Wednesday, 4 March 2015

JE NE GRETNA RIEN


When I moved back to the North East in 1991 Gretna were playing in the Northern League (they'd joined from the Carlisle and District in 1982). They won the NL title in 1991 and 1992 and took promotion up the pyramid to the Northern Premier League. In 2002 Gretna were elected to the Scottish League. Shortly after that Brooks Mileson the club over.

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

 
Gretna v Alloa Athletic

Scottish League Division Two

Raydale Park, Gretna

25th March 2006

 

Some things stay embedded in the British consciousness long after history has moved on. “Eloping are you?” The man in the station ticket office says when I ask for a return to Gretna Green. Though illicit marriages went out half-a-century ago, Gretna’s reputation as the destination of choice for runaway lovers is as strong now as it was during the Nineteenth Century when thousands of couples, fleeing the rigid nuptial laws of England, escaped across the border to wed.

The blacksmith’s shop – where many marriages took place - is still there, but these days more people go to Gretna for the designer shopping village than to pledge lifelong love. 

Not that retail has entirely replaced romance. On a cold winter afternoon I walk down Gretna’s blustery main street behind a phalanx of ballboys in identical black and red tracksuits, we pass the memorial to those killed when Nazi bombs fell on the little town in 1941 and a “Good Luck Gretna” display in the window of a local insurance company. There are bagpipes 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 to turn right at the traffic lights next to the Chinese Takeaway. Around the corner at Raydale Park, meanwhile, the local football club seems determined to suck unwary reporters into a maelstrom of honeymoon/ love affair puns.

The first time I saw Gretna, they were playing at Willington in County Durham in front of nineteen 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 two results away from a place in the Uefa Cup. In a week from now Gretna will travel to Hampden to take on Dundee United in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. A win, coupled with Heart of Midlothian making it through to the final will guarantee this tiny club a place in Europe.

Not that the physical surroundings at Raydale have changed much since the Northern League days. The gentlemen’s lavatory still has a corrugated roof and air conditioning supplied by gaps in the breezeblock walls, the changing rooms look like an pensioner’s bungalow, the hospitality suite is a wooden hut and the perimeter advertising comes courtesy of the local bakers and a discount food store. The legion of ballboys, meanwhile, is 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. AS Roma or Paris St Germain could be here next season. The plutocrats of G14 must be ringing their beautifully manicured hands in despair.


 

That is for next week, though. Today Gretna have domestic business to attend. If they can beat visiting Alloa Athletic while nearest rivals Morton slip-up at home to Ayr United then a second successive Scottish divisional title will be theirs. Europe or not, next season they’ll be playing Airdrie, Dundee and Hamilton Academicals – quite a step up from matches in north-east England against Shotton Comrades and Eppleton Colliery Welfare.

As a consequence, Raydale Park is en fete. 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 the Cockney Rebel hit Come Up and See Me (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 twelve-year-old cheerleaders are scampering about excitedly with their black-and-white pom-poms fastened to their wrists 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, Carlisle 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 in the ground 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 Scottish Borders, a part of the Britain where Carlisle (pop 85,000) is the great metropolis and places like Melrose and Hexham are major conurbations despite having populations that struggle to make five figures. At Raydale Park 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. This is a rural area, you see, 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 Scottish Premier League regulations decree that 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 amongst the home support. Victory for Ayr United may be out of Gretna’s hands, but a win here seems assured, Visitors Alloa Athletic are bottom, over 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 (Alloa’s nickname – in honour of their black-and-yellow hooped shirts) winning today, which in betting 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 ninety-minute mugging.

 

And so, perhaps not unsurprisingly given all that build-up, Alloa are a goal up 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 of Gretna is Scottish Division Two’s leading scorer and also a doctor, the sort of combination that’s a bit more of rarity these days than it was in the Edwardian era. Big Deuchar is indeed big - he makes Conan the Barbarian 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 goal-scoring records into little pieces, but today his legs seem to be all shin from the toe upwards, and the ball bounces randomly off 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 Firth, 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 standing near me says with the smug finality of somebody who has predicted the worst and got it exactly right. 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 Evil!”

Suddenly though the mood alters. Across the terrace a group of young Gretna fans begin chanting, “Come on Gretna/ Come on Gretna”. Word has filtered through earpieces that Ayr United 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 – Gretna are level.

Gretna’s sugar daddy is multi-millionaire Brooks Mileson, a man who has done for The Borderers what Roman Abramovic has done for Chelsea, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. Pony-tailed and smoking like a Soviet powerstation, Mileson shuffles back and forth along the terrace throughout the game like a busy spaniel hunting a field for partridge. Gretna’s owner comes from Sunderland in north-east England, but lives on a large country estate just down the road from Raydale Park. He shares his his land 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 English Northern League more or less in perpetuity, pumped money into Whitby Town, given several hundred thousand pounds to Carlisle United supporters club and handed out thousands more to other supporters clubs 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 their team from debt. Anyone who has followed the game for any length of time will by now be thinking, “What’s the catch?” In this case, however, there really doesn’t appear to be an ulterior motive. Mileson is just a wealthy self-made man who likes animals and minor league football. And that - shocking though it feels to say it - is that.

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. “Campioni, Campioni,” 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 knock down for Tosh who strikes from twenty metres out to put Gretna in front. 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 hay at five shillings a time,” the man standing besides me remarks with a mix of wonder and wistfulness.

Gradually we drift away from the scenes of celebration, past pensioners waiting for the bus to Dumfries and ladies walking dogs. Back at Gretna’s one platform railway station a bagpiper from Anvil Hall is standing waiting for the train back to Anan. He is sixteen, wearing the official Gretna tartan, there’s a Scots dagger 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 “Campioni, Campioni” for a few seconds before they are overcome with embarrassment and lapse into silence. Next year Lazio might be coming.




POSTSCRIPT

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.

 

    

 

3 comments:

  1. A poignant piece Harry and great read. Amazing how 'officialdom' can kill an over-achieving club off. That 80 miles would be like Boro playing at Leeds. No, don't even go there.

    All the best,

    John

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, John. There seem to be all sorts of fairly arbitrary ground restrictions in football. I often wonder why it is safe to stand at Carlisle or Hartlepool, but too dangerous to do the same thing in the Premier League.

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    2. ...and why are Blackpool are allowed to have a pitch suitable for growing potatoes?

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