Dramatic journey takes tiny Gretna to the big time

Scottish club's llama-loving owner tells Nick Harris of the agony and joy of his side's meteoric rise to the top flight
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The Independent Online

The morning after Gretna sealed the most extraordinary rise to the top division of any major European league - they won the Scottish First Division title on Saturday in typically film-script fashion to reach the SPL - their eccentric owner, Brooks Mileson, yesterday let it all sink in. How? On a stroll with his llamas.

On Saturday, after a painful 520-mile round trip from Dumfries and Galloway to Dingwall, where Gretna had to wait for the latest of winners to clinch the necessary victory over Ross County, there was too much else to think about.

Mileson, 59, suffered a life-threatening illness this season when his bowel ruptured. After two major operations, his stomach and back are still bothering him intensely. Throw in the fact that his club's dreams of reaching the top flight seemed to be ebbing away at the final hurdle, and it was a stressful occasion.

"Nerve-wracking," Mileson told The Independent last night. "Excruciating, mentally and physically. It was agony, joy, relief. Such a mixture of emotion."

It was only yesterday, after he had risen as usual at 5.30am to check the animals he keeps in his sprawling private menagerie, that he had the chance for some private time. "We've just finished lambing, so there's plenty to keep an eye on," he said. "We've also recently taken in some rare squirrels. And then there's the llamas. We had a birth the other day. It was while I was checking the animals that the enormity of what we have achieved started to filter through."

To recap. Five years ago, Gretna were still eking out an existence in England's non-league, in the Northern Premier. In June 2002, they joined the Scottish Football League. Mileson, who was brought up on a Sunderland council estate and made his money in insurance, building and property, came on board soon afterwards.

In 2004-05, Gretna won promotion to the Second Division. In 2005-06, they climbed again, to the First, in a season in which they also reached the Scottish Cup final, eventually losing to Hearts only on penalties.

So to this season, where at one stage they had a 12-point lead at the top. But they wobbled badly to let it slip to a single-point advantage over St Johnstone by Saturday morning.

With Saints leading 4-3 at Hamilton, and Gretna only drawing 2-2 with seconds to play, the long-time leaders looked to have blown it. Then the striker James Grady dashed on to the final pass of the match, and scored.

Ross were relegated. St Johnstone were in pieces. And Gretna were up, up and away, as was the SFL trophy-bearing helicopter, which finally landed with the booty at 5.30pm.

Mileson is relishing what lies ahead. "We've certainly no fear about what happens next," he said, of the prospect of taking on the might of Celtic, Rangers et al. "Because it's what we've been planning for all along."

Gretna (population 2,705) is now the smallest settlement with a top-flight club in Europe. The likes of Thun (Switzerland, 40,000 people), Molde (Norway, 24,000) and even Paralimni (Cyprus, 11,000) are relative giants.

When Castel Di Sangro (population 5,500) climbed the Italian leagues, it was deemed a miracle, and they only reached Serie B.

Gretna's Raydale Park ground is unfit for SPL football and they will groundshare with Motherwell next season. A huge income leap should make Gretna less reliant on Mileson. They earned less than £100,000 from central SFL funds this season, and could earn 20 times as much in the SPL.

Gretna growth Route to the SPL

1946 Gretna begin life in the Dumfries Junior League.

1947 Move to Carlisle and District League.

1951 Form part of new Cumberland League, which lasts just one season before folding.

1982 Admitted to Northern League Second Division.

1983 Earn promotion to First Division at first attempt.

1991 Claim first title.

1992 Promoted to Northern Premier League First Division. Reach FA Cup first round for the first time where they are defeated by Rochdale.

1993 Unsuccessfully apply for membership of the Scottish Football League.

1999 Fail in a second bid.

2002 Successfully apply to join Scottish Football League after the demise of Clydebank.

2003 Finish fifth in first season in Third Division.

2005 Seal promotion in March with 1-0 win over Cowdenbeath. Go on to set points record of 98 in Third Division.

2006 Reach Scottish Cup semi-finals in February with 1-0 win over St Mirren.

25 March Secure promotion to First Division courtesy of a 2-1 win over Alloa.

1 April Reach Scottish Cup final with a 3-0 defeat of Dundee at Hampden.

13 May Beaten 4-2 in penalty shoot-out by Hearts in final after the game ends 1-1 after extra time.

2007 Win title and promotion to SPL on 28 April with a 3-2 win over Ross County.

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