Brooks Mileson: Businessman and philanthropist who took tiny Gretna to the Scottish Cup final

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The Independent Online

Brooks Mileson, a pony-tailed Sunderland-born eccentric who made a fortune in business and gave much of it away to struggling football clubs, was defined in the public's mind by the rise and demise of Gretna FC, the Scottish minnows he bankrolled to fairytale heights and then abandoned.

Raised as the eldest of five children in a Salvation Army family on the working-class Pennywell estate, he spent much of his life overcoming disability and ill-health. Aged 11, he broke his back after triggering a landslide in a quarry. He also lost a kidney.

He described the accident as "the main determining point in my life. I thought, 'I'm not going to lie on my back for the rest of my life'. I started to drag myself round the furniture. Eventually I walked, and then ran."

His recovery was remarkable enough that he won the bronze medal in the 1967 national junior cross-country championships. He then gave up running and started a career in the building industry. In 1984, finding himself suddenly redundant and "potless", as he said, aged 37, he started his own construction firm, and then moved into insurance, building companies he later sold for £17m and £46.8m.

He was a generous boss – "He had a heart as big as a dustbin lid," one former employee said – and enjoyed his money. He helped causes across the beautiful game, although rarely himself where his health was concerned. He would boast that his diet consisted of 100 cigarettes a day (a habit taken up at the age of 48), Lucozade, coffee, and chips. By his mid-50s, and before he became involved with Gretna, he had suffered two heart attacks and had had long-term treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. Serious intestinal and neurological conditions were to follow but Mileson believed that football only extended his years. "This club is in my soul now," he told The Independent in 2006. "My specialist says this has put years on my life. I'd probably have ended up croaking if I hadn't come to Gretna."

His interest in the club began in 2002, when Gretna, based in the Scottish village famous for runaway weddings, were accepted as members of the Scottish Football League. Until then they had plied their trade in England's Northern League, sponsored by Mileson. He had long been known for his philanthropy, running a private menagerie for exotic and abandoned animals. He donated money to 70 non-league clubs and other football Trusts. He was a one-time president of Whitby Town. He also once tried – and failed – to buy Carlisle United, a Football League club.

At Gretna, he spotted potential on and off the pitch. He asserted that it was the "moral responsibility of a club to become involved in the community" and much of his ambitious investment was spent on club-related youth programmes and education. Over five years, Mileson invested an estimated £8m in Gretna, financing a meteoric and unprecedented three successive promotions that led, by 2007, to the Scottish Premier League, the elite level in Scotland that also includes the Glasgow giants, Rangers and Glasgow.

Before that, in 2006, Gretna had already enjoyed their finest hour, reaching the Scottish Cup final as a third-tier club, against Heart of Midlothian, of the SPL, losing only on penalties after a brave and dramatic game of 90 minutes plus extra time. Some 12,000 Gretna fans – more than four times the population of Gretna – travelled to Hampden Park, Mileson among them. Famously, he eschewed the trappings of the boardroom to stand, dressed in jeans, with his fellow supporters, having dined with them at the local chippie before kick-off.

As Gretna's owner, he was singularly in control. Players' bonuses included borrowing his Aston Martin for a week. Wages were dished out by personal cheques from him alone. New footballs and even lunch for Gretna's junior team were financed from his pocket.

Therein lay Gretna's downfall. Mileson had always vowed to make provision for the club should his health fail, but when it did, the money dried up. From spring this year, Mileson was simply not fit enough to sanction more spending. Gretna, already in financial turmoil and relegated after a season in the SPL, went bust in August.

Brooks John Joseph Mileson, entrepreneur, philanthropist and football club owner: born Sunderland 13 November 1947; twice married (two sons); died Blackford, Cumbria 3 November 2008.