Gretna F.C. – A Phoenix Not From the Flames?

Art by Onkar Shirsekar

The clichéd story of a football team financially hyper-extending itself, filing for bankruptcy, before re-modelling as a ‘Phoenix Club’ is not a particularly new or unique one. The battle-hardened fans of Bury, Scarborough and, perhaps most famously, Wimbledon are among a vast list of supporters who can testify to such a journey.

However, the romanticism attached to the rise, and subsequent crashing demise, of Gretna F.C. is somewhat different to the connotations attached to their fallen footballing comrades. For this tale is not one of crass, dismissive owners, hell-bent on financial exploitation and about as comfortable with the local landscape as a Bhoy in Govan. Nor is it a community having its soul and identity ripped out in exchange for a commercial bump (ala Milton Keynes Dons or rather Wimbledon F.C, depending on your persuasion – RIP).

This is the uplifting, feel-good story of how a maverick man, a football man, as generous as they come, thrust a club from ‘one man and his dog watching’ territory to the continent’s second most prestigious competition. From rubbing shoulders with Montrose & Elgin to beating a previous UEFA cup finalist in Dundee United. From the ‘modest’ grounds of the Scottish Third Division (said with a heavy dose of footballing cordiality) to the famous terraces of Hampden Park.

Unlike other similar entrants into footballing folklore, this tale emphasises the good times over the bad. The failure was a by-product, simply an outcome, a tolerable conclusion to one of the most meteoric rises that football, on these shores at least, had ever had the pleasure of witnessing. True, Leeds United fans may well reminisce about their Champions League semi-final appearance with an exciting squad valued in the hundreds of millions and a young, ambitious manager at the helm destined for greatness (whatever did actually happen to David O’Leary?), but, alas, these stories are usually usurped when the discussion turns to Peter Ridsdale’s fish tank expenses, or Seth Johnson’s ludicrous contractual negotiation (the equivalent of going into a dealership hoping for a Ford Fiesta, and walking out with Lamborghini Aventador – had to google that, cars are not a strongpoint). It’s not exactly a nostalgic reflection, rather a series of tormented flashbacks.

The rise and fall of Gretna F.C. looks different, feels different, and, critically, is different to those that go before.

Is it the fact that there are very few similar examples in Scotland? The relative financial ‘stability’ of Scottish football—the phrase  “half of nothing, is nothing” comes to mind—perhaps perpetuates more sanity when it comes to transfer dealings and infrastructure investment. The Clydebank/Airdrieonians debacle (still not 100% sure I understand what actually went on there) was still fresh in the memory, but the rather soap-style drama of ‘The Rangers’ was yet to come, although at the time they were probably already racking up bills for face-painters and the like.

No, this is different for one main reason—the lead character in this production is perhaps the most genuine disciple of the football romance gods that ever lived. I mean, he literally got club staff to hand out stems of roses to fans when a match clashed with Valentine’s Day.

So, who was this movie star? This individual who differed so substantially from the typical cash-rich and common-sense poor football investor, who has no apparent awareness of what the game means to its fans and local community?

The maverick football man

Brooks Mileson (or Miles Brookson, as my Father used to call him – a mistake which apparently permeated through the vocabulary of many a lower-league football fan in the early noughties) was a working-class, salt-of-the-earth character from humble beginnings. Brought up on the notorious Pennywell estate in Sunderland, a neighbourhood with unemployment rates at double the national average and regular criminal activity, Mileson was familiar with hardship and struggle. He set about the construction industry (and later insurance sector) with vigour and ambition, eventually establishing his own firm, and having influence in multiple businesses across the North. He accumulated wealth quickly, and became MD of Arnott Insurance conglomerate. 

Critically, this is where the pathway differs. Or at least paved with a decidedly more modest material than gold. Mileson began to fund football supporters’ groups who were disillusioned by their owners and desperate for a stake in their beloved club. He donated money to the Northern Premier League, invested in grassroots football, keen to keep the game accessible to the masses. This was not a foreign business racketeer, looking to squeeze commercial gain at the expense of community or fan. This was a football purist, keen to harness the good in sport, and encourage causes that secured the future integrity of the game. His kindness was not limited to a footballing context however; he gave generously to various charities, perhaps most proactively to animal welfare groups. His own home even doubled-up as an animal sanctuary, and he famously nipped back to ‘feed the llamas’ during one title-party celebration. 

After flirting with investment in a number of clubs—he was infamously rebuffed by Carlisle United, who had assumingly been put off by eccentric investors after the nightmarish episode of Michael Knighton & co.—he settled on Gretna F.C, a team fresh from crossing the border to ply their trade in a different country, albeit their native land. With an assault on the Scottish Football leagues in waiting, it was an attractive proposition, and, in many ways, a fertile ground for an ambitious, prospective owner.

Mileson’s maverick nature permeated the financial structures of the club. Every transaction authorised and paid for by the owner, regardless of cost or significance. A model that was perhaps destined to burn out, but nevertheless gave seemingly endless bounty to those running the club.

It was fun while it lasted.

The good times

Marquee signings were made. Players with top league experience attracted to a tiny border town; the lure of lucrative salaries and the fresh intrigue of a club candid in their lofty aspirations too much to resist. David Holdsworth, a man with Premier League appearances under his belt (although in all honesty dwarfed by his brother Dean’s exploits), travelled northwards to bolster the playing roster. Danny Lennon, who previously turned out for some of Scotland’s most recognisable clubs (Hibernian, Partick Thistle et al.) added guile to the midfield. The heroic scorer of Gretna’s final day promotion goal, the winner that assured their SPL status, was no less than much-travelled striker James Grady, who plied his trade with both clubs across the Dundee divide, amongst others.

European football came (and quite quickly went). A sensational 2006 Cup run saw Gretna conquer four First Division teams (pre-‘Championship’ days) enroute to the final (including an impressive 3-0 semi-final victory over Dundee), and become the first third-tier side in history to appear in a Scottish Cup final; a date at Hampden awaited. An extraordinary feat, regardless of financial backing. 

The final proved a step too far, with Heart of Midlothian, who incidentally trumped Rangers to a second-placed league finish, lifting the cup after a dramatic penalty shoot-out. However, European football was assured via the back door—Hearts’ strong league campaign had already guaranteed a Champions League place—therefore the UEFA Cup slot ring-fenced for domestic cup winners defaulted to Gretna. The fairy tale was set to continue on the continent.

Their qualifying opponents were perhaps a little less exotic than desired, but, somehow, a team who had been playing the likes of Ossett Town and Radcliffe Borough in the Northern League First Division (and finishing 7th by the way), were now competing in a tournament boasting genuine European heavyweights: Sevilla, Bayer Leverkusen and Ajax to name a few. The 2007 final was scheduled for Hampden—could the dream go full circle? In a nutshell, no. Definitely not.

They were ceremoniously eliminated in the second qualifying round (skipped 1st qualifying due to Scotland’s coefficient) by Derry City. A mid-week trip to Ulster on the back of a 5-1 home drubbing was not exactly the European blockbuster to complement their domestic heroics. So, limited progression to go along with limited air miles clocked.

But, better times to come, right? Wrong.

The ebb and fall

Their lacklustre European jaunt signalled the beginning of the end rather than a continuation of the romance enjoyed to date. After a strong start to their First Division campaign, Gretna’s form mysteriously ebbed away amidst rumblings of financial concern. This was further exacerbated by the (temporary) ousting of manager Rowan Alexander; health problems were cited as reason for departure, but this apparent illness was a mystery to Alexander himself. Indeed, by the time Grady pounced to notch the last-minute winner on the final day, it had rather spared Gretna’s blushes; their commanding points lead had been seriously reduced by chasers St. Johnstone.

Their sole SPL season was riddled with crises both on and off the pitch.

Mileson’s ill health, coupled with a reluctance in sustaining the unprecedented investment required, spelt grave danger. Financial uncertainty created anxiety, further compounded by a management merry-go-round. Confusion reigned supreme as the role seemed to interchange between Rowan Alexander and Assistant Manager Davie Irons; the latter formally took the hot seat in November. However, by this stage, the die was cast. Administration loomed at the turn of the year. Mileson’s financial commitment had long dried up. Through the spring, the club resembled a wounded animal limping towards its inevitable fate. By the summer of 2008, it was put out of its misery. Administrators resolved to liquidate the club on August 8, and Gretna F.C, the club that went from rags to riches, and then back to rags again, was no more.

And yet, despite this cruel ending to a rather odd fairy tale, bitterness does not encircle this small town, tucked away in the depths of the Scottish Lowlands. Those involved reflect fondly on their moment in the sun, rather than the darkness that descended in an abrupt finale. After all, this tiny club can boast higher recent peaks than some of Scotland’s established cartel. Now, regenerated under the rather exotic name of Gretna 2008 (perhaps more suited to a settlement in the rolling Italian Alps than a Scottish village famed for youthful elopement), the team embarks on its latest chapter, as a founding member of the fledgling Lowland League. Despite their relative weight as a club ultimately emerging from good history and stock, they’ve so far only managed to toil to a league best 4th in their new surroundings; one can only assume this will improve as the club continues to form its new identity and infrastructure. Mind you, who knew they would be back round to playing Celtic and Rangers so quickly. 

As referenced, the ‘re-emergent club’ model is all too familiar within the modern game, but perhaps this is a little more Phoenix from the heavens, than Phoenix from the flames.

Ryan Murray

With a lifelong association to football, Ryan Murray has embraced the beautiful game in all guises; as a player, spectator, and now writer. Specializing in the daily soap dramas & cultural nuances that perfectly characterize the chaos of the Scottish game, you can often find him scrolling through endless reams of information about his beloved football club (which will remain unnamed), or alternatively researching a particular bizarre or intriguing (well, at least he finds it so) episode from some distant corner of the footballing world. He resides in Leeds, but appears more often at seventh tier grounds around the urban sprawls of West Yorkshire than at Elland Road - it just feels more like football. He lives with his fiancée and sausage dog, both of whom now support the right club.