Brooks Mileson is one of Britain's wealthiest businessmen but he could easily pass for a roadie. His fortune could have bought access to many glamorous boardrooms. Instead, he has been a philanthropist to 70 non-league clubs, and owns the Scottish minnows, Gretna.
His medical record suggests he should be on his last legs, if not expired. He broke his back at 11 and was told he would never walk again. His hips were damaged and he subsequently lost a kidney. Now 58, he's had two heart attacks, suffers from the debilitating condition ME and his daily diet consists of 100 cigarettes and Lucozade.
"And coffee," he adds, pouring his third mug in an hour. "And if I'm away from the wife, I do like a bag of chips. I run on adrenaline."
He evidently comes from hardy Wearside stock, raised with four younger siblings on the Pennywell council estate in Sunderland. His parents are still alive, now living in Spain.
Mileson's perseverance speaks for itself. In 1982 he was "potless" after redundancy. He set up a construction company, then branched out into insurance. He later sold one company for £17m and another for £46.8m, but retains a wide portfolio, including property, insurance and software. He will not confirm his worth - widely put at £36m-plus - but concedes "I do all right."
Football is his passion, hence his donations to the likes of Whitby Town, the Northern League (which he sponsors), and Carlisle United - his first love. He once tried to buy them, but was thwarted by Michael Knighton. Mileson also loves animals, and has a menagerie on his estate comprising ostriches, emus, rheas, wallabies ("they breed like buggery"), monkeys, capibara, 130 horses, Highland cattle, pigs, goats and a herd of deer. "People know I can't turn them away," he says. "A football fan from Dundee recently asked me to take in some African spurred tortoises. What can you do?"
Even for a rags-to-riches tycoon of some eccentricity - he hires jugglers for pre-match entertainment, stands on the terraces, and has been known to let everyone in for nothing - his gusto is still exceptional as he spends two hours debunking myths about his tenure at Gretna.
They were admitted to the Scottish League in 2002. With Mileson's backing from 2003, they romped to the Third Division title last season, winning it with a record tally of points (98) and goals (130). They top the Second Division and promotion is expected. A third successive step up next season - a tougher assignment but feasible - would represent a leap from nowhere to the SPL in three years.
Of immediate concern is today's Scottish Cup fourth-round match at First Division Clyde, the shock third-round conquerors of Celtic. Clyde are at home, yet Gretna are the favourites. "We've never got this far before," Mileson says. "But we're ambitious to get into the First Division ourselves, so this will be another measure of how far we've come."
A common misconception is that Mileson is blowing the bank at Gretna. It has been claimed that the transfer budget and wages are sky high, that a planned 6,000-seat stadium is a monument to folly (average gates are 1,200), and that the whole venture is an unsustainable dash up the league.
"People say we're buying the league," Mileson says. "Rubbish. We've got a good manager [Rowan Alexander, whose enthusiasm lured Mileson in the first place] who finds good players. Our record signing cost £60,000. We've spent a couple of hundred thousand in my whole time here. As for wages, the lower leagues in England and the Conference pay more. Nobody here is even on a four-figure weekly wage.
"And it's not us who want 6,000 seats. We're a small club, we'll always be a small club. But if we have SPL ambitions, we need 6,000 seats. It's the rule."
Mileson does not put a figure on his total outlay, but it is "a few million, not many millions". The cash has also paid for a club academy, based in Penrith, and tie-ups with 150 schools, providing free coaching far beyond the town, and coaching and fitness expertise in David Holdsworth, once of Birmingham, and Viv Busby, a one-time FA Cup finalist with Fulham. They and others have been attracted not by money but by a dream of a thriving, community-based club, run professionally and punching way above its weight.
"I think its the moral responsibility of a club to become involved in the community," Mileson says. He says he is at Gretna for good, and that his son Craig, 29, already on board full-time, "will be here after me." What has always driven Mileson is the accident, aged 11, when he broke his back after being crushed by sandstone while larking in a quarry.
"That was probably 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."
Incredibly, he became a cross-country runner, finishing third in the 1966 national junior championships. "I did it because they said I couldn't. The word 'can't' doesn't sit very well with me.
"This club is in my soul now. My specialist [who treats his ME] says this has put years on my life. I'd probably have ended up croaking if I hadn't come to Gretna."Reuse content