be shared by many directors in a similar position: all 2,000 fans would be let in for nothing. And while we’re at it, why not have some stilt-walkers and fire-eaters parading around the ground beforehand?

Rumours that Mileson’s bankrolling of Gretna was a personal response to a snub by Carlisle United (or, more scurrilously, that it was all the result of a bet with a millionaire buddy that he could get Gretna into the SPL) have never gained any credence. And any doubts that Dundee United fans might have had about the man’s motives were put to bed by a spontaneous four-figure donation to the club’s supporters’ trust.

So we are left with the conclusion that Mileson is a rich man willing to invest personally and substantially in a small-town club, whose sole agenda is that that club should progress and who believes that the fans and the local community should play a part in and benefit substantially from that progress. Will this sort of thing catch on? One’s breath should not be held too long in awaiting it.

From WSC 217 March 2005. What was happening this month