Brooks Mileson was a self-made millionaire from Sunderland's Pennywell estate who more or less defined the term eccentric: chain-smoking, scruffy, living on a farm up by Longtown he'd turned into an animal sanctuary. That he loved football is beyond question. Mileson gave thousands of pounds to supporters trusts at various clubs in England and Scotland and his generous eleven year, £500,000 sponsorship of the Northern League (the original £35,000 agreement drawn up on the back of a fag packet) helped preserve it.
One year - probably 2005, my memory is hazy - Brooks gave me a lift to the Northern League Annual Dinner at Ramside Hall, picking me up from my house in his Jaguar and dropping me off on his way home. I spent around four hours with him chatting about his life, how he had made his money (a whole raft of things from property via insuring rental cars in Northern Ireland to the importation of branded sportswear from the Far East), donkeys, llamas, the Scottish FA (whose arbitrary rules on minimum ticket prices had lead him to give free pies to visiting fans) and his fruitless attempt to buy Carlisle United (Mileson alleged that then owner Michael Knighton - hardly a stranger to eccentricity himself - had been unwilling to show the club's books to his accountants. 'He wanted me to buy a pig in a poke'.) He was engaging company, without a hint of that strain of self-satisfaction that so often comes with success. Brooks had a pony-tail and the dress sense and demeanour of someone who might turn up on Rock Family Trees talking about his time playing rhythm guitar in Brinsley Schwartz. He despised all the right people. I liked him, and I've not met many in the North East who didn't.
Here's a WSC Match of the Month feature on the then still rising, Mileson-inspired, Gretna
Shortly after I'd written this piece Gretna defeated Dundee United to get to the Scottish Cup final. They lost narrowly and unluckily to Heart of Midlothian at Hampden Park in front of an 80,000 crowd. The following season they did play in the Uefa Cup. There was to be no glamorous meeting with an Italian, Spanish or French giant, however. Instead they drew Derry City from the League of Ireland in the qualifying round and were comfortably beaten.
In the Scottish First Division Gretna proved just as successful as they had been in the second and third divisions, winning the title with several weeks of the season still to spare. Brooks Mileson told me at the time that playing in the Scottish Premier League against the likes of Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers was his dream. Sadly when the opportunity came it proved to be more of a nightmare. The Scottish Football Association would not let Gretna play their home matches at Raydale Park because it was deemed unfit to host games at so exalted a level. Instead they had to play 80 miles away at Clyde. On the field the step up to the next level proved to be too much for the players and coaches. Gretna were heavily defeated in practically every match they played. Midway through the season Mileson, never a well man, was taken seriously ill. Without him at the helm his business empire rapidly began to unravel. Three months later, with players’ wages unpaid, Gretna FC were officially declared bankrupt.
Reformed by a loyal group of supporters, Gretna took up a place in the first division of the East of Scotland League, the lowest level of organised football in Scotland. They are now back at Raydale Park, playing in front of a few hundred fans.
Brooks Mileson died of a heart attack in November 2008.