A pipe dream come true: Gretna's romance of the cup

Underdogs who came out on top
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gretna awoke yesterday with a monumental hangover which had nothing to do with an over-the-top wedding. The sleepy Borders village, with a population of 3,000 and until now most famous as the destination of choice for runaway lovers, was coming to terms with its starring role in a marriage of a different sort - that of fantasy and its football team.

On Saturday, at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Gretna FC - sporting minnows who ply their trade in the Scottish Second Division - beat Dundee of the First Division 3-0 to book their place in May's Scottish Cup final. In doing so they became the smallest team ever to reach the final, or indeed any cup showpiece in British football history.

There is already talk of a movie, and among the characters needed would be a pony-tailed maverick millionaire benefactor (Brooks Mileson), a grumpy manager with a Midas touch (Rowan Alexander), and a young doctor (Kenny Deuchar), whose hobby has made him a hero, more of which later.

Fewer than 15,000 of Hampden's 52,000 seats were full but Gretna's contingent of almost 5,000 comfortably outstripped its population. When the final whistle blew and disbelief turned to delirium, the stadium DJ played David Bowie's "Heroes" and then U2's "Beautiful Day". But the Gretna story is not, as Bowie sang, "just for one day". Nor is it about just one sun-soaked afternoon that leaves Gretna only one win from certain qualification for top-level European competition next season.

In the Scottish Cup final they will face one of the big boys of the Scottish game, Hearts, of the top-level Premier League (SPL). The latter are appropriate opponents for Gretna, known for love, but this is still no ordinary cup romance, nor fairytale.

That particular F-word will get plenty of airings between now and May, but it is another - faith - which better fits the bill. Think less Cinderella, more Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand's true story-turned-film of a US racehorse in Depression America that defied the odds to become a champion and captured a nation's hearts. Just as Seabiscuit was a yarn of flawed characters, rejects, a burning desire to confound expectations, and faith, so is Gretna's.

Four years ago they were still a tiny part-time club, with crowds of 60, who played their football in the non-league in England because it made sense to do so, geographically. As recently as 1993, they reached the first round of the English FA Cup, where they lost to Bolton.

In 2002, at the second time of asking, they were allowed to "move home" in the competitive sense and were admitted to the Scottish Football League. They had no money, a ramshackle little ground and an uncertain future. Enter Mileson, a 58-year-old chain-smoking scruff, who formed the pivotal relationship with Gretna's manager, Alexander, which laid the groundwork for everything that has happened since.

Mileson, who was raised on a Sunderland council estate, has always been a football nut. When he started to make money, he gave handouts to dozens of clubs "because I could, and because I love the game." He once tried to buy Carlisle United, but was thwarted. Instead, when asked to sponsor Gretna, he accepted, then went the whole hog and bought them. He is not your conventional owner, or indeed millionaire.

As a child he broke his back while messing around in a quarry and was told he would never walk again. He did, and then ran, representing his country at junior level in cross-country events. He started his working life in the building industry, and then insurance, the basis for his estimated £60m fortune.

His body has never been as healthy as his bank balance. He lost a kidney after his accident. He's had two hearts attacks. He suffers from the debilitating condition, ME. And yet he still smokes 100 cigarettes a day and claims to exist on Lucozade and coffee. He wears jeans, always, has a greying pony-tail, and stands on the terraces with the fans. His main non-footballing hobby is a menagerie comprising hundreds of exotic animals on his Cumbrian estate. One of his monkeys recently had triplets.

Alexander has been Gretna's manager since November 2000, before which he had a journeyman's playing career and no great success as a boss. He was driven, however, and almost single-handedly kept Gretna together. Pre-Mileson, he mowed the pitch at their Raydale Park home (capacity 2,000), built a stand and a players' tunnel, and the dugouts. He did the welding, mended the lights, and ran the team. He also gained a reputation as being rather chippy, a bit of a sourpuss. Perhaps this is because he has often not been widely credited for his work. Mileson has said numerous times that Alexander's drive was what persuaded him to invest.

Mileson has never disclosed how much he has spent at Gretna but says it is "a few million, not many millions." Even a few million is more than any clubs outside the SPL have to spend, so in one sense Gretna's successive promotions (they will play in the First Division next season, after winning the Second last week) are partly down to resources. But much of the cash has gone on infrastructure, free coaching for 25,000 local children and on establishing a long-term plan, including an academy. And as Alexander has long maintained, he has not simply gone out and bought big-name players and paid them massive salaries. Rather he has handed second chances to rejects from elsewhere, or hired older players, on free transfers, convincing them that Gretna is a viable, long term community project, not a pipe-dream.

Kenny Deuchar, who scored the opening goal on Saturday, is not some old-timer in search of a second chance but he does epitomise the Alexander creed of taking potential and letting it thrive. Deuchar, now 25, was a qualified doctor about to embark on a full-time medical career when he considered making one last go of his football in 2004. He had been playing in the Scottish League for two years - as a part-timer - but Alexander offered him a full-time deal, and he took it. "I have to say I didn't think Kenny would make it as a player," Mileson admitted recently. "In fact, when I first saw him play, I said to Rowan, 'As long as I have a hole in my arse, that boy will never make it as a striker'. But that's the thing about Rowan, he's a great manager, the best in Scotland in my opinion. He proved me wrong with Kenny, and others. He's a great coach, a tactician. He hasn't just gone out and spent money on players. Our record signing cost £70,000, and nobody at this club earns more than £1,000 a week. People come here because they believe in what we're doing."

Deuchar did, and he has been a revelation. Last season he was among the most prolific strikers in the world in terms of goals per game. This season he has shot to a new level of fame, on and off the pitch. His patients regularly spend as much time talking about his football as he does about their illnesses.

Gretna are not some bunch of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. Some are senior players with life left in their careers, like 38-year-old goalkeeper Alain Main, 34-year-old striker James Grady and 33-year-old defender Derek Townsley, who have all played football in the past in Scotland's top division. Others are young players who failed in the big time elsewhere, like Ryan McGuffie, 25, who never made it at Newcastle United. And then there are the likes of Deuchar and Gavin Skelton (aged 25, ex-Carlisle), who had played at a low level but are stepping up quickly.

"To all the doubting Thomases out there and for all the criticism that the team and I have received from various people, Gretna Football Club has arrived," Alexander said.

"Gretna Football Cub means business, and people better start taking notice of us - because we are not resting where we are now. We will progress, develop and get bigger and bigger. We are not bothered whatsoever about people criticising our crowds or our pulling power. We've done it on the pitch by bringing in the right calibre of player at the right times, so it's been a professional job. We are creating interest all over the world - people are latching on to us all over the globe. It's just an incredible story."

Mileson said: "I don't think it's sunk in yet. Getting into Europe? It just gets dafter, doesn't it? The thought of Gretna in Europe is just unreal, and you couldn't have written this story." He added that he will again sit among the fans, not in the directors' box, for the final.

"Will I hell be in the posh seats for the final. I'm a football fan. I travel with the fans and I watch the games with them. That's the only way to watch football."

Underdogs who came out on top

* SEABISCUIT

In February 1937, in Depression-era American, Seabiscuit, a plucky, bow-legged colt, flew over the line in the $125,000 Santa Anita Handicap in California. THe small and neurotic bay went on to many more wins without his half-blind jockey Red Pollard.

ZIMBABWE vs AUSTRALIA, TRENT BRIDGE, 1983

The England coach Duncan Fletcher starred with bat and ball as his native Zimbabwe stunned Australia in the 1983 World Cup at Trent Bridge. Zimbabwe were playing their first official one-day international, while their Australian opponents had 476 one-day appearance between them. Fletcher, the captain, hit 69 to help his team to 239 all out, and then took 4 for 42 as Australia could only reach 226.

* MOHAMMED ALI vs LEON SPINKS, 1978, LAS VEGAS

Spinks, 24, had had only a handful of professional fights when he was surprisingly given a shot at the world heavyweight title. Ali, although past his peak, was still a formidable boxer, but in a shock defeat he lost on points in a split decision after 15 rounds. Ali regained his title later that year.

* FRANCE vs SENEGAL, FOOTBALL WORLD CUP, SOUTH KOREA, 2002

France, the reigning world champions, were beaten in the opening game 1-0 by Senegal, who in their first World Cup were eventually knocked out in the quarter-finals by Turkey by an extra-time golden goal.

Comments