Gretna FC – a romantic ride to the top
Gretna is a Scottish village of only 2,500 people and one of the most popular wedding venues in the world, but it is now also making a name for itself in football. Five years ago, Gretna FC were eking out an existence in non-league football in England. Now they are the new kids on the block in Scotland’s Premier League.
For centuries Gretna Green has been famous for romance. Ever since Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was passed in England in 1754, forbidding persons under the age of 21 to marry without their parents’ consent, young lovers have eloped to this tiny Scottish village just one mile north of the English border in order to wed.
Today, Gretna Green is the second most popular tourist destination in Scotland and it remains one of the most popular wedding venues in the world. Thousands of couples from around the globe flock here annually to be married.
Now, however, there is competition in the romance stakes because just down the road from Gretna Green, in the nearby town of Gretna (population: 2,500), the local football club recently made history by reaching the Clydestale Bank Premier League.
In simply footballing terms, Gretna FC’s top league is the equivalent of Wimbledon’s fairy tale rise to prominence in England during the 1980s, or Chievo’s more recent charge through Italy’s regional league system into Serie A. what makes Gretna’s story different, though, is that just five years ago, the club was eking out an existence in non-league football in England.
Formed in 1946, Gretna spent all bar two of their first 36 years playing across the border in the Carlisle & District League. In 1982 they were admitted to the Northern League and for the next 20 years they competed in the English non-league system, eventually reaching the Northern Premier League. But prohibitive traveling costs and small crowds – many of Gretna’s home games used to be watched by fewer than 100 people – meant that the club faced a struggle to survive. Decisive action was required in order to safeguard the club’s future.
In 2002, at the third time of asking, Gretna’s request to be transferred into the Scottish League system was approved. They began the 2002-03 season in Scottish League Division Three and were immediately rewarded with improved crowds and a respectable sixth-placed finish.
The major turning point for the club, however, came midway through first season when Brooks Mileson, a multi-millionaire businessman who made his money in insurance, building and property, came on board as managing director.
It would be wrong to compare Mileson with Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich, but without his generous financial investment in the team and commitment to developing a community club that the whole area could be proud of, Gretna would never be where they are today.
In the 2004-05 season, Gretna won the Scottish Third Division, shattering points and goalscoring records along the way. A year later, they repeated the trick, this time winning the Second Division and, even more improbably, reaching the 2006 Scottish Cup final at Hampeden Park, where they held Premier League giants Hearts to a 1-1 draw before losing on penalties.
Then, last season, Gretna surpassed all expectations by winning the Scottish First Division at the first attempt in dramatic circumstances. Needing to beat Ross County away in their last match, it was not until the 93rd minute that veteran striker James Grady scored the goal that secured a 3-2 victory for Gretna and promotion to the Scottish Premier League.
Mileson, 59, has recently been recovering from serious illness, but he was still able to make the long journey north to watch his team clinch promotion, after which he said: “It was nerve-wracking. Excruciating, mentally and physically. It was agony, joy, relief. Such a mixture of emotion.”
It was a glorious day for Gretna, but not everybody was impressed. For some people involved with bigger clubs, the thought of competing against a small, relatively supported team is unpalatable and critics have been quick to claim that Gretna’s presence will offer little to the Scottish Premier League. Nor will Gretna be able to play Premier League matches at their own stadium. Raydale Park, whilst neat and tidy, has an official capacity of just 2,200 – way below the Premier League’s stipulated minimum. Gretna will take their place alongside Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Aberdeen and the other big guns of the Scottish game in August, but they will have to play their home matches 140 kilometres away at Motherwell until work on a new stadium is completed in time for the 2008-09 season.
The Borders club is well used to overcoming adversity, however, and whilst admitting to feeling certain amount of trepidation, their Chief Executive Graeme Muir insists Gretna will be ready to meet their greatest challenge yet head on.
Muir told: “Half-an-hour after our last mach at Ross County, I was on the pitch with Mick Wadsworth, our Director of Club Development. We looked at each other and thought, ?Why are we celebrating? This is a nightmare! What have we done?’ It would be hard enough for us to cope with a move to the Scottish Premier League in our own ground, but we’re going to have to do it in somebody else’s stadium a long way away. The stress we’re going through would crack some people up, but because it’s football the motivational effect is amazing and you still smile through it all. To think we’ve got trips to Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Hearts next season is fantastic. Some people don’t like the idea of Gretna playing in the Premier League but you see small clubs in Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and England making it to the top and it’s great. People need to remember that football is a sport and if you’re successful on the field then you deserve to be up there on merit. We didn’t expect to win our league this year. We’d restructured the team and dropped the average age, yet we still got across the line with a generation of younger players in the squad. A big rebuilding exercise has been done and to be successful has been quite incredible.”
Muir says that Gretna FC will be beaten next season: “We know that, and it will be a case of trying to finish 11th out of 12. But if we can do that and stick to our budget and our stadium plans, then this Gretna success story might go on a little bit longer than some of our critics might have at first envisaged.”