Gretna's journeymen prepare for trip of a lifetime from their field of dreams

The smallest British club to contest a cup final stand in Hearts' way at Hampden today. Nick Harris charts their rapid rise
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A dog walks into the Gretna club shop dressed in a club scarf. Actually, "shop" is pushing it a bit. It's a corner of one room in the three-unit hut that doubles as Gretna's offices, aka Fairytale Central. It is packed almost to capacity: there are five people in, plus the pooch. They are buying shirts, mugs, rosettes, flags, jester hats and giant polystyrene hands emblazoned with the logo "Living The Dream". A bottle of commemorative whisky comes with the same inscription. It's 80 degrees proof - and proof that every dog has its day.

These are heady times in southernmost Dumfries & Galloway. On Saturday, the team from wee Gretna - the border town is home to 2,705 people - will walk out at Hampden Park for the Scottish Cup final against Heart of Midlothian of the Scottish Premier League.

Gretna are the smallest club ever to contest a major cup final in Britain. They will be cheered by a contingent of 12,000 among a capacity crowd of 52,000. That represents the town's entire population four and a half times over. Staggering, and swaggering, whatever the result.

Bob Dent remembers the days before the big time. He was 70 last Sunday. He has lived in Gretna all his life. He played as a left-back for Gretna in the 1950s, in the club's early years, "when we more of a village team".

"When I was a lad, this field was all bomb craters," he says, gesturing at the club's Raydale Park pitch. "In the late 1940s, we spent our PE lessons clearing stones, levelling it out. When I started playing, we were in the Carlisle and District League. We were lucky if we got 50 people watching us. The most massive game was a Cumberland Cup final when we beat Penrith. We took a special train, 500 fans." What does he think of the meteoric rise? "It's out of proportion, in a good way. It's gone berserk."

Everything changed in 2003, the year after Gretna were allowed "home" and admitted to the Scottish Football League. Enter Brooks Mileson, a chain-smoking, pony-tailed, self-made multimillionaire benefactor with dodgy health but a reservoir of spirit. Adversity to him is like a red rag to a bull. He laughs as he tells you that the Pennywell council estate in Sunderland, where he grew up, got a mention "for being especially crap" in the book Crap Towns. Mileson still defines himself by his rise from such humble beginnings.

He saw potential in Gretna, in the catchment area, in the ramshackle Raydale Park, and especially in Gretna's curmudgeonly manager, Rowan Alexander, a journeyman pro now proving himself in the dug-out. Mileson, 58, calls Alexander, 45, "my partner in a dream of building a real community club". Mileson has invested "a few million" so far, more of it on free coaching for thousands of kids and an academy system than on transfer fees. Wages are high by lower-level Scottish standards, but not bumper. Nobody is on £1,000 a week. The younger players are on hundreds.

Alexander has hired carefully, mixing older heads - such as goalkeeper Alan Main, 38, and striker James Grady, 34, (who have both played for Dundee United) - with rough young diamonds including the former Carlisle midfielder Gavin Skelton and Dr Kenny Deuchar, Gretna's 25-year-old top-scoring striker. Plucked from part-time East Fife, he is living his football dream while keeping his medical career ticking over. Mileson has promised him an £80,000 Jaguar if he scores the winner against Hearts.

In their own ways, Mileson, Alexander and most of the team have all "done" small-time, heartbreak and rejection in the past. Before Gretna, most craved glory and some got within touching distance, but now, serendipitously, they have it. In search of a good life, at a club they believe in, they have found themselves part of something truly astonishing.

Not long ago, Gretna were minnows in the FA Cup south of the border. In 1993, when they played in England's Northern Premier League, they met Bolton in the first round, going 2-1 up before losing 3-2. That was their Everest, then. Last season they romped to the Scottish Third Division title. This season they've done the same in the Second. They are already guaranteed Uefa Cup football next season. That was unthinkable for most of the players when they signed.

Derek Townsley, 33, rejoined in February 2004, after a decade away at Queen of the South (where he played under Alexander), Motherwell, Hibernian and Oxford United. The central defender played, and scored, in "that game", against Bolton. "So much has changed. We trained two nights a week back then. I was working as a postman, 5am till lunchtime on Saturdays, hardly any sleep before a game.

"When I was here first time around, for five years, most of the club's income came from running a Sunday market in the car park. Physically, not much has changed around the place. [Mileson's] resources have made the difference, going full-time. But still, it's incredible."

John O'Neil is Gretna's most capped player. He played for Scotland, once, in a 2001 friendly with Poland. He does have cup final experience, though, playing on the losing side for Dundee United as a 19-year-old substitute. "I got on at half-time and that's nearly all I can remember." He also knows how it feels to trounce Hearts, having scored for Hibs in a 6-2 league win in 2000. "My Hibs background is not an extra incentive," he says. "You don't need one. There's a real belief in our dressing-room that we can beat Hearts. Yes, we expect them to be out the blocks and down our throats for 15 minutes. But we're going to give them a game, be sure of that."

Ryan McGuffie, 25, a speedy midfielder, was with Newcastle for two years. Bobby Robson signed him in 1999, and released him in 2001. "My first game was a training friendly against Boca Juniors. I trained with the first team every day, with Alan Shearer, Nobby Solano. I was gutted when they let me go. I got offers from Macclesfield and others but I'm from [nearby] Dumfries and I just wanted to be back home, be around my family and friends, so I accepted Rowan's offer to come here. I haven't looked back."

His feet are firmly on the ground. He recently completed a business management degree. He already envisages a coaching career. Mileson prides himself on trying to keep players when they hang up their boots to utilise their talents in his community. Most of that community will join the exodus to Hampden.

"But we're still expecting to be busy here," says Sharon Doyle, a barmaid at the Crossways Inn, Gretna's only pub. "The town is heading north en masse but some couldn't get tickets, and we know a lot of others, including a group of 40 travelling from all over Scotland, will be watching on our big screens. They just want to be in Gretna while they watch Gretna."

Whatever happens against Hearts, the players will party together afterwards in Glasgow. And Mileson will return for a tipple with the fans he still travels with, at Raydale Park, his field of dreams.

Bridging the gap How they compare

* DIVISION

Hearts: SPL (runners-up to Celtic in 2006)

Gretna: Scottish Second Division (champions in 2006)

* CUP PEDIGREE

Hearts: Winners six times, most recently 1998. Runners-up six times.

Gretna: Never been beyond third round before.

* PULLING POWER

Hearts: Tynecastle Stadium, capacity 17,412, located in Edinburgh (population 450,000). Average gate of 16,768 this season.

Gretna: Raydale Park, capacity 3,000, located in Gretna (population 2,705). Average gate of 1,306 this season.

* ECCENTRIC OWNERS

Hearts: Vladimir Romanov, 58, Lithuanian, catchphrase: "You're sacked", worth estimated £260-£400m. Made his money in textiles, metals, property and banking.

Gretna: Brooks Mileson, 58, Wearsider, catchphrase: "I need to feed the llamas", worth estimated £50m-£75m. Made his money in building and insurance.

* SPENDING POWER

Hearts: probable starting XI cost c.£1m combined in transfer fees. Highest earner is Scotland international goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, on £13,000 a week.

Gretna: probable starting XI cost £20,000 combined in transfer fees, all for one player, Steve Tosh. Highest earners thought to be strikers James Grady and Kenny Deuchar, on c.£950 a week.

* TOP CLASS, COSMOPOLITAN EXPERIENCE

Hearts: Probable starting line-up will include four Scots, two Lithuanians, two Czechs, one Greek, one Senegalese and one Portuguese.

Six have been capped by their countries. They include left-back Takis Fyssas, a Euro 2004 winner with Greece, and Lithuania's Edgaras Jankauskas, who was part of Porto's European Cup-winning side the same year. The XI have 144 caps between them.

Gretna: Probable starting line will include eight Scots and three Englishmen. One has been capped: John O'Neil. The XI have one cap between them, O'Neil's friendly appearance for Scotland v Poland in 2001.

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