Classic Teams: Gretna – Three consecutive promotions, Scottish Cup Final, Europe and going bust

By Lewis Michie

Classic Teams - Gretna.jpg

Gretna are an interesting case to say the least, a team that seemingly appeared in the spotlight of Scottish football as quickly as exited. The investment of a chairman who would pass away shortly after the club dissolved would carry this tiny team into the record books. The lowest cumulative points tally for any team in  SPL history, the only team to win three consecutive league promotions and  they were involved in the lowest attended top flight game ever.

We asked Scottish Football fans over on Reddit’s R/ScottishFootball for their memories of the club, which you can find throughout this article:

You can read the whole thread here: Reddit: Memories of Gretna FC

You say Gretna and two things come to mind, marriage and a hell of a football story. To properly examine the Gretna Football club story, we need to go back to before they were even a Scottish club – or at least before they became a Scottish club once again, having initially been one, before moving south.

Between 1987 and 2002, Gretna would play in England, first in the Northern Football League and then later spending ten seasons in the Northern Premier League.

On multiple occasions while playing in the Northern Premier League in England, Gretna would apply to join what we now know collectively as the SPFL. It wasn’t until the 02-03 season where their bid was accepted, which might have been helped by the fact they actually managed to beat a relatively strong Rangers side in a benefit match for victims and family of victims of the Lockerbie bombing.

Gretna would replace Airdrieonians in the league system – at least technically – as Clydebank would be bought over and turned into Airdrie United and then eventually becoming Airdrieonians again in 2013.

Things started rather quietly for Gretna in the grand scheme of things, they’d initially spend three seasons in Division Three – this iteration of the club would never spent longer than a season in a division again.

Things were obviously going well for Gretna early on as they proved their invite to the Scottish system was warranted. They’d finish sixth in their first season, third the next and then be promoted as Champions in their third and final season in the third tier.

The season Gretna finished third – 03/04 – they’d finish nine points off of second placed Stirling Albion. At this point, teams finishing first and second were automatically promoted, with no play-off system in place.

The season Gretna were promoted they’d finish with an incredible 98 points – 20 points ahead of Peterhead in second place and they’d score 130 goals in that single season.

The top goal scorer for the whole league was Gretna’s Kenny Deuchar as he scored 38 times, with his teammate David Bingham finishing second top with 27.

Play-offs would be introduced the following season but Gretna wouldn’t need them as the 05-06 season potentially became their greatest ever, they’d be promoted to Division One (The Championship) 18 points clear of second placed Morton, this time scoring 97 times, with Deuchar netting 18 this time.

The biggest story of the season however was most certainly their appearance in the Scottish Cup final. Not only was it incredible to see a side in the third tier of Scottish football make it to a final, they’d push their Premiership opponents – Hearts – all the way, only eventually losing the match on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

Read all about that Heart’s team in our previous ‘Classic Teams’ article:

Classic Teams: Hearts 05/06 – Mad Vlad, Scottish Cup and the Lithuanian National Team

By virtue of making it to the final, and their opponents Hearts having already qualified for Europe – Gretna would go into the UEFA Cup qualifying the following season – as a Championship (Or First Division) side.

The club would enter the third round of qualifying, facing Irish side Derry City. A 5-1 home defeat in the first leg – where Derry would score a few crackers – all but ended the tie, a 2-2 draw over in Ireland was pretty impressive but obviously not nearly enough to save Gretna’s soul European campaign.

The season in the First Division is when the drama around Gretna really began. Before this there of course had been a degree of drama, with two consecutive promotions and a Scottish Cup final being pretty out of the ordinary, but it still fell into the category of being somewhat reasonable – even though it clearly came from large investment.

Gretna would complete their third and final promotion, reaching the dizzy heights of the top tier of Scotland – but it certainly wasn’t as easy this time. Colin McMenamin did finish top goal scorer with 24 (Unfortunately Deuchar would only score once, playing just eight times before a loan to Northampton for the remainder of the season.)

Gretna had begun the season in the second tier exactly the way they’d left off, dominating. They at one point were 12 points clear at the top, looking certain for another promotion. However, manager Rowan Alexander was forced to step down in March of 2007 – they’d been on a run of one win, one draw and three loses in just over a month after the first game of March.

This was odd, not just because of the apparent lack of loyalty shown to Alexander, but also the fact he’d just signed a five year deal and that claims were made by the club that the gaffer was ill, which was disputed further down the line.

Davie Irons had been Alexander’s assistant, and he was tasked with seeing the season out, but almost cost the club that lucrative third promotion. Irons won two and drew a third of his first three games but in the month of April, in approach to the final day against Ross County, he’d see the side not win a single game – drawing three and losing to St Johnstone, the other side challenging for the title.

Things would of course play out in the most dramatic fashion possible. After St Johnstone had won their game, Gretna needed a win to gain promotion/the title – no play-offs for the top tier in these days – and a late winner in Dingwall secured the jump to the SPL.

Things would continue to go a bit crazy for Gretna even with their promotion. For a start, they couldn’t play at their home ground – similarly to the European game the season previous – so they’d play at Fir Park.

Alexander was never properly sacked until November – he tried to turn up to the club’s first game of the SPL season and was refused entry.

The writing had clearly been on the wall for quite some time – things were going pear shaped, and this was just the tip of the iceberg. Many had speculated that the model Gretna operated under  – was not sustainable, well those people were right.

Gretna’s on the pitch fortunes weren’t all that great, their first point came in the third game away at Tynecastle against Hearts – because of course it did – and they’d then lose another three games in a row. They’d then win their first SPL game at the tail end of September, beating Dundee United 3-2 at Fir Park.

Gretna would only ever put together another four top flight wins – including one against Dundee United and another on the final day against Hearts, in this iteration of the club’s final game ever (United and Hearts must have really hated these guys).

The 13 points Gretna put together was a record low, and even had the 10 point deduction they had enforced not have been applied, they’d still have been 13 points behind 11th placed Kilmarnock.

So that’s how things were going on the pitch – and off the pitch was far uglier.

Relegation wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world, the club could have attempted to rebuild in the First Division, but the club had racked up four million pounds worth of debts and it’s doubtful that had Brooks Mileson continued to invest (He pulled out after falling ill and would pass away towards the end of 2008) that the club would have continued much further.

Even had Mileson continued to invest, his money was running out, mistakes had been made long ago that had sealed the club’s fate, Mileson didn’t have the funds to revive Gretna and no one of their right mind would throw their own money in to help to a club that simply would not sustain itself.

First of all, after their relegation, the club were demoted a further two divisions back to the third division. Doing so wouldn’t have been a complete disaster, again they could have potentially re-built and would be at level they could realistically exist in.

It was not to be, the club couldn’t pull itself out of the hole it found itself in and ended up withdrawing from the SPFL altogether and was dissolved. A phoenix club was created by a supporters group – Gretna 2008 – and was accepted into the East of Scotland league, latterly becoming founding members of the Lowland League, where they still play.

Initially the new club was forced to play in Annan – a bit of an insult to injury considering it was Annan Athletic who replaced Gretna in the SPFL – but would then move back into their original Raydale Park home in 2011.

Brooks Mileson

An English business man, Mileson had invested in/made donations to many football clubs and fan trusts.

Mileson was apparently heavily in debt towards the end of his time at Gretna and was reported to be overdrawn in his account by almost half a million pounds – he was declared bankrupt after his death as an other businessmen went after his estate for money he owed.

Reddit had plenty of thoughts to share of Mileson, who was clearly one of the lasting memories from Gretna’s story.

SoyeWill said:

I liked the guy in charge of it all, he seemed like a mad c**t who was spending his fortune the way I’d spend my fortune. Lucozade and an unsustainable real-life FM charge to the top”

Psyprus_Sun shared one of the better memories of Mileson’s time in charge, saying:

Went to one of the home games for my birthday and was given the VIP treatment by Brooks Mileson showing us round the stadium, met all the players, was given a signed top and football, as well as getting on the pitch at half time with Kenny Deuchar. They went over and above to give us a class hospitality and I genuinely became a fan of the club so I was pretty gutted when they went bust.”

DiscountAccountant gave insight into the man Mileson was, saying:

Brooks Mileson the chairman at the time was a notorious chain smoker. He used to have a weekly column in either the Sun or the Record where he wrote about Gretna and every week he would detail the amount of fags he smoked that week and it was always some astronomical figure like 600 odd, the guy smoked about 80 a day.”

Mileson’s death ended up being rather gruesome – he’d been ill for a few years before his death (Related to all that smoking, apparently), but it was at least partly unrelated. In November of 2008, Mileson suffered a heart attack at his home, falling into a garden pond.

He’d day at the hospital later that day.

Where are they now

Articles such as this one typically become a chance to look back not only at the club itself, but looking past the timeline focused on and seeing where players went on to play, managers went on to manage and what they’re doing now.

Kenny Deuchar

The striker became one of the stick out stories of Gretna after scoring so many goals, and because he was a practicing doctor. The big striker would play for the likes of Real Salt Lake, Hamilton Academical and St Johnstone. After signing for Livingston and being loaned out to Stenhousemuir in 2012, it looked as though Deuchar’s career was over. However in 2014 he’d return for nine games at Arbroath, scoring twice.

Greg Fleming

The goalkeeper began his pro career with Gretna after coming through the youth ranks at Livingston, he’d move south to England after the club’s demise, playing for the likes of Oldham, Chesterfield and Grimsby Town inbetween a spell with Galway United  in Ireland, before returning to Scotland with Stenhousemuir in 2014. He’s now 32 and still the number one choice at Peterhead.

Abdul Osman

The Ghanaian midfielder moved to the club after beginning his career in England, and after returning to England with Northampton and Crewe Alexandra – with a stint in Greece in the middle – Osman would return to Scotland with Partick Thistle which would become the club he’d make his most appearances with. Last seen playing for Falkirk, Osman was accused by many Bairns supporters of caring more about his fashion label than his game time, which might explain why he’s currently without a club.

Gavin Skelton

Skelton would make 200 overall appearances for Gretna, after beginning his career in England. He’d be picked up by Kilmarnock following Gretna’s liquidation, before embarking on a travel round several English and Scottish clubs after two seasons at Rugby Park. Skelton was a player-assistant at Queen of the South before then ending his playing career with Annan Athletic. He’s now assistant manager at Carlisle United – assisting former Scotland international Steven Pressley.

Rowan Alexander

The manager who was officially dismissed about nine months after his last game managing for the club and that would effectively end his managerial career in a professional sense. Alexander claimed to be unable to recover the compensation he should have been owed by the club.

He returned to the dugout in January 2010, taking over the reins Junior club Glenafton Athletic – he would only last until August.

Davie Irons

Alexander’s former assistant, Irons took over from his former gaffer in the SPL season and would effectively be Gretna’s, at least as they were then known, last manager.

Following the club’s demotion, Irons was given several opportunities to manage, including with Greenock Morton the following season, Stenhousemuir and a stint as caretaker of Carlisle United in 2013.

Irons returned to the new iteration of the club in 2017, taking over at Gretna 2008 – he’d leave the club, along with co-manager Andy Aitken just over a year later.

Iron’s daughter Amy currently presents the sports bulletin on BBC Scotland’s ‘The Nine’.

The Supporters Thoughts

Here’s what supporters of various Scottish club’s over on Reddit remembered best about Gretna’s run.

Dheidshot:

On Fifa, I once beat 2-0 a guy who ninja-picked Brazil after I picked Gretna. The abuse I got from him was GLORIOUS.”

Saltire_Blue:

Cheating lying c**ts, It was a disgrace the SPL allowed them into the top division when other clubs had been denied promotion

Mind the nonsense about them building a “echo stadium” “

Documental38:

Grew up in the borders near Gretna and was in secondary school when they rocketed up the leagues.

I didn’t really like them because all of a sudden everyone in my school was a diehard Gretna fan when they’d been Rangers or Man Utd fans like five minutes when they got into the Premier League.

Also we used to have a fun kickabout sometimes on a Friday night and then Rowan Alexander, around two years after they went bust, showed up one night to take charge and sucked the fun right f**king out of it so I never went back.”

Lil_Hulkster:

The local team I played in as a kid (miles away from Gretna) being asked to play in place of their youth team against Falkirk pro youth or something, since Gretna basically didn’t have a youth team and we were alright. 3/4 of my team then being signed up for them at pro youth level, with a select couple having now gone onto actually play in the top few leagues. Madness.”

The Club’s Legacy

Of course, the whole story of Gretna is an interesting one to look back on, but what it also does is present a warning for the dangers of pushing a club too far beyond its limits.

Gretna was a club that could have had an enjoyable existence in the likes of what is now League Two and One, potentially eventually building up a more self-sustaining  system that would maybe allow them to progress further without putting the club into a existence it simply could not manage within.

The investment of some other clubs in Scotland does start to bring up claims of “they’re the new Gretna”. Cove Rangers, just promoted from the Highland League to League Two – and looking like potential winners – have often had this aimed at them recently.

Although Cove’s reliance of various loan deals and the fact that Aberdeen clearly has had an opening for a secondary club for a long time might show that to be slightly badly aimed.

Some of the recent spending of Lowland League clubs could be something to be worried about however. Several clubs in that division – such as Kelty Hearts and East Stirlingshire –have spent big this summer, both recruiting players from the Championship. The issue with this type of investment is that only one club can possibly be promoted to the SPFL from the Lowland league in a season – and that hasn’t even happened since Edinburgh City’s promotion – the only time in actual fact.

This could lead to any of these clubs either being ditched in a season or two by their investors when things haven’t worked out – it simply cannot for all of them – or some investors doubling down on their money investment, further heightening the threat of disaster.

Time will tell if this will be an issue, but Gretna is a decent reminder to anyone putting silly money into a football club that it could end up terribly.

 

 

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