Fir game

Gretna’s fairytale rise is having an unhappy ending, with a calamitous debut season in the SPL. Neil Forsyth reports

Features on the current league position of a football team can be tinged with danger for monthly periodicals. In the case of Gretna, however, there is little risk involved. They are bottom of the SPL at the time of writing, they will be bottom when you read these words and it is looking increasingly likely they will be bottom when the campaign wraps up in distant May.

By then, they may well have plunged into financial danger, racked up the SPL’s lowest ever points total and even provided the league with a mortifying three-figure crowd. Seeing as they have already taken the lowest ever SPL attendance record (1,092 against Inverness Caledonian Thistle), and they are slipping away from the pack by the week, it’s looking distinctly possible.

Their rise was, we are often told, a fairytale and in many ways this is true. Gretna have elevated themselves from the English non-League system to Scotland’s top division, nearly winning the Scottish Cup along the way and enjoying a brief outing in the UEFA cup. However, there was always a considerable invisible hand in this seemingly unstoppable rise – that of the club’s personable, multi-millionaire chairman Brooks Mileson.

Mileson, a self-made man who readily admits knowing little about football, threw money at the club as they marched steadily through the leagues. The team were expertly marshalled by the promising young manager Rowan Alexander, who spoke of having a paternal relationship with his chairman. It was last March that things started to look a little shaky. Gretna were top of the First Division and looking like bankers for promotion when it was announced that Alexander was to take time off due to exhaustion. Assistant Davie Irons took over and, though the team stuttered somewhat towards the end, managed to guide the club to promotion on the last day of the season.

Due to the unsuitability of their cramped Raydale Park, Gretna announced a groundshare with Motherwell for their debut SPL season. Considering the town of Gretna has a population of 3,000, and Fir Park is 70 miles away, this never looked like a plan destined for glittering success.

There was also still no sign of a resolution to the matter of Alexander, a situation that created a spectacular distraction on the opening day of the season when he turned up at Fir Park with his agent and demanded admission in his role as the club’s manager. With Irons having been confirmed as head coach, Alexander was turned away and the players later admitted they had heard of the debacle at the stadium’s doors before receiving their first defeat of many.

In fairness, Gretna have been very unlucky in a number of matches, but their run is now so poor that it seems unlikely that the current squad of players will be capable of reversing it. They certainly haven’t been helped by stirring support from the stands.

It was always going to be asking a lot of the club’s small support to make a fortnightly trip to Motherwell in considerable numbers, but even then the crowds have been disastrous. With Fir Park so empty, abuse from the hardy few has echoed down to the pitch and both Irons and Mileson have been moved to plead with the fans through programme notes to lay off the targeting of individual players.

For the 60-year-old Mileson – until recently a popular, wisecracking addition to Scottish football – this was just the latest challenge during a year in which he has suffered health problems. With Gretna undoubtedly losing money (some quarters have suggested at a startling rate) he remains a much needed benefactor and there’s little doubt he’ll take further gambles in January. But, even as Irons himself recently admitted, that would only be needed if it were still “worthwhile”. In recent seasons St Johnstone, Partick Thistle and Dundee have all slipped away from the SPL with decent supports and stadiums. None has returned, and it has to be considered that relegation may leave Gretna struggling to arrest a decline, let alone reverse it.

From WSC 251 January 2008