History is unkind to the losers, and never more so than in league football. The…
It was the 94th minute. The Gretna faithful couldn’t believe it. Despite leading the First Division by 12 points at one stage, here they were on the final day of the season needing a win to gain a third promotion in as many seasons. Ross County, themselves fighting for survival, had levelled the scores and looked set to hold out for a 2-2 draw that would keep them in the division. Both clubs, it seemed, were going nowhere.
But it didn’t end that way. James Grady broke free of the County defence, and the ex-Dundee United striker poked the ball home in the game’s dying moments. The Gretna players sprinted towards Grady, the fans celebrated manically. The County players sunk to their knees, with the sort of deflation only last-gasp relegation can bring. There couldn’t have been a greater disparity between the two sides’ reaction to the historic goal – and it would prove to be historic.
In just three seasons, Gretna had risen all the way to the SPL from the depths of the Third Division. No other team has climbed the league pyramid so quickly – even Rangers were unable to gain three back-to-back promotions. And here were Gretna, only in the Scottish leagues for five seasons, creating history in the most dramatic fashion.
It was a remarkable and seemingly unstoppable rise. In the 2004/05 campaign, Gretna won the Third Division with a record points tally. The previous season, in 2005/06, the Borders club reached the Scottish Cup final and were only denied their first major silverware by the lottery of a penalty shootout after drawing 1-1 with Hearts after extra time.
In the end, the win over County would prove to be the club’s high-water mark. In a year’s time the club would cease to exist. Many players would leave, some unpaid in months. Gretna would finish dead last in the SPL, their impossible dream in ruins. The wheels fell off before the campaign began and they finished the 2007/08 season with just thirteen points, after accruing a ten-point deduction.
Nowadays, Gretna serve as a stark reminder for how not to run a Scottish football club. Gretna were bankrolled by the eccentric Brooks Mileson – the millionaire ploughed money into the provincial club, determined to see them compete in Scotland’s top tier. It proved to be an unsustainable business model. Not long after Gretna had secured promotion to the SPL, Mileson fell gravely ill and withdrew his funding. The club collapsed under the financial burden, was booted out the SPFL and eventually reformed in the lower leagues.
But what if Mileson had remained in good health? What if the investment kept coming? Could Gretna have established themselves in Scotland’s top tier?
Going into the 2007/08 campaign, Gretna’s first in the top flight, the Anvils had the makings of a good squad. Chris Innes, Danny Grainger and Martin Canning led the defence, James Grady and Colin McMenamin provided the goals in attack and the Gretna midfield even featured a young Abdul Osman, plying his trade in Scotland for the first time. Gretna also had the services of Kenny Deuchar – ‘The Good Doctor’, as Jeff Stelling called him – who was a practicing doctor, but who also happened to be handy in front of goal. In 78 appearances over the previous three seasons, Deuchar had found the net on 57 occasions.
Mileson happened to be a big believer in investing in youth and financed the Gretna youth academy, to his credit. However, first team opportunities were hard to come by – the club’s policy of signing established professionals on expensive contracts guaranteed them priority. Players weren’t given time to settle in to the team or gain experience in the lower leagues – to feature, players had to hit the ground running.
The squad was decent then but the competition in the SPL was fierce, too. Gordon Strachan would lead Celtic into the last sixteen of the Champions League for the first time in 2007/08 while at Ibrox, Walter Smith led a resurgent Rangers to the UEFA Cup final in Manchester. The Old Firm duopoly was arguably at its peak – it’s difficult to envisage any club, never mind Gretna, breaking into the top two and seriously troubling them.
Aberdeen, too, were enjoying success in Europe and were a force to be reckoned with. In 2007/08, the Dons reached the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup where they managed a 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich with a side featuring the likes of Scott Severin, Barry Nicholson and Steve Lovell. But even Aberdeen were pipped to third place by Mark McGhee’s Motherwell, who finished the season by qualifying for Europe for the first time in thirteen years. European qualifying would have been a big ask of Gretna, in the short term at least.
Further down the league table, however, Gretna could have made an impression had Mileson’s millions kept pouring in. Hearts had already peaked under Vladimir Romanov’s ownership and had begun to slide down the league and Hibs would languish around mid-table for the next few seasons. Dundee United were regular contenders for the top four around this time, but lacked the consistency to break away from the chasing pack.
Aberdeen and Motherwell would fail to maintain their success in the coming years, leaving a potential gap for a club to fill in third place in the SPL and UEFA Cup qualification that came with it. Gretna’s business model was always unsustainable but if they had any hope of reducing their losses or balancing the books, then regular European qualification was a must. It might have taken them a year or two to get there and cement their position, but if Mileson continued to invest in the club then the opportunity for establishment would have presented itself.
The geographical reality of Gretna meant that the club would never be able to rely on gate receipts as a significant form of revenue. Raydale Park had a capacity of 3,000, which meant it fell short of the SPL’s minimum mandatory capacity of 6,000. This meant that in Gretna’s maiden SPL campaign they were forced to play their home fixtures at Fir Park. Plans were made to expand Raydale Park to bring it line with top-flight regulations, but attendances were never going to increase anyway. During the 2007/08 season, Gretna averaged just 2,637 spectators each home game.
When they reached the Scottish Cup final in 2006 Gretna managed to bring 12,000 fans with them, but it’s important to note that a large number of these were football fans of other clubs in Dumfries and Galloway or simply neutrals caught up in the romance of a cup run. This figure is the absolute maximum reach of the cub and even then, only a minority could be expected to return to matches regularly. Building a fanbase would have been a huge hurdle for Gretna to overcome, given the town’s location and population.
The only way Gretna could have maintained their meteoric rise was through regular investment through Mileson. It would have taken years to balance the books, even if they repeatedly finished in third and continually negotiated the UEFA Cup qualifiers – and that’s a big ‘if’. After his death, it was revealed that Mileson himself was buried in debt. In any scenario, it’s hard to see how the club could have avoided liquidation.
Gretna now serve as a textbook example of Scottish football at its reckless worst, a club living beyond its means with little regard for its own long-term wellbeing. The fans enjoyed a thrilling rise to the top of Scottish football but it came with the price of liquidation and expulsion. Some will say it was worth it and others will disagree, but there’s no denying that Gretna are in a worse position now than they were before Mileson’s adventure.