Gretna 2 Alloa Athletic 1

For once a millionaire and a football club do seem to be a perfect match, as the Scottish League’s most southerly side continue their remarkable rise. Harry Pearson reports

Some things stay embedded in the national consciousness long after history has moved on. “Eloping, are you?” the man says when I ask for a day return to Gretna Green. Though illicit marriages went out decades ago, Gretna’s reputation as the destination of choice for runaway lovers is as strong as it was during the days of Carry On films and The Two Ronnies. The famous blacksmith’s shop is still there, of course. It’s across the M6 from Gretna football ground. These days, though, more people go to Gretna for the designer outlet village than to tie the knot.

Not that retail has entirely replaced romance. As I walk down the blustery main street behind a phalanx of ballboys in identical black-and-red tracksuits, past the memorial to those killed when Nazi bombs fell here in 1941 and a “Good Luck Gretna” display in the window of a local insurance company, there are pipes skirling outside the Anvil Hall – an angular brick building that looks like a cross between a Masonic lodge and one of Flash Gordon’s space rockets – and a procession of limousines with white ribbons attached waiting at the traffic lights next to the Chinese takeaway. Around the corner at Raydale Park, meanwhile, the local football club seem determined to suck unwary hacks into a maelstrom of honeymoon/love affair puns.

The last time I saw Gretna they were playing at Willington in front of 19 people. That was back in the days when the Borderers were Scottish interlopers in the Northern League. A decade or so later and they are a couple of results away from the UEFA Cup. A week from now Gretna travel to Hampden and beat Dundee 3‑0 in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. Hearts make it through to the final, too, and surely guarantee Gretna a place in Europe.

Not that much at Raydale has changed since the Northern League days. The gents still has a corrugated roof and air conditioning supplied by gaps in the breeze-block walls; the changing rooms look like an old people’s bungalow; the hospitality suite like a scout hut; and the perimeter advertising comes courtesy of the local bakers and Spar shop. The profusion of ballboys are mainly stationed outside the ground to return ricochets and shots that fly over the roofs of the tiny stands and into the surrounding sludge-grey housing estate. Paris Saint-Germain could be here next season. The plutocrats of G-14 must be wringing their beautifully manicured hands in despair.

That is for next week, though. Today Gretna have domestic business. If they can beat visiting Alloa Athletic and nearest rivals Morton slip-up at home to Ayr, then a second successive Scottish divisional title will be theirs. Europe or not, next season they play Airdrie, Dundee and Hamilton Academical – quite a step up from Shotton Comrades and Jarrow Roofing.

As a result, Raydale Park is en fête. Inside the ground a man wearing a kilt in the official Gretna tartan and a “Gretna – Live the Dream” replica shirt is holding an electric guitar and counting himself into a rendition of Make Me Smile. A lady ventriloquist in a striped coat that looks like something Joseph might have rejected as “a bit too bright and busy” has her hand stuck up the back of a giant plush seal. A group of middle-school cheerleaders are scampering about excitedly with their black-and-white pom-poms fastened to their wrists, executing a few moves as the match announcer plays Long Hot Summer by Girls Aloud. This is possibly the least appropriate song I have heard in a football ground since the bloke at Brunton Park decided that a freezing Wednesday night in February was just the time to give Sex on the Beach a spin.

By the time kick-off comes around there are 984 fans here, including a dozen or so who have made it down from Alloa. This may not seem many to watch history being made, but Gretna is in the Borders, a part of the Britain where Carlisle is the great metropolis and Melrose and Hexham are major conurbations despite having populations that struggle to make five figures. At Raydale team news is brought to us courtesy of Anderson’s Kilts of Dumfries; the guests of honour are Lord and Lady Blencairn and the programme carries a message from Dumfries and Galloway police advising on farm security measures. Judging by the preponderance on the terracing of burly men with mutton-chop whiskers and faces weathered like bark, the advert is well targeted. This is a rural area and Gretna is hardly more than a village. Its hinterland is mainly cows, sheep and curlews. If the club realise their ambition of making it to the SPL they will have to redevelop the ground to hold 6,000 – twice the population of the town.

Despite all that is riding on today’s results, there seems little tension among the home support. Victory for Ayr may be out of Gretna’s hands, but a win here seems assured. The visitors are bottom, more than 50 points behind the home side, and the goal difference gap between them is 96. Even the bookies are offering odds of 13-1 on the Wasps winning today, which in turf accountancy terms makes it about as likely as Elvis releasing a new fitness video. The way things are stacked up this will not so much be a football match as a 90-minute happy-slapping incident.

And so, perhaps a little unsurprisingly given that build-up, Alloa are a goal ahead inside three minutes, busy winger James Stephenson clipping a shot through the hands of Alan Main in the home goal. The visitors look likely to add to it, too. Main parries brilliantly from Paul McCloud’s point-blank volley, dives to save a header from the resulting corner, pushes a bobbling shot from outside the area around the post and watches as what looks like a clear penalty for a foul on Stephenson is dismissed by the impressively tanned referee. Up the other end Gretna fumble about to no good effect. “Come on Big Deuchar,” a man in a grey double-breasted jacket and kipper tie yells. “Come on Big Kenny. Come on big man.”

Kenny Deuchar is Scottish Division Two’s leading scorer and also a doctor, the sort of combination that’s a bit more of a rarity these days than it was in the Edwardian era. Big Deuchar is indeed big – he makes Hotshot Hamish look like the sort of fellow who’d get sand kicked in his face. Over the past few seasons he has smashed all sorts of goalscoring records into little pieces, but today his legs seem to be all shin from the toe upwards and the same applies to his head.

More Gretna passes go astray and Alloa continue to press for a second. A silence descends, broken only by the keening of gulls blown in from the weird flatness of the Solway, the yells of the players and the occasional imprecation from the terrace in a Border Scots or Cumbrian accent. “What’d I tell you? They’re saving themselves for Hampden,” an old Borderer nearby says with the smug finality of somebody who has predicted the worst and been spot on. When Deuchar sends a shot sailing over the bar and clean out of the ground he groans loudly: “Dr Deuchar? He’s playing more like Dr Finlay.” You get the distinct impression that this is not the first time he has said it.

Suddenly, though, the mood alters. Across the terrace a group of young fans begin chanting “Come on Gretna”. Word has filtered through earpieces that Ayr have improbably taken the lead at Morton. The news reaches the players and they renew their efforts. The result is no prettier than before, but there is more huff and puff to it, a bit more aggression (“Rattle their bones, boys,” the old Scot bellows many times) and with their first shot on target – a powerful Steve Tosh drive from outside the area – they are level.

Gretna’s sugar daddy, Brooks Mileson, pony-tailed and smoking like an incinerator, passes back and forth along the terrace throughout the game like a busy spaniel quartering a field for shot partridge. Mileson comes from Sunderland but lives down the road near Longtown. He shares his country estate with a herd of prize-winning Highland cattle, over a hundred Shetland ponies and a vast menagerie of rescued animals, including a variety of monkeys and some capybara.

Looking after the abandoned and the forlorn seems to be Mileson’s mission in life. Apart from the animals he has also struck a deal to sponsor the Northern League more or less in perpetuity, pumped money into Whitby Town, given several hundred thousand pounds to Carlisle United’s supporters’ trust and handed out thousands more to other supporters’ trusts across England and Scotland. Last season when Gretna played Dundee he let everyone in for free and handed the profits from the catering outlets over to the visiting fans to help them rescue the club from debt. Anyone who has followed the game for any length of time will by now be thinking: “What’s the catch?” And justly so, because philanthropy and football have generally mixed together about as well as Marmite and Angel Delight. In this case, however, there really doesn’t appear to be an ulterior motive. Mileson is just a self-made millionaire who likes animals and grassroots football. And, shocking though it feels to say it, that seems to be it.

In the second-half Mileson continues to wander from one end of the ground to the other. On one scurry-past he says, “Ayr 2-0”, and thereafter you can chart his progress by the applause and yelling. “Championi, championi,” the boys behind the goal sing. Alloa are still making them wait for confirmation, though. Big Deuchar finally gets a header on target, but Alloa keeper Allan Creer, who has the build of a cartoon gorilla, pushes it away with clumsy athleticism. At the other end Stephenson continues to torment the Gretna backline, swerving in from the left to send in a shot that Main dives to tip round the post.

Then finally, after the man in the grey jacket has yelled “Suck his eyes out Big Kenny” several dozen times, Big Deuchar comes good. He gets his head to a ball and delivers a perfect knockdown for Tosh, who strikes from 20 yards out. Ayr go three and finally four up at Morton. Brooks Mileson quests hither and thither. Alloa continue to play the better football to no avail. The final whistle goes. The PA blasts out I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by the Proclaimers. The players return to the field to bounce up and down together in unison in the prescribed Champions League manner, while behind them the fans celebrate in the slightly self-conscious way of people in a crowd that isn’t quite big enough to guarantee anonymity. “I used to cut the grass on that pitch for silage at five shillings a time,” the man standing besides me remarks with a mix of wonder and wistfulness.

Gradually we all drift away, past pensioners waiting for the bus to Dumfries and ladies walking dogs. Back at Gretna’s one-platform station a bagpiper from Anvil Hall is standing waiting for the train back to Anan. He is about 16, wearing the official Gretna tartan, there’s a dirk in his sock and his pipes are stored in a polished leather case. Half-a-dozen Gretna ballboys turn up to join him and the group punch the air and chant “Championi, championi” for a few seconds before they are overcome with embarrassment and lapse into silence. Next year it could be Roma.

From WSC 231 May 2006. What was happening this month